Monday, October 13, 2008

Why Bono is doing more harm than good for Africa

For somewhat ridiculous reasons, I got to thinking a lot about international aid-- in particular the celebrity endorsement of completely ineffective policies in an effort to "help" Africa. For the purposes of my own argument (and because his music is awful) I single out Bono. This is fair, in my opinion, to counter the absurd amounts of praise this man receives for promoting the mass consumption of consumer goods like iPods, increasing the sale of his records by painting himself as a hero, and most importantly, diverting very scarce amounts of money, knowledge, and willing hands away from significant problems in order to focus on what is most popular.

The very notion that the West is the only way Africa may be saved is underhandedly racist and insulting. Though we may like to believe we have come a long way from believing colonization was simply "saving" uncivilized Africans, we have truly only shifted our haughtiness to a new line of rhetoric- Africa is in ruin and we must sweep in and save the continent as only we can. There is no stastical link between throwing money at nations and economic growth or disease control. In fact, the policies that have been used have worked so horribly, they have arguably contributed to a negative growth rate, perpetuation of corrupt institutions, and growth of disease. Funny, then, that the IMF, the World Bank, and the alphabet soup of aid organizations continues in this direction. You may say we don't know-- and you would be correct. There are little efforts to ask those affected by these policies if the problem to be addressed is getting better. There is zero accountability.

The far-reaching, utopian ideas spout out by Jeffrey Sachs and Bono are quite attractive. Unfortunately, without accountability and feedback (paraphrasing from Easterly's book) we have no way to see what needs to be done and what is most effective. It is interesting that people have tended to gravitate towards speaking out against worldwide calamities only when they become severe and difficult to address. The outbreak of AIDS, for instance, was well predicted by the international community as early as the 1980s. Where were prevention programs, why wasn't Bono inspiring others to support sex education in Africa? Instead, it was ignored, implying that, although the problem was known and preventable, we decided to let it happen anyways. Perhaps there is more implied racism in the Western aid's actions than its self-proclaimed purpose. Revealed preference theory in economics aligns perfectly with this idea. Here is a concise definition of this very simplistic idea from economist.com:"This is the notion that what you want is revealed by what you do, not by what you say. Actions speak louder than words."

Anyways, the most important non-contribution to relief efforts has been diverting resources away from what is most important. If you truly care about who you are trying to help, despite their nationality, cries from celebrities, and your own past failures-- you will place what you have in what will help the most amount of people in the quickest amount of time. When we prolong the life of an AIDS victim one more year, we divert at least $1500 away from other problems. Vaccines to prevent much wider-spread diseases (malaria, diarrhea, etc.) sometimes cost pennies and can save thousands of lives at the cost of prolonging someone's life an additional year. These diseases kill 2.5 times more people than AIDS, but cost much less to prevent and to treat. It seems cruel to say that we are effectually killing people by giving money instead to people already infected with AIDS, but from a simple tradeoff approach, it is true.

Africa's poor does not need our pity, does not need our aid dollars spent on what "we" think is best for them. My dislike for Bono is simply due to his extremely loud presence and the focus of his message to be increasing the amount of aid poured into countries, rather than its effectiveness. It is easy to say that you are concerned with the world's poor and suffering. Most people stop at that, and are not concerned with whether or not our interference is helping those we are supposedly intending to help. As long as we are doing something, right? Anything? The West is, again, effectually hurting Africa much more than it is helping; while it can sleep at night thinking it is the hero, the savior, of those it is convinced cannot help themselves. History repeats itself in interesting ways, and it is even more fascinating why it is never realized.

If you're as interested as I in this topic, I highly recommend William Easterly's The Elusive Quest for Growth and The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good; as well as Paul Collier's Bottom Billion.

4 comments:

John said...
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John said...
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John said...
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Jake said...

Rad. Well written, and totally insightful. Definitely makes me wonder at how many relationships I have where I am Bono. What is the best help for another person or nation, or even person within a nation. Truth is, it's not always safe to just try. but the question is how and where do I draw the line?