Foreign Aid’s Efficacy Is Up For Debate

By Connor J. Wangler


Many of those involved in the debate over the current foreign aid model would describe it as a game of chess; winning would be the reduction of extreme poverty in this game. Winning this game of chess would be amazing as it would mean improving the lives of millions. The issue that discourages many about this game, however, is the question over who are the ones playing and who are the pawns. In her book Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo suggests that Africans have little agency in the economic growth game compared to that of the West and international monetary organizations: Africans are the pawns and the West is in control. One model of this relationship Moyo alludes to is the role of western celebrities in the aid debate, “My voice can’t compete with an electric guitar.” Celebrities run charitable aid campaigns throughout Africa and, in a sense, “steal the show.” Rarely, Moyo says, does one see an African offer an opinion on what should be done in regards to settling the continent’s development problems. One example of this model is the ONE campaign launched by musician Bono and a myriad of other western celebrities:

Another model of this control-relationship is exemplified in a quote by Rwandan President Paul Kagame,Cold_War_Africa_1980

“The primary reason [that there is little to show for the aid that has gone to Africa] 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.”

Kagame argues that during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union both used aid as a way to gain influence across Africa. If a country were loyal to either side, they were situated to gain more money in aid from that side. Neither the US or the Soviet Union used this “aid” to develop long term solutions to improving African development but instead only gaining influence. Again, Africans were the pawns in this global chess game.

Source: Geocurrent

Source: Geocurrent

In the search for explanations for aid’s failure to alleviate the plight of millions, many are quick to point to several factors that hold back the continent’s growth; Moyo notes these factors to be: geography, history, culture, tribal relationships, and institutions. According to Moyo, however, the problem is much more complex than a confluence of these factors. She recognizes each component’s differing degrees of influence but argues that they “do not tell the whole story.” For example, many African countries are plagued with unfortunate geographic conditions (many are landlocked, the climate is inhospitable, etc); resting upon the arguments of environmental determinism, many believe this makes it impossible to sustain economic advancement. Richard Hausmann, and Moyo, contend that these circumstances do not necessarily determine a country’s economic development. Moyo points out that while extremely hot and dry, Saudi Arabia is able to develop, and even though Switzerland is landlocked, it is heralded as a beacon of prosperity.

Another example of a failure to illustrate Africa’s total complexity is in the discussion of ethnic divisions. Moyo admits Africa does have “its fair share of tribal fracas” but that there also many examples of ethnic groups living peacefully (Botswana, Ghana, Zambia, etc). Moyo and others recognize that these ethnic conflicts do cause hindrances but no more than they do in any country afflicted with ethnic strife (ie. the break-up of Yugoslavia). Many, such as Sebastien Porter, also argue that Africa’s ethnic divisions should be used to build lasting peace and advancement throughout the continent.

Moyo’s claim is clear: the reason why Africa is not developing the way it should is not because of these circumstances, it is because African countries depend on aid. She says, “No longer part of the potential solution, it is part of the problem – in fact aid is the problem.” While many are quick to agree with Moyo that Africa’s growth hindrances are far more complex than the factors described, not all are sold on her all-out-assault on aid. Here Moyo debates Jacqueline Novogratz on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria:

While Moyo’s distaste with the current international aid model is not entirely convincing, it is clear that the reasons for African countries’ problems are more complex that deterministic circumstances.

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