LEVITT: What hasn’t my guest, Dambisa Moyo, done? Born in Zambia, at a time when Blacks weren’t even given birth certificates. She’s earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry, an M.B.A., a second master’s degree — this one from Harvard — and an economics Ph.D. from Oxford. She worked at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs. She’s written four best-selling books, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 people who shape our world. She runs marathons, and she sits on the board of some of the largest corporations in the world.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: If you know me at all, you know I would never invite someone on this show just because she has a sparkling résumé. What matters to me is that Dambisa has big, radical ideas. Most prominent among these ideas is her claim that the more than $500 billion in foreign aid that has been directed towards African countries over the last 50 years, not only hasn’t helped Africa, it has actually hurt Africa. Bill Gates vehemently disagreed. When her book Dead Aid came out laying out her arguments on the topic, Gates described the book as “promoting evil.” Who’s right? I have no idea, but I’m excited to hear what she has to say.
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LEVITT: We are both economists, but very different kinds of economists. I study little things and you study big things. So, I’m expecting you to teach me a lot today, is that a deal?
Dambisa MOYO: I will do my best.
LEVITT: So, let’s start with Africa. You’ve been an outspoken critic of foreign aid to Africa, but before we dive into the specifics of your argument, I was hoping you could fill me in on some facts and understanding about how Africa has been doing economically. What’s been going on?
MOYO: In the last 10 years Africa hasn’t really been decoupled from the broader constructs of the world. Trade, growth has slowed, capital flows have been challenged because of capital restrictions, and controls for repatriating money, the advent of China across Africa, but obviously globally. China is today the largest foreign lender, trading partner, as well as the largest investor in many countries, and of course, Africa has been a beneficiary of that with the warts and all of what that entails. Where we are today, the situation is precarious to say the least. Although we have seen a number of Covid cases, Africa has — knock on wood — seen nowhere near the sort of devastation that one might have expected and indeed we’re now seeing in India.
LEVITT: There’s a general impression, or at least my impression, that the economic performance overall, growth rates in Africa, the incomes are extremely low and that maybe surprisingly low given people’s expectations over time. Is that an accurate statement? I know Africa is a big continent with a lot of diversity.
MOYO: Yeah. So listen, as economists we love numbers so let’s put some numbers on this. In order to double per capita incomes in one generation, a generation being about 25 years, you need to be growing at 3 percent per year. And for countries that are at a lower economic base we’ve seen that we need them to grow at an even faster pace, often around 7 percent a year. Before Covid hit in earnest in 2020, pretty much all the large economies in Africa were growing far below that 3 percent. So take South Africa as an example, it struggled post financial crisis, was growing around 1 to 2 percent. There are three key drivers of growth: capital, labor, productivity. And in all these respects, Africa had relatively solid capital basis. In fact, before the Covid situation they had debt but it wasn’t of any worrisome level. Their populations are skewed to the young and these regions of the world have invested heavily in mathematics and science. And then productivity, really this is about importing best practices and technology — ability to leap frog was really supposed to be an additional driver of success. But the truth is we’ve not seen the out-performance you’d expect from Africa or more generally from the emerging markets.
LEVITT: So, thinking about the longer term, if we go back to the 1970s, or maybe the 1960s, places like Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia — they would have had incomes per capita that were similar to Africa?
MOYO: Lower even.
LEVITT: Lower — China as well. And so they’ve been this huge success story and there’s really no country on the African continent that has been what you’d call an enormous economic success story. Is that a fair statement?
MOYO: Ah, maybe save Botswana. I think Botswana tends to be put in the same camp as South Korea. They both received aid money, they’re what they call “aid graduates.” But you know I think for the first point is that these tend to be relatively small countries. Singapore, if everyone could replicate what Singapore has done we would, but a lot of these aspects and the success story around Singapore is one that is hard to scale. And also in many respects really reliant on what I’d call autocratic non-democratic philosophies which are hard to replicate more and more in a democratic world. China is still poorer on a per-capita income basis than some African countries, but your broader point is correct that there’s clearly been a schism that emerged between other poor regions around the world, versus the many countries of Africa and I explain why I think that is the case in my first book, Dead Aid, which came out in 2009. And to my mind it’s really that you’ve had open-ended policies that have perpetuated an aid system which undermines the efficacy of your government. So if you think about places like South Korea, China, and Singapore, what they have on many African countries is that they have governments that are incredibly efficient at delivering on very lofty goals. And I like something that Mike Bloomberg would say about the most efficient government — these are governments that are data-driven, they’re forward-leaning, they operate based on measured outcomes, and they’re not corrupt. And I’m afraid to say, not all, but many African countries, they fall at those hurdles.
LEVITT: So, let’s talk more about your book Dead Aid. It has a completely counterintuitive conclusion and that is not only is foreign aid not helpful, it’s actually harmful to Africa’s economic workings. And so I know you make a thorough nuanced argument about it but do you just want to take a few minutes hitting the high points of why you think that foreign aid to Africa has actually been actively detrimental?
MOYO: A very good friend of mine always says, “Dambisa, the numbers don’t lie.” And I think I’m going to extend that to say the evidence doesn’t lie. We’ve had over 60 years of these large systemic programs going from government to government or multilateral institution to African government and look at the performance. What really is disappointing, as someone who was born and raised in Africa, is that we actually know where economic success comes from. We know that countries that trade more do better than countries that don’t trade. We know that countries that have efficient governments do better than countries that don’t. Countries that are more forward-leaning in terms of how they operate do better than countries that are dependent on outside external help. So there really oughtn’t be some big mystery about, you know, Africa’s failure to develop in a sustained way. But I think that aid in of itself is not a problem. The problem is that the aid system in Africa is given in-perpetuity. It’s a completely different model from the Marshall Plan, which was about a $100 billion from the U.S. to help reconstruction in Europe. That was a five-year program. It was sharp and finite. It’s completely different from the aid graduates that I referred to earlier, the Botswanas and South Koreas who also received aid and were able to transform into middle-income countries. We’re talking about a system that has no evidence in history or prehistory of success as a tool for economic growth in a sustained way. It imbues corruption, it creates factions, you end up undermining the political environment because, very smartly, the local African governments court and cater foreign donors and they don’t really care about the local construct of what their people need because their ability to stay in political office is not determined by the local citizenry. But there’s just so many other aspects of how corrosive large foreign aid programs can be. Ultimately, Steve, we can do better. After over 60 years of doing the same thing and given the counterfactual evidence that we see elsewhere, it just seems to me somewhat foolhardy that we keep going down this route of systemic aid. Rather fortuitously I think two things have happened — I say this with a little bit tongue in cheek — but first of all, China has emerged as an alternative suitor. The Chinese model, again notwithstanding its challenges and its limitations, is a fresh approach and actually creates competition against traditional aid donors. And the other thing that’s happened is that Western donors are pretty much running out of money, they have their own economic challenges. China is the largest foreign lender to the U.S. government. It is a point of irony that the U.S. government is essentially borrowing money from China in order to give aid to Africa. I’m being a bit flippant but the sort of circular nature of how the world is functioning today and how back-footed Western economies are in terms of growth, technology, debt burden, suggests to me that this is potentially an opportunity for Africa to reset and do better.
LEVITT: Just really incredibly simplifying what you’ve said, the evidence suggests that Africa has done quite badly. We’ve been following the same model for 50 years, it hasn’t improved things, and then there’s government corruption and you draw a causal link between the fact that the foreign aid actually encourages and fosters government corruption. Now let me step back and talk more generally that on macroeconomic topics it’s often hard to establish causality, there’s nothing like a randomized experiment, or not even typically a good accidental experiment of the kind that I tend to analyze. Do you think there’s room for reasonable people to look at the same set of evidence you just showed us but come to different conclusions? Or do you think people who argue that aid works are just ignoring the facts.
MOYO: So, let me just take a step back and say there’s tons of research on this that looks at not just correlation but causality. But I think you touch on a much more interesting point. And I would argue that over the 60 plus years that aid has been a dominant feature of Africa’s public policy, we’ve been moving the goalpost in terms of what exactly aid is meant to do. I have been very clear I am not talking about interventions to help a catastrophe, emergency aid, and I’m not talking about NGO aid which is relatively small beer. I’m talking specifically about systemic aid, these large aid programs that go from government to government or from multilateral institution to government in perpetuity. If you look back at the original thinking around aid, and my book was dedicated to Peter Bauer, Lord Bauer, who was a Hungarian-born British economist and he, back in the 1960s, cautioned about these open-ended programs. And he was largely dismissed. But he was absolutely right that they would end up really not achieving their fundamental goal of creating sustained economic growth. People who are supportive of the aid regime argue a whole host of things as evidence that aid is working. They would say, “Yes, it’s true economic growth has stalled, but never mind growth, because of aid programs a million girls across the African continent have been able to go to school” or “We were able to build health facilities over 20 countries because of aid.” That to me is a cop-out because that very often requires or encourages African countries to remain dependent on the aid system because it’s got nothing to do with expanding that G.D.P. pie and making sure that African countries can actually grow and contribute and have a seat at the table in the global economy. Part of the problem is that the metrics for judging the efficacy of aid have tended to move and if we go back in history it was supposed to help to jumpstart economic growth and it’s clear from the data that is not what it has done.
LEVITT: On a per capita basis, how much is aid per year? I mean my hunch is that compared to the economies as a whole, foreign aid’s pretty small. What’s it, I don’t know, $20 per capita or $10 per capita?
MOYO: It is small, you’re absolutely right, on a per capita basis. But the problem is not that the absolute amount is small, the problem is that it is a large proportion of the government budget and those governments are not able to deliver and change in a way that is supportive of longer-term growth.
LEVITT: I think that really strengthens your point because just thinking common-sense wise, if you give $20 directly to every person in Africa, I wouldn’t expect it to have a very big impact on anything. But as you’re saying, what you end up doing is giving a big pile of money to a bunch of corrupt leaders who now focus all their attention on figuring out how to steal that money instead of how to serve the people. I definitely started as a skeptic as I read your book, and that was the point to me that was most compelling, that seemed to really open up to the possibility that this really could be actually hurting these countries.
LEVITT: So, you have had your critics. Bill Gates said you were doing the devil’s work or something like that. How did you respond to that?
MOYO: Well, I’ve subsequently had a number of conversations with Bill Gates. He makes some good points. I think there is a case to be made around whether or not something like healthcare — and I think obviously on the back of the pandemic this has strengthened this argument — that healthcare is actually not a national public good, it’s a global public good, and in that respect it doesn’t matter where the money comes from if aid programs are going to be used to support health initiatives in Africa or South America or Asia, because ultimately it’s a global society. You know public goods, such as healthcare, education, national security, infrastructure, I mean in the United States if those things are not delivered upon, you judge a government on that, and that is the sacred contract of democracy, the contract between the individual citizen and the government. So listen, like many things in economics and society and life in general, there are nuances. But suffice it to say we can do better. We can put a man on the moon, I think we can deliver sustained economic growth in Africa.
LEVITT: So, the Western model is give aid to governments, the Chinese model — say to build roads. Is that a fair assessment? And you think that the latter model is better.
MOYO: I think that’s, if I may say, a little bit simplistic. China has been in Africa since the 1930s and ‘40s, they built a lot of infrastructure back then. And they are now, as I mentioned earlier, the biggest trading partner, lender, as well as foreign direct investor in many developed and developing countries from Australia, the United States to emerging market economies. As people who are interested in inquiry, objectively speaking, we should be interested — what is it that they’ve done? This is an economy that was the largest economy back in the 1700s, they squandered 300 plus years by making mistakes and they’re back. They are now investing in banks, they own 20 percent of one of the big banks in Africa, they’re investing in telecommunications. China, to my mind, is and is going to continue to be a key piece of the global economy in terms of trade and investment and lending and if the West wants to keep that crown or continue to be at the tip of the spear on all the issues that the world is facing, then they need to do a lot more homework but also fundamentally upgrade the approach to how they interact in the emerging markets more generally.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with economist Dambisa Moyo. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about Dambisa’s new book on corporate boards.
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LEVITT: So, today’s listener question comes from a gentleman named Gary. And Gary writes, “Mr. Levitt, my question is, should we have lotteries, like in Ohio and California, to incentivize people to get vaccinated? Should states or governments use additional tax dollars for that purpose? I’m not even sure why, however, it doesn’t feel right.” So, to begin answering that question, Gary, let me go back in time to April 2020. That was near the start of the pandemic long before vaccines were available. The best hope at that time of containing Covid-19 was widespread testing. And I got together with Nobel laureate Paul Romer and Jeff Sieverts, and we wrote an op-ed in USA Today highlighting the need to provide financial incentives to get people tested. And one of our proposals, among many, was that we should enter people who are getting Covid tests into a lottery, which we called “Pandemillions.” But unfortunately, we couldn’t sway public policy. Aggressive testing might have headed off the second, third, and fourth Covid waves in this country, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. But we didn’t do it. Well, better late than never. With Ohio leading the charge in introducing a lottery to reward those who get vaccinated and a growing number of states following that lead, we’re now seeing the power of creative policies in battling Covid. And the early data suggest the lotteries are working. Since Ohio announced their lottery, vaccination rates are about 40-percent higher than would have been expected based on previous trends and what’s going on in neighboring states. So what’s my major criticism of the lotteries? The prizes are too small. The Covid pandemic has cost the U.S. federal government alone about $5.5 billion per day in lost revenue and extra expenditures. Who knows how many days of future lockdowns would be prevented if we quickly got to herd immunity, but I think the number might not be small. How could we possibly get vaccination rates high enough? By offering a lottery that was so big that it was all anyone talked about. The biggest lottery ever in the U.S.A. had a prize pool of $1.586 billion. So how about to get people’s attention, we had a $15 billion lottery? We could pay out $1 million to 15,000 different winners or maybe it would be better to pay out $100,000 to 150,000 Americans. It sounds extravagant, but it would still be less than 1 percent of the cost of the recently passed Covid stimulus deal. And every penny would go to the American public. The lottery money isn’t wasted. It’s just being redistributed from those who choose not to get vaccinated, to those who do get vaccinated. And since getting vaccinated provides a positive externality, it’s actually economically efficient to do that kind of redistribution. When viewed that way, why not a $150 billion lottery? And I would do one more thing. I would enter every American’s name into that lottery, whether they were vaccinated or not. And I would publish every name that was drawn so that the unvaccinated people whose names are drawn but can’t collect their $1 million payout, they not only have to live with that regret, they also have to face the shame of everyone they’ve ever known calling and writing to congratulate them, only to have to say over and over, “Actually, I didn’t win the million dollars. I never got vaccinated.” I think that is the kind of embarrassment that might convince just about anyone to get vaccinated. So, Gary, that’s my answer and I love the questions that listeners have been sending. Keep them coming. I read every one. The email address is PIMA at Freakonomics.com. Now back to my conversation with Dambisa Moyo.
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LEVITT: Halfway through my Ph.D. program, my advisor Jim Poterba sat me down. He complimented me on the quantity of output I had produced, but he correctly noted that all my papers had little ideas. He told me I needed to come up with some big ideas. Now, I mentioned it briefly in my episode with Paul Romer, that I took those words to heart. And I spent 10 hours a day for the next four months thinking big thoughts. I didn’t come up with a big idea, not even a hint or a beginning of a big idea. But I did have one huge insight, and that was that I was a little-idea person, not a big idea person like Dambisa. It’s fun to talk to people like Dambisa who think about the world’s biggest, toughest problems, but every time I do, I think to myself, thank God there are so many little, interesting, manageable problems to keep people like me busy. Is my real estate agent ripping me off? How much money are crack dealers making? Do people quit as much as they should? I’m going to try to take the second half of our conversation in a very different direction. Dambisa’s latest book is about corporate boards and I’m curious to hear if she has any radical thoughts on that topic.
LEVITT: So, your most recent book, just out, is called How Boards Work, and it’s about corporate boards. And it’s very different from Dead Aid in at least two ways. Number one, it’s about some of the richest people on the planet rather than some of the poorest people on the planet, and number two, I would say it’s something of a celebration of boards rather than a condemnation. It’s clear what your objective was when you wrote Dead Aid, what do you hope to accomplish with the new book?
MOYO: I confess that the title of my book How Boards Work is probably a misnomer. My first goal is to reassert the importance of corporations. Corporations’ revenues in the United States are two-thirds of U.S. G.D.P. They employ people, they are the tip of the spear in terms of innovation, they have enormous tax-base for government, they are involved in infrastructure buildup, and they are becoming ever more important in terms of the environment, social, and governance issues that affect communities around the world. The second issue was really to give the reader an understanding of why and how the board works, and the board, of course, are the 12 people who sit atop of these large global and complex organizations. But I wanted people to understand what their mandate was, what their levers are to influence change, and, most importantly to my mind, is to give them a clear understanding of why it’s difficult to effect a lot of change, particularly in the areas that have traditionally been the purview of the government. One of my favorite topics or quotes is something that President Obama said, which is that by the time something hit his desk, it meant it was extremely difficult. If it were easy, somebody else would solve it.
LEVITT: Mm hmm.
MOYO: And it’s the same thing with boards. We are faced with this issue of E.S.G and stakeholder capitalism in the 21st century. If this were easy somebody else would have solved it a long time ago. These are complex matters and I really wanted to give the reader, especially the people who are fervently anti-corporation, an understanding of why it’s so difficult to affect a lot of the demands on the social agenda that they are requiring.
LEVITT: Could you explain what E.S.G. means?
MOYO: Yes, it’s the recent incarnation of corporate social responsibility. E.S.G. stands for environmental, social, and governance, and there is about $45 trillion that has been earmarked towards E.S.G. agenda and this is essentially forcing or encouraging corporations to have a much clearer articulation of their corporate purpose. It is a move away from what Milton Friedman in 1970 talked about, which was this idea that for corporations, the most important stakeholder was the shareholder. And it’s moving into a world where corporations are seen as much more important players in the realms of environment, social, and governance concerns.
LEVITT: And so what do you think of that? I mean the Friedman argument was well, look, corporations are there to make money and the shareholders can do whatever they want with the money that’s made and it’s up to them to decide whether they want to give that away or to spend it on themselves. But there definitely has been a radical shift away from that and I guess one argument that Friedman would endorse would say, “In a world in which it’s profit maximizing to focus on being generous and charitable as a corporation, then that’s what the corporation should do.” But I think it’s deeper than that, there’s a thought that corporations have a moral obligation which Friedman never would’ve endorsed.
MOYO: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I think he’s been somewhat unfairly categorized. I think he actually does delve into a broader sense in which corporations should be dynamic and ebb and flow based on where society is today. From my vantage point, two related things have happened. One, we’ve seen government take a back seat, perhaps maybe another way of putting it, is become less visionary in terms of addressing these seemingly intractable challenges that the world faces, whether it’s inequality in healthcare and education and infrastructure et cetera. And that has led to the second point, which is that the average citizen is saying, “Wait a second, if the government’s not going to do this, who is going to do this?” and has essentially drawn in the private sector as the harbinger of the future society. So, I think that the question of the moral obligation is at the heart of all these issues but it throws up so many landmines because ultimately corporations are not elected entities. Very often, the strictures are around a financial shareholder primacy. And so navigating this changing world and not falling afoul to the legal strictures and also trying to do that with the acknowledgement of what levers the board and corporations have is a very tricky job.
LEVITT: Why do you think there’s so much animosity towards big companies right now? It really seems to me that attitudes are more negative towards corporations than I can ever remember.
MOYO: The data does suggest challenges but it’s interesting because if you look at for example the Edelman Barometer — they have an annual barometer of trust — corporations are ranked higher than government and media. I think government’s failure to be proactive and to be a visionary has contributed a lot to this sentiment. When I talk about visionary governments I’m talking about the American government of the 1950s — ‘40s, ‘50s, involved in DARPA, involved in development of Silicon Valley, Manhattan Project — there was just a more aggressive and clear articulation of a future world that would be evolving. Statistics show that this generation of Americans, for the first time in the history of the country, is less educated than the preceding generation. This is not a winning hand. And so, I think people were looking for somebody to solve these problems and corporations have found themselves in that frame but they traditionally have been ill equipped to address these issues and are now trying to get ahead of it.
LEVITT: Tech companies in particular are under attack and it’s surprising to me in some sense because for a long time they were really well-liked because Google and Facebook, they don’t charge you anything. They give you services for free. And I think now — it’s not enough, that people are upset about data and privacy and whatnot. What, if anything, would you do if you were with Facebook or Twitter or Google to try to sway public opinion?
MOYO: It’s not necessarily a Google or Facebook problem. I think corporations in general have to come up with more clarity in terms of what it is that they’re doing. We are faced with a whole onslaught of many different challenges from worker advocacy, climate change, pay equity, racial and gender diversity, voting rights, obesity, gun control, and people expect boards and their corporations to form views at the drop of a hat in these areas. I think that there needs to be a much clearer articulation of why these things are difficult. Let’s take the case of racial and gender equality. The data, again, is in. There’s lots of studies that show on a return on equity basis and financial performance basis, which is probably the most cynical way to judge these things, there’s clear evidence that it’s better to have a more diverse board and more diverse workforce. If you want to compete, that is the best way to do it. But as a board member I’m not interested in fighting discrimination with discrimination, I’m interested in constructing the best team that can help me win. And so yes, at a superficial level, we want to pursue diversity, at a more granular level, we don’t want to pursue diversity at the expense of losing high-performing white guys. Now the good news is that there’s a lot of talent out there that happens to be women and/or minorities and it is going to require that we broaden our aperture on how we think about recruiting, so maybe instead of saying that everybody on the board has to come from the C-suite we have to broaden that aperture to encompass other sources of talent. But I think the more I can bring along the public to say, “Wait a second. We are looking for help, we’re looking for ideas, here’s why it’s so complicated,” I think the better companies will perform.
LEVITT: If there’s ever been a domain that’s been dominated by old white men, it’s corporate boards. Have you felt hostility or resistance as a young African woman on these boards?
MOYO: Not in the boardroom in of itself. I did experience a very aggressive shareholder at an annual general meeting — I talk about it in the book — who pointed at me very aggressively in front of 3,000 people and said what is the credentials of that woman, that statutory woman, that she should be allowed to sit on the board. And fortunately, I had grown up at Goldman Sachs, I was there nearly 10 years, and I had a strong academic background but I thought gosh this is exactly the reason why you want to be skilled and equipped in the boardroom because I didn’t actually feel any intimidation from that comment. A friend of mine says there’s a rule of three. That if you have only one minority on the board, people think “Oh great this person’s here because of a quota.” If you have two, people spend their time thinking, “Are these guys getting along or are they fighting, is it a cat fight?” And they said only if you have three does it become immaterial or irrelevant and I’ve always thought that is a very good rule of thumb. When I first started out I was the only woman and only minority in many of the boards and yeah, it’s a lonely feeling when you think during the bathroom breaks the guys are at the urinals having a chat about capital allocation and dividends and I was by myself in my stall. But that world has changed, thankfully, and in all the boards in which I serve there are fortunately other women and other minority groups represented which is exactly how it should be, that is a better reflection of our customers, our regulators, our communities, and the places where we send billions of goods and services across the globe every day.
LEVITT: On the topic of diversity, of the Fortune 500, the last time I checked, 22 of those 500 companies had a female CEO and 4 of those 500 had a African-American CEO. Even knowing that I expected the numbers to be low, those were shocking to me. What’s your take on that?
MOYO: What you’re seeing is the outcome of decades, if not centuries, of underinvestment in those groups. It’s as simple as that. Yes, I would like miraculously for it to be 50-50 women versus men in the C-suite or in the CEO seat, but is that realistic given the fact that women’s suffrage happened a hundred years ago and countries like Switzerland didn’t even allow women to vote until 1971? I mean, McKinsey, the global consulting firm, has done a lot of work on the fact that by 2050 when Blacks and Latinos will be the majority here in the United States, the underinvestment in education could put the United States in a permanent recession. So forget about the past, even as we live and breathe right now we are under investing in future generations. So those numbers, you and I can hope against hope that they will change, but it doesn’t look very good based on the underinvestment in the groups that are going to define the population of this country. But I would take it back to the question of broader leadership in areas of education, certainly at the early stages, which is where we’re seeing the greatest weakness. It’s very hard for companies and boards to try and remedy underinvestment for the first 20 years of a child’s life and think that somehow we’re going to change the CEO numbers. It’s just, it’s more work and unfortunately our politicians don’t think very long-term.
LEVITT: You were born into a time and a place, Zambia in the 1960s, the late 1960s, where racism was virulent. How did you overcome that?
MOYO: Well, it wasn’t virulent in the way that racism is alive and well in the United States. One of my closest friends is African-American and was raised here in Chicago and she and I are the same age and I often think to myself, “Thank God I was raised in Africa.” I think the real people to admire are African-Americans who have made it to the top. It is just — it’s so against them. I mean, I was raised in a country that is dominated by Blacks, Black teachers, Black lawyers, Black doctors, I never once thought about my race. Now having said that, of course there were structural artifacts of the colonial period. I don’t have a birth certificate — they didn’t issue birth certificates to Blacks in my country until 1973. So those types of structural things for sure existed. You know, the notions of beauty as a Black young teenager never excluded me. It was just completely different from growing up in the United States. The characterization that all Blacks are criminals or lazy or angry is something that is very steeped in the American narrative, but I didn’t grow up with that. I love living in the United States for the reason that it’s a place that I think is very quick to check its mistakes and move in the right direction and so I am very hopeful, if not saddened, that extreme cases of George Floyd have to occur before we reset and say, “This is just not the society that we think America should be.” But really almost all the experiences of racism that I’ve had have been in the United States or Britain, not in Africa because it’s antithetical to the way the society is structured there.
LEVITT: Do you have advice for young people that you think transcends time and space about how to, I don’t know whether it’s to be successful or to lead a good life, what do you tell young people when they ask you for advice?
MOYO: Well especially now, I’m very much driven and guided by this idea that no doesn’t mean never, it means not now. And it sounds pretty simple but I find that for a whole host of reasons there are a lot of young people who very quickly get discouraged because they’re told no they can’t have something and maybe for reasons of fear or insecurity they don’t understand that it could happen but it’s just not right to happen now. And so they leave the conversation thinking, “Oh I’m not getting it because I’m Black or I’m a woman or I’m this, I’m that,” and I worry a lot about society cause I was very much raised in in the world where, “Hey, listen, if you don’t get something, don’t assume that it’s racism, don’t assume that it’s gender, ask the person who’s saying no what you might do to be considered or to have a better shot at it.” I think there’s so much cynicism about those sort of, dare I say, conventional pieces of advice and it’s about, for me, agency and individual performance, recognizing that racism absolutely exists and somehow encouraging people that ultimately if you have a good record of education and progress that the world will come good, is what I believe.
LEVITT: I can’t imagine you’re motivated by money at this point. What does motivate you to work so hard, do so much?
MOYO: I very much want to do my very best to try and change the world, change the narrative. It sounds a little bit like a Miss America pageant but I really do mean it. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been born and raised in such a small poor country in Africa and in just 50 years to go from having no birth certificate, not even being recognized as a human, to being on the boards of large corporations and potentially having influence and say on where resources are allocated or how the world is proceeding. And so, in a strange way, the older I’m getting the more energized I am about trying to contribute to the debate and making sure that people like myself have a proverbial seat at the table to offer an alternative perspective from the way that the world has been run. It’s challenging, it can be frustrating, but I’m deeply in love with the work that I do and I have so much faith in humanity and I’m excited to be able to use the opportunities that I’ve had to try and make the world a better place for everybody.
LEVITT: So Dambisa, you’ve written five books now and obviously you’ve invested enormous amounts of time and energy into it and keep on writing books. Dubner and I, for instance, have stopped writing books. We’ve decided that writing books is not the best way to get our message across. But what do you personally get out of writing the books?
MOYO: I actually think it is the best way of getting my ideas across. I mean, I know that my five books may to the naked eye seem disparate and different topics but they’re all about the same thing. They’re all about human progress, they’re all about improvements in living standards and how as society we can move forward. These issues are so complex, I feel like I need to put them in a book because I try to provide a treatment of the way I diagnose problems and then offer sort of a prophylaxis or some kind of a solution. I find that writing books is perhaps therapy for me but it also, I think, is a very effective way of hopefully bringing people who may a priori disagree with me, a way to interact with my thinking that might be the basis for more constructive conversations going forward.
LEVITT: Talking to Dambisa about boards got me thinking of my own most memorable experience as part of a board. It wasn’t even a real board, just an unofficial advisory board to a nonprofit. But that advisory board was loaded with all sorts of luminaries — business leaders, prominent lawyers, even some A-list Hollywood celebrities. I was young and it was my first experience in such a setting and I was the only economist. The head of the nonprofit would bring up the toughest issues he was facing and he’d ask us for advice. At the risk of sounding immodest, I was able to offer great ideas that overcame whatever challenge was at hand with shocking regularity. I’ve never felt smarter in my life than I did in those meetings. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say that eventually, when a really tough problem was posed, everyone in the room would just turn and look at me and wait for me to say something brilliant. That went on for a few meetings, and then another economist joined the board. At his first meeting, a tough problem was raised and just as I was about to speak, the other economist started talking and he said, almost word for word, what I would have said. Everyone in the room was wowed by his answer. And what was amazing to me is that on almost every question that arose at every future meeting, I and the other economist thought almost identically about the problems. He was a little faster on his feet than I was and definitely more articulate. And as a consequence, I quickly settled into my new reduced role on the board. As the other economist said something suitably brilliant, I would nod enthusiastically and after he stopped talking, I would say that I agreed with everything he had said. I learned a really valuable lesson, one that I’ve seen play out across so many different settings since then — economic thinking can be enormously powerful because economists think very differently than other people. But since most economists think alike, you really only need one in the room and which economist you have doesn’t matter so much as long as the one you have is reasonably smart, well-trained and has some common sense. So here’s a question for you. Is this also true in the discipline where you got your training? Do people in your field more or less think alike but very differently than people who don’t have that training? And if so, what do you think it is about the training that leads everyone in your field to think the same way? I’d be so interested in hearing your thoughts on this. So, send me an email, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levey is our producer and Dan Dzula is the engineer; our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Mark McClusky, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Brent Katz, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: You speak in paragraphs, I don’t know how you do it — I can’t even put a sentence together.
MOYO: Well, thank you. In a world of 280 characters I’m not sure it’s a benefit but I’ll take it as a compliment.