Dambisa Moyo goes stellar – why? Some reviews by fellow Africans and others, including me

June 2, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

The Dambisa Moyo phenomenon shows no signs of abating, with a front page story in the FT and an elevation this month to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. The publicity is also selling a lot of books – she’s currently 3rd in Amazon US sales rankings for books on ‘policy and current events’ (no sour grapes there, honest….).

So with heavy heart, it’s time to add my tuppence. Every time I say anything unkind about her book, Dead Aid, I get a volley of abuse about being a white imperialist male unwilling to surrender the intoxicating power conferred by being a paid up member of the ‘aid industry’ (n.b. I’m being sarcastic, OK?). So just in case you’re naïve enough to think the continent speaks with one (Moyoesque) voice, here is a review by Chikondi Mpokosa, from Malawi, about her disappointment with the book. Chikondi is Oxfam’s Global Education Adviser, so cynics might argue that she is not neutral but a) Moyo’s main objection is to official government to government aid, not the NGO type, b) Chikondi sees lots of problems with traditional aid and c) Moyo previously worked for Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, which also seems to have shaped her views somewhat (see below). For a more academic review by a fellow Zambian economist, see here, and Sudanese-born telecoms magnate and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim has also weighed in in the Financial Times – an entire FT online debate on ‘Is Aid Working’ can be found here.

As for the book, Moyo’s critique of ‘old aid’ rings the occasional bell with me (e.g. its potential to undermine domestic politics and the state-citizen social contract), but overall, it has been taken to task by Kevin Watkins and Owen Barder among others for highly selective use of the evidence (even by NGO standards…) and dodgy attribution of causality (she argues that since poor countries receive lots of aid, aid must be to blame for their plight, but as Kevin points out, ‘using her logic, you could argue that fire engines cause fires because you find them near burning houses’ – see cartoon.) The BBC Hardtalk programme also had a good televised head to head with Alison Evans, the new director of the Overseas Development Institute.

But it is Dead Aid’s purported alternatives to aid that seem particularly feeble: African governments should issue lots of bonds (not too many takers at the moment – bad luck on the timing there); trust in China (and thus get stuck in commodity dependence, let alone the human rights issues); rich countries should remove barriers to trade (fine, but it won’t make much difference except in a few particular products like cotton) and invest in infrastructure (does anyone disagree with that?) and access to microfinance needs to be increased (sure, but it’s not even close to a magic bullet).

What is most noticeable is what’s missing – the book claims to be about finding better ways to finance development, but she barely mentions taxation or redistribution. Maybe it’s that Goldman Sachs/Zambian elite thing coming through again.

Overall, I was intrigued by Moyo’s politics/ideology. She manages to combine an entirely understandable resentment to the patronizing ways of aid donors and their crass portrayal of her continent (in Tony Blair’s awful soundbite) as ‘a scar on the conscience of the world’, an uncritical celebration of the rise of Chinese and Indian influence in Africa, and a highly conventional international financier’s assumption that free capital markets will solve every problem. A kind of third worldist neoliberalism, or right wing version of the old ‘aid as imperialism’ line.

But if the book itself is so flawed, that makes its phenomenal success all the more intriguing. It’s clearly hit some kind of chord with leaders like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and other Africans who are sick of being lectured to by western aid donors and rock stars; aid sceptics like Bill Easterly can’t believe their luck (see increasingly acrimonious spat between him and Jeff Sachs), and of course any decent journalist relishes a good ‘man bites dog‘ story. But the danger is that it will provide useful cover to cash-strapped rich country governments seeking to backtrack on their aid promises, who can now say ‘see, Africans say that aid doesn’t work, so let’s cut the budget’. As for those who disagree with her analysis, (and who in my opinion have rather more evidence on their side) it’s almost impossible to avoid sounding either defensive or self interested (this post is probably no exception). What to do to get the debate onto more sensible ground – the very pressing issue of what kinds of aid work, and what don’t, and how to reform it? The danger is, Moyo’s work will actually squeeze out that discussion. Any suggestions? (I may regret this…)

June 2, 2009
Duncan Green