It is a year since the publication of Dead Aid, my book on the ineffectiveness of sending developmental aid to Africa, and I have spent much of that time on the road. I have met a range of audiences – agitated aid supporters, charming government ministers, frustrated development specialists – in a range of countries, from Rwanda to Russia, from Sweden to South Africa, and many places in between. By far and away the most interesting trip, however, was a homecoming – to Zambia, the country where I was born.
I have made regular trips back since leaving over a decade ago to study and work in the US and the UK, but this visit had particular significance. I’d heard that my book had sold out in the local bookstores in Zambia’s main cities but was uncertain about how people would react to the stark message that lies at the book’s core: that we must find alternative ways to finance development in Africa.
While I have been away, I have missed key moments in my country’s history. In 1991 Zambia made the move from one-party state to multi-party democracy (the first former British colony in Africa to have its president removed by ballot rather than bullet); since then there has been the journey from socialism to capitalism, and the tragic advent of the HIV–Aids epidemic (in urban areas nearly one in five adults is afflicted). On the 30-minute trip from Lusaka airport to my parents’ home, I was struck by the number of young people who seemed to be wandering aimlessly on the street, and by how, as in so many other African countries today, Zambia continues to struggle with high levels of poverty and a lack of infrastructure manifested by dilapidated roads with sizable potholes.
Given that I have spent much of the past year explaining how the billions of dollars of foreign assistance that have been sent to Africa over the past 50 years have hindered rather than helped Africa’s economic progress, I found it particularly poignant that I had returned as yet another scandal was gripping Zambia – nearly $2m of aid was allegedly stolen by senior health ministry officials. On the back of these allegations, the Swedish and Dutch governments froze around $33m of aid to the country. It was yet more evidence for my thesis that aid has not only not done what it proposed to (that is, to lower poverty and increase economic growth) when the aid regime started in earnest after the second world war, but rather has made things worse for millions of Africans by, inadvertently, fuelling a climate of rampant corruption.
Lusaka, the capital, is a lively cosmopolitan town of more than a million people, complete with Chinese and Indian restaurants and a bustling nightlife; more so than I recall when I was growing up there. I imagine this reflects demand from Zambia’s burgeoning young population. As with many other developing regions of the world, about 60 per cent of Africa’s (and Zambia’s) population is below the age of 25. My schedule involved participating in a number of radio call-in chat shows, meetings with academics, citizens and foreign diplomats, as well as Zambian policymakers. The country also boasts a large NGO community, so I had anticipated criticism from people whose hearts are in the right place, but whose philosophy for helping the poor remains, in my view, outmoded and lacking in innovation. This despite the fact that China, India and other developing countries (including those in Africa such as South Africa and Botswana) have moved hundreds of millions of people out of poverty without relying on foreign aid to the extent that many African countries do today.
What I did not expect was that my views on the inefficacy and deleterious effects of aid were, in fact, widely acknowledged by many people including some of the NGO representatives I met. In meetings, and numerous conversations, three things became apparent; upon which the majority of us agreed. First, that it was neither desirable nor reasonable for African countries to continue to depend on aid to drive their development agendas. The concern of aid-dependency has particular relevancy now as key donor countries such as the US and UK face their own enormous debt burdens and gaping fiscal deficits. Second, that Africa’s economic success relies crucially on the continent’s leadership taking the lead in designing and implementing policies that would set the continent on a promising development path. Until this happens, Africa is, I believe, going nowhere. Third, that foreign aid had, over the past five decades, contributed to the dysfunctionality of much, though not necessarily all, African leadership. Even where corruption is contained, the aid industry enables and incentivises leaders to abdicate their responsibilities in the provision of public goods such as education, healthcare, infrastructure, and national security.
While the broad agreement I encountered in these areas was refreshing, I found myself asking why it has been so hard to fundamentally change things? Was it simply that donor agencies owe their very existence to parcelling out aid? Was it what the former US president George W Bush once called, when discussing the US education system, the “soft bigotry of low expectations”; that is, a belief that Africa lacked the capacity to manage its own economic affairs?
A senior economist at one of the leading donor agencies in Washington DC had told me that out of 50-odd states in sub-Saharan Africa, his organisation would be comfortable leaving only two countries (your guess is as good as mine) to write their own economic strategy document. All the rest, he said, depend on outside agencies to do this for them. This, some 50 years after many of these countries attained their independence.
According to him, this had little to do with the lack of skills and capability of African citizens and more to do with an ingrained attitude at the highest levels of many African governments; that, as someone in the aid agencies would do it, why should they bother at all?
By the end of my trip – and my travels – it was clear to me that, as much as anything else, Africa suffers from appalling PR. Although there are positive things happening on the ground, the continent’s story has clearly been usurped by those who prefer to paint Africa as simply a land of war, disease, poverty and corruption. Africa needs jobs and investment, yet what investor in their right mind would want to invest in a place characterised in this way? Ultimately, it is up to Africa leaders to transform Africa’s message, much as the Chinese and Indian governments have for their own countries. Their positive economic messages at home and abroad have yielded prosperity and meaningfully put a dent in their poverty ... without the yoke of foreign aid.
This week Zambia, though decidedly the better team, were knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament by Nigeria. It was a bitter defeat, 5-4 in a quarter final penalty shootout. But though people longed to get through to the next round, I hope they reserve their real disappointment – and opprobrium – for the system that denies them the chance to achieve the economic goals that are within their reach.
Dambisa Moyo’s ‘Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How there is Another Way for Africa’ (Penguin Press) is published in paperback this week