World poverty

If there is a single worthiest cause, a goal most deserving of our best efforts, that goal may be the alleviation of world poverty. That is not the only reason I favor open borders, but it is the biggest. It was to try to do something about world poverty that I enrolled in the MPA/ID program at the Kennedy School of Government ten years ago. I had lived in Prague, far from the poorest place in the world but certainly poorer than the US, and traveled through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Turkey. I felt the guilt of privilege. I had a very high opinion of my own intelligence then, and when I was admitted to the MPA/ID program, I was confident I could be useful, somehow, though I had no idea how. Afterwards, I went to the World Bank, and spent a couple of months, in the spring of 2004, on a project in Malawi.

It may be that by the time I’m an old man, such poverty as I saw in Malawi will have vanished from the world for good. Malawi has improved since I was there (nothing to do with my work), though it’s still one of the poorest countries in the world. At that time, it was chronically on the brink of hunger. There had been, not quite a famine, but a food shortage in 2002. I was there in the spring, and my colleagues would look at the maize fields and say it wasn’t enough, they foresaw hunger coming. A Peace Corps volunteer I met, who had been there during the hunger in 2002, said she had seen someone dead in the road, dead simply of hunger. I was told that people from the cities visiting their relatives in the villages in those days would bring food, but with a layer of clothes on top. If stopped, they would claim they were delivering clothes. Food would be stolen. That’s hearsay, but I saw plenty with my own eyes. There were beggars everywhere. That seems to be a cultural difference, in part, for even well-off Malawians would ask you for stuff. One group of young people we met and spent an evening with had jobs in government ministries, yet afterwards they sent us an e-mail explaining their problems and asking for a few hundred dollars. But most of the beggars really were desperate.

There was a general lack of professionalism. I was working with people from the Malawian statistical agency. We would work 9am to 4pm, at a leisurely pace, which I was always pushing, and then they’d go home and I’d go back to the World Bank offices and keep working. The culture is relaxed. Indeed, the people were as friendly and pleasant as the weather. Americans, by contrast, seem much busier and more stressed. This is only an impression, and I don’t want to give offense, but it seemed to me that Malawians exhibit a good deal less forethought than Americans, or Europeans, or Russians do. It’s not an American thing, nor even a Western thing: in China, I had a very different impression, and I suspect that the Chinese practice forethought as much as Americans do. And doubtless there are exceptions among Malawians; but that did seem to be the pattern. If a Malawian had a full belly– again, take it with a grain of salt, but it was my impression– he was happy. That’s good in a way, but it doesn’t contribute to the long-term planning that grows the economy.

I was there on an education project and saw the schools close up. It may be hard for Westerners to comprehend how bleak the situation is. A typical primary school has grades 1 through 8 under one roof. In grade (standard, they call it) 1, there might be 200 students. In grade 2, a good deal less. By the time you get to 8th grade, there are, say, 25. Then they have to take an exam to go on to secondary school. They also had to pay. Very little by our standards, a few dollars a month or so, but still. So by the time you get to secondary school, this is actually rather a narrow elite, far narrower, relative to the population, than college graduates are in the US. But even then (and of course the primary schools are worse), there’s no glass on the windows, no electric lighting, usually no desks or chairs. We would ask principals what they need. A night watchman or a fence to prevent the shingles on the outhouse from being stolen. One thing the schools did have was textbook, delivered directly to the schools by the Canadian government. However, the textbooks were in English. I once conducted an interview with the “head boy” at one of the schools, supposedly one of the best students. I had the (bad) idea of maybe including that in the survey we were designing. The questions were very simple, e.g., “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My colleague had to translate for me. The head boy didn’t know even that much English. I had to wonder how useful the Canadian government’s textbooks were.

We visited the university. It was during what should have been final exam week. But the students were on strike. As far as I remember, they had wanted the professor to reschedule an exam so they could go to the funeral of one of the students, and he refused. So they went on strike. The campus was deserted. I felt a kind of indignation. These were university students, a tiny elite compared to the Malawian population. Not more than 1 in hundreds, possibly thousands, of Malawians graduated university. Educated people were so scarce. The country needed them so badly, as I had seen first-hand in the form of a lack of competent colleagues. And here they were, disrupting their studies, leaving the beautiful campus– a poor campus by US standards but so much nicer than the schools I had seen hitherto– deserted, wasted. On the other hand, their reason was somewhat respectable. But it seemed like it should have been easy to patch up the quarrel and get on with their studies. I couldn’t help feeling they didn’t value them much.

The AIDS epidemic was raging and signs of it were everywhere. Indeed, one of the things that struck me immediately when I arrived was the extreme youthfulness of the population. I was only 26, but I felt decidedly middle-aged there. I think the median age was about 14. I’m a tall man even in America, 6’4″, but if I sat down on the public transport there I felt like an absolute giant. Part of this youthfulness reflected high birthrates and fast population growth, but I think much of it was due to AIDS deaths, which especially cut down people in the prime of life, mostly sparing the old. One saw coffins advertised everywhere. Literally. One of the problems with school budgets is that they sometimes diverted money to pay for teachers’ coffins. A Rhodesian guy I met in Blantyre, the only foreigner I met who had married an African albeit she was from Mozambique, not Malawi, who ran a trucking company, said his truck drivers were constantly dying of AIDS.

One of the most striking features of life in Malawi was that every stand-up business– I don’t recall a single exception– was run by a foreigner of some sort. There were Europeans, mostly British but I recall a German and an Italian, too; Indians; Arabs, mostly Lebanese; white “Rhodesians” exiled from the country now called Zimbabwe after Mugabe took power; and even a couple of Chinese. By “stand-up business” I mean the kind of place that has walls and a roof and a cash register. Malawians would sell charred maize on the streets, or nuts, and they’d walk around selling odds and ends, bicycle parts, T-shirts, ties… an odd mix of stuff, and not usually what one wanted. The foreigners were a tiny part of the population, surely less than 1%, and they didn’t have a political advantage: the government was run by Malawians. It made a deep impression on me: human capital matters! What was it, exactly, that the foreigners had that the Malawians didn’t? Maybe forethought, or maybe just literacy and numeracy, or maybe centuries and millennia of civilization are communicated through one’s upbringing in ways one only half-remembers. Anyway, the foreigners managed a living standard which I would rate not much below that of the median Westerner in the West, albeit it was quite a different lifestyle. People and land were cheap, and entrepreneurship was probably easier in some ways because there was less competition, but you had to be your own boss, you had to know how to do lots of things that you’d hire people to do in the West. Books were scarce. I remember when we moved into a guesthouse, the landlady was showing us around, and one of the things she highlighted was a bookshelf full of romance novels that she said we could borrow. Who wants to read someone else’s books? In the West, with its libraries and bookstores and Amazon, the offer would sound odd. But there, Amazon took months to ship, there were no libraries, and there seemed to be about two bookstores in the capital with maybe a couple of hundred serious titles.

The foreigners– the term is not quite satisfactory, actually, for some had lived in Malawi, and many had lived in Africa, their whole lives, but they were still absolutely European, or Asian, or whatever: that they would assimilate to the black Malawian majority was as inconceivable to them as it would have been, I suppose, to the Malawians– tended to clump together. What was it exactly that we had in common? Origins made some difference– I mingled with Europeans more easily than Arabs or Chinese, though I did spend a delightful evening in an Indian bar and made friends with them– but foreign vs. Malawian was the big divide. Fluent English was probably part of it: though English is an official language of Malawi, relatively few speak it well. Education was surely part of it. But ultimately I think forethought, civilization, being shaped by centuries of culture and history, large horizons, knowing the world, was the main difference. Having said that, though, education could close some of that gap. Now, as a World Bank consultant, I was quite a different kind of foreigner than the local expats. Among other things, I was more politically correct. The expats there could be very racist. Europeans seemed to have some awareness that they should curtail open racism in front of an American like me, though they sometimes went far enough to make me uncomfortable. The Asians and Indians were blunter. “These people are animals, animals,” said an Indian bartender. Direct quote. “Give them an inch and they’ll bite your arm off,” said an Indian bartender, and I heard many similar things. I had seen absolutely nothing in Malawians’ behavior to warrant this; on the contrary. On the other hand, he had lived there his whole life, so I didn’t want to be too dismissive. No doubt he knew things I didn’t. Sometimes I didn’t like hanging out with the expats for that reason. Yet I did. I suppose it wasn’t just that I got along with them better. They expected it. They invited. The Malawians saw me as different. Oil and water. Most of the time.

But the ice was sometimes broken.

It was my first weekend in Malawi, and I had been working in the capital all week. I felt like I was in a bubble. Lilongwe, the capital, was a huge contrast to the West of course. In terms of brick-and-mortar structures and paved roads and whatnot, it seemed to have about the capital endowment of Louisville, Colorado, the town where I grew up, yet it was a city of 500,000 people, scattered through a sort of mingled shantytowns and maize fields, or at any rate that was my impression. Travellers’ tales are proverbially unreliable; take it all with a grain of salt. My point is that while Lilongwe was visibly poor, I knew that 80% of the population was rural, and I wanted to see the real Malawi. I had a Lonely Planet guide and picked a destination, some sort of national park, but I didn’t really care too much where I ended up. What I really wanted to see was all around. As I left the capital, the road was initially paved with quite a few cars, then gravel with some cars, then it went over a precarious wooden bridge, then it turned into dirt, and there were no cars now but me. But the road was heavily used. Crowds of people walked along it, particularly women, carrying huge bundles on their heads. I went through some little towns. Though the road was fairly broad, I felt a bit bad driving down it in my huge SUV (necessary because of the poor quality of the roads), because the many pedestrians had to move to the sides of the road for me. All heads turned towards me as I passed. They didn’t see cars often. Still less cars with white men in them, I suppose.

What made me feel intensely guilty is that I was driving past so many women. Women carrying huge loads on their heads. If I saw a woman carrying a heavy load in the US, I’d offer to help. Men are supposed to do the heavy lifting. That’s chivalry. But in this case, my masculine strength wasn’t even the point: I had a huge car, with lots of extra space in it. Surely I could offer a ride? I figured it wouldn’t be proper to invite a woman walking by herself, but I naively supposed that a group of women might be more receptive. I looked for one and found one: three women, who seemed to be a mother, daughter, and grandmother. I thought the mother, who might not have accepted for her own sake, might accept for her daughter’s sake, or the old woman’s, and that the three of them, together, wouldn’t be afraid of me. So I pulled over and offered a ride. How absurd. They were terrified. What does the big white man want? They didn’t know enough English to understand what I was saying. Seemingly in a panic, they acted sort of fearfully respectful and mystified, waiting out the interview hoping not to get in trouble. I apologized, not that they understood that either, and drove on, feeling like an utter fool.

Later, after visiting the (unimpressive) national park, I went through a village, where I had another experience with ineptly attempting to help. I stopped to buy a Coke, which, interestingly, penetrates even to the remotest and most destitute villages. I stopped the car and began to walk through the streets of the village. Goats played in the streets, and chickens. And as I looked for a store, children began to follow me, a big crowd of African children, silently, with hungry eyes. Not expecting anything, perhaps; but hoping. I had hardly anything to give them, except a single apple. I felt very guilty again, and so, not knowing what to do, I tossed the apple. One of the children caught it, and started running. The others chased him. I felt terrible. The apple of discord. Maybe I just got the kid injured.

It had rained in the afternoon, and the roads became muddy. In the national park, I’d had a scary experience getting stuck in the mud, and had taken what seemed like an hour, though it was probably much less, to get free. Now I found I didn’t know the way back to Lilongwe. I was not on the same road by which I had come. I knew the general direction and was on a large road. I kept going. The road got muddier, and muddier. I kept thinking of turning back, then thought maybe it would improve, then thought that if I try to turn around now I’m certain to get stuck. Muddier still. And now it was going downhill, and I was afraid of really losing control. I would have to go for it. I tried to turn around. Into one ditch, and out of it. Into another ditch, and I was stuck, hopelessly stuck. I stopped the car.

I wasn’t out in the wild, this time. I was in the middle of maize fields. People began to gather around, appearing out of the fields. When there was a large crowd, they offered to help. I wanted to refuse. It seemed hopeless, the huge SUV, the deep mud. Obviously, I needed the help. I couldn’t deny that. But I felt a miserable certainty that nothing would come of it, that they would waste their scarce strength and the car would still be there, immovable. I felt horribly guilty now. However, they didn’t know enough English to understand my attempts at refusal. And so the large crowd was standing below the car and pushing with all their might. Sometimes I got out, took off my shoes, with my feet in the mud, and pushed too. Sometimes I got behind the wheel and tried to use the engine. After a long struggle, they did it. Even after the car was out of the ditch, I still felt sure it would slide off the road again, though some of the young men ran alongside the car pushing from the side to steady it. But finally, the ground became sufficiently dry that I knew I was OK.

I stopped the car and out to face them.

I had almost nothing to give them. I had very little cash, not more than a couple of dollars’ worth. I had felt guilty enough not having money for the begging children, though they had done nothing in particular to deserve it. These people had saved me from a very bad situation by strenuous effort and at some risk. I asked who the chief was– that was my takeaway from the apple-of-discord episode with the begging children: work through existing authority structures so as not to create new conflicts about resource distribution– and gave him the little money I had as thanks, but then I promised to come back the next week and give them something from the city. I did fulfill that promise, else I’d be too ashamed to tell this story. I asked them what I should bring.

“Maize,” was the only reply. “There is much hunger.”

That surprised me. I knew they were poor. But we were in the middle of maize fields. I thought if they had a chance to get something from the city, from a foreigner who was in their debt and presumably had enough money to afford lots of things they couldn’t usually buy, they would ask for something fancier. Oil and spices. Cookware. But no: maize.

The story seems like a parable of some sort, but I’m not sure what particular lesson to draw from it. Mainly, it just made vivid for me the reality of deep poverty. Those of us, people, countries, that have means need to try, hard, to help. Most of the charitable causes we contribute to are almost unserious next to the challenge of world poverty. Breast cancer research? Contribute to the old alma mater? OK, if you must. Better than nothing. But there are a billion people living like those Malawians, more or less. Details will differ a good deal, but the deprivation would be similarly intense. And then there are a couple more billions– in Tajikistan, for example, where I also worked for the World Bank and for another organization later on– that are not as badly off as the Malawians but still live blighted, bleak lives compared to what people in the West enjoy, with far fewer opportunities to realize the good life, to thrive, to be creative and free and comfortable. I remember about twelve years ago, just before I started the MPA/ID program, reading A Citizen’s Guide to the Bush Tax Cut by Paul Krugman in which he admitted that the federal government spends nearly half of its money helping old people and then saying that he favored that because he thought it made us a kinder and more decent society, or something like that, and my reaction seems naive now but I think it was the right one: it was moral horror that a man who, unlike most Americans, is smart enough to understand the problem of world poverty, could tolerate lavishing trillions on American seniors, many of them already affluent, when there are so many tens or hundreds of millions of children in Africa without decent education or medicine or sometimes even enough to eat. That said, after working in foreign aid some, I do understand how difficult it is to get the money to people who need it, and how many harmful side-effects it can cause.

Which brings me to open borders. It’s hard to know for sure, but I think most experts would probably agree that open borders could do more to ameliorate world poverty than anything else we can do. I would say with a good deal of confidence that they could do far more, that everything else we can do is pretty much trivial by comparison. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe my story about getting stuck in the mud is a parable after all. For when I tried to help, offering a ride and then tossing the apple, it didn’t work. The offer was not understood, or the gift caused a fight. But the villagers in Msinja– I should have mentioned the name before now– enjoyed the dignity of being repaid for a service well rendered. I went back to Msinja the next week, with a car loaded with maize (though not the kind they wanted as it turned out, but oh well) and also vegetables, and– this was the best part– a soccer ball! The boys had been playing soccer (football) in the field using a wad of paper bags. I will never forget how their eager eyes followed me after they thought they heard me mention (in English, to the one woman in the village who knew some) a soccer ball; nor how they jumped and cheered when they saw it. They gave us tea, and I was introduced to the whole village, three generations of a few intermarried extended families, people for whom a job as, say, a supermarket checkout clerk in Lilongwe would have been the end of the rainbow, people of the kind from whom I was usually separated by the alienation of beggar and benefactor, but with whom, for once, I now chatted and laughed as equals. We are, at the end of the day, one humanity, and there is great joy in that. This post may have made some people more afraid of open borders. One might approve of the Malawians as I have described them but not want them as neighbors. That will not do. We have a responsibility to our fellow men, and aid will never discharge it: it’s too ineffective, and it doesn’t give people the dignity that work gives. We need to be less squeamish, and less cowardly. We need to open up to far more people the doors of opportunity.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

4 thoughts on “World poverty”

  1. Fantastic post, Nathan!

    Do you have any guesses as to why the Malawians were in such desperate need of maize when it was all around them? Was it being sold for export at a price they could not pay?

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