Thursday, December 29, 2005

AIDS in Africa: Does Throwing Money at a Problem Fix It?

From the Guardian's Christmas appeal 2005
Photo of slums in Lagos, Nigeria by David Levene,displayed under fair use

The Gardian (UK)'s Christmas appeal for 2005 has a very poignant story about AIDS in Nigeria. One in ten people in that country are HIV positive, and AIDS is prevalent throughout sub-Saharan Africa. We are likely to see a severe medical disaster in the next decade as those afflicted with the disease develop full-blown AIDS and suffer from all of the diseases and infections that plague the continent due to their compromised immune systems and woefully inadequate health care system. Some experts estimate that Africa will lose over half the population in the next half century due to AIDS and related diseases. That is a significant portion of the world's population.

Stories like this make me very thankful that I was fortunate enough to be born in America. We think we have poor people here, but our poor are generally poor due to their mindset, their attitudes. In America, poor people have working cars and color TVs, and they have access to a free education and basic health care. Poor in the Third World is poor. We're talking living in cardboard shanties-poor, drinking out of the same water source that is used for a sewer poor, living on less than $100 a year poor.

How do we fix Africa? My former boss has spent, and has committed to spend, millions of dollars in Africa. His heart's in the right place... but unless that money is directed by people who are both knowledgeable and trustworthy enough to spend it wisely, then I'm afraid it will only end up making more African bureaucrats rich. I don't think money in and of itself is going to fix Africa. Instead, the two biggest problems facing Africa are ignorance and corruption (we could say the same thing about New Orleans, or Seattle for that matter), and these must be addressed before money will make a difference.

I list ignorance first, because I am amazed that the people in Lagos don't do the simplest things... like clean up their immediate surroundings... that don't take much money or effort and that would make a difference in their health situation. The place is a freakin' mess... abandoned cars, rotting organic material, etc. Of course, this ignorance is compounded by the well-intentioned and the evil. Most NGOs that work at AIDS prevention do not, and will not, preach abstinence, preferring to pass out condoms that are invariably discarded instead. And then there's the rise of the "super-evangelist" hustler-preacher, who builds the big church and promises the desperate that he is uniquely gifted and can cure their ills... of course, the good man needs donations to do the Lord's work.

Second, corruption must be a big problem here. Nigeria has considerable oil resources; why doesn't the government use some of that money to make life better for its citizens? Compare Nigeria to Alaska; both have considerable oil resources (Nigeria has more), yet every Alaskan gets money from the oil. Does every Nigerian get money from the oil revenues? I doubt it, although I'm sure the leaders are extremely wealthy.

There's a reason that some countries and cultures are better off than others: every culture is not equal. Cultures that are bound by traditions tend to be backwards and resistant to improvement. African culture is an example of this, and Middle Eastern culture is another example. What might have been optimal for Iron Age existence just doesn't work in a post-Industrial Age world.

Whatever your goal, if you look to those who have accomplished it and imitate them, you will also accomplish it. Want to look like Arnold Schwartzenegger? Work out like him. Want to be wealthy? Then embrace the habits of wealthy people (living within your means, investing, owning your own business, etc.). Want to transform your country from a Third World disaster to a thriving, prosperous, nation? Then look at other countries, from America to Japan to South Korea to Singapore, determine what they did that worked, and do it!

A century ago, many parts of America and Europe were like present-day Lagos. We figured out what to do and how to do it. Why is it that the Chinese have figured this out in the last decade but Africa hasn't? Why doesn't Africa look to the West to see what works, and then imitate us? The answer is attitude. Of course, this attitude is only reinforced by the pseudo-intelligentsia in the West who can only find fault with Western society, culture, and government.

I don't think that the rest of the world can save Africa unless we conquer it and administer it -- and that's not going to happen. The West has thrown hundreds of billions of dollars at Africa over the past half-century, to very little effect. We can (and we do) help a little, but Africa is going to have to save itself... or not.

I'm not saying we shouldn't try. I hope The Gates Foundation can make a difference in Africa. I wonder, however, if it will, because we're talking about dealing with sovereign governments who can arbitrarily decide what rules to follow and what not to... and Bill's only option is to take what's left of his money and go somewhere else. I have faith in Bill Gates; I know he's smart enough to figure out what works and what doesn't. I don't have faith in most of the governments in Africa.

Perhaps some of that money, the part that is going to end up buying a retirement villa on the French Riviera for a Nigerian politician, might make a much bigger difference if, say, it was used to improve things in, say, Eastern Europe, or eastern New Orleans.

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