by Bradley Doucet*
Le Québécois Libre, April 15, 2009, No 266.


On April 15 and 16, Montreal is hosting, for the third time, its very own international forum to discuss the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. The 2009 Montreal Millennium Summit will feature speeches by expert development economists Val Kilmer, Mia Farrow, Patrick Huard, and Sara Ferguson. (To be fair, it will also feature more-credentialed presenters like Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs, author of The End of Poverty.)

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

1. Eradicate poverty and hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Develop a global partnership for development

It is hard to argue with the UN's eight Millennium Development Goals, listed above. Ending global poverty and all its attendant ills is an eminently worthy objective. While I do not believe anyone has a duty to help his fellow man, I do think most of us want to help others, and that it feels good to do so. I also think raising the world's destitute out of poverty would have widespread benefits that would redound to us all. I can therefore heartily endorse the MDGs. What I question, though, is the UN's strategy for accomplishing its laudable goals.

The Story So Far

In putting forward the MDGs in the year 2000, the UN set specific objectives to be met by 2015. Last year, it published the 56-page Millennium Development Goals Report 2008 to assess the progress that had been made. How were things going after eight years, at roughly the halfway mark? Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, states in the report's Overview, "The single most important success to date has been the unprecedented breadth and depth of the commitment to the MDGs." No wonder the world's poor are still in dire straits if the UN's most important success is its commitment to succeed.

But there are some more substantive successes too. The specific goal of cutting extreme poverty by half is apparently "within reach." Over one and a half billion people have gained access to safe drinking water since 1990. Perhaps most strikingly, fewer than 250,000 people died from measles in 2006, down from over 750,000 just six years earlier, thanks to a dramatic increase in the administration of inexpensive measles vaccines in developing countries.

Still, there is plenty of bad news. In sub-Saharan Africa, extreme poverty is "unlikely" to be reduced by half. Each year, more than half a million women in developing countries die from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. And international trade negotiations have stalled, shutting off one important avenue for the world's poor to enrich themselves. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon notes in the report's Foreword, "The imminent threat of increased hunger [from rising food prices] would have been lessened if recent decades had not been marked by a lack of investment in agricultural and rural development in developing countries." This lack of investment was itself caused, or at least greatly exacerbated, by lack of global free trade in agriculture.

Some of the things the UN thinks will help in the fight to eradicate extreme poverty are indeed important. These include expanding free trade, empowering women in developing countries, and battling diseases. But aside from the free trade issue, the UN thinks that what is needed to accomplish its goal is increased aid from rich Western governments to poor ones in places like sub-Saharan Africa. "Providing all the assistance that is necessary will require delivery of the additional official development assistance (ODA) that has been promised," writes Sha Zukang. But is government-to-government aid actually a part of the solution to global poverty?

A Dissenting Voice

Dambisa Moyo was born in Zambia. She has a master's degree from Harvard and an economics PhD from Oxford. She will not be speaking at the Montreal Millennium Summit. For one thing, she disdains celebrity activists who clearly do not understand economics. But more importantly, in her just-released book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, her prescription is clear: cutting off all government-to-government aid to Africa within five years.

One reason Moyo is dead set against government aid is that it props up tyrants like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe received $300 million in foreign aid in 2006 alone. In an interview with the online magazine Guernica, Moyo says "Many millions of Africans are living under violent repression now and have lived under violent repression for the past sixty years under the aid model. There would be less ability for governments to run roughshod across the continent were it not for aid." In contrast, the words "corrupt" and "corruption" are nowhere to be found in the entire 56-page Millennium Development Goals Report 2008.

Aid money can also interfere with local entrepreneurship, says Moyo. An example of this is when 100,000 mosquito nets arrive to help fight malaria, but have the unintended consequence of putting a local mosquito net maker out of business, impoverishing 160 people (employees and their dependents). Overall, Moyo finds it "quite worrying that we can look at aid―after sixty years and one trillion dollars that haven't worked in Africa―and we still don't question the system. It seems the natural thing that when something has as bad a record as aid does, we should question it and want to overhaul the system."

In response to a question about whether cutting off government aid might not actually make things even worse, Moyo answers that lack of aid "has not made things worse for South Africa, for Botswana, has not made things worse for China, for India, South Korea, Thailand and the list goes on. It will not make things worse for Africa." Indeed, across the globe, the poor countries that have advanced the most in recent decades―contributing mightily to the goal of halving extreme poverty―are precisely the ones that have not received official development assistance.

Instead of continuing on a path that has proved ineffective, Moyo supports such strategies as microfinance and foreign direct investment (FDI). She also defends China's role in investing on the continent. "The Chinese have created jobs; they've built roads. The West has failed to do that in sixty years in Africa." Of course, the Chinese can also be accused of supporting the despotic regime in Sudan, but the West has supported far more despots on the continent over the years. China is not perfect, Moyo admits. "But are Africans getting jobs and improving their lives because of the Chinese presence? Overall, the answer is yes."

One Man's "Right" Is another Man's Duty

Why does government-to-government aid continue despite its terrible track record? Moyo sees self-interest as the culprit: the self-interest of corrupt dictatorial regimes, of course, but also the self-interest of the aid community itself, which employs some half a million mostly Western aid workers. She says that "it is not in the interest of those in the aid industry [to develop Africa] because then there'd be no more industry and five hundred thousand people would lose their jobs."

Personally, I find this unconvincing. I think it is far more likely that most people involved in the aid industry honestly believe aid could work if only more money could be siphoned from rich countries. These people are well-intentioned but misinformed, and they do not understand economics.

But there is yet another factor that prevents the aid community from collapsing under the weight of its failures. The UN report states that the MDGs "are not only development objectives; they encompass universally accepted human values and rights such as freedom from hunger, the right to basic education, the right to health and a responsibility to future generations." Now, few will quarrel with the notion that health, basic education, and freedom from hunger, are values; but it is quite another thing to call them rights.

Traditional human rights are negative in nature. They simply constrain people from infringing on each other's freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and so on. They exist until and unless they are destroyed. They take nothing from those who respect them. In contrast, health, basic education, and freedom from hunger are positive goods which must be produced by someone. They do not exist until and unless someone produces them. To say that those who cannot afford to provide these values for themselves nonetheless have a right to have them is to say that someone else has a duty to provide them. This notion of unchosen obligations is the very antithesis of true freedom, a perversion of the ideal of liberty.

The fact that confiscating wealth from some to give it to others is not only wrong but also ineffective is hardly surprising. Even with the best of intentions, politicians and bureaucrats lack the incentives and the localized information to address problems and spend other people's money wisely. Private individuals, on the other hand, generally have the proper incentives and the local information necessary to prosper. When allowed to reap the rewards of their own efforts, they are the ones best positioned to solve their own problems. What they most need is the freedom to do so. The least we in the developed world could do is not throw sticks in their spokes by supporting their oppressors and driving their entrepreneurs out of business.

* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.