Aid to Africa

Why aid to Africa must stop: Interview with Dambisa Moyo

Adrian Humphreys
National Post
May 30, 2009

Born and raised in Zambia but educated at Oxford and Harvard, Dambisa Moyo was an uncommon face as a black woman in the world of high finance. Now with the publication of her book Dead Aid, she has become an uncommon voice, a strong and eloquent advocate of stopping financial aid to Africa as the best way to help the troubled continent. It is an idea contradicting rock star campaigners, Western politicians and grassroots wisdom all at once. As she makes her way to Canada for a highly anticipated debate on Monday with Stephen Lewis and others at the Munk Debate on Foreign Aid, she spoke with the National Post about her ideas and the hazards of opposing the aid orthodoxy.

Q What’s so bad about rich nations sharing their wealth with poor nations to help them cope with their struggles?

A No country on Earth has ever achieved long-term growth and reduced poverty in a meaningful way by relying on aid. It’s just never happened. So we’re pushing a strategy that has no evidence of working anywhere on Earth. And we have years of evidence that the aid strategy doesn’t work.

It boils down to incentive. We have to ask ourselves: Are African governments incentivized to do what governments all around the world are expected to do, that is, deliver public goods: education, health care, infrastructure and security? Unfortunately an aid system has allowed African governments to abdicate their responsibilities…. So until African governments live or die based on job creation and providing goods to Africans and not rely just on getting aid money, we will continue to see a situation where the private sector has not developed and Africans do not have job opportunities. The billion dollars that go from government to government … can make African governments lazy with respect to doing what they are supposed to be doing. It also fuels corruption, can fuel civil wars, inflation, the debt burden, and so on.

Q What do you see as the better way?

A It is a mixture of trade, foreign direct investment, capital markets, the bond market, remittance and microfinance. It is basically fostering a private sector investment into these economies so you actually get job creation. The fundamental problem with the aid model is there are no jobs being created for Africans. It is a band-aid solution. Over 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 24. These people need jobs or we’ll have a continent of pirates or young people with no opportunities. It is critically important that people understand that Africans want what Westerners want.

Q In order to raise aid money, foundations and aid agencies often turn to television commercials panning across impoverished people amid a damaged wasteland. That hardly inspires confidence that any private funding would be worthwhile as a financial investment.

A I completely agree and that is one of the fundamental problems with the celebrity culture. The focus is so negative. In the book I call it the four horsemen of African apocalypse. They want to focus on war, disease, poverty and corruption. I met with an African woman in Kenya who said to me it is hard enough to raise a teenager anywhere in the world, but try to raise a teenager to be an engineer or a doctor or to really contribute to the global society when you are constantly being told you are poor, you’re inefficient, you need a handout. This is not a formula for success. It is a great disappointment that, by and large, celebrities use their platforms to basically push a negative story. That is not going to encourage anyone to Africa to invest.

Q So you advocate turning off the taps. How soon, how suddenly and how completely should they be turned off?

A I appreciate you asking that question because I have been completely misrepresented and, I have to say, I think quite deliberately misrepresented, particularly by the NGO community.

I give a five-year example in my book. Very foolishly, the NGOs have jumped on that and [suggest I] said aid should be stopped immediately or, in the worst case, within five years. I’m not saying that at all. What I am saying is we need to have an exit strategy. Aid can, perhaps, only work when we know the tap will be turned off at some point. We need a phase-out plan to make sure that African governments can wean themselves off of aid. I have also said that countries have very different levels of economic development. My own home country, Zambia, is at a very different level than say, Ghana, or Kenya, or Somalia for that matter. You cannot have one blanket exit strategy for all of these countries.

Q Much has been made in the media of pitting your ideas against major celebrities, musicians Bob Geldof and Bono of U2. Not that long ago we saw Bono sitting with our prime minister, eliciting a promise to increase Canada’s spending on Africa. What is your take on the rock star advocacy?

A They have become the de facto faces of Africa. The fact that they globally are viewed as the people defining the policy agenda, attending the G8 and the G20, is completely absurd. It is particularly ridiculous because I believe that the aid system has made many African governments so lazy they have created a vacuum where anyone–in this case celebrities — feel it is OK to jump in and start propounding policy on Africa.

We, as Africans and as a global society, should want to hear from the African governments — what their plan is, what their strategy is. I don’t want to hear from the celebrity about what they think Africans should be doing any more than a Canadian would want to hear from Michael Jackson about the credit crisis.

Q Not all National Post readers are policy-makers, so on a personal level, if someone in Canada is moved by the situation in Africa and would like to help, what would you recommend they do?

A We should be questioning our policy-makers about what they are doing….After a trillion dollars in aid over 60 years and the situation is getting worse, it beggars belief. Those are very poor returns and we would ask those questions about anything else, about any policy for business in the Western world…. I very much hope that if there

is one thing that the book does, it is give people permission to ask the hard questions. Someone said to me last week that one of the problems for someone born in Western society is if they even begin to question the aid model they are labelled racist or categorized as insensitive or heartless and I think that is unfair. Also there is a Web site,,where you can lend as little as $25 to support entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Q Your book has become a New York Times bestseller, you were named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and yet many object to your ideas. Who is not liking what you say?

A The pushback tends to come from a minority group in the Western countries. By that I mean the NGOs. Some NGOs, rather than have a debate about it, they prefer to label me a genocidal maniac or try to take pot shots or make personal attacks…. I understand they are very interested in keeping the status quo because that is where their jobs are.

Q Speaking of people who might not agree with you, on Monday you will be in Toronto debating your ideas with, among others, Stephen Lewis, a very well-known and passionate Canadian advocate for African aid. Do you see Mr. Lewis’s advocacy any different than Bob Geldof’s or Bono’s?

A By and large it is the same thing, raising money for Africa using what I call a negative platform. All I am saying is their interventions are not meeting the fundamental problems in Africa.

Q Mr. Lewis can draw a tear from almost any eye when he speaks about the problems in Africa. Are you nervous about facing him in public debate?

A No, because I am speaking from the heart. I’m speaking from growing up African. It breaks my heart that people continue to push a model of economic development that does not work and they know it does not work.

So I believe it would be a much better use of Mr. Lewis’s time to actually agitate for the things that can meaningfully put a dent in poverty across the African continent instead of pushing a strategy that means that, in another 50 years … your children and your children’s children will basically be paying for my children and my children’s children to go to school and get health care.

That is completely ridiculous and not a long-term solution.

Read the original interview here

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