The report of the Commission for Africa, summarised here and more heavily here, is an ambitious and sophisticated analysis of the problems plaguing Africa and the steps needed to solve them. But it isn’t without critics. Last time, I looked at those who criticised the Commission for being too conservative in its calls for Western action and in its criticisms of the role of rich countries and corporations in Africa. This time, let’s look at the other side: those who criticise the report for going too far in those same directions. You could call this the “right-wing” criticism, because its central point is that the Commission doesn’t put enough faith in markets. This is the view of a large number mainstream economists.

This is trickier because, for some reason that I’m not sure of, these criticisms tend not to be about the Commission specifically, but more generally about the whole Live8 / Make Poverty History poverty imbroglio (or, to give it its proper name, the Global Call To Action Against Poverty. Take this article in business newspaper, um, The Business. It encapsulates most of the key pro-market criticisms of the Commission. But it actually reserves its criticisms mostly for Live8 and the Make Poverty History campaign (indeed, the article actually praises the Commission for some of its comments about trade barriers). So I’ll introduce these ideas here, but only briefly. Once we’ve finished laying out The Main Proposals, we’ll be looking at the criticisms in more detail.

There are three main problems, this view argues, with the Africa Commission’s proposals and others like them:

  1. Insufficient faith in markets. To left-wing critics, the Africa Commission’s report promotes “a model of development ‘favourable to deregulated free markets and Western economic and political interests.'” To more right-wing critics, however, the opposite is the case. While they welcome the commission’s calls for reductions in trade barriers within Africa, and on the part of rich countries, they call for a host of more radical pro-business reforms, such as abolishing communal land tenure arrangements.
  2. Excessive faith in African governments. The Africa recognises corruption and poor governance as obstacles to development, but is broadly optimistic about the prospects for tackling them, with support and training from rich countries. It puts significant faith in NEPAD’s Peer Review Mechanism, and expresses confidence that a new generation of African leaders is more committed to democracy and transparency than its predecessors. To these critics, however, most African states remain profoundly corrupt, incompetent, and an obstacle to growth. Success lies in reducing their power through privatisation of industries and services.
  3. The history of Africa since the 1960s is the history of groups of elites seeking the political kingdom with the primary purpose of enriching themselves, Mbeki says. To rectify this situation, he believes that Africas poorest people must be empowered through the institutions of the free society: property rights and markets.

    These two criticisms combine to dispute one of the key demands of the Commission: that rich-country “conditions” on aid, loans and debt relief should be extensively reduced, giving governments more power to control their own economies; and similarly, that free-trade negotiations in organisations like the World Trade Organisation grant African governments the special right to protect their economies with subsidies and trade barriers.

  4. Excessive faith in aid. Aid is really the biggest bone of contention for the pro-market critics. They see it as a failure, and as representing an over-reliance on non-market solutions to poverty. Here’s The Business again:

Wearing a white wristband and calling for hand-outs or debt relief is not the answer, says a growing band of young and educated Africans. The money will merely be frittered away, diverted into the Swiss bank accounts of a corrupt ruling class and do little or nothing to bring about prosperity, they say… Poverty in Africa cannot be reduced through government-to-government financial transfers, which never trickle down. This kind of aid perpetuates poverty, promoting poor government policies and corruption, rather than real and lasting economic growth.

Notice how, in the post above, debt relief is seen as pretty much another form of “handout”. This is because, by freeing up resources for governments, the free-market critics believe debt relief fuels corruption and gets salted away just like aid. Indeed, because aid can be given direct to NGOs working on the ground, some even argue debt relief is worse.

I’m not even going to begin delving into this one now, as it will be explored in detail soon. The debate over aid tends to become the flashpoint between the economics mainstream and campaigners. If you want to get ahead on the case against aid, the man to read is William Easterley, a former World Bank economist who’s led the assault on aid in the media. A decent place to start is this record of an event for the launch of his latest book, with downloadable audio of his presentation. For an opposing view, this post in the excellent blog Our Word Is Our Weapon, which tends to support aid, disputes some of the points made in the Business article. Also, have a look at my bookmarks about aid, arguments for it, criticisms of it, and discussions about it.

Before we leave the Africa Commission Report alone (sob!), there’s a little more to be said on a theme I introduced last time, of criticisms of the Commissioners themselves. This, again, is primarily a habit of those accusing the Commission of being too free-market, or to put it another way, “a web of bankers, industrialists and political leaders… all committed to spreading the gospel of free market capitalism.” But it isn’t just the business backgrounds of the Commissioners that has attracted criticism. Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister who was probably the Commission’s most high-profile member, was once touted as one of the new generation of democratic leaders who would help turn around Africa’s fortunes. But following a disputed election in 2005, Zenawi allowed police to arrest hundreds of protestors, and shoot some, prompting widespread international criticism. Zenawi’s recent intervention in the civil war in Somalia has also proven controversial.

Right, that’s it on the Commission for now. But most of its proposals, and the criticisms of it, will be discussed again when we put together our summary of the main proposals for ending Africa’s poverty troubles. First, back to unfinished business: Jeffrey Sachs.