“We let the Africa debate down because we are not being innovative,” explained economist and writer Dr. Dambisa Moyo, during the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Service Lecture held November 13, 2009. The talk, sponsored by CIGI, St. Paul’s University College (UW) and the Balsillie School of International Affairs, marked her fourth visit to Canada in four months. Such frequent visits reflect the widespread attention her book has garnered in Canada and abroad.

Dr. Moyo, a Zambian-born economist who has worked for Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, argued that the aid status quo is not working; rather, it is further aggravating the lack of growth and development, and should be abandoned in favour of alternatives. In her lecture and her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is A Better Way for Africa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009), she focused only on aid that flows from government to government, or from development agency to government.

She began with three assertions which she believed everyone could agree to: first, Africa should not be completely dependent on aid; second, African governments need to be involved and on-board in the process; and third, aid has contributed to the dysfunctionality of African governments.  This last point is a theme she carried throughout her lecture.  

Every year approximately US $100 billion is spent on aid, and to date approximately US $1 trillion has been sent to Africa, Dr. Moyo said. Despite the large aid flows to the continent, she argued that rather than helping to support governments and promote growth, “aid allows African governments to abdicate their responsibilities.” Receiving aid absolves governments of the responsibility of finding additional revenue sources normally found through implementing taxation, and because they do not implement taxes, they are not required to engage with their citizens. African leaders instead respond to donors, a situation which she called “the reverse Boston Tea Party,” where in Africa there is no representation because there is no taxation. Furthermore, Dr. Moyo  contended, aid is contributing to the failure of growth, and if this discussion was about a company, there is no question that it could not survive for 60 years with such a scorecard.

As opposed to caring about what their citizens think, Dr. Moyo asserted that African governments spend their time and energy courting donors. Taking it a step further, she argued that ultimately “aid disenfranchises Africans.” Dr. Moyo sought to justify that statement by noting that with 70 percent of Africans now living on less than $1 a day, Africa is worse than it was in the 1970s when only 10 percent of Africans lived on less than $1 a day.

Dr. Moyo singled out celebrity involvement as one of the contributing factors to the worsening situation. She argued that the “African agenda has been hijacked by celebrities” and pointedly asked if the audience could “imagine a situation where Obama doesn’t say anything about the economic crisis, but instead Mick Jagger?” In her view, the African agenda has suffered a “serious PR disaster” that celebrities have capitalized on. For example, most images and information promoted by celebrities focus almost exclusively on starving, sick or impoverished Africans, whereas she pointed out that there are more poor Chinese people on earth than poor Africans, and more poor Indian people on earth than poor Africans.

In her book, Dr. Moyo presents 10 reasons why aid does not work, and in her talk she touched on several of them. She argued that a lot of aid is stolen; African governments focus more on donors than on their citizens; aid kills entrepreneurship; and aid contributes to civil wars/civil unrest. And while much of Africa is reliant upon aid, many countries, including South Africa and Botswana, are not, noted Dr. Moyo. Governments in these countries focus on trade, foreign direct investment, microfinance, taxes or savings; this reliance necessitates that they be more transparent than other African governments.

In response to her denunciation of aid, Dr. Moyo’s central recommendation was to establish a policy, or sunset clause, where at some agreed upon time aid would end. She noted that aid is currently an open-ended commitment and is viewed by many policy makers in Africa as permanent income. While she wasn’t explicit about what she meant by “open ended commitment,” this writer interpreted it to mean this: by viewing aid as a necessity for many African countries, without considering or encouraging alternatives, contributing countries and organizations are perpetuating African nations’ reliance on aid.

Some criticisms were voiced during the question period, including that she was being too macro-focused in her analysis and ignoring the micro-successes. Dr. Moyo responded: “we are trying to move as many people as possible out of poverty, micro cannot do that.” Recognizing the magnitude of the task at hand, she acknowledged that “to do what I am prescribing is hard work and many do not want to do it.”

To begin to actively delve into the dilemma of aid, the right questions need to be asked, and Dr. Moyo stressed the importance of beginning with the hard questions. Citing an example from her own country, Zambia, which she noted has done well on the back of the commodity boom, Dr. Moyo asked: “What happened to the money?” She pointed out that no one has asked this question.

At the conclusion of Dr Moyo’s lecture, this writer was left with several thoughts. In order to actively engage in the aid debate, whether for or against the continued reliance on aid, should those who are supplying the aid be more vigilant? Should we be asking the hard questions? While the African people may be disenfranchised, as Dr. Moyo claims, perhaps the first question that must be asked by those in the donor countries is: what responsibility do we have to hold our own governments accountable?


Meagan Kay is a research assistant at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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