Rethinking the African aid model

If you have yet to hear of Dambisa Moyo, you will soon know her well. Her provocative new book, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, is making waves in the international development community. The exposure granted Moyo a place among TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009 and secured her a spot on Oprah Winfrey’s 2009 list of visionaries.

On Nov. 13 at the University of Waterloo, an impressive turnout gathered to hear Moyo speak, proving both the resonance and timeliness of her message. The public lecture, sponsored by the St. Paul’s University College as a part of the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Service Lecture series, was entitled “Innovating Away from Aid.”

Moyo, a native of Zambia, was educated at Harvard and Oxford and went on to work as an economist for the World Bank and Goldman Sachs. Despite her academic and professional feats, today Moyo is best known for her controversial belief that the African aid model is broken.
Whether you agree or not, Moyo’s arguments are stirring. This is because she raises a question many shy away from altogether. As Larry Swatuk, director of UW’s International Development program, said, openly questioning the aid formula is akin to “saying I’m against peace.” Regardless, the fact remains that 50 years and more than one trillion dollars in aid money later, the African continent has little to show for the efforts.

Those in the international development community, who pride themselves on this work, cringe at Moyo’s statistics. However, Moyo remains adamant that “Africa is worse today than in the 1970s” when aid began.

“Africans are poorer today,” she said. The reason for this, she argues, is aid itself.
Rather than ease systemic poverty, the presence of aid on the African continent has been “an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.”

The kind of aid Moyo is referring to is not humanitarian or emergency aid, nor is it charitable or non-government organization (NGO) aid. Instead, Moyo points to the “billions of dollars that go government-to-government” as the problem.

Just as communism put a damper on the incentive of individuals, Moyo said that in Africa, guaranteed aid means “no incentive for good government.”

At the same time, Moyo believes that “aid disenfranchises Africans.” This is because today, “African governments don’t care what Africans think … they cater to those who supply aid.”

Therefore, while the developing BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – have become economic powerhouses and a force capable of rivaling the developed world, Africa is being left behind. Moyo said that you must ask, “What is in their tool kit?” The simple answer is “not aid.”

According to Moyo, there are “far more poor Chinese and Indians,” yet we only hear about and see the poverty in Africa. Moyo believes the reason for this is that “Africa is suffering from a serious PR disaster.” Undeniably, this hampers foreign investment.

In her book, Dead Aid, Moyo writes, “We live in a culture of aid.” For this, Moyo places blame on celebrity pop culture for entrenching the prevailing misconception that aid is necessary. She believes that “the African agenda has been hijacked by celebrities,” something, she said “Canadians would not tolerate.”

By pushing a negative agenda on Africa – only drawing attention to war, disease, corruption and poverty – celebrities work to further the continent’s disastrous public image. While they may have the best of intentions at heart, such a scheme only succeeds in scaring off foreign investors.

“What will Africa do if aid were to stop tomorrow?” Moyo asked. It is a fair question; as the U.S. continues to suffer through an economic crisis, it may soon be unable to heavily fund development projects abroad. The issue remains that “low expectations of Africa” can no longer be tolerated. Investment in the African continent must be encouraged to bring jobs to the people, which in the long run will be more beneficial than aid. Moyo put it this way, “Africa needs to get off the couch.”

Overall, Moyo sees financial crisis as an exciting opportunity for African nations to wean themselves off of the entrenched aid model.

Moyo understands the reforms she is proposing are controversial. Thus, she prefaced her talk with a deal maker. If nothing else, Moyo said, “We can all agree on three things.” One, “Africa cannot be dependent on aid forever.” Two, African governments need to get involved. Three, we have to accept that “aid has contributed to the dysfunctionality of African governments.”

The naysayers protest that Moyo’s argument is just too simplistic. Corruption on the continent of Africa cannot simply be attributed to the presence of aid. To this, Moyo said, 50 years and one trillion dollars later, we should be asking what aid has done for Africa.

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