What does Africa need?

One of the most influential trade theorists of his generation, Jagdish Bhagwati is a professor of economics at Columbia University and a Senior Fellow in International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 1991-1993 Bhagwati was an Economic Policy Advisor to Arthur Dunkel, the Director of GATT. For the World Trade Organization, he has been an External Advisor to the WTO and has served on the Expert Group on the Future of the WTO appointed by the Director General. Bhagwati has been a Special Advisor to the UN on Globalization. He was also on the Advisory Committee to Secretary General Kofi Annan on the NEPAD process in Africa, and a member of the Eminent Persons Group under the chairmanship of President Fernando Henrique Cartoso on the future of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Bhagwati is the recipient of several prizes and honorary degrees, including Gold and Silver Stars from Japan's Order of the Rising Sun and the Padma Vibhushan from the government of India. The author and/or editor of over fifty volumes and over three hundred articles, Bhagwati's articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The New Republic and The Times Literary Supplement. He founded the Journal of International Economics in 1971 and another journal, Economics & Politics, in 1989.

His most recent books are In Defense of Globalization (2004) and Free Trade Today (2002); his early books, particularly India: Planning for Industrialization (1970) and India (1975) opened the doors for current economic reform in India; on these reforms he was advisor to India's Finance Minister, now Prime Minister.

Bhagwati has delivered lectures at many top educational institutions and appeared on television shows including the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour, the Charlie Rose Show and Bloomberg. He is a director of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Fellow of the Econometric Society, a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association, on the board of the Academic Advisory Board of Human Rights Watch, Asia and on the Council of the Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency. The recipient of many awards, among them the Mahalanobis Memorial Medal, the Bernhard Harms Prize, the Kenan Prize, the John R. Commons Award, the Freedom Prize and the Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy, he has been awarded honorary degrees from several universities.

Jagdish Bhagwati graduated from Cambridge University in 1956 and continued his studies at MIT and Oxford. Before joining the faculty at Columbia, he was a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, the Delhi School of Economics, and MIT. 

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Jagdish Bhagwati: That depends on what you came out of, what you had to unwind. I would say that India had too much knee-jerk intervention. You saw a problem and you said the government had to solve it. Now as a result, it led to so much governmental intervention that we allow licensing of all kinds of things and so on.

We were a bit naïve. I myself was on that bus actually when I first went back from England. But I got off the bus rather fast after seeing what was happening. The bureaucrats love the power that they got as a result of handing out licenses. It’s not that they became particularly corrupt; but they enjoyed the power. And the politicians, of course, made money out of it. And some bureaucrats did get corrupt.

As a result, the bad ideas we have led to a set of institutions like licensing which led to their own lobbies and interests and so on; which then gelled into a very unproductive, counterproductive machine.

When we came in and said, “Look we gotta dismantle it,” it’s very hard. And now we have managed to dismantle a fair amount of it, but there’s still some ways to go.

Now the lesson from this is that when you think about things like corruption, for example which, you know, all World Bank presidents have been worried about, and ___________ is worried about and so on, and we ourselves are worried about actually to the point where I must tell you is in my classroom, when I teach foreign aid because it’s come back as a topic. I ___________ 30 years ago, 20 years ago. I put it aside, and now it’s back.

So I say, “Look. Are you with Jeffrey Sachs on Africa, where you raise the aid immediately to very high levels – 0.5 percent of GNP or something from its current 0.1 or something?” So it’s a four to fivefold increase. And then you keep it at a plateau.

Or I said, “Do you think that if you raise it that fast, that it will lead to a lot of corruption and counterproductive things?” And then of course people who stop giving aid say it will go down like that. So that’s another possibility if you follow the Sachs approach of raising it immediately.

And I said the third possible part is where you steadily identify projects and programs. And it is possible to do that if you put a lot of work into it and systematically do it. And you gradually raise the thing to 0.5 percent. Maybe it will take 15 years, but you know it is building on itself.

But 75 percent of the kids in a class of over 150 people chose the gradualist one. All of them said Sachs was going to go this way. And the most vocal critics were African students. They had seen a lot of corruption. They didn’t want aid.

I said, “Look. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” But the point is this, why did this happen? Because we rush in with monies without looking at how exactly it will be used. We want to throw money at the problem.

We become a lot smarter. There is a reason why I think some people like Jeffrey Sachs are such a big danger, is become when real good Africans who have dedicate their lives to Africa and studying it, many of them in Europe and so on, they are all aghast at this notion that you can just throw money like that.

And the kids, the people there are. And so I think the real danger today in the west is that in our enthusiasm and our reawakened conscious to do things for Africa – which is where the major development problem today is – we may fall for these sort of pseudo-solutions which are going to be extremely expensive.

What I like about someone like Bill Gates on the other hand. You see he has an advantage over people like Soros, because he made money just by making money. By betting against the currency and things like that. He’s made some money on the stock market, but not as much as he claims. He doesn’t have any magic formula about making money on the stock market. But he’s had some lucky breaks and so on. Nobody respects that kind of money.

I tell him frequently, “Don’t spend your money on politics because when money which is not respected is spent on politics, people tend to get socialistic.”

But Bill Gates is adored, because he has invented things, right? And so there is always this notion that those who build things and do things are better than those who just speculate.

So Bill Gates is exactly the man who has been going along this path in my judgment. So I think the best thing that Warren Buffet did was to identify Bill Gates as a guy who really knows how to build, because that’s what we need – the partnership with people like Bill Gates. Because we can’t just throw money away.

And we professors are not particularly good at doing. If I said I was going to do it, you should laugh me out of court. Though I can identify certain problems, but I can’t do what Bill Gates is doing.

For Africa, we need less flamboyance, less recklessness of this kind, less tendency to dismiss people who raise questions as sort or reactionary Republicans or something. I think that that’s not really a correct thing.

I think we need increasingly very steady Bill Gates-like involvement involving businesses which really know how to listen, not hedge-fund types or ________ types. They make money. I don’t know how they do it.

I know there is something like what we call in economics “good and stabilizing speculation”. But I teach it in the classroom, but don’t feel it in my bones as much.

Recorded On: Aug 14, 2007

 


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