What Dickens Knew That Geldof Doesn’t

Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University.

Like hundreds of thousands of Britons, I did my bit for Africa over the weekend, in anticipation of the G-8 summit. Not by attending one of the Live 8 concerts, but by rereading some Dickens.

In “Bleak House,” Mrs. Jellyby is “a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public.” At the present, Dickens says, she is “devoted to the subject of Africa,” at least “until something else attracts her.”

In Mrs. Jellyby’s own home, chaos prevails. The living room is strewn with papers. Tea is an hour late. One of her children, unattended, tumbles headlong down the stairs. Mrs. Jellyby scarcely notices. Her eyes, Dickens tells us, “had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if ... they could see nothing nearer than Africa.”

Let me hasten to add that it is not Sir Bob Geldof -- the Live 8 impresario -- who reminds me of the absurd Mrs. Jellyby. Sir Bob is more like a modern-day David Livingstone. Like Livingstone, Geldof discovered Africa during a midlife crisis. Livingstone gave up being a missionary to become an explorer; Geldof sacrificed his career as a singer to become, well, a missionary. Livingstone’s recipe for alleviating African poverty was “commerce, Christianity and civilization.” Geldof’s is, in the words of the Live 8 website, to “double aid, drop the debt and make the trade laws fair.”


No one should deprecate Geldof’s sincerity, nor the seriousness of Africa’s plight. It is indeed a scandal that millions of Africans live at or below the subsistence line, prey to hunger and disease. But the question is whether the modern-day Jellybys who congregated Saturday can really do anything about it.

Like Mrs. Jellyby, Live 8 supporters not only want to Do Good; they want to Feel Good while doing it. She got her kicks by dictating sanctimonious letters to public bodies. They think they can “stop 30,000 children dying every single day of extreme poverty” by chanting along with Coldplay.

Why, you may ask, should philanthropy not be fun? No reason -- as long as it’s also effective. Unfortunately, Live 8 will not be.

It may come as a surprise to Live 8 fans, but the top three reasons why most African countries are economic basket cases are not lack of aid, excessive debt service payments and protectionism by developed countries. The real culprits are chronic misgovernment, recurrent civil war and the high incidence of diseases such as malaria and AIDS.


Between 1975 and 1984, real net aid from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development to Sub-Saharan African countries grew at nearly 8% -- two and a half times faster than in the last 10 years. Yet African economic growth was 2% a year. With the exception of the compulsively optimistic Jeffrey Sachs -- Bono’s new best friend -- most economists agree that higher growth in Africa will only come with real political reform in such countries as Zimbabwe and real peace in such places as Congo.

Will Live 8 put pressure on Robert Mugabe to step down? Will it put pressure on Congo’s warring factions to lay down their arms? Strange to say, those demands don’t seem to have made it into Sir Bob’s manifesto. Why not? It’s so much more satisfying for the Jellybys to make believe that Africa’s woes are the fault of those “eight men” -- all white, and terminally uncool -- who lead the G-8 countries.

A century ago it made some sense for Victorian Britons to believe that they could help Africa. Britain was the workshop of the world -- the first industrial nation, but also the first financial nation. Its warships stamped out the Atlantic slave trade. Its capital built the railways and ports that encouraged more benign trade, and the mines that remain central to South Africa’s relative prosperity.

Today, however, the world economy is very different. The G-8 countries’ economies are important, yes. Taken together, the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia account for about half of the world’s economic output. Yet over the last decade, economic growth in Japan and the continental European nations of the G-8 has been miserably slow. Meanwhile, the U.S. has become by far the world’s biggest debtor, with a $2-billion daily borrowing requirement and net external liabilities in excess of 30% of GDP. Question: Which country is the biggest source of new funding for the U.S. deficit? Answer: China.


It now seems reasonable to assume that China will be able to sustain a higher rate of growth than any of the G-8 members over the coming decades. According to Goldman Sachs, China’s GDP will exceed that of the U.S. around 2041.

Looking ahead to the 40th anniversary of Live Aid, I foresee a difficulty for Geldof. Either Africa’s problems will all have been solved, or -- more likely -- aid will once again have failed.

So I have a suggestion. Relocate the 2025 event to Beijing. And this time, appeal for more aid, debt relief and fairer trade ... for the G-8 countries. Two decades of uninterrupted Asian economic growth will surely suffice to produce a receptive audience of jiving Chinese Jellybys.