February 20, 2005

Can Africa be helped?

A reply I wrote to a post on one of the forums I frequent on the topic ‘The reasons Africa is in such a mess’:

The problems facing the region are immense. The harsh climate, disease, conflict, cultural practices and corruption have all contributed to the current situation. It's true that money can only help so much at the current time. Still, it is only money that can lift the population out of poverty in the long run.

I don't think the problems are insurmountable, nor is it optimal for our own future wealth to dismiss such a large body of people as a lost cause. The government could focus only on its narrow sphere of interest, but we certainly have the funds and expertise to help others too. The question is, to what extent? Some say that domestic issues are priority, but our public services will never function so well that they no longer need additional work. I.e. the NHS will always be particularly efficient and the transport network will never be particularly reliable. Putting domestic issues first is to totally cut ourselves off from the international community on issues outside of commerce.

There are issues which can be resolved only by Africa itself and there are things richer nations can do (e.g. the removal of barriers to trade & cessation of spurious loan conditionality). Legal, political and economic institutions took hundreds of years to develop in this country and until they are of adequate quality abroad, greater aid will prove ineffective. Sadly, said institutions are difficult to alter once in place and can't simply be imported from abroad. In wealthy nations trade and commerce provided huge incentives for the development of trust networks, state guarantee of private property, informal contracts and the legal system as a whole. This is why encouraging commerce between nations and within nations (e.g. though micro credit schemes) would be a good first step.

The actions of the leader [the topic starter] brought to our attention together with the thousands of officials whose corruption has helped seal the fate of the African public, are selfish, but are simply the result of their institutional and incentive structures. Given the choice between accepting bribes/siphoning away government funds and trying to support one's family in a highly uncertain environment in which you know someone else is likely to be after any cash available, is obvious. Such people are not inherently more selfish or unaware of the plight of others than you or I. They're simply looking out for themselves. We do precisely the same thing every day, only there are systems in place limiting what we can get away with.


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