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Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid has caused a stir but its argument is incorrect

cc Dambisa Moyo’s argument that aid is detrimental to Africa’s development has made her a star on the literary and academic circuit, writes Ronald Elly Wanda, but it isn’t true. Moyo’s recent book Dead Aid, Wanda says, makes no ‘correlation between Africa’s development and its accompanying social and historical conditions’ nor does it explore the possibility that ‘exogenous factors have and continue to hamper development in Africa’. If Moyo’s argument that Africa’s culture of dependency is to blame for its woes was true, writes Wanda, the economies of countries which have received virtually no foreign aid – such as Eritrea, Mauritania and Somalia – should have improved notably, which is not the case. The real problem, Wanda argues, is not aid itself but the way in which it is structured and delivered.

‘Stars come and go,’ said William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade. And Goldman was right. Lately in the African literary and development circle, Dambisa Moyo with her new book Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa, has become one such a 'star'. The book, not to my surprise, has received a very warm welcome within the western academic circuit that is usually unreceptive to African intellectual contributions.

For instance, one Oxford University don (Moyo’s former tutor both at Oxford and Harvard) reviewing for the Independent wrote: ‘Dambisa Moyo is to aid what Ayaan Hirsi Ali is to Islam. Here is an African woman, articulate, smart, glamorous, delivering a message of brazen political incorrectness: “cut aid to Africa”’. Another well-placed British reviewer continues the flattery: ‘Moyo cannot be dismissed as a crank. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she heads the Africa strategy of a major bank. Nor can she be dismissed as a renegade who has rejected her roots. She is deeply wounded by the lack of development in Zambia, her home country’.

Michela Wrong, (a former FT reporter) whose recent book-launch I attended at SOAS, also thinks Moyo is right. Her book It’s Our Turn to Eat: the story of a Kenyan Whistleblower is based on narratives of her friend John Githongo, the former Kenyan anti-corruption tsar who sought sanctuary in Britain in 2005 after uncovering high-level corruption in the post-Moi regime. Since its publication, Kenyan bookshops have refused to stock or distribute it, citing fears of persecution and prosecution by the incumbent Kibaki administration. Reviewing for The Spectator (a right-wing publication) Wrong said: ‘The assumption that foreign aid is an unalloyed good runs so deep in the guilt- ridden, post-colonial West, people are often shocked to discover that many Africans, far from showing appropriate gratitude or begging for more, regard these contributions with both distrust and suspicion’. Concluding: ‘No wonder this book is causing a stir’. But should Moyo be branded a star simply for causing a stir? Having read her submission, forgive me, I think not.

Truth, reality and objectivity, it is often argued, mark out the straight road of knowledge and put us on our guard against all deviations. As an analyst with a Pan-African posture, whenever reading socio-political texts on Africa, I often ponder on whether the writer managed to make a correlation between Africa’s development and its accompanying social and historical conditions. Thus Dead Aid was no exception. In spite of her ‘impressive’ statistics, Moyo makes no attempt to either mention or entertain the possibilities, as did Dr Walter Rodney in his classic How Europe underdeveloped Africa, that exogenous factors have and continue to hamper development in Africa. For instance the conditionalities imposed on the so called ‘aid’ given to Africa; the culture of protectionism practiced by US and EU and safeguarded by the World Trade Organisation (WTO); the ongoing core (Western world) and periphery (Africa) relations that constantly disadvantage Africa; and last but certainly not least, the subsequent mind-set of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) that subordinates Africa.

For many Africans, particularly women, children and those working in the informal sector, the social impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) has been excruciatingly felt. Designed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), they have been the frame-work for economic and social policy in Africa since the early 1980s. Instead of reducing poverty, they have impoverished already poor ‘wanainchi’(Africans) both in the rural and urban areas. The donor community’s insistence that African countries liberalise their markets through privatisation of public enterprises and downsizing of the civil services have made corruption endemic in Africa. According to a recent UN report, Western business interests are at the heart of corruption in Africa, the report estimated that government supported companies pay bribes worth $80 billion a year in order to secure long and short-term contracts and other concessions from African governments and at the expense of the voiceless and already poor ‘mwanainchi’.

With recent British broadsheets biblically citing Dead Aid and continually amplifying statements such as: ‘…having received almost a US$1 trillion in the past 60 years in foreign aid, yet Africans are still worse off than they were during the independence years…’, one somehow gets the impression that Dead Aid has become a fitting kit for the West to justify aid reduction to Africa.

Moyo’s prime argument that Africa’s culture of dependency is to blame for its woes (although explicable) is simply not true. Because were we to reverse that argument then one should expect the economies of countries such as Eritrea, Mauritania, and for the last 18 years anarchic Somalia, which have received virtually no foreign aid at all, to have improved notably. This, needless to say, has not been the case. Therefore aid in my view is not the problem. The way in which it is structured and delivered is the real problem. The conditions imposed on the aid are so many and in most cases not the right ones. That said, aid alone cannot solve Africa’s many problems, it must go hand in hand with reforms of international trade and financial rules in order to ensure that wanainchi have a fair chance of benefiting from the wealth of resources that Africa has aplenty.

The timing of Dead Aid is, to say the least, neglectful, especially given the recent US and EU banking systems collapse and the inevitable global financial crisis that has followed, the severity of which will be felt more by nearly 40 million poor wanainchi as they swell the ranks of abject poverty. According to Action Aid, the crisis is likely to cost Africa US$400 billion in the next three years alone. It is this reason amongst others that drove most of us at a recent alternative G20 Summit in London under the banner ‘Real Financial Fairness’, to call on richer Western nations to maintain their pledge to increase aid to 0.7 per cent of their respective Gross national incomes (GNIs) as agreed by the UN, (instead of the current 0.2 per cent that they occasionally give) in order to help poor wanainchi in Africa cope with the impact of the current economic crisis. After all, how about the immeasurable capital flight that has left and continues to leave Africa everyday? Under the current circumstances, Samir Amin’s ‘de-linking’ hypothesis becomes more and more relevant and appealing. African leaders ought to start entertaining this possibility with a degree of seriousness if African economies are to become truly independent of aid.

* Ronald Elly Wanda is a political scientist based in London.
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