Seeing the legions of UN and NGO workers driving around Africa in their brand-new Toyota Land Cruisers got me wondering what the most effective form of foreign aid is. Jeffrey Sachs claims that we should put more money into providing food, education, health care, and housing. The caveperson thought on foreign aid of this kind, however, is that foreigners paying for this stuff will simply enable the rulers to move more of the tax and resource revenue into their Swiss bank accounts.
My Weblog posting on The End of Poverty notes that “Sachs cannot come up with a single example of a country that has been lifted out of poverty by foreign aid”. Upon further reflection, this is not true and I think that I’ve overlooked the biggest component of foreign aid: knowledge.
Imagine a group of humans in the middle of a rainforest that has been living in isolation for 2000 years. What practical non-cash items do they get when they meet the modern world? They get physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, medicine, public health, and business methods. This information is published, more or less for free, in Wikipedia, textbooks, and journals. The information is also available in patents, which either don’t apply in the rainforest territory or expire 17 years after issuance. This information has been developed at a cost of $trillions and centuries of hard work.
Has any country pulled itself out of poverty or been able to accommodate a population explosion in virtue of getting this kind of information? A lot of Asian countries, starting with Japan (1868 onward), Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore would seem to be candidates.
One way to look at foreign aid in Africa then is that we are already delivering a huge quantity in the form of knowledge. Any additional aid is likely to be most effective if it builds on this existing supply. What kinds of things would enable an African country to take better advantage of the scientific, engineering, and business knowledge that is currently being delivered to interested people worldwide?
- Better/cheaper Internet access (will enable video conferencing)
- More/cheaper airline connections for face-to-face interactions (would require deregulation)
- University/grad school fellowships for Africans (serious problem of brain drain, however, with the best students tending to stay in the host country)
- Support for improved university education in Africa