Acton Institute Powerblog

Economic Advice Pro Bono

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An interesting piece in Tuesday’s Financial Times (registration req.) by Jagdish Bhagwati, economist at Columbia University. In the form of a letter to U2 front man Bono, Dr. Bhagwati offers a (I think) stinging criticism of attempts to save Africa through appeals for more governmental spending. (This is especially interesting since Bono plays off the songsheet of another Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs.) If you can find a copy of the article, I highly recommend it, but in the meantime, here is a sample:

But, if you have erred in allying yourself with the development experts who wrongly focus exclusively on aid spending in Africa itself, a greater folly is to have tied your initiative to the aid target of 0.7 per cent of GNP. This target goes back to 1969 and has not been met except by a tiny fraction of donors, essentially the Scandinavian countries. The problem is that the target relates to government spending. Fiscal spending is subject to what economists call “hard budget contraints.” There are always many demands on the government. The US, for instance, has just had a colossal increase in spending on the Iraq war and on Hurricane Katrina relief and reconstruction…

How, then, are we to translate the enthusiastic altruism that you have generated, dear Bono, into larger, sustained flows of aid? Surely the answer is to go after personal, rather than governmental, flows…

So, if you take seriously the estimated audience for Live8 concerts at 2bn, halve it for those who were there for a lark or are impoverished themselves, and halve it again for those who attended the concerts twice, you would have half a billion who could sign up for an average pledge of $50 a head as a supplement to their normal giving, yielding a net sum of $25bn outright. The money would be worth almost twice that amount in actual aid, since they would be grants wheras most aid consists of loans that must be repaid.

This would mean abandoning some of your current allies. But you can do nothing less if your efforts are to yield results. In a recent interview, you said that you expected your music would endure forever but poverty would have ended in a hundred years. I wish you good luck on your music. But not even a hundred years would suffice to end poverty if you fail to correct your course.

David Michael Phelps