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Africa is Rich

…as well as Poor. I don’t dispute, and I do care very much about changing, the well known material and health deprivation in Africa. But Life doesn’t have only one dimension.


These thoughts were prompted by a recent seven-day journey on foot through the highlands of North Wollo, Ethiopia.[1] Going through a district with no roads, no electricity, no wheeled vehicles, no source of energy other than animal and human power, threshing and winnowing grain with Biblical technology, amidst rock-walled villages with tukuls of sticks, mud, and thatch, no signs of “modernity” of any kind, you might think the focus could only be on poverty.

Yet I was struck also by many other things: the centuries-old Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, with a beautiful church in each village, the coffee ceremony associated with the homeland of coffee, the wonderful cuisine, the tenacious skill and hard work needed to reap a rich harvest of teff, wheat, and barley out of a rocky land, the hospitality of the villagers who invited us to share their homemade beer after church services, and – above all – the dignity of local people proud of their Amhara history and culture, who don’t consider themselves “the poor.”


These experiences were courtesy of a remarkable community tourism NGO called TESFA (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives).

Some development professionals acted as entrepreneurs with local communities, letting them in on the strange notion that some faranji would be delighted to pay large sums to do the hard work of climbing up and down escarpments. Aid agencies and embassies (Save the Children UK, Irish Aid, Dutch and British Embassies) provided start up capital to build guest camps.


Eschewing the voyeurism of marketing poverty itself (like a few tourism projects criticized on this blog), the villagers gradually realized that they were sitting on a tourism gold mine of spectacular scenery and rich culture. TESFA is now Ethiopian-run, and the emphasis is on local guides and villagers providing all the services to the trekkers who pass through, supplementing their incomes through offering something of great value in the world market for trekking destinations. (Adventure travelers and trekkers everywhere – you can’t miss this. You don’t have to be in great shape either – I wasn’t and was fine.)

Which brings me back to the idea: Africa is Rich, as well as Poor.

image008At home, we don’t value people around us only by their numerical income – we also recognize courtesy, classiness, intelligence, loyalty, familial devotion, community dedication, spirituality, peacefulness, creativity, beauty, style, kindness, athleticism, artistry, and many other dimensions.

So why do we insist on defining Africans only on the dimension in which Africa looks worst – material income – when on some other dimensions Africa compares well to the West?  Wouldn’t it be a lot less patronizing if we recognized the riches as well as the poverty of Africa?

[1] (obligatory caveat that generalizations about “Africa” based on one district are silly, but a way to start a conversation)

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  1. Adrian wrote:

    I’ve had similar opinions from trekking in Laos.

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 1:17 am | Permalink
  2. Joe wrote:

    I had a very similar experience in my time treking in Ethiopia in the Simien Mountains. I remember particularly being taken by our Scout/Guide (who I could only communicate to in sign language) to a traditional mud house for a coffee. He did so to help the woman of the house out, as we would pay. I sat down in the dark and leaned back on the makeshift sofa to find a small baby, while other children together with goats and chickens ran riot.

    Although I could not understand a word, the communication between the Scout and the lady was so warm, as well as his care for the children, I could understand a mutual concern for eachother’s lives. The coffee was lovingly prepared and was delicious. There was no shame and neither should there have been, just people doing their best, sharing the tourism revenue that I represented between them.

    That communal warmth of course still exists in the West, but perhaps not to the degree it once did. I agree with Bill and believe that this is a richness far more important than material wealth can ever be.

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 3:30 am | Permalink
  3. Jim wrote:

    If you’re genuinely interested in whether material incomes matter to Africans, you could try asking them (not the people running your holiday – after all, it’s in their economic interests to appear jolly). The work of Stevenson and Wolfers (‘Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox’) is based on a huge range of opinion surveys and establishes fairly conclusively that lower income is associated with lower life satisfaction, lower enjoyment, more depression, more loneliness and more boredom. Of course income is not necessarily the cause of all these things, but it is fairly clearly linked to a lot of what makes life more or less bearable.

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 3:46 am | Permalink
  4. Avam wrote:

    This is an interesting post, I do a lot of work surrounding these kind of issues (livelihoods, governance, tourism as an economic generator, capabilities and the use of capital assets). I didn’t know about this one (TESFA) – nice to see it is working well.

    On an unrelated issue, I wonder if Bill, you or a member of your team might respond to a query…I recently attended an lecture in the UK on Aid, by the (recently hired) Director of ODI – Dr. Alison Evans. The talk was underwhelming – heavily biased to be pro-aid (which I found troubling, I am not a staunch anti-aid advocate, and certainly don’t claim to be an expert, but her comments did not even attempt to provide a balanced approach). She cited (almost comically I thought) the ‘anti-aid’ as consisting of Easterly, Moyo and Paul Kagame and the pro as Gates, Sachs, Bono, and Geldof. She was clearly very pro-aid and this is interesting as it shows, to some extent, the policy recommendations that ODI will be making to DFID. The point that I found curious though (and what I’m interested to have a response to) was that at one point she stated that the “one area that Easterly would agree with me is that multi-lateral aid has been more effective than bi-lateral”, and that it would continue to be so, as small amounts of aid are pointless. I confess to reading your book some time ago, but I was under the impression that you are an advocate of specifically targeted bi-lateral aid?

    Interestingly, she also stated that while there was little data to show what/where aid had worked or not (and was not interested in those studies that claimed to), because of the anti-aid camp, the emphasis was now on short-term rather than long-term lending.

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 6:55 am | Permalink
  5. Avam wrote:

    Re Jim,

    I think income is clearly an important part of well-being, but many other studies have shown that other indicators (such as capital…social, natural etc) play an equally important role (indeed, even France just commissioned Stiglitz to make a report on the importance of utilising other well-being indicators over a pure GDP approach). Also, place also plays a part – those with more ‘natural’ capital and better resources, and which are also, say, subsistence farmers or fishers, will be better placed to live good lives, even if they don’t have large amounts of money.

    Resource use/context and place is a key element in any discussion of income vs well-being.

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 7:10 am | Permalink
  6. cynan_sez wrote:

    Nice. Did you enjoy a beer atop “the rock bar” as well Bill? I hiked with TESFA in September and was similarly stunned by their goldmine of geographical beauty — one which bests the nearby (but still amazing) cultural beauty of Lalibela in my view. And there were certainly no cringe-inducing aspects of so-called “voluntourism” nor “pourism” to the hike.

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  7. Rory Holland wrote:

    Great post. I have traveled in Central Africa for many years and often talk about scarcity and abundance. We in the west think we live in abundance and are compelled to give to those in “Africa” who live in scarcity. Once there though there is the realization that in fact it is we who live in scarcity – a culture that is focused on what we don’t have – rather than there where so often I am challenged by their celebration of what it is they do have – their abundance – even in the midst of the disease, hunger, or war.

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  8. Yay! Bill is alive! Think this part of Ethiopia you went to sounds cool. But maybe a hike through an urban African city (say, Lagos) might change your warm and cozy mind. ;p

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  9. enrico wrote:
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  10. Ana wrote:

    Well, I’m glad we get to enjoy some of the field experiences, and you were back writing in a computer before 2 weeks had passed. Enjoy!

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 11:17 pm | Permalink
  11. Torben wrote:

    Unfortunately well meaning people miss the obvious. Let me ask you what is the relationship between proper subset and universal set?

    Posted November 18, 2009 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  12. IdealistNYC wrote:

    I’m struggling with this post. On the one hand, I completely agree – Africa is both rich and poor. Just like any other place on earth, it often boils down to a matter of perspective.

    On the more cynical side, I can’t help but feel like you went on a very pretty vacation and came back all bouncy and happy and totally oblivious to the fact that this was ONE company in ONE small area of ONE part of Africa. You note this in your “caveat,” but simply including an asterisk does not absolve you from making the type of generalization for which you strongly criticize others. So there’s an environmentally friendly and locally owned tourism company in Ethiopia. So what? Where does this leave us on the underlying theme of this blog, namely foreign aid and how to spur economic development in Africa? It leaves us precisely no where. Clearly the entire continent of Africa cannot be sustained by locally operated tourism. So while I’m glad you had a lovely trip, this hardly seems to provide any academic basis for discussion.

    On the OTHER hand, I’m also left wondering if this was simply, in fact, povery porn tourism by another name. Is the issue with other tourism companies that you’ve lambasted simply how they market the product? If a group of Kenyan entrepreneurs living in slums in Kibera started a company providing tours of the slum to show how proud they are of their culture, is that ok? If not, what’s the difference? Simply that this location in Ethiopia had prettier scenery? Where do you draw the line between a tour that provides cultural education and tour that is “povert porn”? Is it simply a question of how the tour is marketed?

    Essentially, what leaves me uneasy about this piece is that it is so atypical for an “Easterly” post. There is no measurement here. How do you know the people you met were happy? How do you know that they were “rich”? If you don’t use material wealth as the measurement of richness, then what DO you use? And does this mean that only “happy/rich” people are allowed to benefit from tourism, or else it becomes poverty porn?

    It’s late and I’m tired, so I’ll leave these questions open for others to ponder.

    Posted November 18, 2009 at 1:49 am | Permalink
  13. Joe wrote:

    @ idealistNYC
    “How do you know the people you met were happy?”
    Should we hook them up to a neurological monitor to track their serotonin levels? Why not use something called social intelligence, you may have heard of it.

    The happinesss monitoring racket is the most autistic branch of experimental economics.

    Posted November 18, 2009 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  14. geckonomist wrote:

    I agree with IdealistNYC.
    I hope there was no individual who tried to open a guesthouse in that neighbourhood with his own money. He’d now be bust because of the free aid money his competitors received and probably keep receiving, in the name of sustainability.

    I also don’t understand why it ‘s important to be ethiopian owned. If I open a guesthouse in Africa, is that supposed to be less good according to Prof. Easterly? but when I die and the guesthouse goes to my kids – with African citizenship- the same investment is suddenly so much better?

    Maybe Prof. Easterly hasn’t noticed, but foreign investors – without a penny of aid – seem to do a pretty decent job in creating wealth for the odd billion poor Chinese.
    But indeed, let’s “buy american” in the US, and go Ethiopian in Ethiopia.
    Next year Prof. Easterly should go hiking in N-Korea. There must be goldmines of happiness to found as well. Can’t wait for the report.

    And it’s a real pity Prof. Easterly didn’t collect anecdotal evidence concerning the auction system for commodities that was the subject of a previous post here. He must have had the chance to ask the farmgate prices for coffee, wheat, etc. , who was buying, the government meddling, etc.

    Posted November 18, 2009 at 4:02 am | Permalink
  15. Avam wrote:

    Re: IdealistNYC “namely foreign aid and how to spur economic development in Africa? It leaves us precisely no where. Clearly the entire continent of Africa cannot be sustained by locally operated tourism. So while I’m glad you had a lovely trip, this hardly seems to provide any academic basis for discussion”

    I disagree, who said a tourism company could sustain the whole of africa? What can? Would anything of that nature be expected in the West even? (I can’t think of any one thing in the UK that sustains the Entire country, let alone a continent!??). Surely, the point is specifically targeted change/aid/development (however you want to call it) that makes a difference. If you have a job it makes a difference to You and your family/friends and those you come in contact with (both in terms of adding something to society, having money to spend etc.), and although you are an individual it affects the society at large. It is the sum of each individual that adds up to “a society” – so I cannot see how, if this programme is making a difference to some communities, it is pointless because it doesn’t sustain the entire continent. Without sounding overly cliched, and taking on board the necessity of broader macro-level change/aid flows, it is still a truism that small change is part Of larger change.

    Re it being poverty porn – isn’t that taking the whole “tourism is the pit of hell itself!” angle a bit too far? I think the dev field suffers when it becomes so PC it is indistinguishable from cultural relativism. Come on, the people in these countries aren’t always/necessarily the naive and completely voiceless people it seems they are so often labeled as. In the case of TEFSA, it would appear to work well, so why does it have to be compared to one that doesn’t work well? That’s like saying ‘I’m not buying one type of computer’, because ‘this other type is always breaking’.

    Re: How do you distinguish between ‘cultural education’ and ‘poverty porn’ – I would say it has a lot to do with the tour/place in question, how slums are viewed and how the locals (both genders) feel about it. My background is with India, not Africa, and in my experience, Indians (including those living in the slums) are generally quite happy to show people around the slums or other poor areas (regardless of my Own reticence to such an endevour) and 2) while many people want to leave the slums, of course, others do choose to stay – even after changes in income – due to their relations with their neighbours, and indeed the slums are microcosms of entire diverse/working communities. (see one tour below which gives 80% to local NGOS/charities working with the slums)
    “It seemed to me that the purpose of the tour was not to generate pity, but understanding.”
    -Smithsonian Magazine (USA)

    Does that mean I think the existence of slums is ok? (no, clearly the aim is better housing for all and eradication of poverty), but the point is that, in this case, the people of India place a Lot of emphasis on community, social engagement and being around people – perhaps due to it being such a diverse and largely populated country – are very entrepreneurial, and are usually keen to show all the aspects of India (poor and rich).

    Re the link above, before you judge it too harshly, you might want to look at the ‘staff’ and FAQ page. Like you, I’m also critical about a lot of tourism projects – and I think it’s right to be so (e.g. I’m not a fan of many ‘eco-tourism’ tours) – but surely each tourism project needs to be judged on its own merits with regard to the locals in question – like Any other project would be and not in terms of its worth to an entire country (let alone continent!?)

    Posted November 18, 2009 at 5:36 am | Permalink
  16. Alan Hudson wrote:

    One response to Bill’s interesting post might be that the excessively dominant economistic paradigm has tended to focus on income as a measure of well-being to the exclusion of other things that can’t be easily quantified.

    See the Stiglitz-chaired Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress for useful consideration of alternatives

    Posted November 19, 2009 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  17. Alan wrote:

    Rich in spirit, rich in culture, perhaps but those are not all that matter just as being rich (in monetary terms) is not all despite what some Westerners think.

    Posted November 19, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  18. E Aboyeji wrote:

    “Maybe Prof. Easterly hasn’t noticed, but foreign investors – without a penny of aid – seem to do a pretty decent job in creating wealth for the odd billion poor Chinese.”

    Funny how libertrians are using half truths peddled by some of Bill’s proteges to bite him in the ass. Someone had better tell this individual that it is the government of china and not “foreign investors” that are responsible for those “odd billion jobs”

    Posted November 19, 2009 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  19. Ken Smith wrote:

    “At home, we don’t value people around us only by their numerical income”

    Well I spent a few months unemployed here in the UK and I felt pretty undervalued , pretty quickly. I think one of the things we have to learn from Africa is how to find true value.

    Posted November 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  20. Raphael wrote:

    Does anything important in development have to have a confidence interval associated with it? Does every observation have to have a control group?

    Yes, this is one case. Yes, this is an annecdote. But case studies, stories, and annecdotes do have value. They give us deapth, experience, and highlight issues/ideas that a purely quantitative perspective would miss.

    I am all for statistical analysis. Better yet, mixed methods. But please remember that there is more than one way of getting at what matters.

    Posted November 24, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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