The courage to say no

Dead Aid: De­stroy­ing the Big­gest Global Myth of our Time By Dam­bisa Moyo Pen­guin, 188pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Michela Wrong

WHEN I wrote a reg­u­lar col­umn on Africa for a left-wing mag­a­zine, I was al­ways in­trigued by the con­trast in re­sponses to any scep­ti­cal ar­ti­cle on aid. ‘‘ This re­ac­tionary bigot is clearly happy for mil­lions of Africans to starve,’’ pretty much summed up the fury of white read­ers at hav­ing their Ox­fam di­rect deb­its ques­tioned. ‘‘ No, she’s right!’’ replied my de­fend­ers. ‘‘ Th­ese cor­rupt, thiev­ing gov­ern­ments should be cut off without a penny.’’ Those ones al­ways came from Africans.

The as­sump­tion that for­eign aid is an un­al­loyed good runs so deep in the guilt-rid­den, post­colo­nial West, peo­ple are of­ten shocked to dis­cover that many Africans, far from show­ing ap­pro­pri­ate grat­i­tude or beg­ging for more, re­gard th­ese con­tri­bu­tions with dis­trust and sus­pi­cion. No won­der this book is caus­ing a stir.

While most crit­ics are con­tent to dis­miss aid as largely in­con­se­quen­tial or sim­ply over­sold, Dam­bisa Moyo — a Zam­bian econ­o­mist who spent eight years at Gold­man Sachs — goes about six steps fur­ther. Writ­ing with tan­gi­ble ex­as­per­a­tion, she ar­gues that aid is the worst thing to hap­pen to her con­ti­nent in the past 60 years and the big­gest favour the West can do Africa is to turn off the taps. A warn­ing phone call, fol­lowed by five years to al­low for ad­just­ment, should just about do it, she reck­ons.

Those of us whose hearts sank on read­ing the Amer­i­can econ­o­mist Jef­frey Sachs’s best-sell­ing The End of Poverty , a book that helped per­suade a gen­er­a­tion of rock stars and well-mean­ing West­ern vot­ers that the only thing wrong with aid to Africa was that there wasn’t enough of it, will find it hard to con­trol a surge of re­lief on read­ing Moyo.

The steady stream of funds from abroad, handed over with lit­tle over­sight or fol­low-up, has en­cour­aged gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion, un­der­mined de­vel­op­ment, fu­elled po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity and kept the con­ti­nent in a per­pet­ual child­like state, she says.

Some­thing clearly must be found to fill the vacuum left once for­eign aid is re­moved. Moyo en­vis­ages newly con­fi­dent African gov­ern­ments rais­ing bonds on the in­ter­na­tional cap­i­tal mar­kets, in­creased Chi­nese in­vest­ment, a rolling out of the kind of mi­cro-credit schemes that have flour­ished in Asia, and the stream­lin­ing of fi­nan­cial sup­port from Africa’s vast, ev­er­gen­er­ous di­as­pora.

Does her al­ter­na­tive vi­sion hold to­gether? I’m not an econ­o­mist, but I was left won­der­ing how her pack­age would weather the credit cri­sis. In a world where even the US Gov­ern­ment has come to seem like a risky bet, who is go­ing to want to take a punt on Guinea? Given our new un­der­stand­ing of the credit rat­ing agen­cies’ ca­pac­ity for self-delu­sion, who will be­lieve the rank­ing they give Bu­run­dian bonds?

Moyo is, it seems to me, also in dan­ger of re­quir­ing the very out­come she seeks to bring about for her rec­om­men­da­tions to work. Poorly po­liced aid would not have done the dam­age it has in Africa had it not been for a se­ries of in­se­cure, greedy leaders who were more pre­oc­cu­pied with their own sur­vival than the na­tional de­vel­op­ment pro­gram. A con­fi­dent de­but on the in­ter­na­tional bond mar­kets would re­quire pre­cisely the el­e­ment that has been in such short sup­ply: vi­sion­ary, al­tru­is­tic lead­er­ship.

There are many other ar­gu­ments those who work in the aid in­dus­try could, and will, make against this book: that Moyo is in dan­ger of mud­dling cause and ef­fect, that the level of aid the con­ti­nent has re­ceived is not quite as im­pres­sive as ball­park fig­ures ini­tially sug­gest, that Africa’s poor can­not af­ford the lux­ury of yet an­other dar­ing for­mula that is sub­se­quently proved faulty. Aid, like democ­racy, wins the grudg­ing sup­port of in­tel­li­gent peo­ple not be­cause they be­lieve it is a panacea, but be­cause the al­ter­na­tive is of­ten so ter­ri­fy­ing.

One can chal­lenge this book’s the­sis, how­ever, and still hail it as mark­ing a turn­ing point. In the past, Africans might pri­vately have waxed cyn­i­cal about West­ern aid pol­icy, but they were con­tent to leave the pub­lic de­bate to be waged by Ir­ish pop stars, Amer­i­can celebri­ties and paunchy white men in suits. Tele­vi­sion pro­duc­ers and con­fer­ence or­gan­is­ers rou­tinely scratched their heads try­ing to find opin­ion­ated Africans ready to ar­gue the is­sues.

Moyo be­longs to an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion of ar­tic­u­late, self-con­fi­dent and an­gry Africans who are now do­ing just that. Not be­fore time. The Spec­ta­tor Michela Wrong’s book about cor­rup­tion in Kenya, It’s Our Turn to Eat, is pub­lished by Fourth Es­tate.

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