Should the West stop giving aid to Africa?

Is aid just an extension of colonial economics? Or a lifeline for imperfect but necessary support systems? Firoze Manji and Pablo Yanguas go head to head on the thorny topic of development assistance.

FIROZE: Since its inception, the logic of international aid from the West has been to integrate African economies into a global capitalist system, which relies on Africa’s resources for its own growth. The way aid is given has never fundamentally challenged a relationship that has evolved over centuries to the detriment of the majority of Africans. Exploitation of Africa’s people and its resources has been going on for at least the past 500 years and, as Guyanese academic Walter Rodney pointed out in 1973, Africa helped to develop the West in the same proportion as the West helped to underdevelop [sic] Africa. That story remains as true today as in Rodney’s time.

‘Africa suffers a net loss of more than $85 billion every year. far from the West aiding Africa, it is Africa that is aiding the West’ – FIROZE

According to a 2014 report, Africa receives about $133.7 billion each year from official aid, grants, loans to the private sector, remittances, etc. But at the same time, some $191.9 billion is extracted from the continent in the form of debt repayments, multinational company profits, illicit financial flows, brain drain, illegal logging and fishing etc. And more recent figures put the outflow much higher – at over $218 billion. In other words, Africa suffers a net loss of more than $85 billion every year. Such a net outflow suggests that far from the West aiding Africa, it is Africa that is aiding the West.

So let’s get the question right: Should Africa stop giving aid to the West? The answer to that is an unequivocal yes.

PABLO: I will grant that, following decolonization, it has often been easy to see foreign aid as just another tool of global capitalism. Indeed, the aid regime emerged after the Second World War in the shadow of great power politics: a way for the Western bloc to counter the spread of communism, which was itself facilitated by Soviet foreign aid.

But, as David Lumsdaine argued 25 years ago in his book Moral Vision in International Politics, great power politics by itself cannot possibly explain the constant expansion of the aid regime into countries and sectors traditionally neglected by Western interests. In that regard, foreign aid has an undeniable substrate of humanitarianism and internationalism, whatever its practical shortcomings or ideological biases.

The fact is the removal of foreign aid from the equation will do nothing to prevent future exploitation. Indeed, to go by Firoze’s figures, Africa would simply move from a deficit of $85 billion to one of over $200 billion. What a stop to Western aid would certainly do is return to a dynamic in which most – if not all – money from overseas benefits a very narrow elite in African capitals. At least currently there are countless civil-society forces that benefit – directly or indirectly – from Western foreign aid.

FIROZE: Pablo, you miss the point. Aid is not merely one source of financing among others. It serves to make the extraction of wealth from Africa possible. Today’s neoliberal era is characterized by the commodification of nature, the privatization of public goods and services, the liberalization of markets, and the licensing of looting and environmental destruction by transnational corporations. Aid uses public funds to subsidize and encourage the implementation of neoliberal policies that have resulted in growing impoverishment of the majority, and the obscene accumulation of wealth by national elites who are among its main beneficiaries.

The ‘civil-society forces’ you refer to, which benefit from foreign aid, are overwhelmingly market-oriented service delivery organizations. They now function as a white-saviour industry, one that enjoys widespread social acceptance and is dependent on the financial support of overseas aid. For saviours to exist, there must be those in need of ‘saving’. Victimization is necessarily a fundamental requirement for the saviour industry to thrive. This industry has its genesis in the history of a white saviour complex premised on the victimization of the African (the black) body. This is at the essence of ‘aid’ today. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

PABLO: Well, considering that the exploitation of Africa has been happening for at least 500 years, whereas the aid regime is basically 60 years old, it would be odd to claim that the aid system is inherent or instrumental for exploitation. At best it’s peripheral.

Instead, let me give you a specific example of what I see on the ground. In Ghana, I see foreign companies looking for offshore oil and national elites all too willing to grant contracts in less than transparent conditions. No aid there. And in response, a local thinktank (founded and staffed by Ghanaians) is spearheading an attempt to reform natural resource policy and create a more transparent and open registry of contracts, with the support of NGOs, leaders and the media (all local) – with the support of foreign aid. Then take Rwanda: a government that is deeply suspicious of foreign interference nonetheless reaches out to international partners to fund home-grown economic changes that are the seeds of emancipation from aid dependence.

There are no white saviours or victimized Africans in these examples. Just civil-society challengers trying to keep elites accountable; or leaders seeking funds to implement their own developmental vision. That right there is the kind of progressive action that aid can support around Africa.

‘Stopping Western aid would return us to a dynamic in which most money from overseas benefits only a very narrow elite’ – PABLO

FIROZE: Pablo, you should remember that oil, gas and coal are multi-billion-dollar businesses, yet every year such companies get billions in tax breaks, hand-outs and subsidies from their home governments: major donor countries such as the UK, US and Canada. Millions of dollars of aid are ploughed directly into corporate social responsibility projects, such as the $4.5-million grant by the Canadian government to Lundin for Africa, the philanthropic arm of mining giant Lundin Group of Companies, for its operations in Ghana, Mali and Senegal. Meanwhile, OECD records show that Rwanda – a regime that represses all political opposition – received more than $1 billion dollars in aid in 2016.

Realistically, the ‘progressive action’ you talk about requires solidarity with people struggling against the looting and the suppression of freedoms. For example, Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack-dwellers movement, doesn’t need or want ‘aid’, but rather requires actions that offer its members protection against attacks by the state. There are organizations around the world that do take on their governments and corporations, and work across national boundaries in solidarity. These forms of assistance provide hope for the fundamental economic, social and political changes needed to address the crises facing humanity.

Pablo: Firoze, I found this debate an almost archetypal expression of the fundamental clash between maximalists and incrementalists. The former tend to believe – as you argue very compellingly – that the status quo is so corrupt or ineffective that it must be overturned wholesale. The latter would argue that tentative improvements here and there are more tangible than a promise of future revolution, even if it means having to live with an imperfect world.

And guess what? This is an imperfect world. Some of the greatest gains in poverty reduction have been achieved by less than democratic regimes; whereas more open societies invite corporate greed and influence peddling. That is the Africa of today, like it or not. Not unlike Europe, the US or Asia, in that regard. Foreign aid is a very flawed tool, but one that is suited to the grey areas of development challenges. It works incrementally: testing, searching, making plenty of mistakes along the way, but also building unexpected coalitions, and planting the seeds of change.

We cannot afford a maximalist-incrementalist divide. While internationalists argue themselves into oblivion, nationalists and populists of all stripes thrive under the imagined threat of the other. Regardless of the merits of foreign aid, I hope that you can see incrementalists like myself as allies, and not obstacles, in the quest for progress in Africa.

Firoze Manji, a Kenyan activist, is founder and former editor of Pambazuka News, and founder and former Executive Director of Fahamu. He edits a number of publications including African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions and is currently spending a year in Berlin as a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy. Pablo Yanguas is a consultant on aid effectiveness who has worked in Ghana and Honduras with INGOs, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the World Bank. An Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute, he is the author of Why We Lie About Aid: Development and the Messy Politics of Change (Zed Books 2018).