William Easerly, the economist and skeptic about aid to Africa, has penned a valuable essay on Obama’s rich speech on U.S. relations with Africa and the region’s own future. In the windup, though, Easterly hijacks Obama’s speech in order to reinforce support for his own take on Africa. In laying out his own well-established ideas on the occasion of Obama’s visit to Ghana, the essay gives Easterly — a brilliant polemicist and an enormously-talented economist — a fresh chance to show-off, scoring points that make him seem smart at the expense of others. Notably, he once again portrays Africans themselves as innocent bystanders, passive victims in a global con game. In doing so, he runs the risk of demeaning Africans — and reinforcing delusional notions of Western superiority (including his own). His central notion — Bottoms Up — ignores the importance of leadership — a success factor that can be exaggerated but is nonetheless critical. He makes the same intellectual sin as many utopian leftists — in thinking that small disconnected initiatives can together add up to a sea-change. They do not. Go look at India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil — in all these cases rapid development occured, to a great degree, because of Top Down leadership. Even in India’s case, where the leadership came significantly more the private sector and civil society.
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