Kristof: Are Poor Africans Bad Parents?

Columnist laments that some spend more money on partying than on their children's education

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The impoverished families of Sub-Saharan Africa face many problems: poor governance, sluggish economies scarce in good jobs, frail civil society, and in some cases the specter of violent conflict. But what if one problem those families face is their own spending habits? Writing from the Congo, the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, a tireless crusader on behalf of Africa's poor, makes the unusual and provocative case that some are making their situation worse by spending money irresponsibly. Here's his argument and the discussion he's started.

  • 'Much Suffering' Caused by 'Shortsighed' Spending  Nicholas Kristof declares, "if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children's prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households." He speaks to a Congolese family, who are behind on their $6 monthly rent, have no $6 mosquito nets despite losing two children to malaria, and whose son faces expulsion from school for late tuition, which is $2.50 per month. Yet the family spends $30 per month on cigarettes. A similarly troubled Congolese family spends twice as much on cigarettes and alcohol.
  • Spending More on Alcohol and Cigarettes  In an influential paper, MIT's Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo report that those living on less than $1 per day often spend more on cigarettes, alcohol, and prostitution than they do on their childrens' education. Kristof summarizes: "The world's poor typically spend about 2 percent of their income educating their children, and often larger percentages on alcohol and tobacco ... The indigent also spend significant sums on soft drinks, prostitution and extravagant festivals."
  • Understanding This Behavior in the Right Context  AidWatch's William Easterly and Laura Freschi ask, "Is it really such a big surprise that the poor also want recreation? That the poor have a life? Including some of the same vices that the rich have?" They explore the absence of $6 mosquito nets as an example. "Could it be that outsiders make simplistic assumptions about the perceived value of bed nets to people like Mr. Obamza?" They suggest, "Perhaps it is that parents do not really believe in the efficacy of nets, drugs, or water purification tablets. ... belief in the scientific theories underlying all these products is not so easy to achieve in a poor society."
  • This Behavior Far From Exclusive to African Poor  African history professor Laura Seay fumes that Kristof "not only presents the case of one family in one village in one country as representative of the entire African continent, but also manages to condescend to the people he purports to 'understand' by stereotyping every poor man on the continent as a lazy drunk. ... while of course there are poor parents with misplaced priorities who neglect their children in Africa, there are also neglectful parents in Paris and Tokyo and Lima and Bangalore and Des Moines and Oslo and even the Upper West Side."
  • 'Blame-the-Poor' Siddhartha Mitter, who often writes on Africa, scoffs at Kristof, "The Great White Savior really outdid himself with this one. A blame-the-poor classic with particularly overt Calvinist moral messaging, even less appreciation than usual for colonial legacy, public finance and global economics, and that condescending Kristof brand of Savior Feminism Lite that verges on misandry."
  • Classic Colonialist View U.S.-based South African blogger Sean Jacob laments what he says are Kristof's "19th century views in which Westerners, and particularly white Westerners, decide whats good for poor, third world, mostly black, particularly black people."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.