Africa is home to 350 million Christians out of a population of one billion, with Christianity first appearing there in the middle of the first century AD. Many of them celebrate Christmas with family and friends, with Christmas dinner, gift exchanges, church services, and carol singing. Much of it is reminiscent of our celebrations. One thing that they probably don't appreciate as much is the song "Do They Know It's Christmas," which we hear over and over.
Band Aid, a collection of some of the biggest names in rock music, released the hit single in 1984, in response to the famine in Ethiopia, which took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The tragedy screamed out for a response, but that reaction simply demonstrated the soft heads that accompanied soft hearts. While it did raise millions of dollars for famine relief, it perpetuated the mythology of African development.
For emotional appeal, the song promoted the idea that Africans are helpless, needing our beneficence: "it's a world of dread and fear," "Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears," "The Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom," "Where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow." The performers imply that all we need to do is to be generous, to feed the world. Then we could save the Africans from their own incompetence, ignorance and lack of resources.
The most striking thing about famines is that they are non-existent in regions that embrace markets and economic freedom. The reason is quite understandable. Under those circumstances, prices adjust freely according to supply and demand. When there is a crop failure or any type of food shortage, prices naturally rise. The supply declines while demand stays the same or increases. The higher prices encourage suppliers from out of the area to import goods to the stricken zone to capture extra profits. While that doesn't rely on goodness of heart to help starving people, the reality is that the flood of goods to the famine region quickly lowers prices and increases availability of food, with a definitely beneficial result.
Good intentions actually do damage when they promote policies that get in the way of market adjustment. Famine can occur only when prices are controlled or movements of goods or people are prevented, which brings us back to the song. The Ethiopian famine of the 1980s didn't start as a crop failure. It was the necessary, predictable result of politics. In the 1970s, the country experienced widespread insurgencies against the Marxist Derg government, with its state farms, extractive policies toward rural regions, very low fixed prices of grain, forced resettlement, and travel restrictions to prevent peasants from engaging in non-agricultural trade. The declaration of grain wholesalers as illegal exaggerated the problems, while international food-aid was redirected to supply the government militias.
In other words, the song and all of the fuzzy talk of helping the needy disregarded the underlying cause entirely. Many problems we face today extend from the same confused thinking. Africa is an assortment of physical environments, with drastically different social and political arrangements. While there is destitution, the entire continent is not starving. The areas that are having the most problems are the regions where markets, trade, and voluntary interaction are stifled or prevented by government intervention. The areas that are progressing are those that embrace freedom.
My wish this Christmas is that people will save good intentions for their own charity and recognize that the biggest obstacle to development and progress for the poor is the political manipulation and rights violations that they promote.
Daniel McLaughlin is a Randolph resident. Visit daniel-mclaughlin.com for more commentary, for links to other resources, or to leave a message.