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How can you argue with Western altruism?
on 12 November 2009
The popular conception of Africa is not a pretty one. We are bombarded with images of civil wars, corruption, senseless ethnic violence and mass-scale poverty. Small wonder then that we are driven by compassion to help those "poor Africans" caught in the quagmire of misery; indeed, our celebrity-obsessed culture has taken up the cause with programmes like Make Poverty History, Live Aid, and Bono's endless solicitations on behalf of Africans. But does all this aid work? In this book, Ms. Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian-born economist, challenges the supposed efficacy of aid and demonstrates that aid has failed miserably to deliver economic growth.
Ms. Moyo differentiates among three types of aid:
1. EMERGENCY HUMANITARIAN AID. This is needed in the aftermath of a disaster such as during the Asian tsunamis in 2004;
2. CHARITABLE AID. Administered by organisations like Oxfam, charitable aid is targeted to delivering specific public goods like building toilets for teenage girls in India; and
3. DEVELOPMENT AID. This is bilateral or multilateral (via the World Bank to African governments) aid, which is used to supplement government annual budgets.
Developmental aid forms the bulk share of total aid flows to Africa; therefore, Ms. Moyo focuses her criticism on development aid.
She begins the book with a credible overview of the history of development aid--from its conception at the Bretton Woods conference in 1947 through the oil crises of the mid 1970s to the fall of the Berlin Wall. She argues that development aid was conceived as a means to spur economic growth. Showing growth statistics for Africa in the 1970s and 80s, she conclusively demonstrates that aid-receiving African countries have not grown in the two decades. Indeed, some aid-receiving countries like Niger, Benin, Liberia and Sierra are poorer today than there were thirty years ago. Therefore, on this metric, the aid-driven development model has spectacularly failed to deliver on its objectives.
Ms. Moyo then asks why aid has failed? Her answers are insightful. They include:
- Aid to Africa is an open-ended commitment, unlike other historically successful aid interventions like the Marshall Plan;
- Aid corrodes the incentives system in many African countries (Ethiopia and Uganda, for example). Aid is essentially "free money"; therefore, governments do not see the need to generate revenue by growing their economies. Why work with local entrepreneurs when you can always go cap-in-hand to beg the white man?
- Aid engenders corruption because aid money is easy to steal.
What solutions does she propose? Ms. Moyo proposes tried-and-tested market mechanisms: that African countries wean themselves off aid and, instead, like China, South Africa and Botswana, look to the capital markets to raise money. Nothing radical there, right? She, however, proposes that aid be turned off in five years. That proposal really got her critics' goats and drew their (Jeffrey Sachs and Bono's) derisive ire. How can you turn off the tap, they argue? Doing so would mean certain death for thousands of Africans. Ms. Moyo was subsequently criticised as an out-of-touch lackey of the aid-hating Right, while implying that she (Ms. Moyo) wants to deny the opportunities that she had to other poor African women (Sachs). Her critics also argue that her ideas are not new.
Sachs' arguments are hopelessly flawed and counter-productive. Ms. Dambisa Moyo's proposal to cut all development aid to Africa is a hard one to swallow for people, like Bono and Sachs, who are used to speaking for Africa, but it is one that we need to seriously consider. As an African (a Nigerian), I don't know that all development aid should be cut in five years. However, I agree with Ms. Moyo that development aid cannot be an open-ended commitment; African governments must be incentivised to start seeking other alternatives to aid, as aid cannot deliver the sustained economic growth that African definitely needs. Only the discipline of the market and entrepreneurship can deliver long-term economic growth in Africa.
Even though Ms. Moyo's main arguments are well-supported, the book has one significant shortcoming: it does not appear to be well-researched . The author seemed to 'shoot from the hip' and repeat herself inordinately. Also, Ms. Moyo takes a rosy view of the role that the Chinese want to play in Africa. I do agree with Ms. Moyo that the Chinese engagement model (business) in Africa is potentially more beneficial than the West's (pity, condescension), but I question China's sensitivity to human rights issue on the Continent.
Western aid, given from a sense of pity, is very difficult to challenge. How can you fault someone who tries to help you? But the aid-driven development model, as Ms. Moyo argues, has not and cannot deliver economic growth. Instead, aid has supported a generation of African leaders that have become lazy, thwarting the Continent's economic progress, while creating an entrenched bureaucracy (The World Bank, IMF, USAID, ODA)--indeed, an industry (Bono, Geldoff and Sachs)--that have a vested interest in business as usual.
The message in Dead Aid is not new; it has already been delivered--with greater analytical depth--by Paul Collier (The Bottom Billion) and Bill Easterly (The Elusive Quest for Growth and The White Man's Burden). Dead Aid's strongest selling point, however, is the messenger: an articulate, intelligent, well-educated African woman. As an African, I want to hear hard-headed proposals for Africa's development from African leaders, and not unworkable, bleeding heart solutions from Bono, Bob Geldof, and Jeffrey Sachs. For content and delivery alone, Dead Aid deserves only two stars. However, for content, delivery and messenger, Dead Aid deserves a heart-felt four stars.