Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Nicholas Kristoff: Bush, a Friend of Africa

Why aid isn't always best.
The liberal approach to helping the poor is sometimes to sponsor a U.N. conference and give ringing speeches calling for changed laws and more international assistance.

In contrast, a standard conservative approach is to sponsor a missionary hospital or school. One magnificent example is the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, where missionary doctors repair obstetric injuries that have left Ethiopian women incontinent.

Liberals also often focus on changing laws, but in a poor country, the legal system is often irrelevant outside the capital. Sudan, for example, banned female genital mutilation back in 1957; since then, the practice has expanded steadily. Sure, lobbying for better laws is important, but it's usually much more cost-effective to vaccinate children or educate girls. Nobody gets more bang for the buck than missionary schools and clinics, and Christian aid groups like World Vision and Samaritan's Purse save lives at bargain-basement prices.

Liberals may also put too much faith in aid itself. What Africa needs most desperately are things it can itself provide: good governance, a firmer neighborhood response to genocide in Sudan, and a collective nudging of Robert Mugabe into retirement.

Plenty of studies have shown that aid usually doesn't help people in insecure, corrupt or poorly governed nations. Indeed, aid can even do harm, by bidding up local exchange rates and hurting local manufacturers.

All that said, in the right circumstances aid can be tremendously effective, especially in well-governed countries - Mozambique is an excellent example. And Mr. Bush's new push to help Africa is smartly designed, targeting problems like malaria and sex trafficking, where extra attention and resources will make a big difference on the ground.

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