Are Angelina, Bono, and the U.N. hurting Africa?

William Easterly If there is a “bad boy of development studies,” it’s NYU economist Bill Easterly. When he spoke recently on a Davos panel with Bill Gates, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Paul Wolfowitz about the usefulness of foreign aid, moderator Fareed Zakaria gently poked fun at Easterly by calling him the “devil.” He may not ...

596621_easterly_05.jpg
596621_easterly_05.jpg

William Easterly

If there is a "bad boy of development studies," it's NYU economist Bill Easterly. When he spoke recently on a Davos panel with Bill Gates, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Paul Wolfowitz about the usefulness of foreign aid, moderator Fareed Zakaria gently poked fun at Easterly by calling him the "devil." He may not be the devil, but he's certainly the devil's advocate, constantly questioning whether traditional conceptions of foreign aid are actually helpful to poor countries. He's done it in the pages of FP, in "The Utopian Nightmare" a couple years ago, and more recently in "The Ideology of Development."

Now, Easterly is turning his contrarian guns on the United Nations, asking, "Are the Millennium Development Goals Unfair to Africa?" At a luncheon I attended today at Brookings, his answer was, unequivocally, yes. Virtually everyone agrees, he began, that by the time we hit the MDGs' deadline in 2015, Africa will have failed all of them. Africa will not have reduced its poverty rate by half; it will attain neither universal primary education nor gender equality in schools; child mortality will not be reduced by two thirds, and so on. Easterly then went down the list of goals, claiming they were all unfair and biased to begin with. Africans, he said, never had a chance of attaining them. His argument was pretty wonky—with lots of charts and graphs showing how the U.N. should be measuring rates of change and growth in Africa, rather than absolute figures, and how the MDGs were arbitrarily designed and made Africa look worse than it really is. I found it quite convincing. Eventually you'll be able to download a transcript here to judge for yourself, or you can download the original paper (pdf).

William Easterly

If there is a “bad boy of development studies,” it’s NYU economist Bill Easterly. When he spoke recently on a Davos panel with Bill Gates, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Paul Wolfowitz about the usefulness of foreign aid, moderator Fareed Zakaria gently poked fun at Easterly by calling him the “devil.” He may not be the devil, but he’s certainly the devil’s advocate, constantly questioning whether traditional conceptions of foreign aid are actually helpful to poor countries. He’s done it in the pages of FP, in “The Utopian Nightmare” a couple years ago, and more recently in “The Ideology of Development.”

Now, Easterly is turning his contrarian guns on the United Nations, asking, “Are the Millennium Development Goals Unfair to Africa?” At a luncheon I attended today at Brookings, his answer was, unequivocally, yes. Virtually everyone agrees, he began, that by the time we hit the MDGs’ deadline in 2015, Africa will have failed all of them. Africa will not have reduced its poverty rate by half; it will attain neither universal primary education nor gender equality in schools; child mortality will not be reduced by two thirds, and so on. Easterly then went down the list of goals, claiming they were all unfair and biased to begin with. Africans, he said, never had a chance of attaining them. His argument was pretty wonky—with lots of charts and graphs showing how the U.N. should be measuring rates of change and growth in Africa, rather than absolute figures, and how the MDGs were arbitrarily designed and made Africa look worse than it really is. I found it quite convincing. Eventually you’ll be able to download a transcript here to judge for yourself, or you can download the original paper (pdf).

What Easterly said made sense, and yet I couldn’t help thinking, “So what?” Easterly says the MDGs paint Africa unfairly. But does that really matter if more attention leads to more investment in Africa? And even if you think the MDGs are just another meaningless U.N. project, the fact that people pay attention to them must stand for something.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Easterly is famous for opposing much of the research of anti-poverty crusader Jeffrey Sachs (in his talk, he even joked that he’s mandated to take potshots at Sachs at least once in each speech), and for being highly skeptical of the efforts of celebrities like Bono, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie. He thinks they give off a neocolonial air, the sense that Africa needs the West for salvation. Asked if all the attention brought by such celebrities was helping, Easterly said he didn’t think so. Quite the opposite: He thought the kind of attention Africa gets because of celebrities, or because of failing the MDGs, does more harm than good because it reinforces stereotypes that Africa needs to be dependent on the West to be lifted out of poverty.

What do you think? Do celebrities help or hurt? Is the U.N. setting unfair, arbitrary goals? Share your thoughts at passportblog@ceip.org.

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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