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Does 'Make Poverty History' Meet a Need?

A loose coalition banded under the name "Make Poverty History" prompts thoughts about the efficacy of food aid programs and the state of African democracy. The best use of any aid may be to give Africans confidence in their own future.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

It is irresistible to at least lightly mock a popular movement that includes evangelicals and liberals, aging rockers, young protesters, Bjork and members of the British government, but the loose correlation that's bantered under the name Make Poverty History seems to view the G8 meeting in Scotland as a signature opportunity to increase the world's aid and stake in Africa. Yet, some of the most informed and eloquent criticisms of aid programs I've ever heard come from aid workers themselves who've seen food and other items not just disappear but distort the place in which they've been received. Food aid can deter countries from growing their own food. Aid often enables despites to buy diamonds and palaces instead of feed and comfort needy people. It can make even honest governments who receive it dependent on the generosity of rich nations rather than their own citizens. It can make citizens depend on dictators to dole out aid with eye droppers. Neither helps democracy. Yet, of course, poverty, hunger and disease also distort a society with misery and death.

As The Economist magazine points out, the $25 billion over several years that the British government is asking of G8 states to accord Africa amounts to just 0.08 percent of the combined gross national product of the 22 richest nations in the world. `What else would the money be spent on?' the magazine asks. Much aid money may even be spent in the West to encourage Western pharmaceutical companies to be as enterprising in developing low-cost drugs for AIDS, malaria and other diseases that kill so many Africans, as they are in inventing pills for Americans and Europeans to defeat obesity and erectile dysfunction.

Part of the idea of the aid now proposed is to give Africans confidence in their own future. Right now about 40 percent of Africa's capital isn't on the continent but overseas. This isn't just corrupt leaders who keep Swiss bank accounts. The number of dictators in Africa, while debatable, has actually grown quite small. But many African families just don't want to risk putting their life savings into African banks or companies that could be appropriated by the state at any time or disappear in a civil war. If more Africans could feel safe about keeping their own assets in Africa, hundreds of billions of dollars could be added to local economies.

Skeptics of aid often point out that China and India may have brought more people out of poverty over the past 20 years with market reforms than vast aid programs have been able to accomplish in the rest of the world. But part of what's given many liberals and evangelicals the same interest in Africa is a moral conviction they share. What will they and the rest of us say to the future if we had the means to abolish so much misery and just use clever reservations to turn away?

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small