For example, the number of children dying each year before the age of 5 has dropped by three million worldwide since 1990, largely because of foreign aid. Yes, aid often fails — but more than balancing the failures is quite a triumph: one child’s life saved every 11 seconds.Reading through Kristof's cases, it seems to me that a general rule emerges: medical aid works, education aid sometimes works, but aid intended to promote economic growth doesn't work. Aid thus feeds into the Malthusian trap that keeps poor people poor. Africa has actually seen a lot of economic growth since 1960, mainly because of mining, oil, and improvements in agriculture (the "green revolution"), but because population growth has been even more rapid, the result is that poor Africans are worse off than before.
In the contemporary west, population growth has slowed because although we have low death rates we also have very low birth rates. Those low birth rates seem to arrive when societies make the transition from rural, peasant economies to urban, commercial and industrial economies. Across east Asia and South America this transition has been working just as it did in Europe and North America, and birth rates in China and Brazil are lower than they are in the US. But this isn't happening in Africa or much of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.
Why not? It seems to me that to describe the transition from a peasant society to an urban commercial society as "economic" is to miss most of what happens. The difference between peasant farmers and modern urbanites is cultural. We think and act in different ways and have different expectations. Those countries that have modernized rapidly are those that have embraced the cultural side of modernity. The template for such a cultural revolution was set in Japan in the 1860s. Japan's leaders, humiliated by the military superiority of western nations, dismantled their country's traditional institutions, took up western dress and habits, and relegated Japanese ways to harmless bits of heritage.
In Africa and the Middle East there is a huge resistance to adopting western ways and values. So long as that is the case, there will be no economic revolution. Because being rich according to western norms requires living like western people. In this sense, the whole notion of "economic development" is a western construct that really means "people should act like we do." Of course, many people in the world do want to live like Europeans and Americans. But many don't. They want to continue their peasant ways, but somehow to be made richer by economic magic. It can't happen, and even if it did the gains would be wiped out in a generation by population growth. Which is why Kristof's approach to aid, though warm hearted, is ultimately dubious. The sad fact is that without cultural transformation, more children surviving means more poverty for everyone. In Asia we are seeing that population growth can be a factor driving people toward modernity, as they move to cities, take jobs, and need to limit the size of their families lest their overflow their cramped urban apartments. We don't see this happening in Africa. I think we are not because the cultural gap is too wide to be bridged in a single generation. So my forecast for the future of Africa is more misery, more violence, and more hunger, no matter how much aid or what kind we choose to give.