Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa
By Dambisa Moyo.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
188 pp. $24.
In a provocative new book, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo argues that foreign aid in Africa, one of the most haloed sacred cows of the liberal establishment, has been an “unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster,” an idea that “seemed so right” but is in fact “so wrong” that, like asbestos or the Hummer, it should be phased out entirely within the next decade.
Why? Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Foreign aid, in some African countries, has become government’s primary source of revenue, Moyo points out. In Ethiopia and Gambia, for example, a whopping 97 percent of the government’s budget derives from foreign aid. Such governments become dangerously untethered from the citizenry upon whose tax dollars they no longer rely, she says.
Local communities, propped up with aid-fueled schools and clinics, are no longer required to build mutual trust to create social institutions. Small businesses selling socially useful commodities–food, clothing, mosquito nets–are cruelly shuttered out of business by avalanches of well-intentioned donations. The effect is anti-democratic, destabilizing, soul-crushingly “malignant,” Moyo writes, and “exceptionally corrosive” to government accountability, civil society and the prospects for economic development.
Aid-powered governments, insofar as they are accountable to anyone, answer only to their donors, who in turn, despite all their hopeful propaganda are even less accountable to the poor, Moyo says. It’s true, beside the dashed hopes of local peoples, there’s not much consequence to a failed aid project. When aid dollars are diverted toward despots’ lavish wedding parties or, less spectacularly, to interventions that are inappropriate or ineffective, reports are duly written, filed away and ignored. To wit: World Bank analyses have revealed that 85 percent of foreign aid is diverted away from its originally intended purpose. After $300 billion in foreign aid, the rate of poverty in Africa grew from 11 percent in 1970 to 66 percent in 1998. Foreign aid plows on regardless, with nary a wiggle on the steering wheel.
There’s a political logic to this paradox, although Moyo doesn’t quite come out and say it. Being seen to be helpful trumps actually being helpful, as anyone who has been loudly offered dishwashing help ten minutes after the last plate has been dried can readily understand. Presidents tout foreign aid programs to distract their constituencies from unpopular wars and failing domestic programs, or to win hearts and minds in some distant geopolitical battle. That’s why so many foreign aid agencies spend much more time trumpeting disbursements rather than tracking outcomes. Disease-prevention projects fail to measure the baseline levels of sickness before they commence; aid workers tout their distribution of helpful tools, not whether people actually used them.