Dambisa Moyo: Zambian Author Takes on Foreign Aid

The celebrity parade calling for more foreign aid to poor countries has become so ubiquitous — and accepted — these days that critiques of it are rare. So it’s refreshing to see just such a critique in no less vaunted an outlet than The New York Times Magazine. The magazine’s current issue features an interview with Dambisa Moyo, a native of Zambia and author of the book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, to be released in the United States on March 17.

You argue in your book that Western aid to Africa has not only perpetuated poverty but also worsened it, and you are perhaps the first African to request in book form that all development aid be halted within five years.
Think about it this way — China has 1.3 billion people, only 300 million of whom live like us, if you will, with Western living standards. There are a billion Chinese who are living in substandard conditions. Do you know anybody who feels sorry for China? Nobody.

Maybe that’s because they have so much money that we here in the U.S. are begging the Chinese for loans.
Forty years ago, China was poorer than many African countries. Yes, they have money today, but where did that money come from? They built that, they worked very hard to create a situation where they are not dependent on aid.

What do you think has held back Africans?
I believe it’s largely aid. You get the corruption — historically, leaders have stolen the money without penalty — and you get the dependency, which kills entrepreneurship. You also disenfranchise African citizens, because the government is beholden to foreign donors and not accountable to its people.

If people want to help out, what do you think they should do with their money if not make donations?
Microfinance. Give people jobs.

Finally, in these times of economic turmoil she’s got great advice not only for developing countries, but for rich ones, too.

For all your belief in the potential of capitalism, the free market is now in free fall and everyone is questioning the supposed wonders of the unregulated market.
I wish we questioned the aid model as much as we are questioning the capitalism model. Sometimes the most generous thing you can do is just say no.

Amen, though I would add that there is a form of aid of sorts that does help those it’s supposed to: remittances, which are private and voluntary, and thus can respond to recipients’ needs better than any bureaucratically administered aid program ever could. Moreover, as the current issue of The Economist notes, they can reach those in most need during lean times, because they “are less dependent on the growth prospects of receiving countries than other kinds of flows, which seek profitable investment opportunities.”

Of course, remittances alone will not help struggling countries rise out of poverty — that is a job for sound economic policies, including secure property rights, flexible markets (including labor markets), and free flow of goods, services, and capital. And again, not just for the developing world. As the American government pretends to “stimulate” the economy with the biggest spending bill in history, Dambisa Moyo’s advice could not be more timely. (Thanks to Margaret Griffis and Jeremy Sapienza for the New York Times Magazine link.)