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December 19, 2005

Paul Theroux writes searingly of Africa's problems. He's not optimistic that Bono and Bill Gates will solve its problems.

When Malawi's minister of education was accused of stealing millions of dollars from the education budget in 2000, and the Zambian president was charged with stealing from the treasury, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth, what happened? The simplifiers of Africa's problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid. I got a dusty reception lecturing at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation when I pointed out the successes of responsible policies in Botswana, compared with the kleptomania of its neighbors. Donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing.

Mr. Gates has said candidly that he wants to rid himself of his burden of billions. Bono is one of his trusted advisers. Mr. Gates wants to send computers to Africa - an unproductive not to say insane idea. I would offer pencils and paper, mops and brooms: the schools I have seen in Malawi need them badly. I would not send more teachers. I would expect Malawians themselves to stay and teach. There ought to be an insistence in the form of a bond, or a solemn promise, for Africans trained in medicine and education at the state's expense to work in their own countries.

Malawi was in my time a lush wooded country of three million people. It is now an eroded and deforested land of 12 million; its rivers are clogged with sediment and every year it is subjected to destructive floods. The trees that had kept it whole were cut for fuel and to clear land for subsistence crops. Malawi had two presidents in its first 40 years, the first a megalomaniac who called himself the messiah, the second a swindler whose first official act was to put his face on the money. Last year the new man, Bingu wa Mutharika, inaugurated his regime by announcing that he was going to buy a fleet of Maybachs, one of the most expensive cars in the world.

John Palmer has a few choice words for Jeffrey Sachs, too.

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Christopher Meisenzahl

The current state of Africa is a tragedy. Imho, what it needs more than anything right now is freedom, capitalism, and true private property rights. I think that alone would raise the standard of living far more than any other gestures.

Kyle N

Christopher, the problem is that there is no underpinning in the cultures of Africa for these things to take root. Just as in Latin America, which could be so rich, and yet is so poor. Only in (Northern) Europe, and North America was a culture in place which allowed the rule of law, private property rights, and our various freedoms to grow. Also, in the far east, where Buhddism provided a strong ethic.
Any change will be very slow and subject to many reversals.
There are of course some countries which are doing better than the rest of the continent.

Ken Hirsch

Mr. Theroux is ill-informed about what Bill Gates plans for Africa. The Gates Foundation provides computers for libraries in the U. S. and Canada, but in Africa, it supports global health projects.

Gates realized the futility of giving computers to Africa years ago, when he really got serious about giving his money away.

See http://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/03/technology/03GATE.html

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