Book-Blogging: Dead Aid – Introduction and Chapter One

This is part of my effort to think through some of the “essential” development/foreign aid books as I get ready to be “in the field.” My wrap-up of The White Man’s Burden is here.









Because it takes longer to write than read (at least for me), I’ve already finished Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid. It’s a tendentious book – looking back at my notes, I found “What?!” scribbled in the margin a few times each chapter. While I found William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden occasionally frustrating – mainly for the false choices he pushes early on – it still seemed extensively researched and uninterested in making assertions without the requisite empirical backbone. Moyo takes a harder tack, and does so in a way that provides more heat than light, in my opinion; it’s not clear her assertions are all grounded in fact. Hopefully as I write through each of the chapters I’ll develop a more nuanced view.

Kicking things off, Moyo’s book is centered on this question and answer:

“…has more than US $1 trillion in development assistance over the last several decades made African people better off? No. In fact, across the globe the recipients of this aid are worse off; much worse off. Aid has helped make the poor poorer, and growth slower…Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.”

That’s a pretty provocative statement – which, of course, is the point. In fact, if there’s one phrase I’d use to describe the book, it’d be “deliberately provocative.” Whether this is a good or bad thing is up for debate.

In any case, the first word that needs to be classified is “aid.” Moyo holds that there are three basic forms aid takes:

1)     “Humanitarian or emergency aid, which is mobilized and dispensed in response to catastrophes and calamities…

2)     “Charity-based aid, which is disbursed by charitable organizations to institutions or people on the ground; and

3)     Systematic aid – that is, aid payments made directly to governments either through government-to-government transfers (in which case it is termed bilateral aid) or transferred via institutions such as the World Bank (known as multilateral aid)”

Moyo’s book only focuses on systematic aid, which can be thought of as the “sum total of both concessional loans and grants.” This is fine – narrow arguments are sometimes easier to think through in isolation – but I think an issue that crops up is the difference between systematic aid given to governments and systematic aid given like charity-based aid (i.e., direct to on-the-ground people or organizations). One may be worse than the other, but for the purposes of this book they’re lumped together.*

This chapter also identifies the core reasons for the general improvement of economic growth in much of Africa (this is the lens through which the “Africa Rising” or “African Glass Half-Full” arguments that seem to be appearing with increasing frequency are seen). Moyo holds that there are three: the surge in commodity prices; market-based reforms that are just now beginning to provide dividends; and improvements in the political landscapes of many African countries. What Moyo doesn’t do is make the case that these reasons are severable from the impact of systematic aid, an argument I would have liked to see drawn out. For example, there’s a discussion to be had about whether systematic aid and Western intervention may have recently improved the political landscapes, or perhaps helped bolster the infrastructure behind the region’s commodity markets; they may be poor arguments, but they exist and should be dealt with.

Much more to grapple with in the chapters ahead; the bigger the claims, the more important it is to back them up with evidence, so I’m looking forward to it.

*As an aside: I’d love to find books or studies that take a deep-dive look into charitable giving in Lower-Income Countries (LICs), and what the outcomes have been; I think there’s a really interesting discussion to be had there, perhaps moreso than with systematic aid. I think Poor Economics gets closest to this, and I really, really liked that book.

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