"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)



I just finished my first year as an assistant professor. That's a story for another time, but suffice it to say that one of the more interesting experiences associated with having this job is watching people's faces when they find out that I am an African politics professor at an historically black college.

Since starting this job, on occasion I've met a person or two, who, presumably because he is white and I am white and therefore he thinks I will agree with him, says, "Oh, that's interesting," and proceeds to launch into a diatribe about all the black welfare queens in his hometown and their propensity to have baby after baby who grow up to commit crimes, all in a grand scheme to take more and more taxpayer dollars, which justifies shutting down the public school system since those children will never amount to anything anyway.

In response to this nonsense, I usually just say, "You know, the welfare system has changed quite a bit in the last fifteen years" and walk away without bothering to argue with idiocy.

I say all this as a way of offering a brief comment on The Kristof's latest column, which not only presents the case of one family in one village in one country as representative of the entire African continent, but also manages to condescend to the people he purports to "understand" by stereotyping every poor man on the continent as a lazy drunk.

Sean and Siddhartha have already covered most of the problems with this insane exercise in stereotyping. I won't add to it, except to say that while of course there are poor parents with misplaced priorities who neglect their children in Africa, there are also neglectful parents in Paris and Tokyo and Lima and Bangalore and Des Moines and Oslo and even the Upper West Side. I daresay there might even be a big-time columnist or two who has gotten drunk rather than seen to a child's pressing needs.



Blogger Rachel said...


Monday, May 24, 2010 7:07:00 AM

Anonymous Ian said...

The interesting thing about this article for me is that on one level he is right, in that many parents - particularly, but not exclusively fathers do put their own interests ahead of those of their children, especially for the vices of alcohol, sex, drugs and gambling.

But the unfortunate take away you get from this article is that this is an African problem. It's not. It's a pretty universal problem that can be found in all societies, and it's also not only confined to the poor - it's only that for those who are living in poverty there are less resources to go around so spending on personal vices are more likely to have an immediate detrimental impact on children.

(It's an interesting question as to whether those who are less able to resist vices also are more likely to end up in poverty - while this could be a factor in relative poverty, it would not be any kind of explanation for the kind of poverty where large parts of the population lives below the poverty line)

What would be more interesting that this superficial and potentially harmful set of stories would be more analysis of why this happens and what actually works in practice to ameliorate the problem (rather than what sounds tough for donors or taxpayers funding aid programmes or welfare programmes).

Monday, May 24, 2010 8:57:00 AM

Blogger lu said...

and unless he has changed the names and not expressly stated it, it seems he is up to his old tricks of publishing names of children on the internet.

Monday, May 24, 2010 9:45:00 AM

Blogger Chris said...

@texasinafrica, enjoy your summer and maybe take some time away from Kristof. He'll only drive you crazy.

Monday, May 24, 2010 11:53:00 AM

Blogger Jeff said...

I don't think it's fair to say that Kristof "not only presents the case of one family in one village in one country as representative of the entire African continent, but also manages to condescend to the people he purports to "understand" by stereotyping every poor man on the continent as a lazy drunk"

He uses the family as an example of an issue, and then presents evidence that this occurs more widely (quote below). This is the model for most journalism.

"Two M.I.T. economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, found that the world’s poor typically spend about 2 percent of their income educating their children, and often larger percentages on alcohol and tobacco: 4 percent in rural Papua New Guinea, 6 percent in Indonesia, 8 percent in Mexico. The indigent also spend significant sums on soft drinks, prostitution and extravagant festivals."

p.s. First time commenter. Love your blog.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 12:15:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for commenting, Jeff. The problem is that that study doesn't actually say what Kristof implies it says. See Amanda's discussion of Bannerjee & Duflo's research here: http://wrongingrights.blogspot.com/2010/05/pissed-off-by-kristof.html

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:26:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ian's final para hints at what would be a more constructive discussion - what can be done.

Speaking as a small time sponsor of school fees in a Central African country, it is frustrating when students do not take best advantage of an opportunity. However many other relatives closer at hand are recruited as "part of the team" it is a fact that it is not easy to get inside the heads of the rural very-poor - yes whose outlook can be very short term. Urban dwellers are just as much foreigners to them in this context.

Righteous indignation (against the NYT writer) is fine but it does not take us much further forward. And yes those that ignore the greater opportunities in the UK say, are maybe even more frustrating. Yes there is a lot of "background" but the Rwandan gov't for example has encouraged families to consider having fewer children and "how many they can afford to educate". How much effect this has I do not know. It may be the start of a long process.

For a small time sponsor keen to make the most difference with the little I spend "how to motivate" is probably the most central question right now. And in case you wonder I have not yet found the answer, if there is one. One idea might be to take a success story, and there are some of those, who came from the same place and has done something with the schooling say. S/he may be better able to get the message across.

The NYT is looking at a very big issue and trying to condense it into a few paras. Does the NYT know how the father thinks? And also how do you best encourage the son when he IS at school?

A few rambling thoughts on a big topic - hopefully not to produce more indignation. You ran an interesting series of topics on "good aid" in response to the t-shirts story. Members of the diaspora sending "remittances" are a big source of funds also faced with questions about how to prioritise and maximise benefit.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 12:28:00 PM

Blogger Nick said...

I don't understand all the angry posts around the blogosphere on this one. It seems like people are losing the plot a bit.

What NK says is not a stereotype. I see the same thing all the time in East Africa. Parents can't afford incredibly cheap school fees because they (especially the fathers) spend so much of their income on alcohol. Why is it wrong to point out what a shame that is? What's wrong with saying it's depressing that school fees may only cost 2 percent of a family's monthly income, but the fathers still spend even that money on alcohol?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 4:48:00 PM

Blogger Holly and Ben Porter said...

Another way to look at the issue is to see how much money relatively wealthy people spend on alcohol, prostitutes, and cigarettes and then see how many kids school fees that would cover. I'm guessing the figure would put us all more to shame than the 'poor fathers' behavior'. It does put me to shame. I live in Uganda. If I redirected my going out budget or what I spend on Nile Special I could easily have responded positively to more of the requests that I regularly get for school fees. Attitudes about "the poor" would drastically change if we could get the planks out of our eyes.

Thursday, May 27, 2010 3:39:00 AM

Blogger Matt Davies said...

But it's also about understanding why fathers don't believe investing in education is going to give them a good return on their family's meagre income. If your experience of schooling is "Ghost teachers", additional "fees" to pay for exams, teachers who denigrate traditional rural livelihoods, not to mention overcrowding, lack of supplies and furniture, buildings that do not provide shelter from sun or rain adnd you start to see things from another perspective...Invest in quality rather than just quantity in education, and involve the community, especially the poorest parents, in decision making regarding education, and that Kenyan shilling or Malian CFA may be invested in schooling rather than hooch.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010 4:09:00 PM

Anonymous brad said...

This post seems to be really misguided. The only criticism you make directly is that Nick is making a stereotype "as representative of the entire African continent", and failing to recognize that such problems exist among people everywhere. But he never does this. He never makes a statement about Africa generally. The first sentence of the column refers to "global poverty", and his discussion of responses at the end refers to experiences in Asia and Latin America. Nowhere in between does he suggest that the problem he describes is an "African problem." Only you did that.

You spend 2/3 of your post parading your professional and empathetic bona fides, and 1/3 projecting onto Kristoff a stereotype that he doesn't have. Sorry if this sounds like a flame, but I think that's pretty lame.

Thursday, July 15, 2010 12:19:00 AM


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