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January 4, 2006

Sometimes you can’t make it on your own
Posted by Patrick at 10:56 PM * 39 comments

Why Bono is right and Paul Theroux is full of crap. (Via Majikthise.)

Comments on Sometimes you can't make it on your own:
#1 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 02:19 AM:

Well, I wouldn't say Bono is right, just less wrong than Theroux. Debt relief is only part of the solution and only if it's done without hidden strings attached.

The problem with Bono and Geldof is that they provide a not too radical, cuddly media friendly activism, an activism that centers on charity and do-goodism without asking the real questions of how this poverty in Africa and elsewhere actually came to be, and who profits from it.

We saw that with Live8 and the G8 protests last year, where Geldoff came in late, stole the thunder of the real protests and helped the G8 leaders look concerned without doing much, with Geldof as a frontman for initiatives coming straight from Blair and Brown.

#2 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 04:17 AM:

I regret that I do not know the answer. I have seen nothing that gives me any confidence that anyone does.

#3 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 09:02 AM:

That is to say, not Mr Theroux, who may be snarky and rich but who did at least go and work as a volunteer in Malawi, which is more than I ever did; and not Mr Bono either, even though his heart is undeniably in the right place; nor Mr Geldorf either, who is on record as remarking that for every child Band Aid saved in 198whatever there are three more starving in that region today, because of the threefold increase in population.

#4 ::: jhlipton ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 10:59 AM:

From the comments:
First and foremost, Theroux is arguing for accountability. I find it difficult to argue with that. Like you, I am troubled by some of his arguments, find some trivial and would like him to approach the topic in a more considered manner. However, the west will not give billions, watch it disappear, forgive the debt, give billions more, watch it disappear, forgive the debt…..on and on indefinitely.
I don't have a problem with that either. (I do have a problem with Mr Raza bashing the Peace Corps. It may have been "explicitly designed as a propaganda tool for the American government in the cold war years", but that does not diminish the good it did.

Raza also seems to have a bit of reading comprehension problem. Consider the quote from Theroux:
Teaching in Africa was one of the best things I ever did. But our example seems to have counted for very little. My Malawian friend's children are of course working in the United States and Britain. It does not occur to anyone to encourage Africans themselves to volunteer in the same way that foreigners have done for decades. There are plenty of educated and capable young adults in Africa who would make a much greater difference than Peace Corps workers. Emphasis mine

Of this, Raza says:
The emigration of Africans to the preposterously prosperous countries of the West particularly galls Theroux; after all, didn't he go there to try and help them? Why can't they stay and help themselves?
Sadly, no. Theroux is not saying that anyone return. He's saying that the ones who have returned, or who never left, can make a huge difference.

So the pecking order is: "smug, self-righteous and pompous" Bono, the somewhat-too-angry Theroux, and, pretty far down the line, Mr Raza.

#5 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 12:04 PM:

As someone more clever than me said, it's not that there are no right answers, but that all the answers we have are wrong.

#6 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 12:51 PM:

Would those of you saying Bono has a good heart but little understanding of the problem mind giving some examples? Everything I've heard from people who have dealt with the man indicates the reason he's so effective is that he has a throrough understanding of the practical realities of the situation and of proposed solutions, instead of just fuzzy-headed idealism.

#7 ::: Chris S. ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 01:23 PM:

To second Aconite, I've heard some truly excellent things - from the Federal Ministry level - about Bono's understanding of world economics (For a very, very brief overview, read Times Magazine's "Persons Of The Year" article about Bono and Bill & Melinda Gates).

"Smug, self-righteous and pompous" don't seem to come into it at all. Bono is well aware of the irony of a rich rock star talking about poverty. But you use what tools you have, and 'rock star charisma' can be a very powerful tool.

#8 ::: mayakda ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 01:44 PM:

I'm a 3rd world immigrant into a 1st world country. I have no answers.
There is this to consider -- 1st generation immigrants send a lot of money home to relatives in the old country.

#9 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 02:44 PM:

Paul Theroux's article made me spew. I was glad to see someone take him on/down/out.

I have watched and listened to Bono closely over the past 18 months and can vouch for his insight, his sincerity, and his wise use of fame as a bully pulpit. He speaks specifically of "spending the currency of celebrity" to direct both awareness and resources towards these issues. He has far more credibility with a broader range of wise and thoughtful people than, oh, say, Paul T.

No one, least of all him, is advocating the sort of dumbass cash aid that has been tendered in the past and it is the worst sort of straw man to say he is.

I also have worked "on the ground" in Africa and encountered the astounding entrepreneurial spirit that animates the shallow economies there. It makes me suspect that the First World has something to worry about if Africans can get better (any!) access to markets.

The whole thing reminds of my favorite saying, allegedly from Arabia via Truman Capote: "The dogs bark, but the caravan passes on."

#10 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 05:28 PM:

It has been sad to watch Theroux descend into bilious misanthropy. Bono at least is trying to help, and his organisation is substantive:

South Africa in this as many other ways, is a microcosm:

#11 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2006, 05:44 PM:

I'm going to jump in with both feet (possibly jammed in my mouth). It isn't that one or the other, or Raza, is right and the other, or Raza, is wrong. It also isn't that they're all wrong. The problem is that they're all right.

What we have here is a 'Six blind men and the elephant' problem. Underdevelopment, or developmental stagnation is a multi-faceted problem.

Part of the problem is the inherent advantage possessed by developed countries (that advantage is in productivity and technology). They always have an edge in international economic relations, and it is hard for less developed countries to catch up. If we look at the numbers, we see that some countries have moved from underdeveloped to developed, some have moved from underdeveloped to less underdeveloped, some have hardly moved at all, and some have sunk. Developed countries, by and large, have become more developed. The hare will not (or will only rarely) catch the tortoise.

Developed countries have been able to exploit their advantage in ways which often prevent industrial development in developing countries (For example, why do countries which grow corn import cornflakes? They can't compete with the economies of scale and internal efficiencies that, say, Kelloggs already has.). The governments of developed countries promote the interests of their domestic corporations, which reinforces the advantage those corporations have.

Underdeveloped countries have, in many cases, wasted the opportunities they've had, either because of corruption, or because of misplaced development priorities. (In the 60s, for example, many African countries spent resources on urban prestige projects or on operating airlines. That turned out to be wasteful.) In some cases, they've failed to develop the infrastructure necessary to get self-sustaining development going. (The classic example was what happened when Nigeria started to spend the windfall profits from the 1973 spike in oil prices; the government imported vast quantities of cement which set in the holds of the ships bringing it because the Nigerians had omitted to develop their port facilities first.)

Elites in underdeveloped countries have diverted vast resources away from the mass of people and into bank accounts in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Jersey, Curaçao and Grand Cayman. In some cases, rulers have turned the national treasury into their private fiscs; often with ruinous results.

In some countries, cultural values and/or the economic needs of the poor have meant that education has been sporadic for many people, and, in consequence, poor rural dwellers have lower levels of the skills that are necessary to development.

In many countries, there are more skilled and educated people than there are opportunities for them; those people end up in the West, and thus cease to contribute to their countries' development.

I could go on and on and on. But I won't.

#12 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 12:18 AM:

People who slag on Bono are pretty much all petty jealous assholes. They're shitting on a man who's going out there and continually doing good.

look, even if debt relief isn't the answer, there's ALWAYS this pretentious academic (or in some cases punk-rock) hatred for Bono, and it shows through. They hate his guts.

Bono is going out and doing something immense. He's just a rock singer, and he's managed to change the world in ways politicians either couldn't, or wouldn't.

That's unforgivable.

#13 ::: Jim Bennett ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 03:27 AM:

African economists and farmers appear to think that the aid is not all that.

Oxfam: African Cotton Farmers Call for End to US and EU Export Subsidies. Excerpt: According to Dr. Reneth Mano, a research associate of Oxfam America, this is creating "beggars out of efficient farmers." "Africans will never be happy with aid," he said at the campaign launch event. "All we are asking for is fair trade. African nations would earn more from trade than from the inflow of aid, if only the playing field was leveled."

"For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!" Excerpt: The Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati, 35, says that aid to Africa does more harm than good.

#14 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 04:01 AM:

I quite agree that one important step would be to remove agricultural subsidies, embargoes, and tariffs, and their various sleight-of-hand under the counter equivalents.

The trouble is that the US cannot persuade the Europeans, chiefly the French, to do it, and the US simply goes deaf when Australia or Canada make the same suggestions, and Japan politely ignores pointed remarks about its rice market while badgering the US (with little effect) about its protection, and the Canadians feed their pigs with heavily subsidised corn (no international subsidies there, no sir, it's only for home consumption and the fact that it makes Canadian pigmeat dirt cheap has nothing to do with it) or ... well, you name it.

If none of that has the slightest effect because the votes of a hundred thousand two-cows-and-five-pigs farmers in France or ten thousand sugar growers in South Carolina or rice farmers in Japan have more effect on their respective legislatures than (a) all the starvation in the world (b) the certain pissing off of their nation's allies (c) the higher prices paid by their own consumers, what chance do you think every nation in Africa would have, even if they jumped up and down and shouted really, really loud?

Start at none, and work on down.

#15 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 04:39 AM:

Dave, it's not all about trade, otherwise Mexico would have become filthy rich after NAFTA and it didn't. The problems are complex, and a big part of them is building an internal market who can successfully sustain demand. The European and North-American industry sector developed in the XIX and early XX century with closed markets and heavy import tariffs to explicitly protect local products against competition. What destroyed the african economy in the late XX century was a complete reliance on exporting a few agricultural products and exploiting natural resources; as soon as the market price for these items went down (as it can naturally happen in a globally "open" economy), many countries istantaneously found themselves poor. Furtherly lowering the barriers for these markets won't help them, and it might even make them poorer as soon as the market (or even just a cartel of interested 1st-world companies) will drive the prices down again.

African nations need honest governments, honest help and honest trade, and this could as well mean for the 1st-world people to simply bugger off and leave them grow up on their own. One of the best solutions would be to simply stop selling stuff to African nations, and only buy from them; they'd be forced to satisfy their internal markets on their own, and build strong economies, with export as a side benefit.

But we won't do that... instead we will give them money to buy our stuff, and then letting them going in debt, and then we'll lend them some more money to pay off, like a bad credit-card-juggling scheme, until they'll have to beg us to write off some of that debt, and will be ready to take more loans and aid to buy more stuff from us. Because this will make our economy run and will keep them down. I'm sure Bono can't say that, but it's the awful truth.

#16 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 05:29 AM:

Remembering that the African economys' ... "complete reliance on exporting a few agricultural products and exploiting natural resources" was set up while they were the outlying parts of various European empires. (A sub-theme in Heart of Darkness.)

Similarly, existing Indian manufactures were quashed by the British as they extended their rule there (one of Gandhi's themes), and Australian developments towards more "elaborately-transformed products" were actively discouraged when we were part of the UK trading bloc. It has been difficult in the extreme to encourage change in this despite various lip-services paid to it.

#17 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 10:55 AM:

It's been going on longer than that: the American colonies weren't legally allowed to have certain industries (IIRC, glassmaking and ironworks), but had to export raw materials that came back as finished goods (and the places where they could ship/sell were legally limited also). I think the proper term is colonialism.

#18 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 11:10 AM:

PJ Evans -- there was (and still is) glassmaking at Jamestown colony in Virginia (the archeologists found the glass ovens). This ban may have existed but it looks like it didn't pertain to the Commonwealth of Virginia.

By ironworks, are we talking processing iron ore, or working iron (smithy)?

If it's the former I can understand the ban (I'm assuming the Brits would have been selling the colonists iron), if it's the latter I'm dubious, because those that had horses would have had to have them shod...

#19 ::: Ken ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 04:21 PM:

"African nations need honest governments, honest help and honest trade, and this could as well mean for the 1st-world people to simply bugger off and leave them grow up on their own. One of the best solutions would be to simply stop selling stuff to African nations, and only buy from them"

Buy from them with what? US dollars don't do a whole lot of good if people can't buy American goods with them. We'd essentually be asking them to ship us their stuff and get worthless paper in return.

"they'd be forced to satisfy their internal markets on their own, and build strong economies, with export as a side benefit. "

Yeah, just look how well that works in Cuba.

#20 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 04:38 PM:

The Navigation Acts: part of the leadup to midnight harbor parties.

[google, edited]
In 1651, however, while Cromwell was master of England, the first of the famous Navigation Acts was passed. The chief provisions were, that no goods grown or manufactured in Asia, Africa, or America should be transported to England except in English vessels, and that the goods of any European country imported into England must be brought in British vessels, or in vessels of the country producing them. The law was directed against the Dutch maritime trade, which was very great at that time. ...

In 1660 the second of these memorable acts was passed, largely embodying the first and adding much to it. This act forbade the importing into or the exporting from the British colonies of any goods except in English or colonial ships and it forbade certain enumerated articles--tobacco, sugar, cotton, wool, dyeing woods, etc.--to he shipped to any country, except to England or some English plantation. Other goods were added at a later date. Such goods were to pay heavy duties when shipped to England, and in 1672 the same duties were imposed on goods sold from one colony to another. ...

In addition to these laws there were two other classes of laws, all, however, belonging to the same system, which tended to impede the development of the colonies,--the corn laws and the laws against manufacturing. The corn laws in the interest of the British farmer, beginning about 1666, practically shut out from England grain raised in the colonies. This drove New England and New York to manufacturing, and this again led England to forbid manufacturing in the colonies. These laws were far more effective than the Navigation Acts. It is stated that in 1708 New York manufactured three fourths of the woolen and linen goods used in the colony, and also fur hats in great numbers, many of which were shipped to Europe and the West Indies. ... In 1732 an act forbade the exporting of hats to England, to foreign countries, or from one colony to another. It also limited the number of persons a maker of hats might employ. Iron was found in all the colonies, and forges and furnaces were established in many placcs. But in 1750 Parliament enacted a law declaring that "no mill or other engine for rolling or slitting iron," "nor any furnace for making steel shall be erected in the colonies"! After this only pig and bar iron could be made. Parliament also enacted laws at various times restricting the manufacture of woolen goods. ...[/google]

#21 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 05:47 PM:

I don't have facts and figures to back this up, but I have read enough, and I suspect others posting here have too, to know that one vital variable not hitherto mentioned among all the many that contribute to Africa's poverty is the desperately understaffed and undersupplied public health systems of many countries, and the unwillingness of Big Pharma to tackle such diseases as, say, malaria (and, yes, I know that bringing back DDT would help in that particular case, but let me make the point) because there is no money in "marketing" a cheap anti-malaria drug to people who cannot pay for it, and lots of money to be made selling the next Claritin or Advil or Viagra to people who can, and will...

Deep breath. Sorry. I don't quite know how that ended up as just one sentence.

#22 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2006, 08:03 PM:

Theroux' recent book on the subject is bilious and sad and not always logically consistent; at one point an aid worker won't give him a lift, because they're "not a taxi service"; he's furious and indicts all aid workers as snobs with no sense of African fair play. Then the next day he gets a ride by buying a place on a local jitney-bus.

Then he loses me by complaining that aid programs are all terrible because they hollow out local industry; which he wanted them to do, when it would have been convenient for him... I also know that this and similar criticisms of aid strategies have been made by aid agencies for decades, although I don't know what kind of strategy they actually follow.

The book felt, to me, as though it was fueled by rage that his youthful idealism hadn't had visible success. This isn't quite as sympathetic as rage that Africa is in such bad shape.

#23 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2006, 01:14 PM:

I had an interesting discussion with a friend on these issues recently. He's worked in aid in Tanzania for seven years, is engaged to a Tanzanian woman, and is just completing

He had two main complaints about NGOs in Africa. The first - which I've witnessed in Asia myself - was that aid organisations, a lot of the time, became more concerned with institutional funding and power than actual aid. Along with that - a criticism that Theroux makes, and I think fairly - is that a lot of aid workers in Africa do live neo-colonial lifestyles, complete with big houses, servants, etc. The jeep is a big power symbol in the NGO world.

The second was a more subtle point; he said that development work had become very concentrated on *subjects* - water provision, AIDS preventation, etc - and that people were training in one subject and then being moved from place to place. He believed that really good development work was only possible by local knowledge, and that what was effective in one area or country often failed in another.

Personally, I had some problems with Live8 and the like; the image of all those well-scrubbed young white people REACHING OUT AND SAVING Africa. Because, y'know, Africans can't do anything by themselves.

It's a bit of a bind. Aid can do wonderful things, but a lot of the time it does end up in the hands of dictators, corrupt bureaucrats, etc. (We had an interesting chat, too, about the role of strong belief in magic in keeping 'big men' in power in Africa, and how it wasn't discussed in the West for some time because of understandable fears of racism.) There are deep-rooted problems with the development of business law, bribery, and so forth that throwing money at only worsens. Most of Geldof's original LiveAid fundraising ended up feeding the Ethiopean Army, after all.

#24 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2006, 01:18 PM:

'Similarly, existing Indian manufactures were quashed by the British as they extended their rule there (one of Gandhi's themes), and Australian developments towards more "elaborately-transformed products" were actively discouraged when we were part of the UK trading bloc.'

gee, I wonder why Milton Friedman never talked more about these subjects.

#25 ::: Barry ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2006, 01:59 PM:

Lizzy L:

"I don't have facts and figures to back this up, but I have read enough, and I suspect others posting here have too, to know that one vital variable not hitherto mentioned among all the many that contribute to Africa's poverty is the desperately understaffed and undersupplied public health systems of many countries, and the unwillingness of Big Pharma to tackle such diseases as, say, malaria (and, yes, I know that bringing back DDT would help in that particular case, but let me make the point)"

I call point of fact on the DDT, which isn't gone. Please read Tim Lambert's blog on this subject.

Tim Lambert's blog is at:
(currently down, as of 2 PM EST, Saturday). He covers the 'myths' about DDT quite nicely.

From memory - DDT is banned in most countries for *agricultural* use, due to the Flying Spaghetti Monster's proven wrath (he actually *increases* the information in insect DNA in areas in which DDT is heavily used, leading to the insects gaining supernatural resistance to DDT).

Lizzy, I'm not blaming you, but these myths about DDT use need to be scrubbed out of the blogosphere, just as hands need to be washed before preparing food.

#26 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2006, 04:39 PM:

I've seen stories in, among other places, Science News, where the locals are being taught things like using old silk fabric to filter water, and in turn are teaching the teachers about traditional methods of purification and the like. Which then get refined and sent back for another round of teaching.

#27 ::: Donald Johnson ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2006, 01:51 PM:

Along the lines that Lizzy L mentioned above, the NYT today (Sunday) has an article on not-for-profit health care in Cambodia that really works. They bypass the corruption problem. It's by Celia Dugger and is on page A8. I haven't looked to find a weblink.

I don't know if everything Sachs and Bono advocate would work (and I also don't know that it wouldn't), but it goes against common sense and actual real world experience to say that we rich First Worlders can't do anything to improve the health of poor people overseas. Hell, if nothing else we eliminated smallpox.

#29 ::: chris barsanti ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2006, 06:11 PM:

It's quite possible, as others have brought up, that both Theroux and Bono are correct. A continent which has for centuries been degraded and exploited by the First World deserves our aid, absolutely, there's a substantial moral obligation there which will subsist for some time.

But Theroux is absolutely correct when he says that nothing will ever change in Africa, no matter how much money is given, until more African professionals stay to fix things. As usual for him, he's too caustic when going off on Bono/Geldoff (goodie-goodies are always easy targets) but the substance of his argument is correct. A linkage between their differing points of view is absolutely necessary for the continent to have any chance at all.

#30 ::: Abbas Raza ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2006, 07:11 PM:

Thank you, Patrick, for posting a link to my article. I have learned quite a bit from the ensuing discussion.

#31 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2006, 08:59 PM:

I notice that none of the people who posted belittling remarks about Bono at the top have come back to the discussion to acknowledge that perhaps they didn't actually know what they were talking about. In fact Bono turns out to be a subtle guy with serious intellectual firepower and a first-class politician's sense for how to pitch to people where they live--as any number of CEOs and government ministers who underestimated him will now tell you. Where Bob Geldof used rock-star celebrity as a club, Bono seems to use it as a scalpel, and people who deal with him in private come away impressed not with his bombast but with his humility and smarts.

I don't feel well-informed enough about aid and development issues to have a strong opinion about the exact merit of Bono's particular policy initiatives, but I know what bullshit smells like, and Paul Theroux's stereotype-mongering dismissal of Bono as a "Mrs. Jellyby," a "wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat," is just that--a calculated act of pandering to our nastiest selves. In reality, Theroux is the person in this interaction who's being preening, pompous, and shallow. Really, rather like a stereotypical rock star.

#32 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2006, 01:15 AM:

(In fairness to Martin Wisse, what he actually said was "The problem with Bono and Geldof is that they provide a not too radical, cuddly media friendly activism, an activism that centers on charity and do-goodism without asking the real questions of how this poverty in Africa and elsewhere actually came to be, and who profits from it." This isn't so much "belittling" as it is the usual radical critique of meliorists. Bono and other philanthropists are bad because they distract us from the important radical examination of root causes. My position is that this position is morally inadequate. The first thing the starving need isn't a comprehensive map of the "real questions of how this poverty in Africa and elsewhere actually came to be," it's a crust of bread. Denying them that in favor of our rhetorical desire for a comprehensive critique is, well, not morally impressive. It's vanity, just to start with, and several other mortal sins as well.)

#33 ::: Donald Johnson ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2006, 03:55 PM:

I don't know that you're being fair to Martin Wisse, Patrick, based on that comment upthread. He might only be saying that Bono's activism doesn't go nearly far enough because it doesn't get at the root causes, not that Bono's activism does no good at all. The person he actually badmouths is Geldof. (Does Geldof deserve this? Don't know.) But Wisse might agree that the first thing starving people need is a crust of bread, while adding that in the long run they also need that radical critique.

To me, what Bono and Sachs advocate is already so radical by current standards--an actual genuine commitment to better the lives of the poor-- that if we could get that far it would drastically change the political landscape.

#34 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2006, 10:33 PM:

Good points, Donald, particularly regarding Martin Wisse's observations. You're right.

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