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From the ground up

Effective groups are offering a better model for helping Africa

Issue: "John Roberts: Bush's pick," July 30, 2005

Has the attention paid to Africa during July helped?

The month began with Live8 concerts that the Sunday Independent of Johannesburg criticized: "Musicians from the West . . . are once again using the continent to draw attention to themselves." Kenyan businessman Evans Konya said, "There is so much corruption here that funds from overseas often go straight into the pockets of politicians. We must find a way to give aid . . . to the people on the ground."

The secular liberal way of delivering aid has been government to government or big philanthropy to big philanthropy. But the problems of welfare in Africa are similar to the problems that have plagued welfare in America. Conventional programs all too often have proffered bureaucratic "solutions" that increase dependency and enable people to stay in poverty but not rise above it.

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Even New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof acknowledged this, writing on July 5 that "the liberal approach to helping the poor is sometimes to sponsor a U.N. conference and give ringing speeches calling for changed laws and more international assistance. In contrast, a standard conservative approach is to sponsor a missionary hospital or school." Mr. Kristof also noted, "Plenty of studies have shown that aid usually doesn't help people in insecure, corrupt or poorly governed nations. Indeed, aid can even do harm, by bidding up local exchange rates and hurting local manufacturers."

The challenging, personal, and spiritual help that is the hallmark of compassionate conservatism can be not only more efficient but far more effective. As New York University professor William Easterly declared earlier this month, "It's great that so many are finally noticing the tragedy of Africa. But sadly, historical evidence says that the solutions offered by big plans are not so easy. From 1960 to 2003, we spent $568 billion (in today's dollars) to end poverty in Africa. Yet these efforts still did not lift Africa from misery and stagnation."

Mr. Easterly told New York Times readers that those big plans don't work because "they miss the critical elements of feedback and accountability." He offered as an example the United Nations Millennium Project's proposal for "everything from nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees to replenish the soil, to rainwater harvesting, to battery-charging stations, for, by my count, 449 interventions. Poor Africans have no market or democratic mechanisms to let planners in New York know which of the 449 interventions they need, whether they are satisfied with the results, or whether the goods ever arrived at all."

Mr. Easterly looked into that proposal for nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees that cure exhausted soils. He noted that "the trees don't grow well in shade, they can proliferate as weeds and they can wind up competing for soil nutrients, especially in arid areas. It's easy to decree a solution at the top, but it will never work without the detailed local knowledge at the bottom-which planners in New York cannot possibly process." He recommended instead that those wanting to help emphasize small, concrete steps "like water pipes and wells, school buildings and vaccinations-where individual contributions can be measured."

The three groups profiled in this series are proceeding in a bottom-up way distinctly different from the UN Millennium Project's top-down approach. Each has started small, in essence setting up a pilot project designed to produce concrete, measurable results: children housed, clothed, and fed; schools built and staffed; improved crops brought in.

All three groups are beginning to work together and learn from each other. They are all planning new villages that would contain a large irrigated garden, an area for raising livestock, pasture, and athletic play space. Like the famous Boys Town that opened up in Nebraska a century ago, the villages would emphasize family-style living in dwellings with houseparents (or widows serving as housemothers).

The goal is for the children to grow up in an operating farm community with traditional agricultural practices enhanced by current knowledge and methods. Children would learn not only farming but auto mechanics, computers, sewing and clothes making, and building construction, including cement laying, painting, and plumbing.

Compare that bottom-up approach with Live8's advocacy of the top-down elimination of government debts. That might help in countries with good governance, but in others it means giving dictators an economic boost that allows them to build up further their oppressive armies and police forces. American volunteers are showing a better way.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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