Monday, November 1, 2010

Anti-cultural relativism

From Nicholas N. Eberstadt, "The Global Poverty Paradox" -- read the whole thing, as they say, but here's an abridged narrative:

First, the world as a whole and the poorer parts of the world more specifically have generally done very well under capitalism and global trade, especially in the last half of the last century:
In the half century between 1955 and 2005, by Maddison’s reckoning, the planet’s per capita income levels nearly tripled, growing at an average tempo of more than 2 percent per year, despite the unprecedented pace of population increase in the Third World over those same years. The expansion of international trade—and thus by definition, of markets for export produce—was even more dramatic: on a worldwide basis, real per capita demand for international merchandise and commodities jumped almost tenfold during those same years....
There should be no doubt whatsoever that the health revolution facilitated by the postwar era’s knowledge explosion, and all that has accompanied it, has been fundamentally “poor-friendly.” ...
The worldwide surge in prosperity over the past two generations has been nothing like the winner-take-all race that some insinuate it to be. The plain fact is that countries at every income level have benefited tremendously from the global economic updrafts of our modern age. 
But, a significant fraction of the world's population, in the worst regions, have not only not shared in this improvement -- they've actually regressed:
By the World Bank’s calculations, nearly two dozen countries suffered negative per capita economic growth over the course of the quarter century from 1980 to 2005. ...
Thus, it is not just that an appreciable swath of humanity today lives in countries that have not yet managed to customize, and apply, the global formula for sustained growth that has been propelling the rest of the world out of poverty and into material security, or even affluence. No—hundreds of millions of people in the modern world live in places where the development process is manifestly stuck in reverse....
National examples of prolonged economic failure dot the modern global map: in the Caribbean (Cuba, Haiti); in Latin America (Paraguay, Venezuela); even in dynamic East Asia (North Korea). But the epicenter of prolonged economic failure is sub-Saharan Africa.

And foreign aid won't help:
The MDG [Millennium Development Goals] project avers that the primary impediment to more rapid progress against poverty in low-income countries nowadays is the lack of funding for practical, tested programs, and policy measures that would reliably and predictably raise living standards in the world where they are lowest today. ...
The trouble with this narrative is that foreign aid is not exactly an untested remedy for global poverty in our day and age. To go by figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, total flows of development assistance to recipient countries since 1960, after adjusting for inflation, by now add up to something like $3 trillion.
... since 1970, sub-Saharan African states have taken in the current equivalent of more than $600 billion of official development assistance—over three times as much aid on a per capita basis as Marshall Plan states received. As we know all too well, these subventions neither forestalled long-term economic decline for the region as a whole nor prevented the rise of poverty in many “beneficiary” states in the sub-Sahara.
So what will? Well, cultural change might:
The proposition that a local population’s viewpoints, values, and dispositions might have some bearing on local economic performance would hardly seem to be controversial. Decades ago, the great development economist Peter Bauer wrote that “economic achievement depends upon a people’s attributes, attitudes, mores and political arrangements.” The observation was offered as a simple and irrefutable statement of fact, and it would still be unobjectionable today to most readers who have not been tutored in contemporary “development theory.” But for development specialists, discussion of “culture”—much less its relationship to such things as work, thrift, savings, entrepreneurship, innovation, educational attainment, and other qualities that influence prospects for material advance—is increasingly off-limits.
But at this point, Eberstadt becomes pessimistic, and maybe unduly so. He sees that much of the problem stems from corrupt and often evil regimes that have imposed themselves on a populace, thinks that only outside intervention can get rid of such regimes, and doesn't think that the world is willing to undertake such intervention (no doubt rightly). But what he doesn't see, or rather sees but doesn't connect to the problem, at least emphatically enough, is just the politics of international aid that he identifies above. This willing blindness to dysfunctional cultural/political attitudes turns aid agencies and governments into a kind of enabler, as in dysfunctional drug dependencies -- the aid becoming simply a way of prolonging the misery of a terrible cultural, political, and economic cul-de-sac.

At one point, Eberstadt quotes from the MDG project's overview document: "'many well-governed countries [today] are too poor to help themselves.'", and then adds: "Social-science and policy-research literature, to be sure, has committed a fair share of howlers during the past century, but this may be the single most empirically challenged sentence of the new millennium."

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