This is the text of my original email to BBC Sunday Sequence on June 6th:

“Congratulations on including in your Make Poverty History panel Kendra Okonski, who represents clearly the most sensible viewpoint on the subject of poverty. It may be easier to believe that we can ‘make poverty history’ by simply canceling debt and throwing more money at Africa, but, as Kendra so eloquently points out, the lack of a secure, established capitalist system in Africa is the central reason that we have a problem. An ideological problem needs an ideological solution. Break the corruption and give them capitalism – its the greatest gift we can give.”

On Sunday, June 12th, the guest on Sunday Sequence was Deborah Doherty, chair of Make Poverty History in Northern Ireland. Presenter William Crawley posed my point above to her directly during the interview. An abbreviated transcript of their conversation runs like this:

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WC: John Wright wrote us this week to say congratulations to our panel discussion last week on Make Poverty History. He was particularly impressed by Kendra Okonski, a kind of neo-con economist who was calling not only for new trade rules, but also for a realisation that it was free market economics that was the possible solution to some of these African problems, and John Wright writes, “Break the corruption and give them capitalism” – is that the answer to the problem?

DD: [Laughs] Well, break the corruption, yes – and I think we have to acknowledge that there are a number of African countries, particularly Nigeria, who have really taken major strides in breaking corruption …. so yes, tackling corruption is vital and I acknowledge that that is all part of the debt relief…

WC: And give them capitalism?

DD: [Pause] Give them capitalism? Well, you know, there’s always this myth too, that somehow our markets are going to be flooded by African goods. And it is a myth – I wish it could be true. But in fact, you know, Africa has a crisis of production. Even if now, markets were opened, and exports subsidies were cut, they still couldn’t trade their way out of poverty.
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“Trade their way out of poverty” is an Oxfam term – Barbara Stocking, Oxfam GB’s Director, has used it consistently to describe what issues need to be addressed to make trade a power for good. The concept was ridiculed by Rob Jenkins in a Guardian article (of course) entitled “Wake Up And Smell The Coffee, Oxfam” in which he says that Oxfam is “…a vocal advocate of liberalising agricultural trade.” He wasn’t happy about that. And I suspect it is with that in mind that Deborah Doherty mentions it in her Sunday Sequence interview – she questions the value of capitalism to Africa.

In fact, it was obvious that the very word ‘capitalism’ was almost offensive to her, or at least she deemed it not beneficial or central to a discussion about poverty. Yet it is a simple observation of world politics that those countries which could be described as ‘rich’ either have at the heart of their history a capitalist system or have been able to benefit from capitalism in more recent years (in which case the results of such capitalism can be easily recorded and observed). As Dani Rodrik at Harvard Magazine points out, “Economic growth tends to be highly correlated with poverty reduction.” Of course it does! When people are left to their own devices, free to do with themselves what they please, they will go and create wealth. Since the 1970s when China started to embrace capitalist nuggets within their social system, their growth has averaged almost 8 percent per annum per capita. India came later; since the 1980s the country’s average growth per annum per capita has reached 3.7 percent. Previously poor countries reap the benefits of freedom.

At the risk of sounding monotonous, what Africa needs is what every county needs. It is not rich countries that have made Africa poor – it is African politics that keeps Africa poor. The freest nations in the world are, per capita, the wealthiest. Poverty is what happens when people are not allowed or encouraged to create wealth. Make Poverty History would ensure that poverty continues for many years, despite the best intentions of people like Deborah Doherty. They need to read more history. Tackling poverty is a problem.

FREEDOM is the unsurpassed solution.

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John Wright

johnwright@softhome.net