Out of Control Policy Blog

Bono? Bob? Chris?

Let's hope that some of the celebs who organized Live8 have a look at this just-posted reason.com book review:

    Robert Guest, Africa editor for The Economist, begins The Shackled Continent by asking why "Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer over the last three decades." After six years of covering the continent's civil wars, genocide, famine, and disastrous monetary policies, his answer boils down to this: Africans are poor because they are poorly governed.

Guest channels Hernando de Soto and points out the problem of insecure property rights:

    "One of the reasons that Africa is so poor," Guest explains, "is that most Africans are unable to turn their assets into liquid capital. In the West, the most common way to do this is to borrow money using a house as security. This is how most American entrepreneurs get started."

    Guest estimates that 90 percent of housing in most African countries is owned informally. In Malawi, a country that is "peaceful, stable, off the beaten track and fearfully poor," houses are built on "customary" land, which means that "the plot's previous owners had no formal title to it. The land was simply part of a field their family had cultivated for generations. About two-thirds of the land in Malawi is owned this way....If there is a dispute about boundaries, the village chief adjudicates."

    The problem with land ownership at the pleasure of the chief (or king or president) is that it cannot provide the title security that supports impersonal markets. As Guest puts it, "no bank will accept [a contract signed by a local chief] as collateral because it is not enforceable in a court of law. Rather, it is an expression of traditional law, which is usually unwritten, unpredictable and dependent on the chief's whim." Although "the chief may be a wise, just and consistent fellow," Guest writes, "the bank does not know this."

Sure it's easy to get down on all those celebs hepped-up on their own self-righteousness:

This was organizer Bob Geldof to the G8 leaders:

    "Now feel the force of the gale that's hit you."

And the not-so-Material Girl:

    The clunkiest photo op moment went to Madonna, who sang "Like a Prayer" to a woman who had been a starving child in Africa 20 years ago. The woman stood board-stiff throughout.

Coldplay front man and Apple daddy Chris Martin hollered:

    "[This is] the greatest thing that's ever been organized in the history of the world." (That was probably the text of Geldof's thought bubble from this picture.)

Again, with that potent mix of self-love and naivetÈ it's easy to get down on the fancy people. But I think few of us really want to live in a world with down-to-earth megastars. Plus it's futile to try to get them to change.

Something that's a tad less futile is steering all that glitz toward something that really would help make poverty history–like expanded trade.

And for more on the "Trade or aid?" question, check out my interview with James Shikwati.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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