Dentists and Freedom in Ivory Coast

I heard a report this morning on BBC Newshour on the shortage of dentists in Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire). I can’t find the report at the Newshour website, but here’s something similar from CNBCAfrica, coauthored by a Unilever representative. It’s a sad story of disease, pain, and school absenteeism.

But stories like this miss the point. Why does Ivory Coast have so few dentists? Why does the Gates Foundation need to buy mosquito nets for African countries? It’s not because there’s something special about dentists and mosquito nets. It’s because African countries are poor. And they’re poor because they lack freedom, property rights, markets, and the rule of law.

Take Cote d’Ivoire. In the 2016 Economic Freedom of the World Report, Cote d’Ivoire ranks 133rd in the world for economic freedom. On page 66 of this pdf version, we see that it rates particularly badly on “Legal System and Property Rights.” You can’t generate much economic growth if you don’t have secure property rights and the rule of law. It also rates badly on regulatory barriers to trade and capital controls. 

On the broader Human Freedom Index, we see on page 63 that Cote d’Ivoire also rates low for freedom of domestic movement, political pressure on the media, and procedural, criminal, and civil justice.

African countries have severe tariff and nontariff barriers to free trade, reducing the benefits they can gain from specialization and the division of labor, even among sub-Saharan countries themselves.

The long-term way to get more dentists and mosquito nets in Africa is not Western aid or charity, it’s freedom and growth. Those who want Africa and Africans to have better lives need to encourage African countries to move toward the rule of law, free trade, property rights, and open markets.