The case for real aid

*Jonathan Glennie* takes on both the aid optimists and the pessimists.
NI Special Feature: The Aid Debate

I knew this would happen. The intellectual initiative on African development seized by a free-market ideologue, now listed by Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

It is clear what side of the fence Dambisa Moyo is sitting on. The foreword to her book Dead Aid is written by leading conservative historian Niall Ferguson, and her write-up in Time was written by none other than (ex-President of the World Bank) Paul Wolfowitz. In her eight years with Goldman Sachs, I doubt she was a subscriber to the New Internationalist.

Some people think the danger of Dead Aid is that it will lead to reductions in aid. That isn’t the danger. As I argue in my book, we need to set out a plan to reduce aid in the medium term, rather than continue the traditional clamour for aid increases in the face of growing evidence of the harm it can do. No, the danger of Dead Aid is that just when the opportunity exists to fundamentally challenge the extreme form of capitalism that has held sway over Africa, and most of the world, for the last three decades, we lose the intellectual initiative by clinging to an outdated position on aid.

Despite the many flaws in her book, Moyo’s success is a good thing. We need to debate aid. I wrote my book because I was frustrated by the lack of intellectual rigour behind calls for huge aid increases to Africa. While most of my colleagues in the ‘aid industry’ have responded positively, some argued that it was ‘risky’ to question the unalloyed benefits more and more aid will offer to the African continent.

Now they have been hit with Dambisa Moyo, who is selling more books than Jeffrey Sachs could dream of and whose polemic – however far removed from the facts – is gaining ground in influential circles. The risk for those of us who realize the flaws in the neoliberal, market fundamentalist approach is that we stop being trusted by the public as we persist in the same tired defence of aid based not on the facts but on habit, self-interest (if you work in a charity, you are somewhat linked to aid increases) and a kind of ‘something must be done’ mentality.

Different types of assistance

*Official Development Assistance* – the majority of aid takes this form. Intended to help long-term growth and to reduce poverty, it often supports national budgets for healthcare, education and large infrastructure projects. Richer countries have pledged to donate the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of their GDP but few meet this target.

*Emergency Humanitarian Aid* – this is a short-term response to help a country afflicted by disasters such as flooding, famine, war, earthquakes. The fastest-growing kind of assistance, it accounts for 10 per cent of all aid. Moyo and her supporters are not saying that this type of aid should be stopped.

*How aid is given* – most aid is either bilateral or multilateral. A much smaller proportion comes from NGOs – charities or solidarity organizations – though these may also funnel some official development assistance money. NGOs are not the target of Moyo’s critique, though it has implications for them too.

Tempting trap

The main technical criticism of Moyo’s book must be that it is very prone to exaggeration. Hers is not a serious analytical study but an anti-aid polemic of the kind common in the conservative media in the US, where the only facts used are ones that bolster a case, and exaggeration is considered par for the course – after all, the other side is doing it. Exaggeration is a very tempting trap for an author to fall into. A thoughtful assessment is rarely as blistering a read as a no-holds-barred romp through the evils of one thing or another. And publishers (and publicists) want to sell juicy rants. My book on aid to Africa has a plaster on the front in the shape of the African continent. As you can see if you look at my blog (, there were other, more positive, options for both title and cover. But my publisher insisted, and I agreed in the end, that if I wanted the book to sell I would have to bow to some of the pressures of a competitive market.

In the book itself, however, I was obsessive in my attempt to present a balanced approach to the subject of aid to Africa, because that is what I think both western and African publics deserve. In contrast to aid optimists (like Sachs) and aid pessimists (like Moyo), I emphasize that the impacts of aid are complex, some good, some bad. Only when we assess these impacts dispassionately and systematically can we have any real expectation of making a positive and sustained impact on human rights, development and poverty reduction in Africa. I call this approach aid realism. Aid realism means not getting swept away by the ethical clamour to ‘do something’ when a proper analysis shows that what is being done is ineffective or harmful. And it means not bowing to an ideological anti-aid position in the face of the rights and urgent needs of millions of people.

Currently I manage a Christian Aid programme in Colombia. I have worked in the NGO sector for over 10 years but have never been as inspired as now, as I see the way donated money is being spent to bolster the movement for change in this country. Without the presence of our and similar international agencies, the organizations, communities and individuals that make up that movement would be far weaker, battered on all sides by the violence of the state and illegal armed groups, and many might simply have ceased to exist.

Dependence and independence

Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda receive around 50 per cent of their budgets from foreign aid. South Africa and Botswana manage without this kind of assistance.

Source: Richard Dowden, BBC News, 26 June 2005.

We are not giving charity, we are helping build a movement for human rights and justice. Justice for the four million women and men displaced from their homes by armed groups seeking wealth and power. Justice for the victims of violence and persecution. Justice for the 50 per cent living in poverty in an upper-middle income country. Moyo doesn’t get that at all. She seems to think that everything will be solved if we open a few banks and liberalize some more. But Latin America has shown that change comes when the movement for justice is strong. And when aid strengthens that movement, it is doing a vital job. Our programme in Colombia is part funded by the Irish and British governments and publics, and part by the EU. So, yes, aid can do good. We need more of that kind of aid. The big problem is with very large amounts of government-to-government aid.

Moyo’s critique of aid dependency is one of the areas where she and I are in agreement. The harm done by very high levels of government-to-government aid to the development of effective and accountable governance in Africa is one of the great silences in the aid debate. While politicians – from Tony Blair with his 2005 Africa Commission to Barack Obama in Ghana earlier this year – demonstrate an increased awareness of the importance of state institutions in development, they do not appear to understand the harm aid itself does to governments that rely on it too heavily. Moyo does – and the issue has seldom had so much coverage.

Where the money goes

$500 billion – aid from richer countries to Africa since 1960.
$400 billion – left Africa as capital flight between 1970 and 2004 (add a further $200 billion for imputed interest earnings).
$148 billion – leaves Africa every year due to corruption, according to African Union estimates.

Source: Jonathan Glennie, The Trouble with Aid, Zed Books, 2008.

Radical humility

The way to respond to Moyo, then, is not to reel off more misleading ‘millions of lives saved per billions of dollars spent’ scenarios. The western public has stopped believing them, while the African public knows they are unhelpful exaggerations. The aid community needs to publicly recognize the flaws in aid and the harm it can sometimes do. And then it needs to defend the good things about aid.

After which, it needs to move on to more important issues. The irony of this debate is that aid is not really the issue at all. Both aid optimists and aid pessimists exaggerate the importance of aid. No country has ever developed because of aid, and while relatively small amounts of private giving do lead to the kind of programme I am proud to run here in Colombia, they are not going to change the world. Countries develop when they get their policies right. We should be campaigning on tax havens, on climate change, on human rights, on trade justice, and on policy freedom. Although Moyo hardly mentions the issue, it is aid conditionality, more than aid itself that has caused so much damage to Africa. Under intense pressure from donors, the entire economic direction of the continent has changed since the early 1980s. For such a large and diverse group of countries, you would expect a range of responses to the various problems of poverty and development. Instead the response has fitted the Washington-designed blueprint of privatization and liberalization. That is no coincidence, and while lock-in trade deals have played their part, aid has probably been the main instrument used by rich countries to get what they want. Efforts have been made since the late 1970s to rein in aid conditionalities, but they are still just as harmful as ever.

I am not concerned about Moyo critiquing aid; she is right to. What concerns me is the certainty with which she states what African countries need to do to develop. Certainty is also a key part of marketing a book. You generate a scandal and then dive right in. But it is galling to see in this case, precisely because she utters with such certainty prescriptions that have been shown so utterly to have failed.

At a recent debate in London, hosted by the International Rescue Committee, Moyo repeatedly asserted that ‘we know what works’. We don’t know, and that kind of attitude, so common among the donor community for the last few decades, is exactly what we have to move away from.

Now is the time to demonstrate radical humility; not to compromise on principles, but to adopt an attitude of creativity and respect. Now is the time to trust people and their governments and parliaments, for all their many problems, more than blueprints flown in on a laptop.

So I make the following appeal. The pull of neoliberalism has been broken. Its failings scar Africa and shame the West. Development is more complicated than neoliberals (and neo-cons) would have us believe. It is time for a new era of intellectual openness. In contrast to 30 years of clamping down on choice, let the decades ahead be the decades of choice, of experimentation again, and of sovereignty.

Click here to read Vanessa Baird's summing up on the state of aid.

Jonathan Glennie has worked as a policy analyst in several international development charities. He played a key role in Make Poverty History in 2005. His book, The Trouble with Aid, is published by Zed Books.