Living in Dondo

2009-03-17 00:00

DAMBISA Moyo pulls no punches in this short, hard-hitting polemic on foreign aid to Africa. Her analysis is excellent, but the suggested alternatives will raise eyebrows. Moyo is a Zambian, educated at Oxford and Harvard, who has worked at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs. Her book is powerfully argued from an economics standpoint, but falls dramatically short on politics.

Western aid, she reckons, has been a disaster for Africa — $400 billion of it over 50 years has done nothing to curb corruption, disease, poverty or war; and in many cases may have encouraged them. It has also been inflationary and promoted laziness. The worst-performing economies in Africa have been those dependent on aid, which is easily stolen even when conditional. Much of it ends up back in the developed world in the private bank accounts of politicians. In general, it has fuelled consumption, not investment.

Resources are often labelled a curse for Africa and Moyo sees aid in the same light. She makes the point that favourable trade conditions for African agricultural produce would be far healthier for the continent than more hand-outs. Apparently each European Union cow is subsidised to the tune of $2,50 a day, considerably more than the subsistence earnings of millions of Africans.

She has a clever turn of phrase, describing the “merry-go-round” of Western aid that has become an industry in itself and the way it provides “personalised cash dispensers” for the corrupt. The cycle of corruption is best illustrated by Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, where aid became addictive for both recipient and donor. Clearly, it stifles the very conditions required for initiative and economic growth, and in Moyo’s view undermines the middle class.

Like many commentators, Moyo reflects on the fact that in the sixties Africa was regarded as a better proposition for economic prosperity than Asia. Countries like Indonesia and Thailand have been no less corrupt than African counterparts, but the loot was channelled back into local development. In Africa corruption has diminished trust and destroyed business potential.

Moyo’s alternative options are exposure to the international bond market, infrastructural development, reform of global trade relations and encouragement of local entrepreneurship through microlending and legal title to property. These are valid points. Between them they would narrow the opportunities for corruption and widen those for long-term, sustainable economic development that benefits ordinary people.

Africa for the Africans is the message of this book and one can only sympathise with Moyo’s complaint that the debate about the continent has been “usurped by pop stars and Western politicians”. This is fair enough, but China appears to Moyo as Africa’s new best friend. There are indeed aspects of Chinese development policy, such as infrastructure provision, that contrast well with traditional Western aid. But she ignores the contrary evidence from her very own country: the Chinese-owned Chambishi mine’s safety standards were so low that 51 miners died in a 2005 explosion. Workers subsequently protested over conditions and compensation, the police opened fire and several people were killed.

There is a strong body of academic work showing that Chinese relations with Africa are different from, but no less exploitative, than the Western approach. No word of this emerges from Moyo’s book. The Chinese, she argues, are interested only in business and avoid condescension and ideology. This is naïve in the extreme. China’s main partners are Angola, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea, three of the most repressive states in Africa.

Moyo also slates attempts by donor institutions to tie aid to democracy and good governance. Democracy, she argues, is harmful to development and can wait until the economy has blossomed, preferably under a benevolent dictator. Her grasp of recent African history must be thin to consider this seriously.

Having correctly identified Africa’s problems in its relations with the outside world, it is surprising that Moyo lays such stress on seeking solutions in more of the same. She barely confronts Africa’s own glaring deficiencies as a barrier to growth and prosperity, but needs to look no further than Robert Mugabe’s recent birthday celebrations for the evidence.

For all its faults this is a challenging, well-written book that provokes questions and invites debate. And Moyo is highly skilled in engaging the reader in what might appear to be a dry topic, inventing an African country to illustrate the problems of aid dependency and her ways around them. She calls it Dongo.

• Dambisa Moyo, Dead aid: why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa is published by Allen Lane.

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