A Review of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, by Semiu A. Akanmu

Aid, “a sum total of both concessional loans and grants”, from donors – mainly Western, to African countries has “hampered, stifled and retarded Africa’s development” is the thesis of Dambisa’s Dead Aid.  It is a tightly-argued book, combative, deep, factual, and above all, problem-solving.

Dead Aid – a 187-page, 2-part, and 10-chapter book – is an army on its own in the ranks of anti-aid dependency model for African development. It attacks the moralist and the liberal developmental narrative of Africa’s needs of aid to fight its plague of diseases, build its social and physical infrastructure, and alleviate the poverty of its people. Contrary to that, Dambisa argues, aid kills economic growth, stifles African entrepreneurship, promotes corruption, encourages coup and leadership despondency, and plagues African countries to more socioeconomic crisis.

“Sub-Saharan Africa remains the poorest region in the world with an average per capita income of roughly $1 a day…  Life expectancy has stagnated, adult literacy has plummeted, diseases ranging from bilharzia to cholera are on the rise, the income inequality is worrisome, political instability is raging”, she laments, and asks rhetorically, “Why is it that Africa, alone among the continents of the world seems to be locked into cycle of dysfunction? Why is it that out of all continents of the world, Africa seems unable to convincingly get its foot on the economic ladder?”  “The answer has its roots in aid,” she posits.

Dead Aid draws on a historical background to explain the rationale behind the constitution of aid development, and what would later translate to three organisations: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (known as World Bank), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Trade Organisation. It explains that, even though the concept helped in reconstructing Europe after the World War II, same cannot be said of Africa because: (a) no institutional framework, (b) no transparency and accountability, (c) no exit plan for aid injection, and more pathetic (d) not really meant for African development.

Dambisa listed the supporting proofs (Marshall plan, IDA graduates, with conditionalities, and a micro-macro paradox) of aid proponents, and dismantled each with potent empirical evidences and logical counter-explanation. She enumerated how “culture of dependency” naturally kills creativity, its casual effect on corruption because freebies are normally recklessly spent, and civil war. She lamented the civil society’s commodification of poverty to ensure tap of grants continues flowing, the inflationary effect of aid, among others.

What stand Dead Aid out are its alternative provisions. It strongly suggests viable and result-oriented routes that can be taken instead of the aid-dependency developmental model. It elicited capital market, foreign direct investment (FDI), trade, micro-financing and lending, remittances, and savings – with respective systematic planning and application. It, however, does not suggest an instantaneous shutoff of aid door. Rather, a planned phasing-out timeline is suggested so that African countries can explore and implement other dependable options. Likewise, it supports humanitarian aid which is occasionally meant as relief in times of natural disaster and epidemic.

What remains a debatable hypothesis, in the absence of empirical evidences, is whether aid moderates/correlates economic retrogression or causes it. Dambisa, knowing the strength of such assertions, tactically avoids it. However, she made veiled attribution of that when she writes “…where private capital trumps aid every time is on the question of governance”, “Good governance trumps all”, and  “…in a world of good governance, which will naturally emerge in the absence of the glut of aid…” What the above portends is that, good governance causes economic development, and it naturally exists in the absence of aid. We can rewrite it, as a pseudo-conceptual model, that: Aid (antecedent) leads to bad governance (mediator), then leads to economic retrogression.

Even though the question of what measures “bad governance” is open-ended, one is tempted to agree with the hypothesised linkage between aid, bad governance, and economic retrogression. In all African countries, South Africa and Botswana are most economically viable, according to Dambisa, and they took a non-aid-dependency developmental model.

Citation(s): Moyo, Dambisa. Dead aid : why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, 188 p.

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