“All it takes is the will” to end poverty. Or so they say. An HBO movie has picked up on this idea and run with it.
Ok, so here’s what happens in “The Girl in the Café”: A pathetic, wrinkled repressed, burnt-out diplomat meets a young, pretty airhead in a café. He takes her to a big summit meeting in Iceland, where she single-handedly shames a hoard of cynical diplomats into doing what they all knew was the right thing to do: Ending poverty in Africa. See, they all knew how to do it—the part about ending poverty in Africa. Hell, the diplomats knew how to do that in their sleep. But they weren’t going to do it, see, because they were playing politics, nasty politics, selfish politics, pandering politics. But then they change their minds because an incredibly dim and spectacularly obnoxious girl, the sum total of whose knowledge of economic development is zip—nothing, nada, zilch (no, less than zero, negative infinity maybe)—interrupts the proceedings and inspires them all by hurling plattitudes at them in hissy fits of snotty self-righteousness.
It’s as if “Bill and Ted’s Great Adventure” had been rewritten and played straight, with the actors and writers blissfully unaware that Bill and Ted are morons.
Ok, it’s shallow, but it’s just a silly movie. It’s fiction. Should we even care?
Yes. Because the movie captures poses, postures, and turns of speech that have become the latest fashion among enlightened persons who don’t know much economics but pass judgment on those who do. Rock stars, celebrities, humanistic studies professors, Bobos with big hearts and bigger egos. And powerful political figures. This is an important issue of the day.
We can solve Africa’s problems, or so goes the meme. “All it takes is the political will.” This phrase is popping up everywhere. And not just in the mouths of the uneducated airheads in cafes. Jared Diamond parroted the phrase recently (as I describe here.) “All it takes is the will” (and 150 billion dollars a year) and presto, poverty is gone. Economist Jeffrey Sachs talks this way, but Sachs has become a salesman. That’s fine. The world needs salesmen. We just shouldn’t believe everything they say.
The bottom line: There is no evidence at all that throwing 150 billion dollars a year at Africa will solve Africa’s problems. And there are many reasons to be skeptical. Sachs’ argument goes something like this: True, nothing we’ve done in the past has made a dent in the continent’s woes. But that just means we need to think bigger. Throw huge sums of money at the problem. That’ll do it.
My position: There may well be incremental changes and policies—carefully planned and more carefully evaluated and modified at the ground level—that will benefit Africa greatly. Splendid. By all means, let’s do that. But that’s exactly the type of change that is least likely to happen through some, huge, centrally organized, ego-powered money pump. Listen to economist William Easterly on the subject in his letter to the NYT:
For the poor, Professor Sachs and the United Nations Millennium Project propose everything from nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees to replenish the soil, to rainwater harvesting, to battery-charging stations, for, by my count, 449 interventions. Poor Africans have no market or democratic mechanisms to let planners in New York know which of the 449 interventions they need, whether they are satisfied with the results, or whether the goods ever arrived at all.
Take the nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees that cure exhausted soils. As one study pointed out, the trees don't grow well in shade, they can proliferate as weeds and they can wind up competing for soil nutrients, especially in arid areas. It's easy to decree a solution at the top, but it will never work without the detailed local knowledge at the bottom -- which planners in New York cannot possibly process.
How do we get corrupt or non-representative governments to create the institutions and policies necessary for sustained growth? This is NOT an easy question. In his NYT magazine interview Sachs bristled when the interviewer brought up the disastrous outcome of Sachs’ advice and assistance to Russia during that country’s transition to free markets. As everyone knows, it was a debacle. According to the article, though, Sachs claimed that it wasn’t his fault because the Russian authorities hadn’t done what he had asked them to do.
So why will it be different in Africa? Why will it be different in a setting in which institutions are arguably in worse shape than they were in Russia? Why will non-representative governments cooperate with grandiose aid and development plans (that could empower local populations and cause them, perhaps, to resent the graft and corruption that sustains their leaders), when in marginally representative Russia they did not?
“All it takes is the will.”
This is a very dangerous phrase. It trivializes difficult problems and demonizes more balanced thinkers. The War on Povery was supposed to end poverty in the U.S. Strangely enough, it hasn’t. Poverty in disadvantaged communities has been virtually immune to the most well-intentioned policies. And Africa is different?
“All it takes is the will.”
If you have little or no evidence to support your position, how do you go about making an argument? By attributing all disagreement on the subject to the moral shortcomings of others. Bypass the debate. Assume that everything has been decided.
Your opponent disagrees? Then it is not because he thinks it is a bad policy, that it is likely to fail and end up harming millions, empowering dictators, and wasting resources that could be allocated more effectively in other ways. No, it is because he “lacks the will” to do the right thing. It is a moral shortcoming, and he needs to be lectured by an airhead in a cafe who knows almost nothing and understands even less.
(Here’s an idea: I propose that you give ME 150 billion dollars a year. I’ll buy a new car and then I’ll fix poverty. You don’t want to do that? Ah. Clearly, you lack the will to solve Africa’s problems. Shame on you!)
The second way to win an argument with no substance is this: Promote egomania instead of compassion. There’s much talk in the movie (and elsewhere) about being “great.” This is the first generation that had it in its power to wipe out poverty, says the movie (and the meme.) Let’s be great!! We’ll be the greatest generation ever. We’re fantastic. We’ll be so damned great we won’t be able to stand it.
After all, this whole business of helping the poor is really about finding ways to be great, ways to pump ourselves up. It’s about how we feel about ourselves. Facts are ugly and inconvenient, and they have a strange way of forcing humility on us. They get in the way of our being great and feeling great, and, as such, they must be avoided at all costs.
One of the amusing and completely unintentional ironies in the movie is its closing quote from Nelson Mandela (about how sometimes a generation has the opportunity to “be great.”) The irony is that Mandela, himself, favored the opposite of what Sachs and the Millennium Project propose (a massive infusion of money from abroad). He favored economic sanctions against his country. He favored damaging the economic well-being of his people in order to take power away from an unjust and non-representative government, rather than funneling money from abroad through that government.
By favoring trade sanctions against South Africa, did Mandela “lack the will” to reduce poverty in his nation? Or did he simply believe there were large negative consequences of funneling large sums of money through (or in cooperation with) a bad government?
Of course, if you mention bad governance and bad institutions, Sachs and others accuse you of blaming Africa’s problems on Africans. This is beyond infantile. The first instinct of a three-year-old is to point a finger in blame, but even a three-year-old knows not to blame a large group or an abstraction. No critic of Sachs is trying to blame poor people in Africa for the powerful leaders that oppress them (whether the oppressors happen to be Africans, Europeans, or Martians.) Sometimes a small group of powerful people screws things up for their countrymen and makes it very hard for outsiders to come in and fix things. Does it matter what nationality that group is? Is that the issue here? Of course not. The relevant question is rather: What are they doing and how does it influence our capacity to intervene?
Economics is a field in its infancy. We are like the medical doctors of century ago. We’re still at the phase where we use leeches, blood-letting, and enemas. We are constantly surprised by the unintended consequences of the policies we recommend. Reality humbles us and our theories, incessantly. It is a field that cries out for guarded predictions and intellectual humility. We know a few simple things, but the likely outcome of 447 centrally planned interventions in Africa is not among them.
Those of us skeptical of the methods and approaches of the Millennium Project desperately hope that effective ways to assist the poor in Africa will emerge and be implemented in coming years. We are instinctively humble about the prospects for fast, lasting, large-scale change through huge infusions of money from abroad. We know how little we know, how little economists know. This project, in its evidence-defying rhetoric and willful blindness, has all the earmarks of a grandiose and counterproductive boondoggle.
Do we lack the will to end poverty? No.
All we lack is the megalomania to worsen it.