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About the Author

Clare Herbert
Development Consultant (Kildare, Ireland)

I am a development consultant and educator, blogger and writer. My background is in communications, non-profit management and political work. My interest in international development bred from a period spent working in Zambia in 2007. Please take a look at my website, for more biographical information, or feel free to contact me for more information.


“Dead Aid”: A Review

Published 07th April 2010 - 5 comments - 5245 views -

I hate economics. Financial stats and graphs put me asleep, and economic theory is about as interesting as watching ants crawling down the street.

But, I realize that kudos in the world of politics, development and current affairs comes via a sound economic grounding.

So, I’ve been crawling my way through The End of Poverty, which I will review when I finish it. (Probably in 10 years.) In sum, author Jeffrey Sachs advocates a large financial investment and unwavering political will to end the scourge of poverty in the developing world. Lofty ideals indeed.  Sachs sets out a comprehensive plan (which puts me to sleep) but enlivens critics to vehemently support or oppose his views in an equally dull manner.

Diametrically opposed to this view is Dambisa Moyo. A Zambian economist, who’s been through Oxford and Harvard, this girl knows her numbers. I found her, unbelievably, via Oprah’s Most Powerful list.

‘Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa’ is a slim book, written clearly and concisely. It’s economic and heavy, though not dull. (ok, I thought it was a little dull!)

Her basic treatise is that 60 years of aid simply hasn’t worked and we should try something else. She advocates making charity history. More than $1 trillion (that’s $1,000,000,000,000) in aid has been poured into Africa and we haven’t see a whole lot of success from that investment.

She argues that aid causes corruption and conflict, while slowing economic growth, discouraging free enterprise, undermining investment and domestic savings.  See urges us to look at South Africa or Botswana; neither accepts foreign government aid (although there are many NGOs working there) and they are growing economically.

Indeed, Nelson Mandela’s wife recently agreed that aid has been bad for Africa , and several other African leaders agree (most notably, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame).

Just thirty years ago, Malawi, Burundi and Burkina Faso were economically ahead of China on a per capita basis, she notes. “No economic ideology other than one rooted in the movement of capital and competition has succeeded in getting the greatest numbers of people out of poverty in the fastest time.”

Unsurprisingly, Moyo has been strongly criticized for her suggestion that we turn off the tap of aid into Africa. Bono’s organization One has been particularly vociferous in its opposition, while Kofi Annan describes Moyo as “hard, perhaps too hard, on the role of aid”.

She  highlights the positive story: that 50% of Africa’s population is young, that microfinance projects (such as Kiva) have been successful and that given the right circumstances, entrepreneurs will rise and the economic engine will start chugging again.

She reminds us that the function of aid is not to make us feel better about ourselves but to promtote development and it simply hasn’t done that. Some argue that we should increase governance conditionality, monitoring and evalutaion of how money is spent.

Aid is easy money and easy money is easy to waste. If African governments had to rely upon taxation, they would be more accountable to voters. She claims that Mugabe has lead Zimbabwe for as long as he has because he’s been propped up by foreign aid. Limitless aid fosters dependency, encourages corruption and perpetuates poverty.

Since Bono and Bob Geldof took an interest, aid has very much been in vogue. There has been little mainstream debate of it’s inherent value. Moyo quotes a fellow aid critic bemoaning his limited influence: “my voice cannot compete with an electric guitar”.

I left “Dead Aid”, as Historian Niall Ferguson did, “wanting a lot more Moyo, and a lot less Bono".

This is worth reading (albeit with a strong coffee).

Category: Aid | Tags:


  • Johan Knols on 07th April 2010:

    Hello Clare,

    After having seen many interviews with Moyo online, I finally decided to buy her book and it is unfortunately still unopened in front of me.
    But as you said, she often mentions Botswana as one of the countries where things have worked. Well, no wonder! In 1967 (haha, just one year after the Brits left) the first diamonds were discovered. And although I have to admit that the democratic government of Botswana and De Beers (big diamond company from South Africa) managed the resources well, the country would still be as poor as Bangladesh had it not been for these precious stones. Other countries are not as fortunate….

  • Bart Knols on 07th April 2010:

    Hi Clare. A very informative blog that summarises Moyo’s book well. There is one point I would like to add here. Moyo argues that financial aid directly to governments should be pruned if not stopped within the next five years. She explicitly states that her argument is NOT targeting NGOs or even missionaries, which do a lot of good. So it is not all aid that she argues against. Having said that, Moyo’s book is not only criticised heavily in Europe and the USA. In her native country Zambia, the Zambian Economist has given her a really hard time, claiming that the analyses were fraud, arguments contradictory, and proposed solutions ineffective. Sachs has also launched vicious attacks against her ideas. For me it was simply an eyeopener, and I hear myself constantly recommending it to those I interact with around me…

  • Maria Kuecken on 07th April 2010:

    From an economic standpoint, I would definitely say that Moyo’s book isn’t solid. Unfortunately I think a lot of her arguments are overly exaggerated and she is being too hard on aid as a whole. I wish I had my copy of the book here! hmmm

    Here is the link to a (fairly vicious) critique of the book that refers to some of the accusations Bart brings up:

    Moyo highlights an important issue, but we have to take her advice with a grain (or several) of salt.

  • Ian Sullivan on 08th April 2010:

    Moyo’s book seemed to me to be heavily grinding an axe and the economics are very ropy. I agree with her that the role of aid often gets overstated - it is one weapon to tackle poverty - however, we shouild also be clear that international aid has helped to reduce poverty. It’s not a silver bullet but it’s also not the cause of the problems, as Moyo suggests.

  • Clare Herbert on 08th April 2010:

    Hello all, thanks for the comments.

    @Johan:Interesting point about the diamonds. I read somewhere that impoverished African states almost always have material wealth, though Botswana seems to have survived this paradoxical curse.

    @Bart: Yeah, I read some of teh commentary in the Zambian press. Harsh stuff indeed. It’s an important point you make on the difference between NGO aid and government aid. I don’t know where I fall on this particular debate but, like you, would recommend this book as an introduction to the primary arguments on both sides.

    @Maria: I think Moyo overemphasizes Africa’s access to financial markets for instance, and minimizes the success of small time aid projects. There are some real aid success stories (primary school enrollment in Tanzania and Uganda, for instance) but they do not fit the argument and are omitted.

    @Ian: It’s neither the silver bullet of success or failure but another factor in a very complex system.

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