When I wrote a regular column on Africa for this magazine’s left-wing rival, I was always intrigued by the contrast in responses to any sceptical article on aid. ‘This reactionary bigot is clearly happy for millions of Africans to starve,’ pretty much summed up the fury of white readers at having their Oxfam direct debits questioned. ‘No, she’s right!’ replied my defenders. ‘These corrupt, thieving governments should be cut off without a penny.’ Those ones always came from Africans.
The assumption that foreign aid is an unalloyed good runs so deep in the guilt- ridden, post-colonial West, people are often shocked to discover that many Africans, far from showing appropriate gratitude or begging for more, regard these contributions with both distrust and suspicion. No wonder this book is causing a stir.
While most critics are content to dismiss aid as largely inconsequential or simply over-sold, Dambisa Moyo — a Zambian economist who spent eight years at Goldman Sachs — goes about six steps further. Writing with tangible exasperation, she argues that aid is the worst thing to happen to her continent in the last 60 years and the biggest favour the West can now do Africa is to turn off the taps. A warning phone call, followed by five years to allow for adjustment, should just about do it, she reckons.
Those of us whose hearts sank on reading the American economist Jeffrey Sachs bestselling The End of Poverty, a book which helped persuade a generation of rock stars and well-meaning Western voters that the only thing wrong with aid to Africa was that there wasn’t enough of it, will find it hard to control a surge of relief upon reading Moyo.
The steady stream of funds from abroad, handed over with little oversight or follow-up, she says, has encouraged government corruption, actively undermined development, fuelled political instability and kept the continent ‘in a perpetual child-like state’.
Something must clearly be found to fill the vacuum left once foreign aid is removed. Moyo envisages newly-confident African governments raising bonds on the international capital markets, increased Chinese investment, a rolling-out of the kind of microcredit schemes that have flourished in Asia, and the streamlining of financial support from Africa’s vast, ever-generous diaspora.
Does her alternative vision hold together? I’m not an economist, but I was left wondering how her package would weather the current credit crisis. In a world where even the US government has come to seem like a risky bet, who is going to want to take a punt on Guinea? Given our new understanding of the credit rating agencies’ capacity for self-delusion, who will believe the ranking they give Burundian bonds?
Moyo is also, it seems to me, in danger of requiring the very outcome she seeks to bring about for her recommendations to work. Poorly-policed aid would not have done the damage it has in Africa had it not been for a series of insecure, greedy leaders who were more preoccupied with their own survival than the national development programme. A confident debut on the international bond markets would require precisely that element which has been in such short supply: visionary, altruistic leadership.
There are many other arguments those who work in the aid industry could, and will, make against this book: that Moyo is in danger of muddling cause and effect, that the level of aid the continent has received is nothing like as impressive as ballpark figures initially suggest, that Africa’s poor cannot afford the luxury of yet another daring formula which is subsequently proved faulty. Aid, like democracy, wins the grudging support of intelligent people not because they believe it is a panacea, but because the alternative is often so terrifying.
One can challenge this book’s thesis, however, and still hail it as marking a turning point. In the past, Africans might privately wax cynical about western aid policy, but they were content to leave the public debate to be waged by Irish pop stars, American celebrities and paunchy white men in suits. Television producers and conference organisers routinely scratched their heads trying to find opinionated Africans ready to argue the issues. Moyo belongs to an emerging generation of articulate, self-confident and angry Africans who are now doing just that. Not before time.
Michela Wrong’s book about corruption in Kenya, It’s Our Turn to Eat, is published by Fourth Estate this month.