Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Can the West Save Africa ?

That’s the (big) question William Easterly (New York University) tries to answer in his recent survey of the literature (Journal of Economic Literature, June 2009). Here is his summary:

“In the new millennium, the Western aid effort toward Africa has surged due to writings by well-known economists, a celebrity mass advocacy campaign, and decisions by Western leaders to make Africa a major policy priority. This survey contrasts the predominant “transformational” approach (West comprehensively saves Africa) to occasional swings to a “marginal” approach (West takes one small step at a time to help individual Africans). Evaluation of “one step at a time” initiatives is generally easier than that of transformational ones either through controlled experiments (although these have been oversold) or simple case studies where it is easier to attribute outcomes to actions.
We see two themes emerge from the literature survey: (1) escalation – as each successive Western transformational effort has yielded disappointing results (as judged at least by stylized facts, since again the econometrics are shaky), the response has been to try an even more ambitious effort, and (2) the cycle of ideas – rather than a progressive testing and discarding of faded ideas, we see a cycle in aid ideas in many areas in Africa, with ideas going out of fashion only to come back again later after some lapse long enough to forget the previous disappointing experience. Both escalation and cyclicality of ideas are symptomatic of the lack of learning that seems to be characteristic of the “transformational” approach. In contrast, the “marginal” approach had some successes in improving the well-being of individual Africans, such as the dramatic fall in mortality.”

Meanwhile, I would add, Africans themselves are transforming their societies piecemeal, the result being highly visible even to the casual visitor, either in the sustained urbanization trend which also has positive sides despite the obvious costs and difficulties that it raises, or in the effervescence of artistic creation leading to the formation of entirely new industries (movies, painting, performing arts and music) that are connected to international markets and not limited to local, traditional folklore.

In spite of the failure of the African food production relative to the green revolution in Asia (Easterly’s figure 10), income per capita has resumed an upward trend since 2000, after three decades (1970-2000) of stagnation (Figure 1).

Small steps, both external and internal, may at last lead to some sustainable progress.

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