Dead Aid or Wrong Approach? Notes on Dambisa Moyo

Published on 20th July 2009

Perhaps the most astonishing thing in Moyo’s book is her optimistic belief that stopping aid - after five to ten years - would prompt African governments to switch to self-financing and this would push economic growth and reduce poverty. Moyo writes: “Isn’t it more likely that in a world freed of aid, economic life for the majority of Africans might actually improve, that corruption would fall, entrepreneurs would rise, and Africa’s growth engine would start chugging? This is the most probable outcome”. (145) One has to believe in this.


And one wonders whether Moyo believes that the catastrophic situations in East Congo, Somalia, Sudan, etc. are a result of aid - and not strongly influenced by Mr. Kagame7, by a power struggle of Islamist extremists, by the brutal racism of Northern Africans against black Africans. These are home-made catastrophes, not caused by aid, but they extremely hamper development. Also, what has aid to do in those countries which, theoretically, are rich through oil income - and the ordinary people are suffering? It is too short-sighted to blame Africa’s problems on aid as the cause of the problems. One must not neglect those who have the political power and who act in their way, with and without aid, being the cause of the problems.


We have to step out of the narrow framework within which “Dead Aid” is arguing. This framework is given by its purely economic approach. But there is more to life - and Africa - than economy. A colour print needs several negative films for different colours, e.g. a four-colour print consists of a film for yellow, for blue, for red and for black. One can take one of those films and declare it to be the full picture. This is what Moyo is doing. She takes one film (probably the one for black). Within this black-and-white picture, everything appears to be logic. Moyo knows that there are other perspectives: “Africa’s failure... must ... be a confluence of factors: geographical, historical, cultural, tribal and institutional. Indeed, it would be naïve to discount outright any of the above arguments as contributing to Africa’s poor growth history.” (35) However, further on Moyo neglects others than economic factors and sticks to one ‘film’.


Quite often, we find remarks on deficiencies in Africa, when Moyo discusses difficulties to introduce self-financing of governments. We read that African countries are “unable or unwilling to capitalize on the obvious [trade] opportunity” with China (120); that “doing business in Africa is a nightmare” (100), mainly because of the bad infrastructure (121); there is “intransigence and myopia” related to trade agreements (123). African governments have “to play ball” concerning bonds (88). In Africa a functioning and transparent legal framework is missing (138) The transition requires proper and active management (141). Etc. The question that arises here is why are these and other deficiencies not a hindrance in making proper use of aid?


In her discussion of ‘strategic aid’ Moyo simply neglects the human factor: those in government, the political elites, the people who have power and responsibili-ties. In her thinking, these persons appear under the exclusive perspective to be corrupted by aid. They are absolutely determined by aid. Therefore, aid has to be bad. Just one example that contradicts this one-sided view: The first Kibaki government in Kenya (2003 - 2007) managed to more than triple the tax revenue, to reduce aid money in the budget to almost zero and to increase economic growth from little more than zero to 7%. This happened because a few persons in government by their own will wanted to do something for their country and they were not determined by the seduction of aid to take it easy. (That corruption did not stop is another story.)


Aid does not help Africa not only because easy money is flowing in, because Western institutions have to get rid of the money, because there is a huge development business - but also when the recipients of the aid money - the political elite - are not serious, when they have no interest in their people, when they consider politics as a profitable means of income. Though aid may support this wide-spread attitude, it does not cause it. Thus, the discussion of the aid tragedy Moyo is concerned about has to look at the African disposition and condition for development.


Which development do Africans want for themselves? Is the Western society a model for them or not? (Which Moyo indirectly answers with ‘yes’.) How to cope with the pressure that comes through globalization? Can Africa continue with its two-class society: those who serve and those who get served? (Slavery is still existing in some African societies.) Can the political elites continue to behave as pseudo-elders: boasting with the elder-prestige of the village and taking no responsibility on the national level? How can the Westerners and the Africans overcome their hang-ups stemming from the colonial times? (The African/Western relationship has a similar burden like the Germans and the Jews.) Are Africans and Westerners able to recognize and acknowledge that they are in a non-derogatory way different? Are the Westerners able and willing to accept that Africans have a high intellectual and entrepreneurial potential and therefore have to be taken seriously as partners?


These and many more questions and issues have to be taken into consideration to decide on the meaningfulness of aid and - even more important: on the relationship between North and Africa. On this background, Moyo’s economic approach is insufficient; it is one-sided and mono-causal: She only sees the flow of aid and blames everything on it. Aid - as it has been handled since six decades - is only one cause for Africa’s situation today, if it’s a cause at all. For, others like Axelle Kabou, George Ayittey or recently Moeletsi Mbeki put the blame on the African leaders8. There are examples in Africa that with a good political will, development and economic growth is happening - under the same conditions of ‘aid’.


Moyo’s approach is determined by economics as a science that pretends to capture social and individual life by measuring economic factors. ‘Systematic aid’ is applying the same approach. World Bank, IMF, governments, etc. provide aid under conditions of economics. As an economist, Moyo cannot reckon that the problem of ‘systematic aid’ has something to do with its purely economic orientation. But African societies represent much more than an economic entity. There are humans who get involved in business, science, politics... And therefore, humans are the base of economics etc.; but it is not economics that essentially determines humans. This is neither understood by ‘systematic aid’ nor by Moyo. Her understanding of the human being is rather simplistic: Politicians are reduced to the stimulus-response scheme. In scenario A, they receive aid and react as corrupt failures. In scenario B, they are put into a free market environment and react as able leaders who create growing economies. If such a perception of Africans would come from Westerners, it would be considered to be racist.


Well, Moyo may not consent to such a simplistic view. But then she has to admit that development of Africa is not so simple either by just turning off the aid tap. Something has to be done on the human level, too. What? First, one has to interpret all layers of the situation, so to speak, one has to look at all ‘films’ of the colour print. Economic measuring is not sufficient. Second, Africans and Northerners have to come to a mutual understanding on what the right development for Africa is. WTO will only be one platform for this agreement. Third, from there one can find out ways of development co-operation, with or without aid, with or without ‘development’ in mind. For, African countries are first and foremost normal countries, not ‘developing countries’.


“Dead Aid” may have a dead end in itself - as shifting from aid to financing through free market instruments seems to be not so straight forward, and as development is more than economic growth and more than economies have to be ‘developed’. However, Moyo is right by saying: It cannot continue like in the last six decades. This and the discussion she has stimulated is her valuable contribution. In the North and in Africa, it needs a break. It needs a reflection on the future of Africa. But this reflection must look beyond economics. It must be holistic, as Mo Ibrahim empha¬sises.


By Helmut Danner,

Helmut Danner (PhD) Education has worked in Adult education, community development, political and civic education: 10 years in Egypt, 9 years in Kenya. 


7. See H. Strizek: Die drei ruandischen Kongo-Kriege; in: Afrika Süd, March/April 2009.

8. A. Kabou: Et si l’Afrique refusait le développement? Paris (L’Harmattan) 1991; G. Ayittey: Africa Unchained; New York (Palgrave Macmillan) 2006; M. Mbeki: Architects of poverty. Craighall (Pan Macmillan, S.A.), 2009.

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