Lawrence W. Reed’s unusual line of work, coaching conservative policy groups, has left Mr. Reed, a Michigan economist, with acolytes across the globe. But none please him more than James Shikwati, whose unlikely rise offers a case study of how the right grooms foreign allies.
Interesting. Mr. Shikwati is usually quoted as a native African who’s come to the conclusion that foreign aid is bad for Africa. (An interview in Der Spiegel is a showcase of this idea.) What’s not as often mentioned is that he did not come to this conclusion out of the blue, simply as a natural consequence of observing the effects of aid in Africa. He had a “born-again” conversion to Libertarianism, and established ties to a conservative think-tank here in West Michigan. Only then did it become obvious to him that the worst thing that the developed world had ever done to Africa was tried to feed starving people there.
Mr. Shikwati’s conversion to capitalism started with a rejection letter. As a 27-year-old teacher in a rural high school, he applied to dozens of American graduate schools and gained admittance to none. But one rejection came with a book, “The Law” by Frédéric Bastiat.
A 19th-century, French, pamphlet-length attack on the state, “The Law” enjoys something close to a cult following among some libertarians. It describes taxes and regulation as “legal plunder,” and sees tyranny at work in laws that force citizens to support public schools. “Try liberty,” it demands.
“ ‘The Law’ just spun me around,” said Mr. Shikwati, who flirted with socialism at the University of Nairobi and made the book’s translation into Swahili one of his group’s first projects. “It showed me I was believing in the wrong things.”
Mr. Shikwati wrote to the book’s nonprofit publisher and received a journal with a column by Mr. Reed. Many busy people would have ignored the letter that soon landed on Mr. Reed’s desk. (“Exactly what does the Mackinac Center for Public Policy do for the citizenship of the world?” Mr. Shikwati asked, referring to Mr. Reed’s group.)
But Mr. Reed, 53, runs a conservative “think-tank school” that twice a year draws allies from across the globe. In answering, he began a four-year correspondence. “This is how the movement grows,” he said.
By 2001, with Mr. Reed’s help, Mr. Shikwati landed two grants totaling about $9,500 a year, one from Atlas and one from a related British group, the International Policy Network. IREN now has a budget of $300,000 and seven full-time employees.
With no academic credentials, Mr. Shikwati made a mark as an author of opinion articles. He defended McDonald’s against critics of globalization and drug companies against charges of price gouging. He called for the legalization of the ivory trade, which he argues would protect elephant herds. Above all, he called for an end to foreign aid, saying it hurt local markets, corrupted governments and promoted dependency.
His iconoclasm and his authenticity as an African made Mr. Shikwati attractive to the Western press, despite his lack of prominence at home. His views quickly traveled the globe, appearing in places as diverse as The Sydney Morning Herald, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of London, Forbes and The Washington Post.
Echoing his calls to end foreign aid, Suzanne Fields of The Washington Times lauded Mr. Shikwati, who has a bachelor’s degree in education and no economics training, as nothing less than “a distinguished Kenyan economist.”
Critics see a sleight of hand, in which Western conservatives created a faux expert, then cite him to justify their views.
“The truly hard-hearted have been looking for a developing country ‘economist’ to sing this song for years,” said Neil Gallagher, a spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program in Rome, which feeds about three million Kenyans a year. “It justifies their meanness.”
Mr. Sachs of Columbia University said Mr. Shikwati was “part of a game” the conservative movement played to create an impression that Africans oppose foreign help. Although he agrees that some aid programs have failed, he said others had eradicated smallpox, slashed polio rates and started Asia’s green revolution, saving hundreds of millions of people from famine.
Even Mr. Shikwati’s African admirers tend to distance themselves from his absolutism. Maggie Kamau-Biruri, who runs the Kenya office of the International Child Resource Institute, a nonprofit group, finds it hard to talk of less government in a country without enough paved roads and no public high schools. But “I really like him a lot,” she said. “He means well and wants to see his country move forward.”