Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Saturday, July 14

Easterly on celebrity advocacy

Not to beat a dead horse, but Bill Easterly had an interesting op-ed in the L.A. Times last week about celebrity advocacy on Africa. Easterly’s central point is that efforts like Vanity Fair’s Africa issue tend to paint a much darker picture of the continent than it deserves, and they tend to gloss over many of the more positive stories.*

Easterly lends an economist’s perspective to the issue, pointing out that, for instance, on average 0.00926% of Africans die from war each year. Child soldiers, people afflicted by famine, and those who have died of AIDS also each account for 0.5% of the population, or less.

“That doesn't lessen the tragedy, of course, of those who are such victims, and maybe there are things the West can do to help them. But the typical African is a long way from being a starving, AIDS-stricken refugee at the mercy of child soldiers. The reality is that many more Africans need latrines than need Western peacekeepers — but that doesn't play so well on TV.”

Even official accounts tend to dwell on the negatives, like Tony Blair’s Africa Progress Panel, which held that Africa fell “far short” of making “substantial inroads into poverty reduction.” Easterly says the “international development establishment is rigging the game to make Africa—which is, of course, still very poor—look even worse than it really is.” When it’s noted that Africa is the only region failing to meet the MDGs, this is not because the situation isn’t improving but because most African countries have had so much further to go than anywhere else—it is, for instance, much harder to cut in half extreme poverty when half the population is poor, versus, say, a tenth, as was the case in Latin America.

In truth, African economies have been growing at a rate of 6% for three consecutive years, cell phone and Internet use have been doubling each year for seven years, annual foreign private capital inflows are outweighing foreign aid at $38 billion, and Africans on average tend to save a higher percentage of their incomes than Americans do.

In the end, “Africans are and will be escaping poverty the same way everybody else did: through the efforts of resourceful entrepreneurs, democratic reformers and ordinary citizens at home, not through PR extravaganzas of ill-informed outsiders.”

He concludes, “Today, as I sip my Rwandan gourmet coffee and wear my Nigerian shirt here in New York, and as European men eat fresh Ghanaian pineapple for breakfast and bring Kenyan flowers home to their wives, I wonder what it will take for Western consumers to learn even more about the products of self-sufficient, hardworking, dignified Africans. Perhaps they should spend less time consuming Africa disaster stereotypes from television and Vanity Fair.”

While I pretty much sympathize wholeheartedly with Easterly’s point, I think it’s important to highlight a stark hypocrisy in his approach. While he criticizes celebrities and officials alike for painting Africa with a broad brush and overemphasizing its development failures, Easterly essentially uses the same tactic in his books The White Man’s Burden and, especially, The Elusive Quest for Growth for critiquing the foreign aid establishment.

The basic premise of Elusive Quest, for instance, is that proposed panacea after proposed panacea for global poverty, coming especially from the World Bank and IMF and starting with the “financing gap” approach all the way through the Washington Consensus and the latest incarnations of aid conditionality, have failed to pan out. This assertion relies on figures (e.g., the number of people living in poverty has stagnated for three decades) that suggest that 60 years of assistance haven’t made a dent in the problem—a fact that, if true, would render his argument particularly devastating, but one which, looked at objectively, I think would be hard to support in earnest.

While Easterly’s analyses often incorporate good and abundant data, if he’s going to be so critical of the advocacy methods of Bono and Friends, he ought to show some restraint himself.

* My bias on this issue is pretty clear, I think—I did after all write in the introductory post to this blog: “Africa … has so many happy and hopeful stories that often go untold; and … we, as citizens of wealthy countries, are not now, nor will we ever be, Africa’s saviors,” and I quoted Paul Theroux, who said, “The impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help—not to mention celebrities and charity concerts—is a destructive and misleading conceit.”