This past Sunday, NYTimes columnist and self-designated poor-people-of-Africa expert extraordinaire wrote penned yet another op-ed piece that forced me to change the page shortly after the first paragraph. Here is where I changed the channel:
...if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.As controversial as it sounds, it's not a terribly new argument. It tows the line of Bill Cosby's tirade against poor black America, who, in his opinion, would prefer to purchase the latest pair of Nike sneakers for Lil' Shaquan rather than invest in Hooked on Phonics. Time will fail me to address why his sentiments are problematic, but if interested, I recommend Michael Eric Dyson's Is Bill Cosby Right or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind.
Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi provide, what I think, is a more balanced response to the issue of the poor spending significant percentages of their income on non-essential, "recreational" items (H/T Change.org).
The larger issue is explaining the seeming irrationality of, for example, [the poor's] decision to spend his evenings in a bar while his children sleep without a mosquito net. Could it be that outsiders make simplistic assumptions about the perceived value of bed nets to [the poor]?...Perhaps it is that parents do not really believe in the efficacy of nets, drugs, or water purification tablets. Going even further than Kremer and Holla, we speculate that belief in the scientific theories underlying all these products is not so easy to achieve in a poor society. Rich people believe in scientific medicine not only based on their education, but also because they see it working for themselves and everyone around them. Scientific medicine is a harder sell in a society that has never had a well-functioning health system to demonstrate its benefits.I think that in some instances, the degree to which a person perceives the efficacy of their actions in changing their situations, may explain seemingly irrational behaviors such as spending money on drinks rather than education. In essence, many of these individuals may possess a low internal locus of control, a phenomenon shaped by external historical and societal forces and perhaps personal decisions. Information alone, the post later stresses (such as in the form of malaria campaigns etc.), does not necessarily change behavior.
An example that readily comes to mind is the the ambivalence some may have towards the political situation in Nigeria (I know, some of you are cringing at the thought of yet another Nigeria/Africa generalization, but please bear with me). Despite clamors for active civic engagement and get out the vote awareness rallies, some may prefer the "siddon look" position rather than actively engaging in politics (through voting, participating in protests and the like). So while such activities are taking place, one may take the "irrational" route of ignoring the world, and taking a nap, instead. Sorry for the throwback pic...but I'm simply in love with it. And please, this is a very simplistic explanation for an incredibly complex phenomenon. A more concrete example of the relationship between locus of control, education, and irrational choices can be found here - I know, random, but just happened to stumble upon it sometime ago.