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Geography Lessons: Correcting Sachs on African Economic Development

Professor Jeffrey Sachs continues the debate on aid to Africa originally prompted by Dambisa Moyo's book Dead Aid. As usual, I will of course let Dr. Moyo defend herself against specific criticisms made by Sachs and his co-author John McArthur. But Sachs unveils such a strange geographic theory of Africa's poverty, with strong implications for aid policy, that I am forced to respond.

It's nice to move back to doing what professors are supposed to do -- examine other professors' ideas on their own merits, not attack their persons. Sachs is an inspirational and hard-working intellectual, just one whose ideas on Africa happen to be sometimes totally wrong, and other times only seriously wrong.

A good rule for all theories, including theories of global poverty, is Occam's Razor -- make the theory as simple as possible, but no simpler. Another way to put it is beware of explanations with too many Ifs, Buts and Excepts in them. Sachs' geographic theory of Africa's poverty has gotten few takers among other economists, perhaps because it fails Occam's Razor. Sachs starts off by saying that being in the tropics is bad for development (he gave a very terse summary here, I am drawing from his articles to articulate more fully his geographic story). Isn't rapidly growing India also in the tropics? Yes, but they have snowmelt-fed irrigation instead of rain-fed agriculture. Isn't rich Singapore also in the tropics? Yes, but they are coastal instead of landlocked. Don't Latin America and Asia also have tropical diseases like malaria, just like Africa? Yes, but they have a better kind of mosquito. So a region will be poor if they are tropical, if rainfed, if landlocked, and if they have the wrong mosquitoes -- which, yes, fits many African countries. The reason for Occam's Razor is that with enough Ifs, Buts, and Excepts you can fit any theory to any set of facts. If I am a balding, grey-bearded, bespectacled, white male economic development professor residing in Greenwich Village, I will write a post on Occam's Razor -- yes, that theory also fits the facts.

The consensus among most academic economists is that destructive governments rather than destructive geography explains the poverty of nations. Robert Mugabe was a lot worse for Zimbabwe than Anopheles mosquito. Corruption is more fatal for oil-rich Nigeria and Angola than latitude. Health is determined more by public actions against disease than by species of parasite. Other factors that Sachs mentions such as illiteracy and poor infrastructure are also symptoms of bad government services. Geography may have had some influence on history, but through institutions -- good government spread along lines of migration and communication through most temperate regions more easily than it did to tropical regions. The latter were also victims of colonialism (and in Africa's case, the slave trade as well, which goes some way to explain bad government in Africa today).

Of course, it is a lot easier to justify giving a lot of aid to African governments if they are helpless victims of geography rather than (mostly) just being -- bad governments. Is this why Sachs offers a bizarre geographic theory of Africa's poverty and is oblivious to the bad governments that many courageous African dissenters have fought at great sacrifice? I don't have enough evidence to test any one theory of Sachs, but I know it makes for bad aid policy. Make sure that aid reaches poor people, which usually means it should not go to poor governments.

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