Tuesday, June 26, 2007


The July 2007 issue of Vanity Fair focuses on Africa and U2's Bono is the guest editor. The magazine has around fifteen different and eye-catching covers with various personalities, including one with Warren Buffet. The magazine features interviews with Jeffrey Sachs and Desmond Tutu (who is interviewed by Brad Pitt), and a picture of the real star of Tsotsi, Terry Pheto.

While Bono, Clooney, and others have attempted to interest the world in Africa's plight, the only nation that really seems to want to be serious about engaging with Africa on a long term basis is China. The China-Africa partnership is not an exercise in altruism: China needs natural resources; Africa has them; and you don't need to be Sherlock to see that China is acting in its self-interest. Other countries also contribute aid, but the magazine points out that America spends only 0.17% of our budget on aid (the U.N. goal is 0.7%). For those of us who argue that money will make no difference in a corrupt Africa, Mr. Sachs argues that the money given has not been enough. He contends that we could solve the problem with 20 billion dollars and that the aid given thus far has worked but is not sufficient to create any sustained change. He compares detractors' arguments against aid to fighting a wildfire with a hose, and when the water runs out from the hose, claiming that water does not cure fires because the fire still rages.

There are several issues with attempting to solve world poverty. On the surface, it appears that we could, acting in concert, feed all the world's hungry. We certainly make enough food and can transport it anywhere. For example, I am drinking water imported from Iceland that I bought with a coupon from Walgreen's for one dollar. If I, an average Californian resident, can get Icelandic water for one dollar (admittedly, the cost is half of what at least a billion people earn every day), it seems that affluent nations should be able to eliminate diseases that come from contaminated water. However, affluent nations have mostly capitalistic systems, with the exception of possibly Scandinavian countries. As a result, transferring large amounts of tax revenue from one country to another without receiving something in return is generally not feasible. Many Americans would probably chafe if 1% of our GDP is spent on international aid during a time of internal crisis, such as Katrina.

Having said all that, one quote caught my eye: a person interviewed said that Africans must become self-reliant to avoid a situation where Africa becomes the "white man's burden." It is a stunning reminder that just a few of the world's nations control most of the world's wealth. Although millionaires are newly minted in India and China on a weekly basis, most of the world's money is probably still in Dubai, New York, the U.K., Switzerland, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore. As a result, one possible reason for inertia is the mere fact that most citizens from these "monied" nations lack a firm connection with poor nations such as Africa or Bangladesh. Still, pointing to an absence of shared race appears to be a simplistic answer, especially in an age where we are mixing together culturally and biologically.

One of the prevalent themes in the magazine was the appeal to shared humanity. Minister Tutu went so far as to say that a person who is completely self-sufficient is sub-human. Maya Angelou more eloquently stated that she takes an interest in all human beings because she is a human being and therefore no human being can be alien to her. The point being made is as follows: "Let him who expects one class of society to prosper in the highest degree, while the other is in distress, try whether one side of the face can smile while the other is pinched." But one of the surprising elements of the 21st century is how easily affluent people can wall themselves off from the impoverished without consequence. (For those who point to 9/11 as one counterargument, the attackers were actually affluent and educated.)

Indeed, the world is becoming more stratified, not less, as money flows more rapidly. The rich can, if they choose, congregate only in particular neighborhoods; go to private schools; and get plush jobs through connections. Part of this de facto segregation is because wealth is becoming more earned than inherited, and people who make lots of money tend to work with affluent, educated people. Another part of it might be inertia: if you are raised with golf and tennis lessons, you may be perfectly happy spending your free time doing those activities at the local country club during your free time.

In any case, it is becoming obvious that people can become rich and stay comfortably rich without ever assisting or coming into contact with the poor. The inequality is even apparent in the retail sector: Neiman Marcus and Tiffany's are doing better than ever, while companies attempting to cater to the middle class, like JC Penny, Mervyn's, and Sears, are having trouble. So the 21st century is the age of inequality and yet also an incredible time to be alive if one lives in a first-world country.

Given our modern acceptance of financial stratification, moral arguments about equality and all of us being human may not be effective in an era where capitalism requires most of us to focus on local and profitable events; where most wealth is earned, making it difficult to argue that wealth should be shared because it is a matter of luck; and where religion is waning as a source of persuasion. So the 20 billion dollar question remains: how do we connect up the poor with the resources necessary to allow them to prosper?

One solution could be that Africa could organize its own OPEC. It certainly has enough natural resources to do this, and if it does not, it may be beholden to China for the next century rather than becoming self-sufficient. (Though this may not be a bad thing: http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0627/p01s05-woaf.html)

A second solution could be to adopt the Saudi Arabian model: the Americans helped the Saudis find and remove oil, but after a certain period of time, the companies reverted to local control. Thereafter, the Saudis exchanged resources for technology and infrastructure and now are investing in non-traditional vehicles such as hedge funds. Today, there are few poor Saudi citizens.

Beyond those suggestions, I have no solutions about how to bring Africa--20% of the world population--out of poverty. Africa has great human capital--many Africans speak several languages, which will assist them in an increasingly global economy. Major cities, like Nairobi, are relatively affluent--my friend tells me everyone there has cell phones--while smaller cities lack basic water and food supplies. In the end, perhaps Bono is doing the most anyone can do: raise money and awareness, and let the Africans develop their own pace of progress. In the meantime, I will keep contributing to www.kiva.org

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