Development Aid: Does it work?

“My voice cannot compete with an electric guitar”, said one specialist on development aid for Africa. Commentary on aid to Africa has, in the main, been the preserve of aging rock stars and Western politicians. And, so, the voices of those who raise doubts about what some are calling the ‘aid industry’ remain largely silent. Until now that is.

In the last two years, three respected economists have published books that question the relationship between aid and develoment. Paul Collier does this in his book, The Bottom Billion. So, does Bill Easterly in The White Man’s Burden. And now we have the recently published book, Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo. The first two authors are Western white males; the latter is female and a Cambridge economist from Zambia. Maybe it’s time we started listening.

Bill Easterly tellingly makes the point that Western Aid to Africa since 1950 has amounted to $2.7 trillion dollars, which is more than the cost of the current global bank bail out in the West. He then reminds us that despite all this money being spent in Africa children go without 12 cent medicines, 4 dollar bed-nets, and basic services. His conclusion is devastatingly simple: aid has failed Africa and has not generated development. Contrary to the message thundered out from $1 million dollar stage-sets of the Live Aid mega-concerts, these critics of development aid argue that Western aid has been ruinous for Africa.

Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, makes the same point, albeit more pointedly and to a sligtly different purpose:

The primary reason [that there is little to show for the more than $300 billion of aid that has gone to Africa since 1970] is that in the context of post-Second World War geopolitical and strategic rivalries and economic interests, much of this aid was spent on creating and sustaining client regimes of one type or another, with minimal regard to developmental outcomes on our continent.

But, aid, argue the critics has been ruinous in other ways, too. A dependency economic model has been encouraged; local initiative is stifled. Aid kills off the export sector. Corruption becomes endemic. Governance is lack lustre at best, and is often distracted, even undermined by the steady injection of funds from donor sources. In addition, the proponents of development aid, in its current form, have, argue Easterly and others, become seduced by the Big Plan drawn up in Washington, New York and Brussels, a plan that will once and for all end extreme poverty in Africa. The plan is called the Millennium Development Goals.

It is the criticism of the MDGs plan that causes a collective rise in blood pressure among UN bureaucrats, NGOs and development aid workers. For some even reading the likes of Collier, Easterly and Moyo can amount to an act of treason, a betrayal of the most vulnerable whose lives will remain forever blighted without the implementation of the MDGs supported by massive aid transfer from the Western donor countries.

However, in the last year the landscape has changed quite dramatically. All over the word donors are examining their pocket books and finding them dangerously depleted. The spectre of a collapse of donor aid into Africa can no longer be scared off by a few well crafted speeches from Washington. How are people reacting to this possibility? Oddly enough, some, among them Dambiso Moyo, see the new global economic context as an opportunity for Africa. Maybe now, Moyo aruges, African leaders can grasp the nettle of self-development and self-reliance. Africa can help Africa.

This may appear heresy to many, including, I must admit, myself. We are so unreflectively attached to the view that development aid can aassist Africa in gaining a foothold on the economic ladder that there we tend to be hostile to an alternative point of view. Maybe it’s time we began to pay attention.

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