I recently happened to see Blood Diamond at the same time that I was reading Ismael Baeh’s riveting but disturbing A Long Way Gone. Both are concerned with the horrendous civil war that wrenched Sierra Leone.

I, of course, had known nothing about it. African civil wars, genocides and massacres are extremely under-reported in this country. Everyone has heard about Darfur but has anyone heard of the Congo war that wiped out three million people? Where are the Hollywood celebs tossing away their iPods because of the coltan?

Of course, whenever I read about Africa, I keeping coming back to the obvious question: can it be saved? Is the continent doomed to be the perpetual stomping ground of the Four Horsemen?

It’s obvious that foreign aide isn’t working as we’ve poured billions in it for no apparent effect. It’s obvious Bono isn’t working although maybe if we keep sending him there, someone will shoot him. The various ism’s of socialism and islamism are only making things worse, as we could have expected. What can we do? Invade? Yeah, that’ll work. Throw in more money? Yeah, more money always solves complex problems.

I’m just an egghead astronomer who likes to read, not an expert on Africa or poverty or warfare. But given the track record of people who are experts, I don’t see that detailed knowledge is necessarily helpful. Perhaps if a million monkey decendants type on a millions blogs, someone will create the perfect plan to save Africa.

So here are my thoughts. At the very least, I can’t be stupider than Bono.

  • As I noted in the Bono post, we should stop giving rafts of money to African governments. It has persuaded a generation of Africans that their path to wealth lies in government corruption. It has done to Africans what welfare has done to African Americans. There are a lot of smart people who defend foreign aide (Easterbrook, for example). But how can you claim it’s doing any good when you look at the bloodshed and chaos in Africa?

    Note: I am not talking about stopping humanitarian aide, which could be increased if anything. And private organizations such as the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and even the Catholic Church are doing amazing work. What I’m saying is we should stop handing out sacks of money specifically to dysfunctional governments. It’s not helping.

  • We should, as I also noted in the Bono post, break down trade barriers and end farm subsidies; allow Africans to sell their goods overseas and make money. I, for one, would pay a king’s ransom for the miracle fruit, especially if it would help bankrupt the evil corrupt domestic sugar growers.
  • We should encourage investment in African enterprise. Actuallly, we don’t really need to do this. We do the other things and investment will follow. Money tends to be . . . well, not exactly smart . . . but at least less stupid than politics.
  • This is just a whack-job idea, but how about having our embassies and consuls identify bright young Africans and offer them scholarships to attend American schools? We could include funds so that they could stay in America between semesters. This would let them grow up and learn in a society that works so that they can implement these lessons back home.
  • But actually, these fixes are just band-aids. When I was reading through A Long Way Gone, the one idea the kept circulating in my head was that, in Africa, life is cheap. Thanks to AIDS and warfare, the average lifespan in Sierra Leone is just 40.


    When life is that short, it is also cheap. And people act accordingly. Why build a future society you’re never going to see? Why provide for children who might never be adults?

    In order to get Africa to function, we have to make life less cheap. And we can do it with a fraction of the money we’re currently spending. How?

  • Expand the Green Revolution. Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution was based on the simple beautiful idea that plentiful food means longer life and less fighting. And he was right. Look at India – they were at war when Borlaug was planting drought-resistant crops. Now they’re an up and coming economic power.

    Our species is richer by a billion people because of the Green Revolution. And it also significantly more pacific. It’s time we spread the revolution to Africa with genetically modified crops. The environmentalists can get bent — they don’t want Africa to advance at all because it would ruin their nature safaris. But as Penn Gillete says, “If you have enough food for you and your family, shut the fuck up!”

  • Ramp up the fight against AIDS, specifically the ABC program that has done wonders in Uganda and other educational efforts. We should also keep the pharma industry strong and vibrant. If we ever impose price controls on drugs in this country, Africa will be doomed. The cheap AIDS-killing drugs of the future will never appear.
  • Clean up the drinking water. It is shameful that in the 21st century, over a billion people are drinking dirty water and two million people a year, mostly children, literally shit themselves to death because of it. For the cost of a few days in Iraq, we could end this. We’d have to get the WHO to front for us, as they did on smallpox. (Or maybe not – they think the theoretical dangers of plastic in water are more dangerous than the real dangers of disease in water). But we need to get this done.
  • And finally:

  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t insist that African nations have to adopt equal rights or freedom of speech or, God forbid, labor unions. That will follow in the course of time. Let the continent get on its feet first before we insist it wear a tie.
  • Of course, if we empower Africa, we might end up regretting it. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia sprang out of impoverished nations, too. Japan emerged from feudalism to eventually create a brutal occupation of China; when Europeans got rich enough to cross the Atlantic, they wiped out tens of millions of Native Americans; China is killing babies to keep its population in check.

    Prosperity does not necessarily equal civility.

    But that’s a problem we can screw up when we get there. The point is that Africa is not beyond hope. There are huge problems involving backward cultures, misogyny and superstition. But our policies of international welfare, trade protectionism, radical environmentalism and frankly, liberal racism (“You blacks can’t succeed without our help!”) have been making things worse.