This op-ed article appeared in today’s LA Times. It is especially interesting because there is a similarity between the celebrity charity work done by people like Bono for Africa, and the work done by Al Gore for the Environment. Notice how the articles points to the way in which celebrities distort facts–an important point given that they influence public opinion and policy. In any case, the article raises some interesting questions about celebrities and charitable causes. On the one hand, they can shed light on an issue that otherwise might go unnoticed. On the other hand, they can mislead the public, offer an incomplete vision, or simply distort reality to better serve their pet-cause.
What Bono doesn’t say about Africa
Celebrities like to portray it as a basket case, but they ignore very real progress.
By William Easterly, WILLIAM EASTERLY is a professor of economics at New York University, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have
July 6, 2007
JUST WHEN IT SEEMED that Western images of Africa could not get any weirder, the July 2007 special Africa issue of Vanity Fair was published, complete with a feature article on “Madonna’s Malawi.” At the same time, the memoirs of an African child soldier are on sale at your local Starbucks, and celebrity activist Bob Geldof is touring Africa yet again, followed by TV cameras, to document that “War, Famine, Plague & Death are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and these days they’re riding hard through the back roads of Africa.”
It’s a dark and scary picture of a helpless, backward continent that’s being offered up to TV watchers and coffee drinkers. But in fact, the real Africa is quite a bit different. And the problem with all this Western stereotyping is that it manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of some current victories, fueling support for patronizing Western policies designed to rescue the allegedly helpless African people while often discouraging those policies that might actually help.
Let’s begin with those rampaging Four Horsemen. Do they really explain Africa today? What percentage of the African population would you say dies in war every year? What share of male children, age 10 to 17, are child soldiers? How many Africans are afflicted by famine or died of AIDS last year or are living as refugees?
In each case, the answer is one-half of 1% of the population or less. In some cases it’s much less; for example, annual war deaths have averaged 1 out of every 10,800 Africans for the last four decades. That doesn’t lessen the tragedy, of course, of those who are such victims, and maybe there are things the West can do to help them. But the typical African is a long way from being a starving, AIDS-stricken refugee at the mercy of child soldiers. The reality is that many more Africans need latrines than need Western peacekeepers — but that doesn’t play so well on TV.
Further distortions of Africa emanate from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s star-studded Africa Progress Panel (which includes the ubiquitous Geldof). The panel laments in its 2007 news release that Africa remains “far short” of its goal of making “substantial inroads into poverty reduction.” But this doesn’t quite square with the sub-Saharan Africa that in 2006 registered its third straight year of good GDP growth — about 6%, well above historic averages for either today’s rich countries or all developing countries. Growth of living standards in the last five years is the highest in Africa’s history.
The real Africa also has seen cellphone and Internet use double every year for the last seven years. Foreign private capital inflows into Africa hit $38 billion in 2006 — more than foreign aid. Africans are saving a higher percentage of their incomes than Americans are (so much for the “poverty trap” of being “too poor to save” endlessly repeated in aid reports). I agree that it’s too soon to conclude that Africa is on a stable growth track, but why not celebrate what Africans have already achieved?
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