Until a few days ago, you could order “refugee boats” from Alibaba, the enormous Chinese e-marketplace. The Chinese-made rubber boats, available for a couple of hundred dollars, had “good capacity of anti-sinking,” the item’s order page claimed, even if “the boat is filled fully with water.”
Summer is here, and it’s once again high season for North African human traffickers, who send tens of thousands of migrants a year across the Mediterranean to Europe — in boats very different from those found on Alibaba. Scores of them sink, killing thousands every year.
At least 2,300 migrants have drowned in the first half of 2017, and the number of crossings is increasing. During the last week of June alone, more than 10,000 migrants from Africa reached Italy, bringing the total so far up to around 100,000, according to the International Organization for Migration. Amnesty International fears that 2017 will become “the deadliest year for the deadliest migration route in the world.”
Unable to reach a comprehensive solution, the European Union has taken to piecemeal steps, like an agreement last week to clamp down on the export of inflatable boats and marine motors to Libya — hence their disappearance from Alibaba.
The union’s boat ban is laughable, given the root causes behind the surge of south-north migration: war, unemployment, social unrest, terror, religious oppression, all worsened by Africa’s skyrocketing birthrates. Youth unemployment already stands at around 50 percent. With an average age of 18 years and a population set to double by 2050, the continent needs roughly 20 million new jobs each year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Europe, though, has a proclivity to blame the wrong things. Especially for the left, the root causes of Africa’s problems include Western exploitation, unfair trade and capitalism itself — a diversion of attention that is welcomed by corrupt African governments, many of which have figured out how to profit off their people’s endless misery.
In fact, Africa does not need less capitalism, but more.
Of course Europe has a historical debt to Africa, and it has a practical interest in helping the continent through aid and a generous migration policy. But unless the prevailing mentalities on both sides — guilt in Europe and victimhood in Africa — change, the 60-year chain of disappointments known as “development aid” will continue.
The main reason Africa is doing so poorly is that many of its leaders are unable or unwilling to provide the fundaments of a market economy: education, property rights, rule of law, reliable tax schemes, a proper banking sector.
Take Egypt. European diplomats in Cairo recently told me they feared the country was on the brink of collapse. Its population (92 million, crammed in an inhabitable space the size of the Netherlands) is growing by 2.5 million a year, while energy and water are in short supply and food prices are rising. Only 74 percent of its citizens are literate, and the country needs an extra 90,000 teachers just to keep up with the population growth.
Corruption and legal uncertainty make for a hostile business climate. Many women marry young and become pregnant before they even think about contraception, a medical aid worker in the Egyptian countryside told me. Things are made worse by an inheritance law and a culture that privileges male offspring, he said: “A family that has three daughters naturally wants a son next.”
An African farmer who can neither read nor own land will not be able to get a loan to buy a tractor, and without a tractor he’ll never be able to become an exporter. European protectionism, or the impositions of Western market liberalism generally, are a very secondary problem.
In their impressive book “Why Nations Fail,” the economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson pinned down the crucial difference between European/Northern American and African/Latin American societies: The former have built inclusive institutions that reward initiative and performance, whereas the latter cling to extractive institutions that rob people of the fruits of their labor.
“Leaders of African nations that have languished over the last half-century under insecure property rights and economic institutions, impoverishing much of their populations,” they write, “did so because they could get away with it and enrich themselves at the expense of the rest.” Africa’s political systems, in other words, often don’t produce the basic prerequisite of productivity: the incentives to make a country prosperous.
That’s why development aid has often been as effective as pouring water into a bucket riddled with holes.
The German government is now proposing a Europe-wide “Marshall Plan for Africa” that would, among other things, shift development-aid funds to underwrite private investment and take the first steps toward lowering trade barriers into Europe. It would also favor those states that embraced reform, giving a strong incentive for the region’s leaders to get their act together.
In the best-case scenario, this approach will move Europe away from its own addiction to development aid as a moral salve and an easy solution to a complex problem. Whether Germany can actually make it happen — can actually rally its fellow union states behind a free-market, investment-led approach — is hard to predict. But even if it fails, it still shows that at least some people in Europe know they need to change.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.