Sometimes, good things happen for bad reasons. Leaders meeting at the G-8 summit in Scotland next week might announce an increase in well-designed aid for Africa, and (less likely) a new and more intelligent approach to the problem of global warming. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the meeting's chairman, has put these two issues at the top of the agenda. If those good things happen, it will not matter that the summit participants see this annual gathering mainly as a political stunt—a chance to gain praise for themselves and, where possible, deflect voters' discontent on to others (in this case, for seven of the eight, George Bush).
Nor will it matter much that so many of the arguments for new aid and climate-change initiatives are poorly thought through—or wrong. That, too, is unimportant. If good policies emerge, the anti-poverty and environmental campaigners, to whom a politically enfeebled Blair is pandering, will still deserve the credit.
In a way, of course, this is a pity: In a well-ordered world, it would be easier to derive good policies from good supporting analysis than from bad, and to achieve them through meetings where the aim is actually to design good policy rather than gull the public. But things do not always work that way. Sometimes in global politics, being wrong can be for the best.
The anti-poverty groups and their agonized champions in the media are right about one thing: The toll of suffering and deprivation in the world's poor countries—above all, in Africa—is the great moral scandal of our age. They also have a point when they say, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, that poverty in the developing world is "a core national security issue," and that "the United States cannot win the war on terrorism unless we confront the social and political roots of poverty." The anti-poverty campaigners have pushed the correct issue to the fore. But they are mostly wrong about what to do next.
Partly for rhetorical purposes, and in some cases because they really believe it, the anti-poverty campaigners talk as though Africa's plight is all the West's fault. Millions are dying needlessly, they argue, because the rich countries give too little aid, or because of "unjust trade," or because capitalism by nature depends and thrives on exploiting the weak. According to their worldview, merely by righting such wrongs and by being less greedy—so little to ask—the West can "make poverty history."
No, it cannot. Look at China, the development miracle of this era. Was foreign aid the key? Or suspicion of international trade? Has China thrived because the West finally decided to stop holding it back? Not exactly.
In Africa's case, the policies of the United States and Europe can make a difference, but the truth is that Africa's future (unfortunately for most Africans) depends mainly on the competence and integrity of its own governments. Over the years, billions of dollars in aid have been squandered or stolen in the region. Many African countries are rich in natural resources and other economic opportunities: Tyrants have pillaged or wrecked those, too.
The anti-poverty campaigners are not, one suspects, much in favor of America's attempt to install democracy and good government by force in Iraq—that is "neo-imperialism," in their view, and must be roundly deplored. Fine, but if the West is not going to rule Africa, its ambitions for the place must be correspondingly modest. "Making poverty history" (something that rich-country governments have failed to do even at home) does not qualify.
The doubling of aid that Blair is calling for, by itself, might achieve nothing. And it could achieve less than nothing if a new commitment to substantially increase aid were followed, as it might well be, by a failure so comprehensive that it discredited the idea that aid can ever work. Yet aid can work: The evidence is clear on this. The trouble is that the preconditions for the success of many kinds of aid are demanding—including, as they do, certain minimal standards of good government.
To put it another way, the quality of aid matters more than the quantity. If the quality could be increased, a doubling of aid would be affordable and self-justifying: The results would silence the skeptics. But if the quality cannot be increased, the West will be pouring out billions more with little effect except to keep bad governments in power, and the skeptics will be proved right again.