WE are all wringing our hands over the plight of failing, unstable regions of the Third World, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. But there is little consensus on what the American response should be. Many liberals blame the West and racism for the Third
World's ills, and believe that democracy and foreign-aid programs can defeat historical, cultural, and environmental forces that have been at work for centuries. Some conservatives think that the free market is the answer to everyone's problems; other conservatives think that even a display of interest in a place like Africa indicates naive do-goodism. At one extreme is Pat Buchanan, at the Mexican border with a gun and a black cowboy hat, holding off the tide of darker peoples. At the other extreme is Mrs. Jellyby, in Dickens's Bleak House, whose eyes "could see nothing nearer than Africa!" Mrs. Jellyby let her London household go to ruin while she wrote letters all day in support of a tribe on the Niger River. Caught among the various mindsets are well-meaning Washington bureaucrats who are trying to craft workable policies on global humanitarian issues.
A durable foreign-aid consensus--one that might do gradual but unmistakable good where good can in fact be done--must be built on two seemingly contrary realizations:
* Although some human societies have made end runs around their own histories and environments, exceptionalism is, well, the exception. The fact that Africa continues to fall economically behind the Indian subcontinent (the second poorest region on the planet), despite billions spent on development assistance over the decades, amounts to an inescapable negative judgment. Not even Russia, with its 150 million people, 99 percent of whom are literate, can be pivotally affected by aid. To think that aid can fundamentally change sub-Saharan Africa, whose population is 3.75 times that of Russia and whose literacy rate is much, much lower, is to take a position that few people outside a narrow intellectual elite will accept. As our own historically high economic-growth rates fall, it is not even clear that American exceptionalism can be counted on: we will have less money in the future for foreign aid, not more.