Telling Africa to Drop Dead (Aid)

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Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and Why There Is a Better Way for Africa

By Dambisa Moyo

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2009 (208 pp)


When it comes to African poverty, everyone, it seems, wants to help—and “help” usually means foreign aid. The omnipresent Bono, for instance, runs the “One” campaign, which calls for a significant increase in government aid. George W. Bush, meanwhile, nearly quadrupled the amount of America's direct bilateral assistance to Africa. Madonna recently showed her commitment to foreign aid—accented by colorful F-bombs—at 2005’s “Live 8” concert extravaganza. The concert’s organizer, aging rock star Bob Geldof, is so passionate about foreign aid that he told the International Herald Tribune that something must be done to help Africa “even if it doesn’t work.”

Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work—and it might even make things worse. That’s the argument of Dead Aid, a new book by Dambisa Moyo, an economist born in Zambia, educated at Oxford and Harvard, and who is currently raising major hackles in development circles.

In Dead Aid, Moyo does not mince words. Despite the fact that over $1 trillion has gone to Africa over the past 50 years (according to Moyo, nearly $1000 for every person on the planet), “millions in Africa are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty has not ended, but increased. Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.”

The facts aren’t encouraging. Dead Aid reports that sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region in the world, has an average per capita income of around a dollar a day; that the UN forecasts it “will account for almost one third of world poverty in 2015”; that one out of seven African children die before age five; and that “Africa is the only continent where life expectancy is less than sixty years; today, it hovers around fifty years.” Africa, in short, is a mess.

According to Moyo, aid opens up a hornet’s nest of problems: it chokes off investment, encourages a culture of dependency, enables disastrous levels of corruption, discourages savings, depresses exports, encourages bloated, unsustainable, and lazy governments, is easy to steal and props up dictators. (“Indeed,” Moyo writes, “one could argue that the reason why Zimbabwe’s Mugabe has lasted so long is because he has been propped up by massive foreign aid receipts.”)

One classic aid scenario Moyo outlines is the “micro-macro paradox,” which goes like this: an earnest Silicon Valley billionaire sends hundreds of thousands of mosquito nets to Africa, promptly putting the local mosquito net maker out of business—and, by extension, his ten workers and their 150 dependents. “A short-term efficacious intervention may have few discernible, sustainable long-term benefits,” Moyo writes. “Worse still, it can unintentionally undermine whatever fragile chance for sustainable development may already be in play.” In other words, that Britney Spears t-shirt, donated from good-hearted Westerners, may just put an African weaver out on the street.

So what can we do to help Africa? And, more importantly, what can Africa do to help itself? Moyo’s prescription, bracing to many ears—including Bono’s, whose website declares “Dead Aid is Dead Wrong”—is to shut off the funding faucet over the course of five years. Dead Aid argues that Africa should tap into international bond markets; seek foreign direct investment (the Chinese, as Moyo notes, invested $30 billion in Africa between 2000-2005); pushing for free trade (ending disastrous farm subsidies, for instance); and encouraging innovative financial systems to lift people out of poverty (including microfinance, which gives small loans, not handouts, to emerging entrepreneurs).

The common thread in Moyo’s prescriptions is that they are market, not government, based. “Development,” she writes, “is not a mystery.” What is a mystery, she argues, is why more people don’t agree with her. “One of the most depressing aspect of the whole aid fiasco,” Moyo writes, “is that donors, policymakers, governments, academicians, economists, and development specialists know, in their heart of hearts, that aid doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and won’t work. Commenting on at least one aid donor, the Chief Economist at the British Department of Trade and Industry remarked that ‘they know it’s crap, but it sells the t-shirts.’” It also, by the way, sells concert tickets.

This, at heart, is the central tension of Dead Aid, but it also leads to one of the biggest oversights of the book. “There is no other sector,” Moyo writes, “whether it be business or politics, where such proven failures are allowed to persist in the face of such stark and unassailable evidence.” Actually, that’s not true—in politics, there are countless examples of bizarre, long-term support for obvious policy failures. Ask a public school student in Washington, D.C., whose district pours in over $13,000 per student but still, somehow, can’t teach kids to read. Ask someone nervously waiting for a government-provided, Canadian MRI. Ask an economist who knows about the real impact, or lack thereof, of massive, billion-dollar “stimulus” plans.

The real tragedy—and a central reason behind this strange, continued state of denial—is that many Western liberals have the resources to bypass the consequences of their flawed policy prescriptions. Bob Geldof wants to send money to Africa “even if it doesn’t work” because he doesn’t have to live with the results. President Obama can largely support the failing public school status quo because his daughters are safe and secure in one of Washington’s finest private schools. And America’s politicians can continue to pour billions into Africa, even if it ultimately hurts billions of Africans, because it’s much easier than making the tough choices and facing down the various constituencies who have a vested interest in the status quo.

This is a serious moral issue, and that’s why Dead Aid is an important book. While Moyo's work may be full of what some would call “tough love”—and while some of its tougher prescriptions should be modified based on a clear assessment of countries’ needs, particularly when it comes to health care, AIDS, and vaccines—in the end, it’s optimistic.

As Moyo puts it, “If other countries around the developing world have done it sans aid (generated consistent growth, raised incomes and rescued billions from the brink of poverty) why not Africa? Remember that just thirty years ago Malawi, Burundi and Burkina Faso were economically ahead of China on a per capita income basis. A dramatic turnaround is always possible.”

It's certainly possible. But when it comes to politics, sometimes solutions require more than just stating the facts. They require sustained political will. Dead Aid, at the very least, provides a first step towards changing how America, and the world, thinks about how to help Africa. Hopefully it will be loud enough to compete with those awesome electric guitars.

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