Dead Aid is an interesting, provocative look at the foreign aid industry and its effects on Africa. Dambisa Moyo, who formerly worked for Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, draws a conclusion not unknown to others in the field: development aid (as differentiated from humanitarian aid) has not only done little good for the nations of Africa but has indeed caused great harm. While I don’t necessarily disagree with her conclusion, I didn’t find her arguments particularly convincing.
There is no question that much of the aid intended to build economies in Africa has been grossly wasted, stolen, and misused. There is little to show for the trillions of dollars that have been poured into the continent–a failure with numerous causes. But Moyo’s main premise is that aid itself is the cause, that it creates a culture dependent on foreign handouts and rife with corruption that, according to the author, apparently wouldn’t exist if aid weren’t available. I find both arguments hard to swallow, especially since they are based mostly on the logical premise of cum hoc ergo propter hoc (with this, therefore because of this). In this thinking, when aid is given, the recipients don’t develop other resources, therefore aid causes them to not try. It’s the same argument that’s been used for years to oppose welfare programs applied in this instance not to individuals, but to entire nations. I find that a little facile. I suspect aid fails more often because it is poorly structured and managed, an argument that Moyo essentially dismisses out of hand.
Whether you agree with Moyo’s reasoning or not, you have to seriously question the solutions she proposes. While outlining a litany of worthwhile approaches to economic development including micro-lending, opening markets in the developed world to African products, and more foreign direct investment (FDI), her silver bullet is a solution only an investment banker could love: the bond market. Somehow, Moyo expects the magic of the free market financial system to end corruption in Africa, stop wasteful spending, and power the continent out of poverty. I react to that proposal the same way Jaime Talon, one of the lead characters in my novel, Heart of Diamonds, did when confronted by a similar argument about a panhandler in New York: “What matters is that right now–today–that man over there is hungry. Somebody needs to do something about that, not just ignore it and hope the holy and all-powerful market economy will provide a solution.”
I have to ask, given the brilliant performance of Wall Street and Fleet Street in providing structured finance for America and Europe, how can we expect them to solve the problems of Africa? These are the people who brought us sub-sub-prime mortgages wrapped in gilt-edged bond ratings and called gold. Their ability to assess risk and police wasteful government spending in Kinshasa is rather suspect, at least to me. I also fail to see how corrupt leaders and their minions will be any less likely to steal funds from private lenders than they are from the World Bank. Perhaps my most significant objection, though is when Moyo says the developing nations will be better served paying ten percent interest (the rate she quotes for emerging market debt in 2007) than the 0.75% they are charged by the World Bank. How does that work to anyone’s advantage other than the investment bankers?
Don’t misunderstand my review. I agree with many of Moyos’ conclusions and her objections to the current approach to foreign aid. Mandating the purchase of American products with American aid dollars, for example, is enormously wasteful, self-serving, and undoubtedly harms the African farmers and manufacturers such aid could help. She’s also dead on when she calls for an improved business climate in Africa so that direct investment, both foreign and local, stands a better chance to succeed.
Pulling Africa out of the swamp of poverty is a complex operation. I applaud Dambisa Moyo for presenting a provocative set of arguments in clear, understandable layman’s prose. Dead Aid brings an important subject into the public eye.