Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is Another Way for Africa’ — Book Review by Thomas Perring

During the spring term I taught African Studies at Uppsala University. Students created a blog Uppsala African Reviews where they published reviews of books with a focus on contemporary African issues. Thomas Perring is one of the students.

Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa, Penguin Books (2010), ISBN 978–0–141–03118–7

Branded as a ‘polemic’ by The Guardian, international economist Dambisa Moyo, in her book Dead Aid, aims to prove that the aid system put in place for Africa does not work and is — contrarily to popular thought within ‘Western’ countries — damaging for the African continent. Despite at least $1 trillion of foreign aid being transferred to Africa in the past 60 years, Moyo suggests that the ‘high hopes and ambitions’ of early independence have been replaced with juxtaposing notions of ‘near destitution and renewed dependency’ (p. 19).

Born in Zambia and growing up in the 1970s — a period which she considers was an ‘exciting time to be African’ — Moyo experienced first-hand a shifting of mentality from optimism to pessimism within Africa, finishing her studies in America and the United Kingdom. By the end of her studies she bemoaned the fact that, for her, there were ‘more and more reasons’ to stay away from Africa, and instead focussed on macroeconomics and international development at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs. Moyo’s emotiveness is apparent throughout Dead Aid, utilised as a tool to force Western readers to engage with the impact of aid rather than to hold a blasé, self-righteous approach to the notion of giving charity.

Moyo’s aim in the first part of the book is to illustrate how the reckless aid and the ‘culture of aid’ (xviii) have served to stagnate economic growth in Africa, increase poverty rates across the continent, enable the perpetration of corrupt African governments, and reaffirmed the authoritarian paternalism of the colonial period due to the creation of the dependency model. In Moyo’s view therefore, the elimination of aid is critical in order to allow Africa to become a continent which is able to be as economically and politically strong as the rest of the World, and — for the first time since the colonial era — in an independent capacity. In the second stage of the book, she explores a ‘World without Aid’ (p. 71) and offers what she considers as essential alternatives to foreign charity. Moyo postulates that Africa’s development must be brought about in the form of an anti-paternalistic, entrepreneurial model in order to alleviate the continent from the continued dependency of Western States. Only through attracting foreign direct investment simultaneously with the expansion of the African free market and the diminishing of an ‘aid addiction’ (p. 75) is Moyo optimistic for the future of Africa and its people.

One of Moyo’s primary contentions is that aid is essentially ‘free-money’ (p. 49) for African rulers. Coupled with frequent debt-clearing of loans, African governments have little motivation to incentivise economic growth within their countries, rather utilising the money to establish an opaque rule — making both foreign and domestic investment unattractive and untenable. This ‘vicious cycle of aid’ (p. 49) not only perpetrates underdevelopment in all areas in Moyo’s perspective but in fact ‘guarantees’ (p. 49) economic failure. Moyo contrasts The West’s aid initiative to the Chinese model, stating that ‘The mistake the West made was giving something for nothing’ (p. 152). With the Chinese demanding returns on their investments, new markets and job opportunities can be opened up within the African countries and the economy can grow organically. This organic growth, Moyo argues, was achieved by countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China in the post war epoch and aid on the scale of that being pumped into Africa was, and is not, present.

It is precisely for due to the lack of aid, in Moyo’s contention, that these countries were able to flourish due to large aid programmes competing with smaller local enterprises not existing as they do in an African context. As vast amounts of Africa’s skilled labourers are subsequently forced to work for aid agencies and NGOs — which are consequently competing for aid contracts — there are voiced ‘fears’ that this will cause Africa’s biggest industry to be the exporting of poverty images for aid.

A common critique of Moyo’s approach in Dead Aid is that she equates correlations with causations, and utilises emotive, anecdotal and selective ‘evidence’ as her proof. Whilst she cites Zambia as evidence for aid equalling poverty — with a 66% rise in paucity between 1970 and 1998 — Karl Thompson suggests that Botswana and Ghana could be used as counter examples to Moyo’s assertion and thus Zambia cannot — and should not — be used as a singularity to represent the entirety of the African continent. Furthermore, Zambian economist, Chola Mukanga, proposes that the solutions which Dambisa Moyo puts forward aren’t plausible alternatives to aid due national budgets being heavily supported by donor partners in the West. Mukanga’s belief is that, contrary to solving tensions, withdrawal of aid would only serve to exacerbate problems within African states, with military coups and ‘vampire states’ still existing due to the lucrative mineral wealth that exists in a wide spectrum of African States.

Whichever viewpoint the reader holds however, one thing is certain: Dead Aid is a book which has bought to light a questioning of how aid is administered and is fuelling debates surrounding the topic. Aid and charity is too easily given by Westerners without a deeper thought as to the consequences of the action — usually to feel, or appear, sanctimonious — and Moyo succeeds in bringing fresh perspectives in an easy to read manner. Although many critique her creation of the hypothetical country of ‘Dongo’, it allows her to weave scenarios throughout the book in order to further, and better, elucidate upon macro and micro economic issues which laypersons may find confusing — allowing for a deeper comprehension of the key issues she raises.

Although notable philanthropists, such as Bill Gates and Jeffrey Sachs, have strongly lambasted Moyo’s work — dubbing it as “promoting evil’, and “cruel and mistaken” respectively — with a rise in African intellectuals emerging it is essential voices can be heard emanating from the Africa itself. Dead Aid represents this necessary ideological shift towards African ideas strongly impacting policy making within the continent. As Moyo states: “the net result of aid-dependency is that instead of having a functioning Africa, managed by Africans, for Africans, what is left is one where outsiders attempt to manage its destiny and call the shots.

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