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Gifted travel writer Paul Theroux has written a piece on “Africa’s Aid Mess” in Barron’s Magazine.  It is certainly an entertaining read, but factual errors make it a misleading piece –and suggest a lack of due diligence on the part of Barron’s.

Some of Theroux’s claims are undeniable: there’s a need for humility amongst donors, the risk of failure is large, and the importance of context often ignored, and there are unintended consequences of well-meaning interventions which we should understand from 150 years of mistakes. 

There are some significant problems with the piece, however.  Take this statement: “I can testify that Africa is much worse off than when I first went there 50 years ago to teach English: poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed. It seems that much of the aid has made things worse.  I am not alone observing this fact. In his new book, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, economist Angus Deaton questions the usefulness of all aid.”

The Maddison database suggests the continent of Africa has seen GDP per capita (adjusted for inflation) climb from $1,055 in 1960 to $2,034 in 2010.  So, it’s twice as wealthy, not poorer. According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan life expectancy was 40 in 1960 and, despite the scourge of HIV/AIDS, had risen to 56 by 2011. So Africans in the region are living nearly 50% longer.  Gross primary enrollment south of the Sahara climbed from 54% to 100% over the period 1970 to 2011, so there are more kids in school than ever before.  In short, there is no source of statistics I’ve seen that could possibly justify Theroux’s claim that Africa is poorer, sicker, and less educated than it was 50 years ago. 

Governance, of course, is a harder thing to measure.  But for what they are worth, the Polity II measures of democracy suggest considerable improvements towards democracy and away from both colonial rule and autocracy since 1960.  Or look at battle deaths in the region: they are far lower in the 2000s than they were in the 1960s. 

Again, implying Angus Deaton in particular supports the idea that things are worse in Africa would be wrong: Deaton illustrates per capita African GDP growth rates as well as life expectancy in his new book, and the graphs clearly demonstrate income and life expectancy are higher than in 1960.  (It is true that Deaton questions the impact of aid—it is one of the few parts of his book I’m not terribly convinced by).

Another statement that gives pause is this one: “[T]eaching as a profession in Malawi, and many parts of Africa, is undervalued, if not despised, and poorly paid. Besides, you can always find a foreign teacher willing to do the work.… [A]n unlimited supply of foreign teachers funded from the outside makes it possible for Africans to avoid having to spend their lives in a classroom in the bush.” 

According to Kenya’s Teachers Services Commission, there are 240,000 teachers in that one country alone.  About three-quarters of the country’s population is rural.  Let’s say only one third of the teachers are in rural areas.  That’s 80,000 teachers.  By comparison there are 100 Peace Corps volunteers in Kenya, only some of whom teach.  Meanwhile, the average Kenyan civil-service teacher earns $260 a month.  According to PovcalNet, only 2% of Kenyans consume more than $260 a month.

These errors matter.  The article relies on the lack of progress in Africa and the disincentive effects of volunteer expatriates on local philanthropy and participation to make the central claim that foreign aid not only doesn’t work in the region but that it can be positively harmful.  Beyond that, much of the evidence against aid and foreign investment presented in the piece consists of an (enjoyable but hardly completely convincing) historical precedent from 160 years ago, a character from a Dickens novel, Theroux’s personal experiences, things that Theroux’s doctor friend reports, the lack of dentists in rural Kenya, and the experience of a Millennium Village in Dertu, Kenya, which accounts for 0.001% of aid flows to the region.  Forget amounting to whole hills, there are single solitary beans with greater weight than that.

We all make mistakes, especially under deadline (non-exhaustive personal examples: fn 1 here, last line of this, the ending of para one of this given this … and more than one occasion when fact checkers here have caught considerable mistakes prior to publication).  But I was a little surprised with Barron’s reaction when I emailed pointing out the simple factual inaccuracy of the line that Africa is “poorer, sicker, less educated” than 50 years ago.  They said I could submit a letter to the editor for the next issue.  I noted that factual inaccuracies usually get a correction.  But apparently, for Barron’s, if it fits a stereotype, there’s no need for a fact check.  That might be worth taking into account when next you trust it as a news source.