It’s an Economic, Not a Scientific, Problem

by Don Boudreaux on October 16, 2009

in Complexity & Emergence, Man of System, Myths and Fallacies, Property Rights, Regulation, Technology

Here’s a letter that I sent this morning to the Washington Post:

Michael Gerson rightly applauds Bill Gates’s work to bring a “green revolution” to Africa, but he misleadingly writes as if millions upon millions of Africans remain mired in poverty because of some failure of science (“Gates’s Fields of Dreams,” Oct. 16).

Poverty persists in Africa not because existing science and technology are inadequate, or because Africa operates according to different natural laws than does the rest of the planet.  Science and technology are as available and adaptable to Africa as they are to America, Austria, and Australia.  And this science and technology have proven quite adept in these and many other places outside of Africa at helping to raise multitudes out of poverty.

Africa’s root problem is not a scientific one, and so it cannot be solved by science.  Africa’s root problem – including its inadequate infrastructure – lies in its social institutions.  Unusually corrupt governments, insufficiently secure property rights, and suffocating restraints on trade and industry make the application of advanced technologies in Africa unprofitable.

Solve these institutional problems, and African poverty will disappear even with no further advances in science and technology.

Donald J. Boudreaux

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Justin P October 16, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Africa has so many natural and abundant resources they easily could emerge as a world economic power if they wanted to.
Tribalism is what’s holding them back.

Anonymous October 16, 2009 at 3:58 pm

If it were not for well-meaning Western aid organizations pouring billions into their coffers, corrupt government officials in Africa might have an incentive to actually change conditions for their people.

BoscoH October 16, 2009 at 4:01 pm

I cannot wait until Dr. George calls you out on this!

Anonymous October 16, 2009 at 4:12 pm

I think that the US and the EU are more responsible for those “suffocating restraints,” at least on trade, than Africa is.

Anonymous October 16, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Not so. Africa’s internal trade restraints are much higher, on average, than are those of western countries.

Anonymous October 16, 2009 at 4:36 pm

By “internal” are you speaking purely in the sense of African nations to each other, or of African nations to all other nations?

The Other Eric October 16, 2009 at 4:46 pm

That would be true, if African countries had open trade policies and few tariffs. They have, on average, more tariffs on imports than other countries (except for South Africa). Several countries, notably Nigeria and the Horn countries, have huge ‘unofficial tariffs’ in the form of open hands. The EU has many types of import and export restrictions but they actually are less problematic than African restrictions and tariffs.

Try getting technology equipment or other goods into Nigeria or Angola or all of Central Africa without paying bribes and ‘special taxes.’ It’s not codified but it’s real.

Anonymous October 16, 2009 at 4:51 pm

How many of those African restraints do you think have been adopted as a result of our (and the EU’s) own protectionism?

The Other Eric October 16, 2009 at 5:06 pm

I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. The data is horrible. But the myth of economic oppression of Africa is still strong, and 30 years out of date. There are 53 countries in Africa and 32 of them trade with China more than any other country or block. Big, bad, white Westerners are not the problem– but it does make for a great story.

It just doesn’t matter what trade restrictions the US and EU have in place– that’s not what is keeping most African nations kleptocracies.

Simon Lvov October 16, 2009 at 5:24 pm

I would speculate that China (and Russia, etc.) are more successful there due to very low ethical standards in trade, including giving bribes for which western companies could be held liable back at home.

Anonymous October 16, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Yeah, even if the west removed its protectionist policies, no good would be done without the prerequisite of the leaders of African nations losing power or being removed from office outright (fat chance). I would love to say that if we leaded by removing our barriers, that Africa would follow suit, but that’s naive on the account of the state being so controlling- in many of those nations the common citizen is not only too powerless to bring about change, but likely apathetic, or even hostile in the other direction, on having their mind influenced heavily by the state’s control of media there.

Anonymous October 16, 2009 at 8:05 pm

Sounds like a political problem.

Gil October 17, 2009 at 2:26 pm

“Africa’s root problem is not a scientific one, and so it cannot be solved by science.”

Unfortunately this is not rocket science. One big limiting factor in Africa is their concept of ‘extended family socialism’.

Russ October 17, 2009 at 9:57 pm

Am I correct to think that you can exchange Latin America for Africa in the letter, and it will be just as accurate?

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