From prominent pastors to politicians to professional rock stars, everyone it seems has a heart and a plan for Africa.  But good intentions don’t always translate into good results.  And when things seem to go wrong for so long, we ought to ask some hard questions and not automatically do more of the same.  In Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa Dambisa Moyo, an economist and native of Zambia, is not afraid to ask hard questions about her own continent.

Why is it that Africa, alone among the continents of the world, seems to be locked into a cycle of dysfunction?  Why is it that out of all the continents of the world Africa seems unable to convincingly get its foot on the economic ladder?  Why in a recent survey did seven out of the top ten ‘failed states’ hail from that continent?  Are Africa’s people universally more incapable?  Are its leaders genetically more venal, more ruthless, more corrupt?  Its policymakers more innately feckless? What is it about Africa that hold it back, that seems to render it incapable of joining the rest of the globe in the twenty-first century?

The answer, says Moyo, “has its roots in aid” (6-7).  Not everyone will agree with every part of Moyo’s analysis (for example, see this debate between Moyo and Hernando de Soto on one side of the aid issue and Stephen Lewis and Paul Collier on the other).  But no matter your opinion on aid, a conversation about its effectiveness is long overdue.  Everyone would do well to investigate Moyo’s claims and carefully consider her recommendations.

Dead Aid is a short, pungent, provocative book.  The thesis is simple and controversial: aid is the problem, not the solution.  “In the past fifty years,” she writes, “over US$1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa.  In the past decade alone, on the back of Live 8, Make Poverty History, the Millennium Development Goals, the Millennium Challenge Account, the Africa Commission, and the 2005 G7 meeting (to name a few), millions of dollars each year have been raised in rich countries to support charities working for Africa.”  Sounds good, right?  But has the more than one trillion dollars in assistance made Africa made people better off?  Moyo says “no.”  In fact, she argues that aid has helped make the poor poorer and growth slower.  “The notion that aid can alleviate systemic poverty, and has done so, is a myth…Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world” (xix).

The history of aid to Africa is more than fifty years old.  Through the decades, there have been different agendas, from industrialization in the 1960s to poverty in the 1970s to development in the 1980s.  More recently, Moyo argues, we’ve seen the rise of “glamour aid.”  In the last decade, “Africa became the focus of orchestrated world-wide pity.”  From Bono to Bob Geldof to Brangelina, Africa has become the cause du jour of the stars.

When Moyo talks about aid she is not thinking so much about philanthropy and emergency assistance.  These have pluses and minuses of their own, but what Moyo protests is aid in the form of government-to-government transfers of wealth or transfers from international institutions like the World Bank or the IMF.  This kind of aid does more harm than good.  And yet giving money to the poor (or telling others to do it for us) feels so intrinsically right, even necessary for our moral authority, that there is rarely serious debate about the merits and demerits of aid.  You’d have to be ethically backward or at least pathologically uncool to question foreign aid.  As one critic says, “my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar” (27).

What’s Wrong?
Why doesn’t aid work?  Moyo offers several reasons.

(1) Aid encourages graft and corruption.  With so much money being handed over, and given the sin nature we all share (my point, not hers), it’s no wonder aid often gets redirected to the wrong places.

(2) Aid politicizes a country, diverting people’s attention from productive economic activity to political life where the “real money” is.  Likewise, aid has often been used as a political tool by rich countries to prop up failing regimes in the interest of advancing ideological agendas (e.g., advancing democracy over communism or vice-versa).

(3) Aid erodes trust among people. “By thwarting accountability mechanisms, encouraging rent-seeking behaviour, siphoning off scarce talent from the employment pool, and removing pressures to reform inefficient policies and institutions, aid guarantees that in the most aid-dependent regimes social capital remains weak and the countries themselves poor” (39).

(4) Aid encourages conflict as competing parties try to snatch up foreign wealth.

(5) Aid causes a number of macro-economic problems: reduced savings and investment, inflation, and a stifled export sector.

(6) Aid creates dependencies.  One you adjust to living with aid, you have a hard time learning to live without it.  Countries become dependent on outside benevolence for continued survival.

(7) Aid kills local initiative.  It may sound like a great idea to send free mosquito nets to Africa and you or your church may feel great doing it, but what happens to the indigenous net-makers once our freebies arive?  He can’t compete with free nets.  So he and his employees will lose their one means of livelihood.  Even more devasting is the lesson learned: “Don’t bother trying to match supply with demand on your own.  Someone else will just give the supply for free.”  Any solution which takes away from the Africans’ ability to come up with their own solutions is not the right solution.

So What is the Solution?
Obviously, there is no quick fix for Africa’s woes.  Nevertheless, Moyo outlines a promising strategy.  In addition to cutting off aid (yes, she wants it cut off), Moyo argues for a host of free-market solutions.

African countries with the sufficient credit ratings should issue bonds in the emerging-market.  Africa should welcome the flow of foreign direct investment (FDI), even from China.  Accordingly to Moyo, the Chinese are actually doing more to help Africa because they are not giving away something for nothing.  The Chinese are investing in African infrastructure so they can make money. This investment provides jobs and encourages African initiative instead of giving aid, which creates a coterie of political elites.

Not surprisingly, Moyo is a strong proponent of free trade, especially in the agricultural sector.  Americans and Europeans frequently place tariffs on agricultural imports.  This protects home-grown products and locks emerging markets out of the global economy.  In the long run both sides lose with high tariffs because other countries usually respond in kind with high tariffs of their own.  To make matter worse, African countries impose the highest tariffs of all on goods coming from other African countries.

Similarly, because the United States subsidizes its agriculture sector to the tune of 15 billion annually, Africans have no room to compete.  “These subsidies have a dual impact. Western farmers get to sell their produce to a captive consumer at home above world market prices, and they can also afford to dump their excess production and lower prices abroad, thus undercutting the struggling African farmer, upon whose meagre livelihood the export income crucially depends” (116).

Finally, Moyo also encourages smaller reforms, including micro-financing ventures, increased savings, and less taxation on remittances–the money Africans abroad send home to their families in Africa.  Above all, good governance, rule of law, and established property rights are necessary if Africa is to prosper as so many other emerging nations have in the last fifty years.

The Take Home
No doubt, Moyo’s descriptions of the problem and prescriptions are not shared by all economists. But almost every economist now agrees that (1) aid has very often not worked well and (2) aid by itself is not the answer.  As Christians we too often settle for the futility of good intentions.  We don’t want anyone to interrupt the feel-good express that is charity and the chiding of governments to give more aid.  But we don’t have to choose between heartfelt concern for the plight of the “bottom billion” and careful thinking about how to help them.  We can and must do both.  The passion of Bono and your college advocacy group may be inspiring, but their ideas may still be deeply flawed.  If just giving Africa more stuff were the answer, the problem would have been fixed decades ago.  Tackling poverty in the developing world requires more than generous hearts and stricken consciences.  It requires careful research, honest inquiry, and an understanding of economics that enables us not only to try to do good, but actually to do it.

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21 thoughts on “The (Sometimes) Futility of Good Intentions”

  1. Joanna says:

    I must get round to reading this book sometime, looks very interesting.

    I’ve started to focus more of my giving towards groups that are involved in microfinance (kiva ect.) as these seem to be a good way to help people help themselves.

  2. Malin Friess says:

    As a missionary Doctor with Samaritan’s Purse in Kenya for the past 11 months I would agree that certain types of Aid are “Dead,” but that does not mean we should abandon Africa. If a Christian or non-christian were to visit many of the various Christian Mission hospitals scattered throughout Africa(Kijabe, Mbingo, Tenwek) they would be amazed. People receive excellent quality health care for a fraction of the cost. Why? At the core these hospitals have a heart for sharing the gospel in a tangible way..this translates into more compassionate care, better finances, donated supplies, donated labor by missionary doctors, hard-work, ethics, and perhaps best of all people come to know Him.
    I would encourage reader to keep supporting medical missionaries and medical mission hospitals. Christian Medical missions just plain work. And we are at a time when denominations and churches are pulling away from medical missions.

  3. Kirstin says:

    I received Christmas catalogs from Heifer Project and World Vision in the mail yesterday. I wonder if donating animals or bees to the poor in Africa is a good thing? It seems to me that the author’s arguments would also apply to Latin America and other places.

  4. Cristiano says:

    I’ve already listened some people here in Brazil, who worked through protestant church in out poor communities, that the poor people on there sometimes only have the sense that they need to receive, and only receive. When talking about returning for the sake of the community, e.g., giving back the tenth part as the Bible teachs us, there’s huge resistance. So, they use the examples of the Bible to teach them so.

    I think the Church has a social responsability, and I believe in helping the poor people, but some people take the Gospel message, reducing it to only that; this is wrong. A poor man may need new clothes, but at the end, it’s the old clothes that need a new man, and this is possible only through the finished work of Christ.

  5. “…but what Moyo protests is aid in the form of government-to-government transfers of wealth or transfers from international institutions like the World Bank or the IMF. This kind of aid does more harm than good…”

    I agree with many of the criticisms of government to government aid. But I would like to think that supporting churches in Africa is better.
    If I, and millions of other rich Christians, give money to Christians in Africa (or elsewhere, poor people do not just live in Africa), that enables them to hire a teacher and provide good education to their community; or to build a well providing water in their community; or to subsidise a mission hopsital, providing healthcare for their community; etc, then this seems more likely to have a positive impact than our government giving their government huge sums of money.
    Giving to Christians does not eliminate the risk of greed and corruption – these can exist within the church. But I feel that overall, more good is likely to be done by supporting lots of small scale projects, than huge government projects.

  6. Reg Schofield says:

    We have used Compassion to sponsor a child . Granted it will not solve the big picture but if a child is educated and able to grow properly therefore being able to work ,then that is one step. Christian relief organizations need to be at the forefront , equipping ,educating etc… I have no faith in government be it local or foreign to address the poverty. I agree with
    Malin Friess said about certain aid being dead but cutting Africa off from “good aid” would be a genocide.

  7. Aaron says:

    Enough Bono-bashing. There have been terrible aid ideas and bad plans. But, he has been apart of the few ideas that have worked there, such as the PEPFAR plan for HIV drugs. Let’s get off the straw-man argument that Bono is all good-intentions with no effect. That is simply not the case.

    And, by the way, his proposals for World Bank/UN help have been to eliminate the debt that African countries owe Western nations. . . not a free handout. . . just a debt relief package.

  8. Dave Barnhart says:

    Having worked with pastors in several African countries and with a couple of orphanages, I have seen the good work many have done on behalf of those in need. I have also seen the effects of giving aid without understanding the cultural context. Thus, no need to bash Bono or anyone else. There is enough blame to go around. However, we do need to ask ourselves hard questions . . . which is what Moyo does. How is it we can spend a trillion in aid but what we have our richer dictators and government officials and the poor being poorer? How is it we can denounce the situation between Israel and the Palastinians but not figure out how Yassir Arafat left an estate somewhere between 2.5 billion and 4 billion? Many of his people starving and living in filth but their leader is worth billions? Unfortunately, this has also been played out in many parts of Africa. Isn’t Daniel Moi, former President of Kenya, one of the worlds richest men? Perhaps the Swiss banking system could help here. Aren’t most of the funds from these “leaders” stashed there? There must be a better way. Perhaps reading Glenn Schwartz’ book, “When Charity Destroys Dignity” and reading John Rowell’s “To Give or Not To Give,” would be helpful. They provide a nice balance between dead aid, no aid and strategic aid.

  9. Think of it this way: A truly helpful intervention for the poor should raise the rates of return to investment in assets held by the poor. And remember that the primary asset for most of the poor is their labor. An intervention that does not raise such rates of return will have no long term positive effect, and may well do harm.

    When considering how to respond to the ideas in Moyo’s book as an individual or church, Fikkert and Corbett’s recent book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting The Poor – and Yourself, is exceptionally helpful – it is by far the best book written on the subject. Here’s a brief review: http://tinyurl.com/yg47zuw.

  10. Chasburge says:

    Well said.

    Passion an good intentions are not replacements for background & experience in any area, but especially overseas aid.

    Development is key.

  11. Paul B. says:

    I would cite the critical differentiation between government and private aid. Government aid, under force of law, quickly becomes an entitlement, all the more so with the humanistic governments we have now, which are congenitally unable to discriminate between those deserving aid and those not. The Church and individuals, however, have the ability – when the government lets them – to demand accountability for what amounts to their investments in people.

    All this money, all these trendy, heady appeals for aid, and what do we have for it. Help has to happen on an intimate basis so that there can be (beneficial) discrimination and accountability, or else corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness will quickly arise.

  12. Paul Hunter says:

    Moyo is bang on. My wife and I live and work in Jinja, Uganda and can verify first hand that what she says is true. There is little to show for the billions of dollars that have been dropped on governments, churches, and ministries. A similar book, WHEN HELPING HURTS, asserts that instead of making a focus on relief, a concerted effort on rehabilitation and development will much better rebuild and restore broken nations. A focus on relationships, and not agencies, events, and institutions, will help, one by one, decrease viral corruption and begin to see the Kingdom of God established in the marketplace and church.

  13. Kyle Fox says:

    I first was turned on to this thought a few weeks ago by this talk from TED

    http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_mwenda_takes_a_new_look_at_africa.html

  14. Brian says:

    Taking away aid is not “abandoning Africa”. In fact, the latter phrase has some undertones in it that could be interpreted as offensive. Kenya has some amazing medical clinics that started through private money (i.e. samaritans), but all would agree they need better infrastructure to maintain them. If aid money dropped completely, would the medical clinics shut down? If so, what does that say about the whole situation?

    Good comments from Coty and Dave. keep up the discussion…

  15. I’ve been thinking about this one for a while and I’m not sure it all stacks up. So for example $2.3 trillion dollars has been given in aid over the past 50 years. In 2001 Donald Rumsfeld, announced that the Defense Department was so bad at keeping track of its funds that there were $2.3 trillion that it could not account for! But more than that take Africa, the subject of the book about $570 billion went to Africa, which over 50 years amounts to $29 per person per year. So what we’re upset about is why $30 a year hasn’t managed to lift an African out of poverty?

    So I’m not sure Kevin your take home point “If just giving Africa more stuff were the answer, the problem would have been fixed decades ago.” is right or fair. I’m all for more targeted aid and more effective delivery of that aid, but I’m not sure throwing big numbers over long periods of tie around helps very much.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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