National Edition

Saving Africa? New book casts harsh light on prominent poverty program

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 4 2013 3:20 p.m. MST

DN: Now you say this caught everyone off guard, but you can go back to Stalinist central planning and five-year plans, and you contrast that with Friedrich Hayek and others who emphasize market complexity, the role of prices in allocating resources, all these things we know we can't anticipate. This is a dialogue that has been going on for 100 years, isn’t it?

NM: You make a good point. This is something that the economist Bill Easterly has argued, that these big ideas imposed by outsiders can be breathtakingly arrogant. What, then, is the solution, if we care about the world's poor, as I hope most of us do.

If your goal is to help a limited number of people in a single village, you can do that. That's called charity. In the Millennium Villages Project many people's lives have been improved. There is less malnutrition, less malaria, more children in school in all of those villages. If you invest $5 or $10 million into an isolated African village, you are going to get results.

But we are really talking about something else. How do you accomplish economic development? How does it take root, and how can it be sustained in desolate places, where people are illiterate, there are no roads, no infrastructure?

DN: With the $100 million this project invested during its initial 10 years isn’t the key question opportunity cost. That is, what kind of progress could have been made with the same funds put to other uses?

NM: Yes. Some people have criticized my book for being negative, or for suggesting that foreign aid doesn't work. That's not what I'm saying at all. I am saying that our resources are limited, and only becoming more limited. So accountability and transparency are essential to make sure that every penny spent is being spent as well as it possibly can be. Far too many nonprofits and NGOs boast about the sums of money that they're spending on big projects. That's no way to evaluate an antipoverty program.

DN: In your book you focus on two villages. One is perched on a hill with no reliable water source because they would have to reverse gravity. The other is essentially a watering hole for camels in the middle of the desert. Why are we trying to force development into places that naturally resist it?

NM: These are parts of the world that are deeply hostile to human life. There is a reason why some of these places are as poor as they are, and there are economists who have argued that the solution to poverty is to get people out of these places. But I don't see Western Europe or the United States inviting millions of desert dwellers to come and live within our borders. So we're kind of stuck with efforts to try to uplift desolate, desperate places to a global economy.

Can it ever be done? Is it even possible to take places that have no natural resources, no water, no ports, no roads. …. Is there any way to connect these people to the rest of the world? I'm not sure that there is. But that is where masses of the world's poorest people live.

DN: It sounds like you are saying that the Western countries that feel obliged to help must just commit to long-term maintenance in places where there really are no solutions.

NM: Look at the largest refugee camps in the world. There's one that I know well on the border of Kenya and Somalia, not far from where I did a lot of the reporting for my book. It's a sprawling camp, that is no longer really a refugee camp. These places have become cities in and of themselves, with functioning economies, schools, even a limited democracy with elected officials. Places like this represent a failure of foreign aid.

DN: One of the most poignant images in your book was a couple of brand-new neonatal incubators sitting unused in the corner of a clinic because there was no electricity in the village.

NM: The skeletons of well-intentioned development projects litter the continent of Africa — bridges that lead nowhere, rusted tractors, broken water wells, schools that were never completed, maternity wards that are crumbling. One of the great hurdles of charity work in Africa is making sure that the work is maintained. In many places there simply aren't the tools or the knowledge to maintain projects built by outsiders.

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