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France’s President Is Wrong About Africa. It Doesn’t Need Fewer Kids, But Better Institutions


French President Emmanuel Macron stepped in it recently at the G20 summit. For those who don’t care much for smug European leaders with messiah complexes, it was fun to see this happen to the second coming of Barack Obama. Having a bit of the shine knocked off him is also a good thing for him, his country, and his supporters. Republics need to have realistic expectations of their leaders, especially a country in its fifth try at republican government.

Macron’s misstep was to speak at a press event in a way that suggested he believes some cultures are better than others if the question is “What cultures are more conducive to economic progress?” As a man of the Left, Macron must always officially avow cultural relativism, but as a technocrat he knows better. That is, he knows that some cultures are more conducive to development while others retard development.

Technocrats in the development and foreign aid world speak this way privately all the time, acknowledging that as long as a given people group embrace cultural values that prevent the growth of institutions of justice, democratic order, and free market activity, they will not experience robust and lasting economic growth. But you can’t say that publicly without fear of being labeled a racist or at least an elitist.

It is a good thing for rational dialogue and eventual progress for leaders like Macron to accidentally tell the truth publicly, even if his unforced truth-telling was incomplete.

A Lot of What Macron Said Was Right

Here is what happened: at a G20 press conference, a reporter from Ivory Coast asked Macron a simple question about foreign aid: “Why isn’t there a Marshall Plan for Africa?” Macron gave a long and meandering answer that raised eyebrows and even ire in some circles. His answer contained some kernels of truth about development aid, but it was far from a satisfying answer.

What he got right was rejecting the reporter’s implied comparison between modern-day Africa’s development needs and post-World War II Europe’s needs. Macron didn’t elaborate, but one can assume he meant that Europe in 1945 was devastated and in great need of democratic order, stability, and all the political institutions that provide for economic growth; but because Europe had a history of democracy and market economies and a culture that had provided them in the past and could do so again, Europe and Africa are not alike.

Much of Africa has never enjoyed home-grown democratic institutions launched from a culture that can build and sustain them as well as the free market and entrepreneurial activity necessary to growth that distributes wealth among the creators of it. Macron was also right to list other problems like failed states; trafficking in persons, drugs, and arms; and Islamist terrorism.

Then He Stepped In It

Macron began to get into trouble when meandering into a cultural explanation with these words: “The challenge of Africa, it is totally different [from post-war Europe], it is much deeper, it is civilizational, today” (emphasis mine). Thus the French president dangerously began to make a cultural argument. Forgetting that he was not closeted in the Élysée Palace with his admiring subordinates, he said “a successful demographic transition when countries still have seven to eight children per woman — you can decide to spend billions of euros, you will not stabilize anything.” In making this cultural reference, Macron offended the Left and the Right, but for different reasons.

The Left was offended—and a social media firestorm ensued—because he appeared to blame Africa’s problems at least partly on African women having “too many” children. Now, the Left, most of which favors abortion on demand, contraception, and even sterilization programs, isn’t bothered by someone saying there are too many people in the world or that fertility rates need to be brought down almost everywhere. Rather, they are offended that someone from the rich West should appear to blame the victims (developing countries) for their problems rather than blaming the developed countries and certainly former colonial powers for the problems.

And to appear to lecture the developing world at a G20 Summit was just too much. People were triggered. The purveyors of the flawed Malthusian idea that there are too many people as opposed to too little wealth creation are happy to tell others what to do, but not in public. That is to be handled through development programs, where the real goals are cloaked under the guise of foreign aid efforts.

But Macron offended the Right, too. First, he appeared to be saying that the solution to Africa’s development problems is money: “You can decide to spend billions of euros, you will not stabilize anything.” Fifty years of foreign aid programs and hundreds of billions of dollars spent have not solved the development problem. Only private enterprise has done that and in numerous countries once poor but now wealthy or climbing the development ladder.

One can argue quite convincingly that in many cases foreign aid has caused countries to regress on the path to development, as Dambisa Moyo does well in her book “Dead Aid” and the Acton Institute’s documentary “Poverty, Inc.”

There Is No Such Thing As ‘Too Many People’

Second, Macron appears to suggest that he really does agree with the cognoscenti at the Aspen Institute and the Davos Forum that “too many people” are indeed the problem and must be solved before economic development can take off. Thus, he repeated an idea that is not simply fraught with moral problems but also just plain wrong. To borrow from Talleyrand, his answer in terms of practical consequences “was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.”

Perhaps the French president needs to brush up on his cultural anthropology and economic history. People in developing countries have bigger families—that is, they try to conceive a large number of children—for many reasons. The simple fact that many cultures see children as a blessing is one of those reasons; sometimes religion teaches them this, sometimes their traditions and customs.

But importantly for the poor in developing countries, children are also a means to economic security. Grown children provide care in parents’ old age, and when they are young they can contribute to the family’s needs, such as in helping with agricultural tasks or earning money working in an urban environment. No one should celebrate the need for children to work in place of getting a good and full education and enjoying leisure. Nor should we laud a socio-economic system that cannot engender a robust economy where family savings and investment can provide for parents in old age.

But the reality is that for many of the world’s poor, children are indeed a blessing for the way they can help the family unit survive. Lest we forget, it was that way in the West before the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Families were larger, children worked a lot, but all that began to change as the two revolutions changed the circumstances. Only when parents could provide more wealth for their families did the average size of families begin to drop.

Why would we expect Africans to be different from Europeans and Americans on this front? After all, a few African countries are already seeing reductions in family size as families prosper and their countries climb the development ladder (e.g., Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa).

Kids Aren’t the Problem, Institutions Are

And how do families prosper? They do so in a free society where the institutions of justice and property rights are protected by law, where the people can change their government at the ballot box when it is venal or incompetent, and where they can exercise their creative and entrepreneurial talents and labor in a free market. That is what the poor need, not lectures from elitists about how many children they should have.

President Macron demonstrates the tragedy of much of our political leadership today. He cannot say what is true and therefore necessary for real change—in this case economic development—without bringing condemnation on his head. But even when he accidentally lurches into the truth, he cannot offer real solutions because he is still wedded to flawed ideas that ignore who the human person is. That is, he can’t acknowledge what people hold dear and how they naturally improve their circumstances if given the opportunity to flourish in freedom and a democratic capitalist order.

The great shame of the West relative to foreign aid and international development policy for the last several decades has been these flawed ideas and how they have harmed the world’s poor instead of helping them. At long last, it is time to reject these ideas and embrace the only thing that can improve the lot of the poor: policies based on free markets and free peoples.