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Optimism or Pessimism?

August 27, 2008

Earlier this summer, I attended a conference on Capitol Hill about poverty in Africa (as many of you know – this is my “specialty”). Although I didn’t hear anything terribly “new” on the situation in Africa, I was struck by the pessimism of the speakers. Bascially, Africa is what it is – we can study it, hope for the best, but the actual likelihood of change – well, that’s slim to none.

I have also encountered the overly optimistic view on African poverty. Jeffery Sachs (notable economist from Harvard), claims that just by giving more and more money to Africa, we can SOLVE poverty! Solve… like it’s a linear algebra problem that has one right answer.

Perhaps I just enjoy playing the devil’s advocate, but to both positions I say – Not so! I understand the reality of the situation in Africa – death, disease, hunger, lack of infrastructure, stability, corruption everywhere – it’s a rough place. I also understand the desire to have a solution (especially one that you can present to the public in order to raise funding). However, I have noticed a disproportionate lack of people in the middle, people who feel as I do, that while the situation is dire and the problems are plentiful, there are certain actions that we can take to encourage growth, better medicine transfers, more productive agriculture, etc.

To the optimists, I would be a pessimist. To the pessimists – an optimist. I have been called out on both sides numerous times. There are always the people who look sideways at you and say something sly like “You know you’re not actually going to make any sort of perceptible difference right? I mean – sure if you want to hole yourself up in an office and study Africans forever, go ahead… but you’re work/life is pretty much pointless.” And then there are those who, with eyes shining in admiration say something like “OH!  That’s such good work. You can do sooo much over there, can’t wait to see it! You know… I gave a check to that one AIDS relief fund just the other week! Let me go find their address… I bet you can work with them!” For once, I just like someone to say…. “Wow that’s a huge area with a ton of problems. I was reading about this one project that did have some success though. I bet you’ll be able to have some small-scale effect – maybe that will spill over.”

Perhaps this is just my soapbox, but I wonder why people all over the spectrum of education (from people who know nothing about economics in Africa, to those who are professors of such) take such tight views on whether or not we can be successful. Why are we even talking about what we can do? Shouldn’t we be focusing on what they – the Africans – can do? I think that if our perspectives are correctly aligned, and we focus on the right people doing the things that need to be done, a tempered position of knowledgable optimism is the right view to take. I’m not advocating naivety, but rather the simple realization that the situation in Africa is, for the most part, out of the hands of the US. Yes, those of us working in the field can do something… something to help the people of Africa to help themselves.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. RDM permalink
    August 27, 2008 10:38 pm

    “Wow that’s a huge area with a ton of problems. I was reading about this one project that did have some success though. I bet you’ll be able to have some small-scale effect – maybe that will spill over.”

    So I guess that would be the correct response, versus my previous one which was something along the lines of “you know you’re going to fail right?”

    Now I know. 🙂

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