Dead Aid

Dead Aid is almost a good title. Like dead wood, argues Dambisa Moyo, today’s aid is both useless and obstructive. The Zambian economist makes a strong case against the use of systematic aid money given yearly by Western donors to African governments, but her book lacks nuance. No one writing about “Africa” can escape the charge of generalizing, but Moyo’s prescriptions for a better future rest too narrowly and too optimistically on private sector-driven economic growth.

Moyo begins by discussing fifty years of rich countries’ wasted aid to Africa, in the form of concessional loans or grants that are frequently forgiven by donors. This leads to the most compelling (if unoriginal) argument in the book; namely, that aid fosters corruption, which in turn hampers growth.

Dirty money is not easy to track, but Moyo could have substantiated her principal argument with more exact cases of aid corruption and stated specifically where and how this has corroded growth. There are few detailed examples, which could lead readers to make assumptions about African politicians – precisely the kind of thinking Moyo wants to change. There are also oversights: she calls “glamour aid” a phenomenon of the past decade, although it began with Live Aid in 1985. Others would trace the birth of the African cause célèbre to the late nineteenth century when Joseph Conrad and Arthur Conan Doyle reported on King Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo.

Dead Aid simplifies and in so doing ignores the fact that Africa has been a site for multiple competing growth and policy discourses at various levels since aid began. The second part of the book proposes a narrow focus on foreign direct investment, trade with China and microfinance as the best routes for African aid-free growth.

Aid itself is not the factor obstructing an otherwise inevitable stream of private capital; by pushing these approaches, Moyo overestimates the singularity of African markets. Aid is controversial for its historical and political connotations, but in reality its impact on Africa is secondary to structural factors such as global trading systems.

That most African countries have gone from being net food exporters in the 1960s to net food importers today is enormously significant for the livelihoods of Africans. Increasingly driven to cities, partly because of the effects of economic liberalization in the 1980s, millions now cannot afford to buy imported commodities. One issue Moyo neglects is agriculture. Ensuring more effective, equitable agricultural development will do more to promote growth in Africa than ending institutional aid.

Times Literary Supplement

Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo is published by Penguin.

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