The Big Idea

The War on African Poverty

Tony Blair’s LBJ problem.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared “unconditional War on Poverty in America.” The billions of dollars that flowed from that commitment accomplished a good deal. But because the goal was so grandiose, and the policies so flawed, the Great Society ultimately engendered widespread skepticism about government’s ability to help the poor. Instead of abolishing poverty, Johnson ended up undermining liberalism.

Today, a number of global leaders, most notably British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his heir impatient Gordon Brown, are demanding an unconditional assault on African poverty. Their goals, which include a doubling of international aid, top the agenda at the upcoming G8 summit that begins in Scotland on July 6. Prodding alongside Blair and Brown are the ubiquitous rock stars Bono, who has spent years campaigning for African debt relief, and Bob Geldof, who is organizing synchronized “Live 8” concerts around the world in support. These well-meaning British pols and their singing Irish counterparts seem determined to repeat all the mistakes of old-school American liberals, only on a global scale.

African poverty warriors begin from the faulty premise that what the world needs now is more generosity and good intentions. The high-end version of this case comes from Jeffrey Sachs, rock-star economist and the author of The End of Poverty, which argues that we mainly need to spend lots more money to eliminate extreme poverty completely in 20 years. The simple-minded version comes from the HBO message film The Girl in the Café, a fictional account of British leaders at an imagined summit struggling to overcome the selfishness of the Americans. The screw-you version comes from Geldof, who rants profanely at skeptics, telling them to “get off the corruption thing and force our governments to get there.”

To understand what bad advice this is, one has only to consider Geldof’s previous endeavor, Live Aid, which raised $100 million for relief of the Ethiopian famine in 1985. It’s an open question whether Live Aid did more harm or good. As David Rieff explains in the British magazine Prospect, organizations involved in delivering relief became complicit in the Ethiopian government’s Stalinist program of forced agricultural collectivization and relocation, which helped create the disaster. Today, Ethiopia is significantly poorer than it was 20 years ago, and, as David Plotz explained in this 2003 dispatch, perpetually dependent on charity. This is, sadly, the story of aid to sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. While the developed world has contributed more than $500 billion over the last 40 years, Africans have continued to fall farther behind.

Policies promoted by Blair and Bono offer little hope of breaking out of this cycle. The three big ideas in fashion at the moment: debt forgiveness, trade preference, and massive aid. Debt forgiveness is the notion that Bono has relentlessly championed, signing up everyone from Bill Gates to Jesse Helms. In advance of their meeting, the G8 finance ministers have already agreed to immediate cancellation of $40 billion in debts owed by 18 countries to international institutions, with provisional cancellation of an additional $15 billion owed by 20 others. So, the proposition will get its test. But as critics like William Easterly argue, there are reasons for pessimism. Most African nations weren’t servicing their debts anyway, so forgiveness at best codifies reality. At worst, it cuts developing countries off from capital in the same way that default does. Lenders will be more wary of extending credit to countries that have set the precedent of not paying back what they borrowed.

Expanded trade, by contrast, offers significant hope for African economic progress. Growth prospects in most sub-Saharan African countries depend on greater access to heavily protected textile and agricultural markets in the developed world. Unfortunately, Africa advocates wearing white wristbands (including Tony Blair) aren’t arguing for free trade. They’re calling for something called “trade justice.” Make Poverty History, the group behind the armbands, contends that developed countries should drop agricultural subsidies and remove barriers to African imports without insisting that African countries open their markets. One-way protectionism may be an improvement on the two-way kind, but it won’t jump-start stagnant economies. To secure foreign investment and grow, African nations need trade in two directions. And for that, they need to be pushed to reduce both the bureaucratic obstacles and endemic corruption that deter businesses, both domestic and foreign.

Finally, advocates demand aid, much more of it, and with fewer strings attached. In his book, Sachs calls for a quadrupling of foreign assistance over 10 years. Others focus on the target of 0.7 percent of rich-nation GDP. But the flaw in judging how much we spend rather than what we achieve seems obvious—as does the problem of whether so much additional money can be spent effectively. At the moment, the most promising model appears not to be government-to-government grant-making, but a new style of targeted, goal-driven, private philanthropy. To take the most significant example, the Gates Foundation has spent more than $4 billion, with tremendously encouraging results, to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other infectious diseases, primarily in Africa. It ruthlessly scrutinizes and evaluates its own programs in a way governments seldom do, with the aim of directing additional money where it has the best chance of success.

In terms of a more productive role for our own government, President Bush actually does have a better idea. In announcing the Millennium Challenge Account in 2002, he said that additional money should be “devoted to projects in nations that govern justly, invest in their people and encourage economic freedom.” The difficulty since then has been the perennial one: his lack of concern for detail and follow-through. Though funds were appropriated, the program has given out almost no money. Its useless director just resigned barely a year into the job, after Bush was embarrassed by five of Africa’s better presidents telling him nothing was happening.

So take your pick: Blair’s utopian overreaching or Bush’s incompetence. I’m unsure which form of neglect Africans should prefer.