Kristof on not romanticizing African poverty

I must admit that I appreciated Nich Kristof’s candor in a discussion of African poverty in his NYT column today.

Alfred Nasoni and his wife, Biti Rose, have had seven children in this village of Masumba. Two died without ever seeing a doctor. Alfred and Biti Rose pulled their eldest son out of school in the fourth grade because, they said, they couldn’t afford $5 in school costs for a term. And they farmed only part of their 2.5 acre plot because they lacked money for seeds.

Yet poverty is sometimes romanticized, and it’s more complicated than that. Alfred, 45, told me that even as his children were starving, he spent an average of $2 a week on local moonshine and 50 cents on cigarettes. He added that he also spent $2 or more a week buying sex from local girls — even though AIDS is widespread.

All this hints at an uncomfortable truth: The suffering associated with poverty is sometimes caused not only by low incomes but also by self-destructive pathologies. In central Kenya, a recently published government study found that men, on average, spent more of their salaries on alcohol than on food.

When visiting various households and schools in Kenya over the past year, I have heard many mention the idea that parents simply can’t afford the very small contributions being requested at schools, or to pay for books, or a morning meal for a child. But in those same areas, most households own cell phones, and purchase top-up time each week; and moonshine businesses seem to be thriving.

I have no interest in being a moral crusader, telling people that they shouldn’t have a drink when they live in the abject conditions that they do. But I also think we need to recognize that “can’t afford” sometimes needs to be more correctly understood as “doesn’t choose to spend the limited household resources on X.” Part of breaking the cycle of poverty in so many African (and other) countries must include devising incentives to get parents to invest in the nutrition and education of their children. Shifting resources away from tobacco and alcohol use certainly seems like a prime candidate. I hate the way that sounds, and I’d love to hear the evidence that most households choose child welfare over short-term parent pleasures in their budget allocations. But I suspect that very often, this is not the case.