Is Dambisa Moyo shifting her position?

Dambisa MoyoIn the FT debate on aid, Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, seems to be adjusting her position:

To focus on the five-year aid-reduction example that my book offered as an illustration of an exit strategy deliberately misses the point, which is that Africa desperately needs to wean off aid. Obviously, a blanket five-year plan imposed on countries with different challenges and different circumstances would be ridiculous!

One can only interpret the fact that my detractors took the five-year example at face value as wilful blindness or a complete unwillingness to see Africa in any other light than a basket case. An aid exit might take 10 years, it might take 15, but after 60 years of the aid-regime (with no concomitant job creation) surely it is better to start the conversation (and the strategy) of aid exits than not.

Indeed, cutting off aid in five years would be ridiculous.  On that we are agreed.  I don’t know anybody involved in aid who does not fervently wish for the day when countries are rich enough to do without aid, and who wants to give aid in ways that bring that day forward.  If Dambisa Moyo is simply saying that we should all work towards removing the need for aid, then I am not sure why there is such a fuss.

So what made us think that Dr Moyo was advocating a five year plan to reduce aid? Perhaps it was remarks like these in just about every known newspaper:

In the book I actually prescribe that they should, with immediate effect or in the very near foreseeable future, implement a five-year plan where they systematically reduce aid to these countries.

Or perhaps it is because she says this in Dead Aid (p144):

What if, one by one, African countries each received a phone call (agreed upon by all their major aid donors – the World Bank, Western countries etc), telling them that in exactly five years the aid taps would be shut off, permanently? Although exceptions would be made for isolated emergency relief such as famine and natural disasters, aid would no longer attempt to address Africa’s generic economic plight.

You can see why some people got the impression that Dr Moyo was proposing that aid should be shut off after 5 years.  But it is reassuring to know that this was not her position, or at any rate it is no longer her position.

Even with her new cuddlier policy of turning off the taps more gently, there is still a lot of wild and unsubstantiated garbage in her book – for example, this:

The problem is that aid is not benign – it’s malignant. No longer part of the potential solution, it’s part of the problem – in fact, aid is the problem.

Here is my review of Dead Aid. Here are some other reviewsAndrew Pickering at Global Dashboard has a good summary of the debate so far.

5 comments on “Is Dambisa Moyo shifting her position?”

  1. Thanks Owen, can I add my own review/commentary to your list? I think the really interesting question is why the interest has been so phenomenal, given that the book is so mediocre, even compared to some of the other critiques of the aid industry.

  2. It a bit simple to take her 5 years as either an exact timing or her comments quoted as a reversal.

    In case you missed it…

    I think the book actually does a great job of raising the profile of this debate (previously raised by Easterley and Bauer) through the simple fact of it being written by an African.
    The book’s not perfect but it’s clearly not the debate that the aid community wants to have. They’re happy with the “doubling dollar aid” mantra. Evidence-based aid will be a critical part of the future.

    Your review (here & pdf) reveals many biases and whilst it may seem sanctimonious of me, you cannot debate from an entrenched position:

    Ad Hominem:

    “Moyo has the front to accuse people working in the aid industry of promoting their own interests, and then – as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs – to advocate instead that the poorest countries should be encouraged to borrow more in private capital markets.”

    Entrenched position:

    “There are reasonable people who think…” i.e. she’s unreasonable

    You argue badly about corruption, slating Moyo and then saying “now it may well be true that some aid is lost to corruption…” – therein hangs a tale.

    Your overarching healthcare argument is a non-sequiteur. Period. Money does not reverse ageing and death. You jumped on the word ‘cursory’ without seeing the words “Even the most cursory”. This doesn’t mean she only looked at it this way.

    The simple fact is that her argument is a threat to the hegemony of the business-class travelling, landcruiser driving, ex-pat aid-skimming cultural uber-colonialists who believe they are saving Africa. This is not a criticism of their sincerity (although bounded rationality/integrity clearly applies).

    Other critics state that why not have both – aid and private sector growth, without recognising the crowding out both physically & psychologically. Aid is a subsidy for bad government!

    The mosquito net story is the one to read and think about. If true it is a complete and succinct metaphor for the failure of aid.

  3. I dont admire your criticism, and I wont even consider it because you have never lived here in Africa where the so called AID is been sent. Do you ever bother what the aid does to the kids like me growing up in Africa.
    Corruption engulfs it all and since its not business no body will bother if the money is lost or not. If it was a business venture where share holders care about their investment or the loan repayment, trust me, our governments will start avoiding corruption. In my country MTN Cameroon is doing wonderfull and less corruption and employing over 2000employees while the governmetn owned CAMTEL is doing the reverse. poor services, and no customer care. now you see why private investment and not aid will be better off ????

    Owen replies: With respect, I do live in Africa; and I have lived in many African countries. But I don’t think that matters. As far as I know, Dambisa Moyo does not live in Africa but that does not disqualify her from having something valid to say. I disagree with Ms Moyo not because of where she lives but because the poor quality of her evidence and her argument, and her willingness deliberately to misrepresent the evidence to make her point.

    I agree with you, of course, that many private companies are more efficient and customer-oriented than many government-run organisations. But it does not follow that aid is harmful, nor that, in the absence of aid, there would be more of the private sector investment that you and I would both like to see.

  4. I would like to start by applauding Dr. Moyo’s intellectual gifts. She is very educated and has had formidable experiences in her career. She felt confident about putting her thoughts in black and white. She is a woman with substance.

    I have taken sometime to understand the depth of the arguments that Dr Moyo has put forward in her book to put an end to aid to Africa. In my understanding of her reasons, I would like to comment from the perspective of the ‘end does not justify the means.’ To start with, when you receive, you have no reason to work extra hard because you are sure there will be a meal on your table. From this standpoint, aid kills innovation and creativity, breeds laziness, corruption and other social vices spelt out in the book. At this point, it would be important to realise that the problem does not, therefore come from the aid per se, but from the recipients of this aid. In my opinion, this is where the flaw of all her arguments against aid lie. In her book she did not look at the contribution of recipients to the stagnation of Africa’s development. True as it maybe that aid comes with strings attached, but at the end of the day, the final decision lies in the hands of recipients. What makes aid look bad are the attitudes of all who receive it. Aid in itself has nothing to do with bad attitudes. Additionally, no donor actually asks aid recipients to sit down to wait for second round donation.

    In my opinion, she is right when she says you can not have sustainable development that is based on gifts. At the sametime, it would be narrow mindedness to explain and define corruption, bureacracy and stagnation in development in Africa in terms of foreign aid. If I give you a piece of cake, and you decide to go and sleep instead of taking a hole to go and now cultivate (because you have been energised), then you are not intelligent. In the final analysis, so that aid becomes meaninful and eventually contribute to economic sustainability based on Africa’s resources, poor governance should be tackled. African countries are poorly governed. Period. Politicians (most of whom are not intelligent) have just too much power. Once governance is tackled, Africa will shine again because we have all it takes for the Sun to shine!

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and