Cutting Western Aid to Africa

I’m probably wading blindly into a charged debate here, but Dambisa Moyo makes a compelling case against Western aid to Africa.

When I was backpacking around Ecuador on a shoe-string budget fifteen years ago, I had the good fortune to meet a network of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who put me up and showed me around their projects. A few years later, I was able to repeat the experience with a more respectable budget that allowed me to actually rent a room from a group of Belgian development workers.

It was pretty obvious both times that the major beneficiaries of their projects tended to self-select, culturally speaking, for the most program-friendly populations. Meaning that some of the people who actually most needed help were simply beyond the programs’ reach. That, in turn, created a patronage system of program favorites and “stars” that very closely resembled a system of dependency. (I witnessed the same dynamics at work in my experience as a non-degreed social worker not long afterwards.) Maybe things have changed since then, and aid programs have evolved to take those factors into consideration. But that was my impression at the time, despite being a very sympathetic audience for international aid and development.

The problem with Moyo’s argument is that it is — and can be –addressed only to the Western aid community. But alternative aid sources, notably China but also Venezuela, have already begun competing with Western sources, in part by attaching none of the governance or oversight restrictions the latter usually insist on. So even if Moyo succeeds in shifting the West’s approach, it’s unlikely that the problems she identifies will be solved, and very likely they will in fact get worse.