Despite all the criticism of African governments, they are ensuring that more and more children attend school.
Charles Kenny | May/June 2012 Issue
The tide of skepticism about global development prospects and the role of international aid ebbs and flows over time. But at the moment, we are at a high-water mark. Bolstered by statistics suggesting that many countries south of the Sahara Desert are as poor today as they were at independence half a century or so ago, critics decry the region’s governments and suggest aid has only made things worse. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson suggests, “Africa’s problem is not a problem that aid can solve. On the contrary, aid may simply make the problem worse.” Continuing African economic stagnation is the big reason Zambian-born Goldman Sachs alum Dambisa Moyo called for an end to development assistance in her bestseller, Dead Aid. With 40 years of aid to Africa approaching a trillion-dollar total, perhaps they have a point. They might, if African income statistics were a good measure of the quality of life in the region. But the fact is, there is a big and growing gap between income and indicators of broader quality of life not only in Africa but around the globe. And aid has played a big part in improving broader quality of life.
Whatever the apparent stagnation in measures of income per person, Africa has seen dramatic progress in health, education, civil rights and more in the last 50 years. Africa has been part of a global phenomenon: Quality of life is getting cheaper. Slow growth has not been a barrier to broad-based development. Global statistics suggest a country that saw no income growth during the 20th century would still have experienced a two-thirds decline in infant mortality in those 100 years. A country with an average income of $800 in 1930 would typically have a 9 percent primary school enrollment rate, while a country with the same income in 2000 would expect 84 percent enrollment.
Take an African example. In 1995, Nigeria’s GDP per head was a little more than $1,100, about equal to per capita income in Finland in 1870. But Nigeria had a literacy rate of 57 percent, compared to Finland’s 10 percent rate in 1870. Nigeria’s 1995 life expectancy was 51 years, higher than any country in Europe in 1870, including some that had average incomes well over $3,000.
Behind the increasing affordability of quality of life lies the global spread of cheap technologies—like vaccines, antibiotics, mobile phones and buses—and ideas like “Girls should go to school,” “It is important to wash your hands,” and “People should have the right to vote for their political leaders.” From a technology perspective, between 1999 and 2005, the number of African children who died annually from measles dropped by three-quarters, from half a million to 126,000, thanks to the continued rollout of vaccination programs across the continent.
In turn, a major factor behind the spread of technologies and ideas, especially in the world’s poorest countries, has been government. Governments have built and staffed most of the schools worldwide, even though many teachers are absent and many who make it to class lack the capability or motivation to teach. Governments have set up the rural health systems that have underpinned vaccination drives, even though many clinics are understocked and understaffed. African governments in particular are providing a quality and range of services to their citizens greater than that provided by any European country at a similar income level.
Aid has played a major role as well. Aid-financed efforts were central to global improvements in nutrition on the back of the Green Revolution in agriculture. Aid supported vaccination efforts, including the global eradication of smallpox, a disease that killed 300 million people in the 20th century but should kill no one in the 21st. Aid has financed school-building programs as well as incentive programs to get poor children—poor girls, in particular—into school.
That’s not to say the world is perfect. Infant mortality was nearly cut in half in Ghana between 1965 and today, but it is still more than four times higher than in Vietnam. Half the kids in Tanzania finished primary school in 2005—but nearly half of them didn’t. Governments worldwide remain inefficient and corrupt, and much aid is surely wasted. We should do much better. But that we are already doing so much better than we were is a sign of hope and a call to action. We can do better. So let’s get on with it.
Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the author of Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More (Basic Books).