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An African Toothache

Answer honestly: what would bother you more, waking up with a toothache or waking up to read a headline in the newspaper about an ongoing malaria epidemic in Malawi causing thousands of deaths a year? 

This question came to mind at a fascinating event here in New York as part of a series called Intelligence Squared, a public forum aimed at improving the level of discourse about important public issues. On Tuesday night, in front of a full house and recorded for subsequent broadcast on NPR, six leading specialists debated the proposition: aid to Africa is doing more harm than good.

I will admit to never having had much of an interest in African affairs, and I will also confess to being one of those people who would find the toothache more bothersome than news of a malaria epidemic. So, for me, one of the achievements of this debate was that it got me thinking about a range of issues that I have given little thought to in the past, and perhaps made my hypothetical toothache feel a bit less sore.

I was helped along by the speakers. George Ayittey, an economist from Ghana who teaches at American University, offered a devastating and passionately delivered evisceration of the existing system of aid, which he argued is keeping large swaths of Africa trapped in poverty under autocratic and kleptocratic regimes. He was helped along by William Easterly of NYU, who following in the footsteps of the great P.T. Bauer, has written the most recent bible of his side: The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The writer David Rieff was also on the same three-man team, but his deeply abstract points, delivered in an academic modality (“modality,” as was apparent, is his all-time favorite word) and qualified by a sententious and irrelevant declaration that he remained a man of the Left, made him more of a drain to his side than an asset.

The defenders of aid to Africa, C. Payne Lucas, president of Africare (an aid organization), John McArthur of Columbia University’s Earth Institute (whatever that is), and Gayle Smith, director of African affairs on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, also put on a very persuasive case that the aid picture is not entirely bleak. But it was marred by gratuitous Bush-bashing, in which they juxtaposed the billions spent fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the paucity of funds spent eradicating poverty in Africa. Revealing their left-wing tilt did not help to persuade me that their arguments focusing on the merits of aid itself were rock solid.

In the end, I came away with the view that the proposition itself, while it led to an illuminating discussion, does not make all that much sense. Like all subjects, aid to Africa is a many-sided subject and the issue cannot be decided by an easy yes or no. But I also came away with the conviction that public debate of this sort is a very valuable thing. Robert Rosenkranz, the philanthropist who has brought this Oxford-style forum from England to American shores, deserves congratulations for a genuine and original accomplishment.


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