Dambisa Moyo is elegant, articulate and cool-headed – a match for the sharpest TV host. She is hyperactive as well – the air miles she has collected in four months promoting her controversial book Dead Aid would fly her around the world again.
She is also black and Zambian and has adopted an uncompromising opposition to foreign aid, the root, she is convinced, of many of Africa’s evils. She is not the first economist to question received wisdom about the need for official development assistance in Africa. But she is the first to popularise such a polemical version of the anti-aid theory and to have spread her message so far so fast.
The former Goldman Sachs strategist, who won scholarships to Harvard and Oxford before joining the World Bank, is rapidly becoming a headache for the aid industry. First interviewed in the FT in January, she hit the New York Times bestseller list in April and was listed by Time Magazine this month among the world’s 100 most influential people.
The timing of her rise to prominence could not be less convenient. Hit by falling export revenues, declining investment and dwindling remittances even the best-performing African economies are knocking anew at the doors of foreign donors.
For developed countries resistant to these pleas you could not find a more perfect advocate for slashing the aid budget – or so say Ms Moyo’s detractors, many of whom claim her ideas would be more rigorously scrutinised were she not African.
Ms Moyo’s book provides a straightforward – her critics say simplistic and even dangerous – analysis of complex problems. Limitless development assistance to African governments, she argues, has fostered dependency, encouraged corruption and ultimately perpetuated poor governance and poverty. Foreign development officials have a vested interest in this status quo, she believes: if aid succeeded in creating prosperity, they would be out of a job.
Her solution: cut off funding within five years and encourage poor countries to access international capital markets. A mix of foreign investment, particularly from China, fairer trade, remittances and micro-finance would do the rest, she argues.
It has been easy for critics to poke holes in both her analysis and her solutions. The book does not establish in any scientific way the link between the hundreds of billions of dollars poured into Africa over decades, and the poor performance of economies. It also studiously ignores evidence of development assistance working. Kevin Watkins, director of UN’s Human Development Report Office, says it is the equivalent of “blaming the fire engine because it is near the fire”.
International capital markets, meanwhile, have become punitively expensive places for poor countries to borrow – hardly the solution now.
But the book is only part of the challenge Ms Moyo poses for an industry accustomed to having all the most vocal campaigners on its side. Her ideas are now proliferating across the internet on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube and on countless blogs. She has been interviewed or reviewed by practically every mainstream western media organisation.
Nor is she popular only among aid critics and cash-strapped governments in the west. She has energised many fellow Africans to join in the debate.
Panicked at the prospect that her ideas are gaining traction, Jeffrey Sachs, the US academic and aid advocate, accused her of endangering lives. Her ideas he said are “absolutely pernicious, and could lead to the deaths of millions of people”.
Rock star Bob Geldof’s aid advocacy organisation, One, has also been mobilising opposition to her message. However an e-mail campaign by a One activist encouraging African NGOs to stand up to her arguments at least partially backfired.
“If Africans feel strongly against her ideas then they should not need to be ‘mobilised’ by your organisation. More effective would be to open fora for debate where differences of opinion are welcome,” responded Iris Mwanza, of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia.
There are plenty of Africans who disagree in whole or in part with what Ms Moyo says. But even they appear to find refreshing the presence of an articulate young African in a debate dominated for so long by ageing western academics and rock stars.
“She has tapped into deep seam of anger from Africans who look at the economic shambles of the western world and ask themselves, ‘who appointed these people to tell Africans how to run their affairs?’,” says Miles Morland, a pioneer investor in African markets.
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