Didn’t We Try that in 1938? Why Technical Poverty Fixes Fall Short

Is African poverty caused by lack of the necessary technical knowledge applied to disease, nutrition, clean water, and agriculture? Reading many discussions, like that of the recent food security initiative, or the UN Millennium Project (UNMP) on how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, would make you think so. Would it change your mind if that technical knowledge already existed and there were attempts to apply it as long ago as 1938? The following table compares the technical recommendations from a prominent and exhaustive survey of African problems headed by Lord Hailey in 1938 to those of the UNMP in 2005.

African Problem to be Addressed African Research Survey, 1938 UN Millennium Project, 2005
Malaria “mosquito bed-nets …malaria control by the spraying of native huts with a preparation of pyrethrum” “insecticide-treated nets…. insecticides for indoor residual spraying …{with} pyrethroids”
Nutrition “…the African suffers from deficiency of Vitamin A” “Malnutrition {is also} caused by inadequate intake of … vitamin A”
Soil fertility “methods of improving soil fertility {such as} green manuring” “using green manure to improve soil fertility”
Soil erosion “increasing absorption and reducing runoff on cultivated land {through} the use of terraces” “Contour terraces, necessary on sloping lands… when furnished with grasses and trees…{to avoid} soil erosion”
Land tenure “… legal security against attack or disturbance can most effectively be guaranteed by registration” “security in private property and tenure rights … registration of property”
Clean drinking water sinking boreholes “Increase the share of boreholes”

(A longer version of this table and the citations for the quotes appear in my recent article “Can the West Save Africa?” in the Journal of Economic Literature.)

Enthusiasts for technology fixes for poverty concentrate almost exclusively on the science and the technical design — this is a characteristic fault of poverty solvers from Silicon Valley, the Gates Foundation, doctors, and natural scientists.

All of the above seem to forget that technology does not implement itself. Technical knowledge needs people to implement it – people who have the right incentives to solve all of the glitches and unexpected problems that happen when you apply a new technology, people who make sure that all the right inputs get to the right places at the right time, and local people who are motivated to use the new technology. The field that addresses all these incentives is called economics.

Originally published at Aid Watch and reproduced here with the author’s permission.