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In Defense of Bill and Melinda Gates' Work in Africa

Gary North
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March 1, 2008

In February 28, I posted an article on Melinda Gates' influence in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She persuaded Bill to retire from business and devote his life to charity. They both focused on how to get more bang for the buck.

This in itself is extraordinary. We have never seen any self-made, extremely rich man with equal skills at giving money away. Andrew Carnegie tried, but his foundations were captured by his ideological enemies.

The Gateses have their eyes on efficiency: how not to waste money. They have decided to save lives through funding simple, low-cost medical techniques that can save young children, especially in Africa.

In response, this was posted on one of this site's Q&A forums.

From humanitarian or religious point, all life should be saved, at any situation, at all costs, now, if you can, and you should. Because once saved, at least you give another chance. It is up to someone, god, or UN to decide to carry on of what you have started.

However, knowing the utter failure of past half century of rescue and intervention on African nations, it is illogical to assume or hope that Gates' initial rescue would make positive results.

Unless, very large efforts by UN and others follows. We are witnessing that no efforts are made to intervene problem at Darfur today by international communities, except Mia Farrow. Massive continuous aids to African nations, for ever?

My point is, giving is much harder than receiving. It often produces adverse results, as many trust fund kids or lottery winners suffer from the gift. Vaccinating kids, seems to me, is equivalent of giving fish, rather than teaching how to fish?

Consider this statement: "However, knowing the utter failure of past half century of rescue and intervention on African nations, it is illogical to assume or hope that Gates' initial rescue would make positive results."

Positive results? A life saved is a positive result. The Gates Foundation's intervention could save millions of lives. It has already saved thousands.

The crucial economic asset in any society is human productivity. This is the message of Julian Simon's book, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton University Press, 1981). Saving lives is the first step in establishing the foundations of economic growth. We do not know which survivors will become engines of growth through creativity. We do know that without creative people, no society's natural resources can sustain its wealth after the resources are gone.

Africa has been poverty-stricken for centuries. Thomas Sowell has discussed geographical factors in this process, such as few navigable rivers (remember the scene in The African Queen, when they go down river?), few deep-water ports, and mosquitoes and tsetse flies that kill animals and people.

Then there is the animism: paralyzing fear of local spirits and occult forces. Tribalism has also divided Africans, undermining the division of labor.

Peter T. Bauer, the great economic theorist of economic development, for decades challenged the standard academic view of economic poverty as reversible only through government aid and action. He showed that in case after case, Africans could and did create wealth. But despotic governments run by dictators along lines promoted by Western central planners undermined economic creativity and economic growth.

Today, we are seeing the spread of the Christian gospel to backward areas in Africa as never before. Philip Jenkins discusses this in his book, The Next Christendom (Oxford University Press, 2002). His summary article is in The Atlantic Monthly. As the gospel changes people morally, cooperation will increase. This moral transformation is not only possible, it is happening. This will make economic growth likely. But not if the sources of creativity die in their youth.

Gates' critic wants that bureaucratic institution, the United Nations Organization, to make things better. Only it can do the job, he insists. The UN centralizes power. It is committed to bigger government. The UN does not answer to donors or to local populations in Africa. Why should anyone believe that the solution to Africa's problems is more government, imposed by an outside agency of bureaucrats, one which answers to noddy except other governments?

The UN bureaucrats at the World Health Organization resent the Gates Foundation. That speaks well of it.

"Vaccinating kids, seems to me, is equivalent of giving fish, rather than teaching how to fish?" This argument is little short of imbecilic. All children must be fed before they can learn to fish. So, I do not take the argument seriously. He is really saying this: "Let those nappy-headed savages die young." It is the survival of black African children that appalls him.

His view of charity is an extension of Charles Darwin's views of charity. He set the standard in Chapter 5 of The Descent of Man (1871).

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has prserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

We are today seeing the spread of local free market experiments in Third World countries. Micro loans and other experiments in self-help are transforming the Third World, family by family. Why not Africa? Why not now?

With the rise of telecommunications, Africa's lack of transportation in the interior regions can be overcome. Ideas can flow even though there are few roads and printed materials. Education can flourish even though there are few teachers per capita. The potential for decentralized coordination through the Internet is great. Africa hovers at the edge of compound economic growth. But if children die needlessly, their productivity will never benefit their neighbors.

Cheap technology can save lives. Cheap technology in two decades will empower and enrich lives that are saved today. Africa need not continue in a downward economic spiral. The solutions are at hand. The main one is moral: the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not steal," when obeyed, produces wonders. So does "Thou shalt not steal, even by majority vote." But the medical technology to produce survivors must be imported today from the West. The Gates Foundation is part of a bridge to a more productive future. So is Plumpynut. So is Water for Life, which drills water wells.

Now is not the time to give up on Africa or to write off privately funded attempts to bridge the gap to a more productive future.

Let us honor the words of James:

If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone (James 2:15-17).


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