More Controversy on Aid

7 Apr

Recently I commented briefly on Peter Singer’s book “The Life You Save.” Now another book, “Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo, has entered the ring of debate, to give the ideas behind Singer’s book an ideological smackdown.

To be sure, Ms. Moyo, a Harvard and Oxford–educated investment banking professional born in Zambia, has been receiving the lion’s share of attention, even appearing on The Colbert Report last week. Her argument is that foreign aid to Africa not only doesn’t help much but actually worsens the continent’s many problems. She points to the corruption engendered by all this ‘free’ money, the tens of thousands of professional aid workers who make a living from anti-poverty projects, and the someone-else-is-taking-care-of-it attitude of the poor themselves, replacing any tendency to try and come up with solutions. If governments had to rely on normal sources of finance rather than aid, she says, they would be obliged to clean up their acts, use it wisely and transparently, so they could keep on borrowing if need be. If they had to use taxes, they would be more accountable to the people.

Both reviews that I have read, one by Paul Collier (author of The Bottom Billion) in the Independent and the other by Alex Coutinho in the Huffington Post, take issue with her theories.

I probably fall in the middle. I have indeed seen the results in Senegal of various aid projects that don’t work, two wells that had broken down in the village of Payene alone, for example, and for which villagers lacked the resources to repair. I was also struck, while in Dakar, by the various large offices and matching bureaucracy of a whole host of foundations, aid NGOs and United Nations programs.  (I also visited a Millenium Villages project near Louga, which I haven’t had the time to write about yet.) 

So for me a vital piece is missing, and I am left wondering why such an important issue is left as a stark either-or dichotomy, and why more common sense is not brought to bear on it.

I doubt very much whether government would be more responsible if they had to rely on private lenders. I mean, just look at the U.S., and the behemoth debt its previous administration incurred for its absurd war in Iraq. Such rulers just leave the mess for someone else to clean up – eventually. Why would we expect more from someone like Robert Mugabe or Daniel Arap Moi?

Some facts about aid are clear. Health initatives and education are obviously worthy recipients of aid.  Micro finance schemes need starter funds before people can begin to save, and profit from their small loans. Yet I think that the issue is more complicated than either review suggest. The people, civil society, the rural and urban poor – however one wants to refer to them – have to become empowered. That means not only human and labour rights, and a working justice system, but people themselves taking on the actual responsibility for the projects they need to better their lives.

In Louga for example, I visited a village where a new school was being built to replace an older school made of woven reeds with a floor of sand. The village leader told me something interesting; he told me that until recently he hadn’t believed that education beyond religious education in Arabic, or a Koranic school, was necessary for village children. He had come to realize, he said, that this view was wrong.

And not far from Louga in Mekhne, the Union des Groupement des Paysans, was making their own road toward progress, finding partners — yes, a form of international aid — to help them grow better crops or get solar power to run those unworkable water pumps, solar panels they would be able to pay for by selling other solar systems to local government and the well-off. They were having frank discussions with fellow villagers about their periods of ‘soudure’ – that is, the amount of time between food running out and the next crops coming up for harvest — by questioning long-held customs of throwing big feasts for certain family occasions. And they were approaching families with sons working in Europe to say, ‘why not put your euros into our village bank, so we can start lending money for small projects?’

These are just a few examples but the difference is one not of scale but focus: who is coming up with and managing the solutions. I believe that when it are people themselves who doing so, who have a truly vested interest in seeing a project work out, then the aid will flow to where it is supposed to, and the results will be much better than what we have seen so far.


The old school

The old school


The new school

The new school



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