Africa, Poverty, and America’s Empty Promises: or Why Bono’s Wrong

The Council on Foreign Relations has provided the transcript of a fascinating and enlightening discussion with Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs on the question, “Can We End Global Poverty?” Sachs is particularly forthright on how out of step the American position on African aid really is:

SACHS: Most of us that have looked at this in recent years–and I’ve been looking at this intensively for about a decade now–believe that if we’re going to help the impoverished regions get out of a trap of disease, hunger, environmental degradation, excessive population growth, and the whole spiral of disasters, we must provide serious financing. And there now is pretty much a worldwide consensus on this, except in the United States, which stands aloof from that consensus. And we have a pretty deeply ingrained feeling in this country that we should not do more. That’s a feeling that has many different roots. But when George Bush said to Tony Blair last week, “We won’t do more,” he was expressing what is a commonly held belief in American politics.

He also documents the way in which even the aid that is promised translates into almost no real significant contribution toward development. Here Sachs tries to demythologize the impressions we have about aid that is promised:

The biggest myth–if I could just filibuster for one more minute on this–the biggest myth in our country is how much aid we give and how much has gone down the drain. This is what I confront every day, many times a day from hate mail, to questions, and so forth. Let me just run through, if I could, what we actually do for Africa.

The U.S. aid to Africa is $3 billion this year. That $3 billion is roughly divided into three parts: The first is emergency food shipments. Of the billion or so in emergency food shipments, half of that, roughly $500 million, is just transport costs. So the commodities are maybe half a billion dollars. That’s not development assistance, that’s emergency relief. The second billion is the AIDS program, now standing at about $1 billion. That, on the whole, is a good thing. I would call it a real program. It’s providing commodities; it’s providing relief. It started late and it’s too small, but it’s there. The third billion is everything else we do for child survival, maternal survival, family planning, roads, power, water and sanitation, malaria; everything is the third $1 billion. Most of that, approaching 80 percent, is actually American consultant salaries. There’s almost no delivery of commodities, for example. There’s essentially zero financing to help a country build a school or build a clinic or dig a well.

When you get down to it, the actual financing we provide to help Africans invest in their future is well under $1 per African per year. Then, the politicians say–as George Bush did yesterday–we give so much money and it’s misused; we won’t let that happen. The fact is we put in almost no funding, and it accomplishes almost nothing. And then we bemoan the waste. I don’t know how to break through that misunderstanding. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for many years, but it’s very, very powerful in this country.

And so he explicitly notes that Bono’s modus operandi, which is to never criticize the Bush administration (but rather kiss their butt because they hold the biggest purse strings) is, when it comes down to it, a futile endeavor:

Bono’s belief has been that being nice is going to be the way to bring everyone along. And everything that’s been announced has been championed. We get good headlines for the Millennium Challenge Corporation. We say it’s wonderful. The Bush administration claims it’s tripled aid to Africa, which, aside from the fact that you can multiply three times an insignificant number and still get an insignificant number, it’s also not even true in terms of the numbers.

But this is an administration that people don’t like to take on head-on. You get slammed when you do it. They work very closely with the White House, Bono and his group, because they think that that’s what’s going to bring–that’s what’s going to bring everything along. I mean, Bono’s not only well-meaning, he’s heartfelt and earnest, and incredibly hardworking, and I admire him enormously for it. But my job is to know the arithmetic, and we’re not solving the problems. We’re just talking about them.

I would highly recommend reading the Sachs interview in tandem with Bill McKibben’s Harper’s article on “The Christian Paradox,” where he very simply but clearly documents the disconnect between all the Christian rhetoric that fills political airwaves in this country and the actual practices of a developed nation with a disastrous infant mortality rate, a singular and really astonishing commitment to the death penalty, and a trigger-happy tendency to militarism.