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Why Is Africa Still Poor? | The Nation

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Why Is Africa Still Poor?

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By this point, you may think you know why Africa languishes. But you're wrong, says Jeffrey Sachs. In making his passionate call for more foreign aid, he challenges the conventional wisdom that Africa isn't ready for help. African governments are dictatorial? Sachs says that the thieving-tyrants-with-fly-swatters stereotype of African leaders is "passé," and that "by the early 1990s...a little-heralded democratic revolution was sweeping the continent." Corruption is the source of all misery? That contention, he writes, "does not withstand practical experience or serious scrutiny." Sachs believes Africa's problem is not politics but simple misfortune. Its soil produces less food than, for instance, East Asia's. The continent suffers disproportionately from debilitating diseases like AIDS and malaria. Much of its population is concentrated away from its coastline, and this, combined with its lack of good roads and navigable rivers, hampers trade and economic growth. "Africa's governance is poor," Sachs writes, "because Africa is poor."

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Andrew Rice
Andrew Rice is the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda (...

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The idea that Africa is a victim of geography is not new, but Sachs's book dares to offer a big, bold solution. And an author of Sachs's pedigree can't be taken lightly. The globe-trotting Columbia professor is a kind of macroeconomic Winston Wolf. Like Harvey Keitel's character in Pulp Fiction, he shows up at scenes of carnage with a snappy plan to clean things up. Sometimes he succeeds, as in Bolivia in the hyperinflationary 1980s. Sometimes he fails, as in post-Communist Russia--but never for lack of self-assurance. He says economists should think like scientists when diagnosing Africa's ills. "In some ways," he writes, "today's development economics is like eighteenth-century medicine, when doctors used leeches to draw blood from their patients, often killing them in the process."

Sachs first approached Africa in the late 1990s, at a time when foreign aid was plummeting from cold war highs. He concluded that many Africans are stuck in a "poverty trap." They don't make enough to save, so they can't amass the capital necessary to build a future. (For an illustration, read Robert Guest's account of a Malawian farmer who dreams of becoming a merchant but can't because he finds a bicycle hopelessly expensive.) The End of Poverty contains many common-sensical ideas: Use irrigation and fertilizers to increase crop yields; distribute mosquito nets to combat malaria and pharmaceuticals to lessen the symptoms of AIDS; give rural villages cell phones to ease communication and trade. What's grabbed the world's attention, though, is not such incremental prescriptions but Sachs's claim of a cure.

"The end of extreme poverty is at hand--within our generation," he declares, if only rich nations, especially the United States, open their coffers. This, Sachs writes, "is the great opportunity of our time, a commitment that would not only relieve massive suffering and spread economic well-being, but would also promote other Enlightenment objectives of democracy, global security, and the advancement of science." Sachs attacks those who don't share his utopian vision, lamenting the "anti-African and antipoor attitudes" of skeptics. "Africa gets a bad rap as the 'corrupt continent,'" he writes. "Even when such sentiments are not racist in intent, they survive in our societies as conventional wisdom because of existing widespread racism."

Invoking the R-word in this context seems overheated, especially since those who complain loudest about corruption in Africa tend to be Africans themselves. (Bob Geldof, to his credit, recognizes this.) One might forgive Sachs's rhetorical overkill if it weren't emblematic of his book's deeper failure to engage with the most serious argument against him: history. Ending African poverty is a worthy aspiration. It is also an old ideal, a shoal on which many buoyant ideologies--liberalism, communism, pan-Africanism--have run aground. Sachs talks of the need for an effort akin to the Marshall Plan for postwar Europe. Guest points out that since independence Africa has "received aid equivalent to six Marshall Plans"--with little to show for it.

Much of this assistance has been consumed by graft. Corrupt leaders have proved to be highly adaptable to changing times. When statism was in vogue, they nationalized industries, which they proceeded to operate as patronage mills. When the World Bank demanded privatization, they sold off the state companies to their cousins and cronies. Nowadays, the watchword is "transparency," but the situation remains much the same. According to a 2002 study conducted by the African Union, corruption consumes more than a quarter of the continent's gross domestic product every year, about $148 billion.

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