A lack of confidence in Africans to react to market incentives like everyone else does

By Marian L. Tupy,   Financial Times

Dambisa Moyo’s
book Dead Aid has reignited the simmering war of words about the effects of foreign aid on Africa. Her contribution is welcome, for scant evidence in favour of increasing aid notwithstanding, western governments seem determined to outdo one another in the extravagance of their promises to Africa.

Moyo’s growing popularity has even compelled the usually taciturn Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University to join the fray. Writing on The Huffington Post, he threw ad hominem attacks against both Moyo and his long-time critic Bill Easterly of New York University. Both responded, pointing out some of the problems associated with aid. But one argument needs further discussion: the aid debate has a racist undertone.

This year marks 20 years since the end of communism. As Oleh Havrylyshyn, a former International Monetary Fund official who teaches at the University of Toronto shows, the transition of central European and Baltic countries from communism to capitalism has been largely successful. Countries that embraced more rapid and more extensive economic reforms “tended to experience higher growth rates and lower inflation and received more foreign investment. Inequality increased less among rapid reformers than among gradual reformers. The same is true with respect to poverty rates.”

Baltic countries, which were among the most enthusiastic reformers, benefited greatly from increased economic freedom. Between 1995 and 2007, real incomes in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania rose by an astonishing 167 per cent, 146 per cent and 125 per cent respectively. In the eurozone, they rose by 24 per cent over the same period. Moreover, longevity, environmental quality and school enrolment rose throughout the region, while child mortality declined. The current economic troubles in CEB take some shine off the region’s accomplishments, but they don’t erase them.

A political consensus in favour of economic liberalisation emerged soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Common people were transfixed by western cars and fresh oranges that they saw on German television. Though they disagreed about the speed and the extent of economic reforms – western European and American economic models were both popular – there was little opposition to the general direction of policy changes. One of the most vehement promoters of rapid rather than gradual change, incidentally, was a Harvard University economist – Jeffrey Sachs.

No such consensus exists in Africa. During the 1990s, I lived in both, Czechoslovakia and South Africa. In the former, people saw socialism as a massive failure. In the latter, many saw it as respectable policy alternative. In the former, it was near impossible to find a self-declared communist. In the later, communists were in the government. In CEB, people tended to see the wealth of the western world as a result of high productivity in capitalist countries, while in Africa they tended to see it as a result of colonial exploitation.

Following the collapse of communism, virtually everyone assumed that the key to future prosperity in CEB lay in economic reforms, not in foreign aid. Implicitly, almost everyone understood that the people in the region would simply have to respond to market incentives, and produce goods and services that domestic and foreign customers would want to buy. Inability to compete with the west was inconceivable. Failure was not an option.

Such a mindset is demonstrably lacking when it comes to Africa. Globalisation tends to be seen as a threat and seldom as an opportunity. Local politicians fret about competition from China and Bangladesh. Non-governmental organisations caution against liberalisation lest Africans be taken advantage of by unscrupulous westerners. Musicians and movie stars urge aid, not reform, as a solution to poverty.

The result? African incomes rose by mere 26 per cent between 1995 and 2007 , less if countries rich in oil and mineral resources are taken out of the calculation. Nine out of 48 sub-Saharan African countries were poorer in 2007 than in 1960. Africa failed to grow in spite or perhaps because of all the aid that had poured to Africa over the last half-a-century. Instead of reforming their economies and growing their private sectors and domestic tax revenue, African governments relied on aid to survive.

In a nutshell, there appears to be a peculiar lack of confidence in Africans to react to market incentives like everyone else does and to benefit from globalisation. Africans, the consensus of aid advocates and protectionists appears to be saying, should be shielded rather than exposed to market forces. But, what does that say about the underlying assumption with regard to the ability of Africans to succeed just as the people of CEB had succeeded?

Yet, it is the opponents of aid, not its advocates, who get the short end of the stick. When ABC’s John Stossel questioned Sachs about the link between corruption and aid, for example, Sachs accused Stossel of treating poor Africans as “enemies.” On the contrary, Stossel responded, it is the African elites that are the enemy of both the African people and of the western taxpayer. Or, as the British economist Peter Bauer put it half-a-century ago, foreign aid is a way of “taxing poor people in rich countries and passing it on to rich people in poor countries.”

While the world debates whether Africa should adopt market reforms, other regions power ahead. The concept of “global poverty” is losing its meaning everyday. Soon, poverty will be solely an “African problem.” To prevent that from happening, Africans must be treated not as hopeless recipients of charity but people equal to everyone else in ability.

Marian L. Tupy is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He is the author of a recently released Cato study, “The False Promise of Gleneagles: Misguided Priorities at the Heart of the New Push for African Development.”