Slate readers get a dose of reality

Economist William Easterly explains in a Slate column why “celebrity musicians can’t feed the world.”

Insulting stereotypes of Africans are at the heart of why celebrity famine relief gets the whole problem so badly wrong, not only in 1984 but still today. The celebrities promote a worldview in which “they,” Africans, are unable to help themselves in preventing famine, and so passively await rescue from “we” Western famine experts, a category that apparently includes rock stars. The big question is: Why are Africans are so unable to help themselves? The old view that Africans were just racially inferior is thankfully no longer acceptable, but there seems to still be plenty of less explicit condescension toward Africans behind the whole enterprise.

There is an alternative view, that famine in Africa tends to happen in places where the victims are oppressed by local dictators. As Amartya Sen famously pointed out, democracies don’t have famines. If autocracy is the problem, the insulting stereotypes perpetrated by celebrities make the problem worse rather than better. These stereotypes make it harder to recognize how much Africans deserve (and are already fighting for) greater political and economic rights to actively determine their own destinies.

Why does autocracy sometimes lead to famine? The most fundamental reason is that autocrats often don’t care enough about the population to prevent famine. Autocrats maintain power through coercion and repression, not popular approval. Democratic rulers are forced to care about the population because the populace protests and/or votes to drive them out of office if they cause or allow disasters like famine to happen. In the United States, one of our elected officials suffered enormous political damage from something far more trivial than a famine: just a traffic jam on a bridge!

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