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Friday, March 23, 2007

William Easterly: Africa's Poverty Trap

William Easterly has spent much of his career applying economic analysis to very poor countries:

Africa's Poverty Trap, by William R. Easterly, Commentary, WSJ: There is a sad law I have noticed in my economics career: the poorer the country, the poorer the economic analysis applied to it. Sub-Saharan Africa, which this month marks the 50th anniversary of its first nation to gain independence, Ghana, bears this out.

There has been progress in many areas over the last 50 years -- ... yet the same poor economics on sale to Ghana in 1957 are still there today. Economists involved in Africa then and now undervalued free markets, instead coming up with one of the worst ideas ever: state direction by the states least able to direct.

African governments are not the only ones that are bad, but they have ranked low for decades on most international comparisons of corruption, state failure, red tape, lawlessness and dictatorship. Nor is recognizing such bad government "racist"... Instead, corrupt and mismanaged governments ... reflect the unhappy way in which colonizers artificially created most nations, often combining antagonistic ethnicities. Anyway, the results of statist economics by bad states was a near-zero rise in GDP per capita for Ghana, and the same for the average African nation, over the last 50 years.

Why was state intervention considered crucial in 1957? Africa was thought to be in a "poverty trap," since the poor could not save enough to finance investment necessary to growth. Free markets could not get you out of poverty. The response was state-led, aid-financed investment. Alas, these ideas had already failed the laugh test... The U.S. in 1776 was at the same level as Africa today, yet it escaped the poverty trap. The same was also true for the history of Western Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Latin America. All of these escapes from poverty happened without a state-led, aid-financed "Big Push."

In the ensuing 50 years, there have been plenty more examples of poor countries which grew rapidly without much aid -- China and India (who each receive around half a percent of income in foreign aid) being the most famous recent examples. Meanwhile, aid amounted to 14% of total income year in and year out in the average African country since independence.

Despite these reality checks, blockbuster reports over the last two years by the U.N. Millennium Project (led by Jeffrey Sachs), Mr. Sachs again in his book "The End of Poverty," the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), the Tony Blair Commission for Africa, and the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) have all reached what the UNDP called "a consensus on development": Today Africa needs another Big Push. Do they really think nobody is paying attention?

Africa's poverty trap is well covered in the media, since it features such economists as Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Bono and Brad Pitt. But even Bill Gates ... expressed indifference to Africa's stagnant GDP, since "you can't eat GDP." Mr. Gates apparently missed the economics class that listed the components of GDP, such as food.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have good economists who have criticized state intervention. Under the pressure of anti-market activists, alas, they have soft-pedaled these views lately in favor of ... U.N.-led Millennium Development Goals...

The cowed IMF and the World Bank never mention the words "free market" in thousands of pages devoted to ending poverty. ... World Bank economists are so scared of offending anyone on Africa that they recite tautologies. The press release describing the findings of the 2006 World Bank report "Challenges of African Growth" announces: the "single most important reason" for Africa's "lagging position in eradicating poverty" ... is "Africa's slow and erratic growth." The next World Bank report may reveal that half a dozen beers has been identified as the single most important reason for a six-pack.

Today Unctad (in its 2006 "Big Push" report) still offers to make possible government "infant-industry policies" for "small, fragmented economies" by setting up a regional market, presumably so Burkina Faso and Niger can help absorb the potential output of the Togolese automobile industry.

Unctad lacks everything but chutzpah: All aid to Africa, it said, should be moved into a new U.N. Development Fund for Africa, to which Unctad helpfully offered its "in-house experience"... Unctad will thus permit the economics of Africa to at last "escape from ideological biases," so we can finally understand "why economic activity should not be left entirely to market forces."

The free market is no overnight panacea; it is just the gradual engine that ends poverty. African entrepreneurs have shown what they are capable of. They have, for example, launched the world's fastest growing cell phone industry to replace the moribund state landlines. What a tragedy, therefore, that aid agencies have foisted the poorest economics in the world on the poorest people in the world for 50 years. The hopeful sign is that many independent Africans themselves are increasingly learning the economics of how to get rich, rather than of how to stay poor.

With that attitude you almost want him to be wrong. There seems to be little love lost between Sachs and Easterly. Right or not, Sachs is clearly well-intentioned.

A couple of comments, or questions rather about his examples in support of the free market approach to development. He says "In the ensuing 50 years, there have been plenty more examples of poor countries which grew rapidly without much aid -- China and India ... being the most famous recent examples." Are these examples of free markets at work once government stepped aside, or are they cases where the state has provided substantial direction as the big push to get the ball rolling? Should we wonder why he doesn't mention countries where the strict free-market approach has failed and paved the way for populist alternatives?

Nobody knows for sure what the secret is to escaping poverty, and the answer may lie somewhere between the strict free-market and the heavy-handed state intervention approaches. But whatever the answer, given what we know presently, the case for a strict free-market approach is not as clear as Easterly implies.

    Posted by on Friday, March 23, 2007 at 01:15 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (68)


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