Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Spiritual Imperlialism

At one time in the past Europeans and Americans raped Africa through the Atlantic slave trade. Then Christianity eliminated slavery (for the second time in its history) so Europeans had to make do with raping Africans by making them slaves in their own lands via colonial empires. Now Africans are independent of Western imperial powers, but the West has found a new way to rape Africa. Call it spiritual imperialism. It is centered on a new form of trade that basically enslaves African peoples. Westerners provide Africans with pity, and in return they receive assuaged guilt and self satisfaction.

The City Journal documents the new slave trade in the article "Hearts of Darkness":

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.

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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.

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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.


Unfortunately, Christianity has no intention of abolishing this new outbreak of slavery.

6 Comments:

Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck, did you hear that soon-to-be-published research fron the Cato Institute proves that, far from robbing the rich to give to the poor, Robin Hood was actually making low-interest loans in exchange for minority equity positions in community-based businesses started by the serfs?

Socialism was the hijacking of a genuine and admirable concern over the urban poor and destitute. Environmentalism is the hijacking of a genuine and admirable concern over fetid rivers and smog-blanketed cities. Foreign Aid is the hijacking of the charitable impulse. But's let's not trash the whole notion of charity or diss the kids collecting pennies for UNICEF as oppressive little tyke-tyrants.

And don't forget that the case for winding down the foreign aid industry goes hand in hand with reducing agricultural tarriffs so they can compete fairly. Nobody thinks that will come easily. I'm not sure that until we do that, your "tough love" solution will work the miracle you hope for.

February 20, 2008 8:01 AM  
Blogger lonbud said...

Well, gosh no. That smacks of a free market. We can't have that notion gaining golbal currency...

February 20, 2008 8:41 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

"Unfortunately, Christianity has no intention of abolishing this new outbreak of slavery."

You're gonna blame Christianity for this too?

February 20, 2008 10:07 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

You're gonna blame Christianity for this too?

Is the Pope Catholic? Although, in fairness, Duck is a modern, learned, inclusive anti-theist and is therefore more likely to blame Judeo-Christianity.

February 20, 2008 4:44 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Bret, just being snarky. I just find it ironic, after listening for the last thirty years to religious conservatives explain that statism and state-based solutions to social problems are the result of secularism, to see erstwhile religious conservatives, like George Bush, catch the internationalist nanny state virus.

Peter, I'm just being inclusive. Why should secular people hog all the guilt over the sorry state of the world?

February 20, 2008 5:21 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

This spiritual imperialism business is a knife that cuts two ways.

You guys are too young to remember, but in the '70s African intellectuals, realizing that their failed societies and failed states had nothing material to offer the rest of the world, announced that they were giving us 'African spirituality' to help us make up for our own failures.

This from people who used human heads as street markers.

Ugh.

February 24, 2008 10:31 AM  

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