Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Poor Africa and What To Do About It

In Blood Diamond, starring Leo DiCaprio, the characters have a saying: "This is Africa," meaning that it is a violent, unstable place where people do not live in hope of enjoying long life. I recently reported Nicholas Kristof’s hope for Africa. Gregory Clark is less sanguine, but presents what hope requires (“How to Save Africa,” New York Sun, July 20-22).

Dr. Clark is professor of economics at UC Davis. His argument goes as follows. Africa’s problem is that it is caught in what he calls the “Malthusian Trap.” Essentially, it is this. Ours is an industrial economy. It grows. So we need a growing population to work it. High birth rates and low death rates are good things. Africa has largely a pre-industrial economy. It doesn’t grow. A growing population in Africa, therefore, means falling standards of living. In an agrarian economy with fixed land resources, plague, war and crib death are good for average incomes. (Historically, imperial expansion – taking other people’s land – has also been good. I add that myself.) What Africa needs is not handouts. That just feeds the problem. Rather, Africa needs the sort of industrialization that China has been experiencing.

Clark concludes: “There is no simple formula for industrialization that is appealing to many. But that is where the focus must be of the attempts to help Africa.”

All of this tells us that Africa’s problem is not fundamentally economic, but political. Africa’s answer must come from within and among African nations.

Prof. Clark's book is A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton, 2007). He is responding to Jeffrey Sach's proposal, endorsed by Bono, for ending world poverty by 2025, in his book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (Penguin, 2006). Another good book on the economic damage that results from inserting large, well intentioned welfare payments into the Developing World is William Easterly's The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin, 2006).

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