Hearts of Darkness
Trendy paternalism is keeping Africa in chains.
Paternalism was supposed to be finished. The belief that grown men and women are childlike creatures who can thrive in the world only if they submit to the guardianship of benevolent mandarins underlay more than a century’s worth of welfare-state social policy, beginning with Otto von Bismarck’s first Wohlfahrtsstaat experiments in nineteenth-century Germany. But paternalism’s centrally directed systems of subsidies failed to raise up submerged classes, and by the end of the twentieth century even many liberals, surveying the cultural wreckage left behind by the Great Society, had abandoned their faith in the welfare state.
Yet in one area, foreign aid, the paternalist spirit is far from dead. A new generation of economists and activists is calling for a “big push” in Africa to expand programs that in practice institutionalize poverty rather than end it. The Africrats’ enthusiasm for the failed policies of the past threatens to turn a struggling continent into a permanent ghetto—and to block the progress of ideas that really can liberate Africa’s oppressed populations.
The intellectual cover for the new paternalism comes from economists like Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs, who in his recent bestseller The End of Poverty argues that prosperous nations can dramatically reduce African poverty, if not eliminate it, by increasing their foreign-aid spending and expanding smaller assistance programs into much larger social welfare regimes. “The basic truth,” Sachs says, “is that for less than a percent of the income of the rich world”—0.7 percent of its GNP for the next 20 years—“nobody has to die of poverty on the planet.”
Sachs headed the United Nations’ Millennium Project, created in 2002 by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to figure out how to reverse poverty, hunger, and disease in poor countries. After three years of expensive lucubration, the project’s ten task forces concluded that prosperous nations can indeed defeat African poverty by 2025—if only they spend more money. “The world already has the technology and know-how to solve most of the problems faced in the poor countries,” a Millennium report asserted. “As of 2006, however, these solutions have still not been implemented at the needed scale.” Translation: the developed nations have been too stingy.
We’ve heard this before. The “response of the West to Africa’s tragedy has been constant throughout the years,” observes NYU economist William Easterly. From Walt Rostow and John F. Kennedy in 1960 to Sachs and Tony Blair today, the message, Easterly says, has been the same: “Give more aid.” Assistance to Africa, he notes, “did indeed rise steadily throughout this period (tripling as a percent of African GDP from the 1970s to the 1990s),” yet African growth “remained stuck at zero percent per capita.”
All told, the West has given some $568 billion in foreign aid to Africa over the last four decades, with little to show for it. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa below what the UN calls the “extreme poverty line”—that is, living on less than $1 a day—increased from 227 million to 313 million, while their inflation-adjusted average daily income actually fell, from 62 cents to 60. At the same time, nearly half the continent’s population—46 percent—languishes in what the UN defines as ordinary poverty.
Yet notwithstanding this record of failure, the prosperous nations’ heads of state have sanctioned Sachs’s plan to throw more money at Africa’s woes. In July 2005, G-8 leaders meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, endorsed Sachs’s Millennium thesis and promised to double their annual foreign aid from $25 billion to $50 billion, with at least half the money earmarked for Africa. This increased spending, the Gleneagles principals proclaimed, will “lift tens of millions of people out of poverty every year.” No doubt, too, Africans will soon be extracting sunbeams from cucumbers.
It is doubtful whether the G-8 leaders themselves believe all the gaseous rhetoric that emanates from their meetings. But a sort of fifth estate, composed of actors and aging rock stars, has emerged, determined to hold the prodigal statesmen to their word. The new Africrats include pop empress Madonna, actress Angelina Jolie, and U2 singer Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, who has emerged as Sachs’s leading promoter and enforcer. After attending this year’s G-8 summit at Heiligendamm, Germany, Bono pronounced himself “skeptical” of the pledges made at Gleneagles. The skepticism was reasonable, given that the document in question was not intended to be credible. But Bono, who wrote the foreword to Sachs’s The End of Poverty, has made it his life’s work to force the G-8 to take its oratory seriously. At Heiligendamm, he got into what he called a “huge row” with the Germans, whom he accused of “playing a numbers game” with their aid contributions.
Bono has had better luck with U.S. leaders. In 2002, he and then–treasury secretary Paul O’Neill traveled together to Africa on a widely publicized 12-day “fact-finding” mission to study the AIDS epidemic. This year President Bush, who reportedly discussed increasing American aid to Africa with Bono at Heiligendamm, announced that he would expand the centerpiece of his Africa policy, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Bush launched the initiative in 2003 with a five-year, $15 billion commitment; in May, he asked Congress to approve an additional $30 billion.
Like earlier practitioners of paternalist charity, today’s Africrats propose policies that treat the material effects of Africa’s problems—disease, dirty water, hunger—not their underlying causes, which the West, too, once struggled with. For thousands of years, high rates of death from infectious diseases were the norm throughout the world. Before the twentieth century, Western parents expected to lose at least one of their children to illnesses that are preventable today. Not until late in the nineteenth century did the White House itself have clean water; in 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie died of typhoid, likely contracted from the mansion’s tainted plumbing. Hunger, too, once darkened what is now the prosperous world, though so effectively has the problem been solved that countries like the United States face a looming obesity crisis.
How did today’s prosperous nations create the embarrassment of riches that they now enjoy? No benign magician descended, à la Jeffrey Sachs, on London or Washington to shower its inhabitants with money. Instead, the rich nations developed laws and freedoms that enabled people to take their futures into their own hands. As Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has argued in The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, the world’s poorest countries remain poor in part because they lack legal protections—property rights foremost among them—that enable people in the West to tap the potential of “dead” capital and invest it in wealth-generating enterprises.
Kenyan economist James Shikwati agrees that handouts thwart the emergence of a culture of self-reliant problem solving and that they breed corruption to boot. When a drought afflicts Kenya, he says, Kenyan politicians “reflexively cry out for more help.” Their calls reach the United Nations World Food Program, a “massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated.” When the requested grain reaches Africa, a portion of it “often goes directly into the hands of unscrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign.” Much of the rest of the grain gets dumped at less than fair market value. “Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away,” Shikwati says. “No one can compete with the UN’s World Food Program.”
Care, one of the world’s largest charities, would agree. In August, it rejected some $45 million in U.S. government financing to distribute subsidized food in Africa, saying that the subsidies hurt African farmers. “If someone wants to help you, they shouldn’t do it by destroying the very thing that they’re trying to promote,” George Odo, a Care official, told the New York Times. The American government, however, has no plans to scrap the practice.
Shikwati’s observations have been borne out most recently in Ethiopia, where the government’s collectivist agriculture policies have unsurprisingly resulted in famine. Foreign nations duly sent aid, which, according to a July 2007 report in the New York Times, government soldiers duly squandered: “Soldiers skim sacks of grain, tins of vegetable oil and bricks of high-energy biscuits from food warehouses to sell at local markets. The cash is distributed among security officers and regional officers. . . . Then the remaining food is hauled out to rural areas where the soldiers divert part of it to local gunmen and informers as a reward for helping them fight the rebels. . . . To cover their tracks, the soldiers and government administrators who work with them tell the aid agencies that the food has spoiled, or has been stolen or hijacked by rebels.”
The cycle is vicious. The aid that ends up in corrupt rulers’ bank accounts enables them to stifle both free markets and the political and legal reforms that free markets need to operate efficiently. A recent Heritage Foundation study found that, of the 70 least-free countries on earth, nearly half have received U.S. foreign aid for more than three decades. The result is more poverty, more aid money, and more corruption. In Zimbabwe, for example, foreign aid enabled strongman Robert Mugabe to destroy property rights, introduce a command economy, and create a kleptocracy where the inflation rate recently reached 11,000 percent. Once southern Africa’s breadbasket, Zimbabwe now depends on subsidies to feed its people.
Sachs points to his “Millennium Village clusters”—12 sites located in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda—as evidence that he will succeed where earlier centrally directed efforts failed. The Millennium Village initiative, its apologists claim, does what “has never been done before.” It “addresses an integrated and scaled-up set of interventions covering food production, nutrition, education, health services, roads, energy, communications, water, sanitation, enterprise diversification and environmental management.”
If this doesn’t sound like a conceptual breakthrough, it’s because it isn’t. The Millennium Project, like earlier paternalist programs, is a collectivist enterprise run by bureaucrats and subject to—or as the apparatchiks prefer to say, “scaled up” by—central governments abroad. These “colossally expensive, non-replicable” villages, contends Bunker Roy, founding director of India’s Barefoot College, have been imposed on locals by governments and academics seeking “installations that are friendly to globe-trotting celebrities.”
Sachs boasts that the village of Sauri, in Kenya, recently “celebrated its first harvest as a ‘Millennium Village’ ” with a bumper crop. Yes, with sufficient money and attention, it is possible to produce a Potemkin village. But no centrally directed program has yet been able to create and sustain a sprawling network of prosperous villages, towns, and cities, such as we take for granted in the United States.
Why? One reason is that the amount of information required to administer so extensive a prosperity will baffle even the most careful plan and the most thoughtful administrator. “We know little of the particular facts to which the whole of social activity continuously adjusts itself in order to provide what we have learned to expect,” Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty. Only by renouncing bureaucratic control, Hayek maintained, can a country make the most efficient use of the knowledge that its citizens collectively possess. It is for this reason that a free society can employ “so much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could comprehend.”
Another reason that Millennium Villages won’t succeed is that they fail to foster a climate of innovation. Four centuries ago, Francis Bacon, analyzing the emergence of problem-solving cultures, observed that the solutions that they lighted upon were often “altogether different in kind and as remote as possible from anything that was known before; so that no preconceived notion could possibly have led to the discovery of them.” But the preconceived notions imposed by large, bureaucratic programs too often thwart the unforeseeable breakthroughs that result when people are free to pursue their own destinies. According to a candid report issued in July by a group of nongovernmental organizations, aid initiatives in the Sahel region, along the southern perimeter of the Sahara, “are almost always driven by externally imposed ideas for development” intended to make donors look good; the architects of the programs approach problems in “narrow and inflexible ways” that ignore the ideas of locals.
Shouldn’t the prosperous nations, at the very least, underwrite African health care to stem the tide of death? Perhaps; but the real question is whether subsidized medicine is the best way to raise life expectancy—or whether political and legal reforms that promote the creation of wealth do more. Nor is it clear that, even if subsidized health programs do work in some circumstances, they are likely to be effective in Africa, given the corruption that so often prevents aid from reaching its intended recipients.
Not only do the Africrats’ policies fail to address the real causes of Africa’s troubles; they treat the people whom they are trying to help as children. Vanity Fair’s recent Africa issue described how Sachs, in a southwestern Ugandan village last January, addressed the inhabitants as though they were slightly dim kindergartners: “And we have seen the bed nets in your houses. Do you have bed nets in your houses?”
“We are happy to see that. And are they working? Do they help?”
“We are happy to see that.”
Yes, Kimosabe! Sachs is not the only sahib who invites us to view Africa through the prism of childhood. In 2004, Prince Harry of England visited Lesotho, a small, landlocked country in southern Africa, to befriend children with AIDS; in front of cameras, the prince gave a four-year-old boy a pair of Wellington boots and cradled a six-month-old girl in his arms. When Madonna traveled to Malawi in 2006, dripping dollars and sentiment, her publicist spoke candidly of her paternalist (or maternalist) aspirations: “She’s kind of adopting an entire country of children.”
Rotimi Sankore, a journalist who has written widely on Africa, points out that the Africrats’ favorite poster child is “a skeletal looking two- or three-year-old brown-skinned girl in a dirty torn dress, too weak to chase off dozens of flies settling on her wasted and diseased body, her big round eyes pleading for help.” Sankore calls such images “development pornography.” The “subliminal message, unintended or not,” he argues, “is that people in the developing world require indefinite and increasing amounts of help and that without aid charities and donor support, these poor incapable people in Africa or Asia will soon be extinct through disease and starvation.”
Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina maintains that the relentless focus of the Africrats on the image of the pitiable, childish African distorts Africans’ idea of themselves and their potential. “There must be a change in mentality,” agrees Kenya’s Shikwati. “We have to stop perceiving ourselves as beggars.” At the same time, Africrat rhetoric that depicts the continent as “one giant crisis” (Wainaina’s phrase) obscures the progress that many Africans are making on their own. The African entrepreneurs who make up what Wainaina calls the “equity generation”—stock exchanges now thrive in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana—are, by pursuing their own private interests, doing more to assure a prosperous African future than all the Africrats’ programs put together. President Bush has made subsidized medicine the centerpiece of his Africa policy; he might do better to invest in Africa’s rising entrepreneurs.
If paternalism doesn’t work, why does the paternalist mentality persist? Joseph Conrad suggested an answer in his 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s antihero, Kurtz, is a man of benevolent intention who goes to Africa with grandiose dreams of saving people but who ends by slaughtering those natives who resist his hunt for ivory. The story’s narrator, Marlow, finds a report that Kurtz prepared for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Kurtz, Marlow says, “began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’ ” The thesis of Sachs’s The End of Poverty is not essentially different. He, too, believes that Westerners “can exert a power for good practically unbounded” over people who have not reached our “point of development.”
The patina of benevolence, Conrad suggests, often conceals a messianic narcissism, an incipient megalomania: Kurtz spent his days in Africa “getting himself adored.” Egotism and the desire for adoration are useful stimulants when they spur people to produce things that other people want or need. But it is a tawdry ambition that deters, as the paternalist philosophy does, people from realizing their own potential.
Reading Conrad, one is uneasily reminded of today’s Africrats. Under the guise of helping Africans, they aggrandize themselves, burnish their fame—and, not least, get themselves adored. Their tours of Africa are exercises in hero worship, part Roman triumph, part Felliniesque spectacle. The landing of the jet on some remote shimmering tarmac; the heat of the African sun; the exotic savor of the desert or of the jungle air; the fawning masses: all contribute to the narcotic spell that these progresses cast over those who undertake them.
Then comes the encounter between the benign magician—the Prospero from the northern latitudes—and the Suffering African. Amid a glitter of flashbulbs, the august tourist, like a monarch touching for the King’s Evil, lays hands on the dying AIDS patient or the undernourished child. Bobby Kennedy and Princess Diana perfected the art with which the superstar feels another’s pain; Bono, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie have carried on the tradition. A messianic odor clings to Sachs’s account of this celebrity satrapy, in which the superstars figure both as agents of grace and as high priests of a cult: “The Live 8 concerts, Bono’s ONE campaign, Angelina Jolie’s work for the United Nations, and many other acts of leadership and grace are drawing millions of eager individuals into a new commitment to work for the end of poverty, and thereby for a world of peace and shared well-being.”
Paternalism persists as a psychology precisely because it satisfies the cravings of vanity in a way that real reform doesn’t. (Where people have learned to save themselves, they do not need saviors.) So potent are paternalism’s pleasures that it has beguiled even those who theoretically oppose it. Consider the regression of Sachs himself. Sachs was born, in Detroit, into a family of civic aspiration and the desire to do good. As a young economist at Harvard, during the 1980s, Sachs did good, helping to devise “shock therapy” for Bolivia, a country crippled by public-sector spending.
Today, however, he rejects his old faith in economic freedom, which he ridicules as “magical thinking.” Repudiating his Bolivian policies, he now calls for curing African poverty LBJ-style, through massive wealth transfers. Sachs has discovered that it’s more glamorous to be a paternalist wizard, solving the little people’s problems for them, than it is to help them, as in Bolivia, solve their problems for themselves. When he was advocating a Reagan-Thatcher program of spending cuts and smaller government in Latin America, the most Sachs could hope for was an appreciative notice in the Wall Street Journal. Now he hangs with Bono and goes off into the bush with Angelina Jolie.
So prosperous have free nations become that not only their tycoons and superstars but even members of their middle classes are rich enough to taste the pleasures of paternalism—a fact that Madison Avenue has not failed to exploit. Companies like Gap, Converse, Motorola, and Armani—which were also sponsors of Vanity Fair’s Africa issue—have subscribed to Bono’s “(red) manifesto,” a promise that “if you buy a (red) product or sign up for a (red) service, at no cost to you, a (red) company will give some of its profits to buy antiretroviral medicine” for Africa. The curious (use) of (parentheses) in Bono’s “manifesto” is apparently intended to give the ad campaign an edgy, agitprop flavor, enabling the consumer to flatter himself that, in purchasing his new cell phone or pair of sneakers, he is doing something more than engaging in a routine market transaction. An acquisitive bourgeois on the surface, he is at heart (or so he pretends) a spiritual guerrilla on Bono’s long march to social solidarity.
The ambivalence about economic liberty that characterizes Bono’s campaign points to a larger contradiction in Africrat charity. It is a paradox of these figures that they should long to retreat from the commercial civilization that has made them great to the primitive conditions of the jungle and the desert. The Africrats are plainly enchanted by the exoticism, the pastoral simplicity, of peoples who have not yet mastered the secret of market prosperity.
This longing for the supposed innocence and simplicity of more primitive cultures was an important element in the psychology of nineteenth-century romanticism, which emerged from the same cultural matrix that gave birth to nineteenth-century paternalism. Both paternalism and romanticism developed in reaction to the progress, in the West, of political and economic freedom and the unexampled prosperity that came in their wake. Slaveholders in the United States fashioned an apology for human bondage that was partly romantic and partly paternalistic: they were, they claimed, re-creating the feudal splendors of Ivanhoe on the plantation, while at the same time tending to the submerged class with a solicitude absent in the cold world of free labor. Across the ocean, romantic aristocrats like Bismarck, confronted with the progress of liberty, sought to preserve the power of the patrician classes by means of a new method of paternal supervision—the social legislation of the Wohlfahrtsstaat.
Paternalism’s most astute defenders have always worked to disguise its coercive qualities by framing their efforts as an attempt to save the little people—as yet unspoiled by the cruel ethos of capitalism—from the evils of freedom. Some paternalists, like the socialists of the 1920s and 1930s, romanticized alienated proletarians and made a fetish of their innocence; others, like the “radical chic” philanthropists whom Tom Wolfe satirized in the 1960s, found their noble savages in the urban ghetto. Like their predecessors, the Africrats, too, romanticize their exotic pets. In doing so, they have worked out a new bucolic aesthetic to justify their disillusionment with capitalism, even as they promote policies that promise to keep their wards in a Rousseauian state of primitive innocence.
If the prosperous nations really want to help Africa, they need to resist the seductions of paternalism. They need to promote, not policies that will ensure that the continent remains a collection of fiefdoms dependent on subsidies and celebrity pity, but wealth-generating entrepreneurial efforts. They need to export, not a dated philosophy of mandarinism, but ideas that really can lift peoples and nations out of the lower depths—the ideas of Bacon, Hayek, de Soto, and The Wealth of Nations.
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