Sunday, 10 May 2009

Dead Aid - Review

Aid is not working

A couple of months ago it burst on our screens and there was all this rave about a book – Dead Aid – reviews in newspapers, interviews on chat shows, blogs awash with opinions and Twitter in overdrive.

Dambisa Moyo comes with impressive credentials and experience to boot having worked for the World Bank and been a global economist; she completed her Masters at Harvard and culminated in a PhD in Economics at Oxford.

I suppose that is enough to turn heads when she talks about aid especially when it runs counter to the megaphone diplomacy and sympathy-laden enjoyment-based concert fund raising efforts spearheaded by the apostles of aid to Africa in Sir Bob Geldof and Bono.

Easy reading

I consciously decided after all the publicity and debate I had heard not to offer any comments about this matter until I had read the book and reviewed its contents and measured the opinions proffered against reality, expectation and fantasy.

Dead Aid became part of my holiday reading, it was not a tough book to read and it sits in the genre of economics for dummies, taking basic examples, analogy and allusions to explain difficult subjects, it was just as good a read as the Undercover Economist.

At 154 pages, it probably could be finished in hours; between cocktails, the beach and waking hours along with holiday commitments of loafing around, it was done in just about 5 days.

What has aid done for us?

The book is divided into two parts named The World of Aid and A World without Aid – the first part is quite engaging, indeed, it is a brief history of aid and what it has now turned into – her historical analysis of aid and its failings were succinct.

We can more or less agree that the amount of aid poured into Africa has not necessarily shown any appreciable progress or benefits. There is no doubt too that there is a culture of aid dependency that might be counter-productive to development allowing for lazy policy and government activity.

It was also interesting to note that a vicious circle has evolved between the drug addict (aid dependent countries) and drug pusher (countries that mean well and find it an obligation to offer aid). I was not sure the external catalyst to wean off the addiction or the business model of the pusher is clear cut.

The aid industry is a beast, if not a leviathan, it needs to be fed and watered, the employees and the agendas in the West, the bottomless receptacles of ineffective utility in Africa engaged in a mutually destructive alliance that seems to prevent Africa from coming of age and leads the continent into a downward spiral of poverty, disease and insufficiency.

Implausible solutions?

I was not too sure that I followed the leap from aid dependency to tapping the capital markets through the issuing of bonds by the way of obtaining a sovereign credit rating. Whilst she does say sovereign ratings are different from corporate ratings, she suggests that businesses are limited to the ceiling of their sovereign ratings and offers examples of certain businesses that seem to have ratings higher than that of their countries.

I was afraid that the exposure as a global economist might have beclouded some stark realities in Africa, access to the capital markets requires that some fundamentals as infrastructure are available if not robust and governance through leadership are critical for confidence to be garnered from issuing bonds.

To garner support she suggested road shows which brought to mind Nigeria’s moribund rebranding project – there were examples but I felt they would be difficult to extrapolate without the fundamentals.

The Chinese are here

We all recognise that the Chinese are coming and they are offering deals of engagement than the West have ever afforded Africa. But this is just a new Bwanarism in my view, we still have Chinese managers and many Chinese staff supervising where their money is going in projects, however, I am not sure there is enough high-level African involvement to move from installation to maintenance, when the Chinese leave.

The danger of all these projects falling into disrepair is possible as with other aid sponsored projects that did not engage the communities in the purpose before execution despite the benefits that would initially accrue.

Trade and finance

Trade is growing but we need more equal partners in this enterprise, we also need to be able to appreciate what we have, a country selling off land to be developed for agriculture purposes by foreign lands is absurd, when we should be able to manage and cultivate the land and sell the food instead.

There is more scope for the Grameen micro-finance model, the advent of mobile telephony banking instruments but quantitative reliance on remittances as an anti-aid push is a bit far-fetched though one probably needs the brain of an economist to see the effects in entirety.

The Dead Aid model

The Dead Aid model suggests a secession of aid in maybe 5 years forcing governments to pull up their socks – I almost scoffed, but it might work for countries where the governments really care; care being used as an expression for those who understand the purpose of government as opposed to ones that just want to be in office and in power and nothing else.

To implement Dead Aid policies in the fictional Republic of Dongo that we were told of in the book, Dongo requires technocrats, in a very politicised country, it is difficult to focus on enterprise when it is power that offers privilege and opportunity.

Dr. Moyo herself confessed that she was not sure that opportunities in Africa offered commensurate challenges to her qualifications, but that is just half the story, there are so many of us who have been exposed to Western influences that would almost find it impossible to fit back into our indigenous settings along with the culture and attitudes.

We are of a different generation from our parents too who returned home to build the motherland and have rarely left since then – but Dr. Moyo’s assertions need to be road tested not by the pot-pourri of examples all around the world but by being engaged by African leaders in a concerted view to getting off aid and pursuing real development.

It would preposterous to adopt Dead Aid wholescale without participation that risks the reputation of the proponents that see the truth in the detail.

The need to more modern books

Beyond this, the references and notes in the books were not consistent and whilst URLs to certain documents were so long, as a user of Twitter those URLs should have been accompanied with shortened versions.

It like to read opinions and views but most importantly I like to see where the facts are derived from, and it should not be an extraneous exercise with cataloguing numbers for books and an accompanying website that compliments the views expressed in the book with all the alluded references, the audience does not want to be spoon-fed everything nowadays.

Presumably people with doctorates are accorded a modicum of originality of thought but this topic is too volatile in its assault on the norms of aid to be the main tome but a body of knowledge and opinions has to be created with the proponents coming to the fore – they have their work cut out against the juggernaut of aid.

In the end, to use the readability scales of another magazine which rates books as Read, Skim or Toss, I would give this a Read; you just cannot honestly participate in the debate about aid not working without reading Dead Aid as part of your reference material.

Book Reviewed:

Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa

ISBN: 9781846140068

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