The tragedy of Africa

Thomas Sowell

7/12/2005 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

The official declarations coming out of the G8 meetings in Scotland, as well as the raucous demonstrations surrounding those meetings, talk about saving Africa. But, looking back over the decades and generations, Africa has been "saved" so many times that you have to wonder why it still needs saving.

 Desperate and tragic conditions afflict millions in Africa today and any humane person would like to help. But the repeated failures of previous help ought to make us at least question the particular manner in which Africa can be helped.

 "Forgiveness" of foreign debts is always high on the agenda of those on the political left.

 At any given moment, this would of course free up money that African governments could spend to help relieve their people's distress -- assuming that this is what they would spend it for. But why would anyone think that promoting irresponsible government borrowing by periodically "forgiving" their debts is going to help African countries in the long run?

 As for the people of Africa, they have to survive in the short run in order to get to the long run. So emergency aid for emergency conditions makes far more sense than long-run "foreign aid" programs with an almost unbroken track record of failure, not only in Africa but around the world.

 Years ago, a courageous economist in India pointed out that, however helpful it was to receive food from abroad during India's famines, the long-run policy of continually giving wheat to India was just reducing the ability of Indian farmers to grow wheat and sell it for a price that would cover their costs.

 Eventually the policy of continually dumping wheat into India was stopped and today India produces so much wheat that it has been able to send some to Africa to deal with African famines.

 Promoting dependency and irresponsible borrowing is not the way to help the poor internationally any more than these are ways of helping the poor at home. Such policies benefit the bureaucracies that administer foreign aid and enable vain people to see themselves as saviors, even when they are doing more harm than good.

 Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the most tragic geographic handicaps of any region of the world. Navigable waterways, which have been crucial to the development of nations and of cultures, are severely limited in most of Africa. Poor soil and inadequate and undependable rainfall patterns shrink the possibilities still further.

 Ideologues love to think of African poverty as caused by "exploitation" on the part of Western countries. But, with a few notable exceptions, Africa has had little to be exploited. Even at the height of European imperialism, there was far less foreign trade or foreign investment in the whole vast continent of Africa than in a little country like Belgium or Switzerland.

 In more recent times, so-called "foreign aid" has left many monuments of futility in Africa, from rusting machinery and the ruins of many projects to cows sent from Europe that keeled over in the African heat.

 With all its handicaps, Africa used to feed itself and even export agricultural produce to Europe. In some of the more geographically favored parts of sub-Saharan Africa, iron was smelted thousands of years ago.

 During the first two decades after African nations gained their independence in the 1960s, one sub-Saharan nation that stood out with its economic prosperity and political stability amid economic disasters and social catastrophes among its neighbors was the Ivory Coast under President Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

 Yet neither the Ivory Coast nor its leader attracted nearly as much attention, much less adulation, as was showered on Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, or other big-name African leaders who led their countries into ruin.

 The Ivory Coast in those days relied on markets instead of the kind of policies and rhetoric that the intelligentsia favored. When its policies changed, it became just another African basket case.

 Today, too many people in the West continue to see Africa as an outlet for the visions and policies of the left that have failed in the West and are even more certain to fail in Africa.