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Boon or burden?

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Some call it ‘live aid’. Some call it ‘dead aid’. The aid debate is raging.

Photo by: SVEN TORFINN / PANOS

NI Special Feature: The Aid Debate

Who would have thought that the intricacies of ‘international development aid’ could provoke such an energetic and public war of words? But then who could have predicted Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian ex-World Bank and Goldman Sachs economist with a talent for stirring things up?

As she tours the world with her controversial book Dead Aid – a play on the star-studded efforts of ‘Live Aid’ – she says, ‘my voice can’t compete with a guitar’. Don’t count on it.

Her disarmingly simple message is getting heard – and at every level, it seems. Aid isn’t working, she says. In fact, it’s making the poor poorer. It fuels corruption, discourages enterprise, creates dependence and hinders economic growth. It undermines democracy and even, she claims, foments civil war.

Her solution is two pronged. One, cold turkey to get Africa off its aid addiction. Two, attract foreign direct investment to Africa and expand the free market.

There have been howls of protest. As you might expect, many have come from the aid community itself. One of the most vigorous ripostes came from leading economist and director of the UN Millennium Project, Jeffrey Sachs. After tearing into her analysis, Sachs reasserted that aid’s biggest problem is that there is not enough of it. And the rich world’s dismal failure at honouring its donation pledges is to blame.

The response to Moyo within her own continent has been mixed. Impressed by her rousing call for African independence, presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya both invited her to come and talk.

Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – coincidentally, also an ex-World Bank economist – takes the view that critics of aid like Moyo are ‘a decade out of date’ and that ‘Africa’s turnaround is real’. What is needed at this stage, she believes, is more, better targeted and fully accountable aid.

Moyo’s concerns have certainly struck a chord, not only with tight-fisted conservatives looking for excuses to cut aid, but with people right across the political spectrum. Several books, published just before hers, were already offering sharp critiques of aid. Ugandan activist-academic Yash Tandon makes a clear proposal in Ending Aid Dependence (Fahamu, 2008); Jonathan Glennie’s The Trouble with Aid (Zed, 2008) is more nuanced. While Glennie agrees with part of Moyo’s critique, he profoundly disagrees with her solutions. But he too is calling for radical – and urgent – change, as he explains in the following article.

Dead Aid is published by Allen Lane, London, 2009.

Now read Jonathan Glennie's case for real aid.