Bashing aid has become an intellectual pastime in Africa these days. It is one of those things that people say to show that they are enlightened, that they belong, and that they are patriotic.
I have been crudely reminded of this fact while reading Nkwazi Mhango’s How Africa Developed Europe where the author dedicated a whole chapter in condemnation of aid: ‘How Aid Became another European Hypnotic Tool in Africa.’
Books such as this are not my favourite because they start with ‘the West is to Blame’ premise that I find hard to stomach. And this book did not disappoint – I mean, from the first page one is inundated with a series of tirades about the evils that Europe and America committed to getting rich at the expense of Africans. I wonder how the white folks manage to sleep given all these claims laid at their door.
Much of what Nkwazi and intellectuals of his ilk say is true: Yes, Africans were conquered by a powerful people and, as a result, they suffered and still suffer many deleterious effects.
That said, much of what they say tends to imply that since Africa was subdued then, then everything that happens to Africa is due to what ‘imperialists’ determine. To me, what I hear is that Africans have no agency – and that is an outrageous worldview that I believe has been internalised by many people in Africa.
A sound attempt at diagnosing the impact of aid
The case against foreign aid was popularised by a Zambian author and economist Dr Dambisa Moyo in what is now a classical book Dead Aid: Why Aid Makes Things Worse and How There is Another Way for Africa. Unlike most anti-aid bashers, Dr Moyo’s work is a sound attempt at diagnosing the impact of aid in Africa in a way that leaves even those of us who disagree with some of her conclusions sympathetic to her cause.
As the title suggests, Dambisa deals with two themes – one, the problem of aid, and two, the alternatives to aid.
With respect to the second theme, alternatives such as FDIs, trade and financial bonds, Dead Aid makes a solid argument for Africans to reduce their dependency on aid by exploring alternative sources of financing and investments.
No one can fault that. But with respect to the elimination of aid, Dambisa’s case is unfortunately pretty weak.
According to Dr Moyo, since the 1940s over $1 trillion dollars of aid has been spent in Africa with little that can be shown for it. Dambisa argues that that is because aid promotes corruption, bad governance, and dependency, ultimately killing incentives for growth.
With respect to corruption, Dambisa highlighted that about $10 billion, equivalent to half all the aid receipts, leave the continent every year. This was historically the work of Africa’s megalomaniacal leaders such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Sani Abacha of Nigeria, and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic.
In Zaire, Mobutu helped himself with national funds to the tune of $5 billion which he stashed in European banks. Consequently, Zaire was plunged into billions of debt, reaching $14 billion.
While donors were very much aware of what Mobutu was doing, they continued to prop up his regime with free monies because Mobutu made it possible for them to have access to Zairean mineral resources.
The evidence is circumstantial
Thus, based on such evidence, Dambisa concludes that aid is malignant – a problem to be solved. While the argument is enticing, unfortunately, the evidence is circumstantial at best.
All that Dead Aid shows is that either aid has not been accompanied by a development in Africa, that often African nations have fared worse in spite of aid, or both.
But that implies correlation rather than causation, the point that Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian who provided the foreword to Dead Aid, made. Again, the evidence is at best circumstantial.
I have been rejecting the anti-aid arguments long before I read Dead Aid for one main reason – it is counterintuitive. This means it is absurd to say that if someone receives a gift of $1 million then that person gets poorer as a result.
Yes, if the individual in question is a drug user, the gift will fuel his or her habit thus leaving them worse as a result, but that has nothing to do with the inherent wickedness of the money received – that has everything to do with the choices made.
Of course, Dr Moyo’s argument is much more nuanced than that, and that takes us to the agency argument that I raised earlier.
So much good has been done by aid
It is undeniable that so much good has been done by aid in the world. Dambisa herself provides several examples where aid worked very successfully.
At the end of WW2, Europe was ravaged by war. That’s when the Americans conceived a five-year plan called the Marshall Plan to help with Europe’s reconstruction.
Through the Marshall Plan, the US provided Western European nations with $100 billion which was instrumental in bringing them back from the brink of economic collapse.
Similarly, in Africa, post-independence Botswana was in very bad shape economically. However, because of sound policies, Botswana received aid to the tune of 20 per cent of its national income.
However, despite this much aid, Botswana still managed to grow its economy at the fastest rate in the world for decades, thanks to the sensible deployment of aid – good governance, sound policies and local ownership of projects.
This shows that on its own, aid is neither dead nor alive – what becomes of aid is the responsibility of those who receive it, and this is the point that needs to be emphasised here.
It is possible to cite many more examples of nations which received astonishing amounts of aid and have achieved outstanding economic growth – nations such as Israel, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
These nations were not immune to the so-called corrupting qualities of aid – such as bad governance and dependency. This negates the ‘dead aid’ primary thesis.
Whatever we think of donors, whether they have ulterior motives or not, we should not question the utility of aid as a tool of development.
Where would the world be if deadly diseases such as smallpox hadn’t been eradicated thanks to international aid? How about the fight against the HIV-AIDS pandemic? Again, how about the fight against COVID, its weaknesses notwithstanding?
In Tanzania and Zambia, for example, how about the more than 1,800km TAZARA line which, remarkably, is still sustained by the Chinese to this day?
The anti-aid bashing trend highlights how difficult it is to help Africans. Instead of challenging one another to use aid effectively: to use rather than depend on aid, to use aid while diversifying sources of financing, and to maintain good relationships with those who give aid, we instead take aid while berating those who give aid! This is unconscionable.
The world doesn’t owe Africa a living
To paraphrase Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew: the world doesn’t owe Africa a living. We have to take responsibility for our actions. We cannot continue to externalise the sources of our failure, that is the thin end of the wedge, the end of the world as we know it.
Often that leads up to a pathological rejection of responsibility, a common problem among African intellectuals and Africans today.
The problem with Africa is not too much aid but too little aid to make a difference. Compared to the per capita aid that has gone to nations such as Israel and South Korea, that’s the challenge we need to address if we know what is good for ourselves.
Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.