Forget aid—people in the poorest countries like Haiti need new cities with different rules. And developed countries should be the ones that build themby Paul Romer / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Lacking electricity at home, students work under the dim lights of a parking lot at G’bessi Airport in Conakry, Guinea
On the first day of TEDGlobal, a conference for technology enthusiasts in Oxford in July 2009, a surprise guest was unveiled: Gordon Brown. He began his presentation with a striking photograph of a vulture watching over a starving Sudanese girl. The internet, he said, meant such shocking images circulated quickly around the world, helping to mobilise a new global community of aid donors. Brown’s talk ended with a call to action: developed countries should give more aid to fight poverty.
When disaster strikes—as in the recent Haiti earthquake—the prime minister is right. Even small amounts of aid can save many lives. The moral case for aid is compelling. But we must also remember that aid is just palliative care. It doesn’t treat the underlying problems. As leaders like Rwandan president Paul Kagame have noted, it can even make these problems worse if it saps the innovation, ambition, confidence, and aspiration that ultimately helps poor countries grow.
So, two days later, I opened my own TED talk with a different photo, one of African students doing their homework at night under streetlights. I hoped the image would provoke astonishment rather than guilt or pity—for how could it be that the 100-year-old technology for lighting homes was still not available for the students? I argued that the failure could be traced to weak or wrong rules. The right rules can harness self-interest and use it to reduce poverty. The wrong rules stifle this force or channel it in ways that harm society.
The deeper problem, widely recognised but seldom addressed, is how to free people from bad rules. I floated a provocative idea. Instead of focusing on poor nations and how to change their rules, we should focus on poor people and how they can move somewhere with better rules. One way to do this is with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of new “charter cities,” where developed countries frame the rules and hundreds of millions of poor families could become residents.