Now, after working in Africa (specifically: Zambia), getting to know numerous sub-Saharan Africans, and reading countless papers on economic development, I find that talking about it isn't quite enough anymore. I find myself sympathizing more and more with bloggers like Texas in Africa, who has a special tag for Kristof screw-ups, "The Kristof Strikes Again," and Africa is a Country, who first made me notice Kristof's awkward, me-centric (condescending, privileged, and imperialist might work, too) approach to interactions with Africans.
Still, sometimes I'm elated just to hear him talk about things that deserve ink, such as when he addressed cruel misconceptions about Haitian culture after the devastating earthquake there. I was entranced to read his essay on women's role in developing country economies, and was willing to forgive him some oversimplifications for the public service of bringing gender to the forefront of Times' readers' minds. But for every one of those swoony moments, there's a piece like his recent misinformed one on birth control in Africa (where else) that ended with the line, "So she may just keep on producing babies."
Kristof really hit a nerve, though, when he wrote a column about the "ugly secret" of development, that poor people don't spend their money wisely:
It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous: It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.Sean Jacobs over at Africa is a Country had this to say about the piece:
Kristof then finds a Congolese child–it plays well with American readers to focus on children, he has argued somewhere else–whose parents cannot afford to pay his school fees but have cheap cellphones and occasionally have a drink.
And then he brings up Bill Easterly’s favorite economist Esther Duflo to endorse his 19th century views in which Westerners, and particularly white Westerners, decide whats good for poor, third world, mostly black, particularly black people, and then he babbles on about microlending. I am tired.And, while it's true that Kristof cites Esther Duflo (along with co-author Abhijit Banerjee), he doesn't cite her correctly, as Amanda Taub points out. Basically, while it's true that African families (from the countries in the Banerjee/Duflo work) spend little on school fees compared to other expenditures, this is primarily because most schools are free or minimally expensive. Sub-Saharan Africa has made great recent strides in reducing or eliminating school fees and promoting increased access. For those children whose schools do charge fees, or who might benefit from going to a private school versus a free one, Taub also points out it's a mistake to attribute lack of parental expenditure to irresponsibility. Rather, it could be that parents in developing countries simply do not perceive a large benefit from the added expense, due to the poor quality of available schools or lack of job opportunities for students who do get a strong education.
Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi really get to the heart of the problem with the column, which is that it expects the poor to act in ways that are different--more altruistic, more responsible, more correct--than people who happen to have a broader opportunity set because we live in a developed country.
It’s legitimate to consider that poor people could behave in counterproductive and irrational ways…just like rich people do. ...A growing body of work, including the Duflo and Banerjee study and the recent book Portfolios of the Poor, contributes to understanding the complex economic lives of the poor and chips away at misconceptions about poor people having “nothing,” living hand-to mouth, and immediately spending every penny they receive on food and other absolute basic necessities.Although many people (cough, #1million shirts) envision Africans as huddling masses without a stitch of clothing or ounce of food to their names, thus ensuring every spare penny will be spent on bare necessities, that's simply not the case. Most individuals in developing countries usually have enough money to feed their families and make do. Yes, people do die from hunger when unexpected things happen such as droughts, and children may get limited nutrition due to the quality of food available. But generally, people get by, and thus have a little money left over to spend how they wish.
Is it really such a big surprise that the poor also want recreation? That the poor have a life? Including some of the same vices that the rich have?
Of course, how they wish and how we wish is different. Because we come from rich countries, and we know how things should be. We think we know what's best for people "over there." But, the truth is, it's simply not possible that we know better than them what's in their best interest. The decisions people make are, by their nature, in their best interest. That is how decisions work. They're made in constrained environments, but, given these constraints, all individuals make decisions that maximize their utility. That means, if a child's father is choosing a drink instead of a bednet, that is, for him, a utility maximizing choice, given his constraints. And yet, that's not good enough for us. We, in rich countries get to maximize our happiness, but we somehow think people in developing countries should be doing something different. So, we criticize their choices, as Kristof has done, instead of looking at the constraints that shaped them.
If someone improved the quality of the schools nearby to Kristof's Congolese family, the father might make different decisions. If economic development created jobs in the area, the father might find he'd rather work more and consumer more luxury goods than spend his evenings in the bar. If someone developed savings products that could help the father commit to a larger future purchase, he might find the opportunity cost of his beer much higher. If development workers want to help, they should focus on removing the constraints that are making these "poor decisions" the optimal choice for these families. With fewer constraints, people will be happier, even though they still may not make decisions closer to the "socially acceptable" norm that people like Kristof seem to idolize. But for me, happiness, a full range of options to achieve self-actualization, has always been the goal of development, just as I believe promoting and expanding women's choices, not making them for them, should be the goal of feminism.
I'll let Texas in Africa have the last word:
While of course there are poor parents with misplaced priorities who neglect their children in Africa, there are also neglectful parents in Paris and Tokyo and Lima and Bangalore and Des Moines and Oslo and even the Upper West Side. I daresay there might even be a big-time columnist or two who has gotten drunk rather than seen to a child's pressing needs.For more, see The Atlantic's roundup of news on the column.
In other sub-Saharan Africa news, cassava, a staple food throughout much of the continent, is being threatened by a crop disease in south-east Africa, and Bill Easterly thinks African nations were set up to fail in the Millennium Development Goals.