Rethinking aid in Africa
Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo and journalist Lynn Sherr debate whether aid to Africa is helping that continent's growth.
The Bush legacy in Africa is known as a positive one. President George Bush said during a trip to Tanzania last year, "It's in our interest that we deal with hopelessness, and it's in our moral interest that we help. And this has been a labor of love, I told people we're on a mission of mercy."
American and Western leaders often talk about Africa in these terms. A trillion dollars of aid has gone to Africa, but is it a good investment? The Takeaway talked with Dambisa Moyo, author of the controversial book “Dead Aid” and Lynn Sherr, longtime journalist and special correspondent for World Focus on PBS.
For Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo the negative discourse about Africa is disappointing. “Clearly there are problems across the continent, and there remain significant challenges, but to continue to paint the continent in a very negative light is precisely why we end up with an aid regime that is couched in pity rather than looking for new and innovative ways to raise financing to support development initiatives.”
Moyo says the trillion dollars that has gone to Africa was aid not investment. And at its extremes, the money has contributed to a long history of corruption in Africa. But corruption is just one aspect of failure. “More on the economic side it's actually been very detrimental in terms of inflation and debt burdens. And then on the political side it disenfranchises Africans because the government spends a lot of time courting donors rather than being accountable to their people.”
Lyn Sherr agrees that the model for investment in Africa has to change, but she doesn’t think aid should be wiped out. “I've just been back as you know from Liberia, the United States has given more than two billion dollars since the war ended. That country would not exist were it not for that money.”
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has said she wants her country to be self-sufficient. But Sherr adds, “I don't think you just stop it dead and then hope things will work out ok. I think you've got to keep some of it going.”
Moyo explains that there are different types of aid to consider. She doesn’t object to humanitarian aid with a moral imperative, the kind of aid from global society that goes toward emergencies such as natural disasters. In the same vein, NGOs and child support aid can be effective when narrow in scope. “But what I'm trying to emphasize is that a continent cannot expect to grow long term and alleviate poverty based on the charitable interventions of these charitable organizations from the international community. And besides, we have to ask the question, that if international charities continue to provide education and healthcare, infrastructure and security, what exactly is the role of African governments?”
The leadership in Africa has arguably been discredited in recent times, skimming off the top of aid and natural resources or allowing charities to run health infrastructure rather than doing it themselves.
Moyo argues that the reason for Africa’s wars and civil unrest in the 1990s was that capturing the state meant capturing the primary source of income. A remedy for the problem would be for Africa to wean itself of aid. She sees private sector investment on the part of China as a good thing. “They’re bringing jobs, they’re bringing opportunities.” As for aid, “It’s been sixty years, a trillion dollars, it hasn’t worked.”
Sherr is more skeptical of the potential for Chinese investment. An article in the New York Times recently reported that China is pulling back because commodities’ prices are falling. But she has also witnessed significant Chinese investment in Liberia. “So, I think you’re right Dambisa that the model has to change, but I think the word you used, wean, is more important than saying stop it.” Sherr says humanitarian aid is still needed and the West can’t be held responsible for corruption.
Moyo believes the charge for the Obama administration is to reevaluate the situation in Africa and innovate a new model. She prescribes in her book a five-year plan for weaning off aid. “I actually do not suggest that we turn off the taps immediately. I would actually focus on the government to government aid that needs to be, I believe, dramatically and aggressively reduced.”
"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.