Thursday, May 28, 2009

Beating Up Straw Men

Noted economist and defender of development assistance Jeffrey Sachs re-ignited the age-old disagreement about the value of foreign aid in a recent essay on the Huffington Post web site. In lambasting aid critics Dambisa Moyo and Bill Easterly, he set up his straw men and knocked them down, but in doing so, he failed to get to the heart of the disagreement. He just managed to slur two people who have a valid point to make about the effectiveness of aid.

The fact that Moyo and Easterly received a scholarship or a grant does not invalidate their skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid. Calling them hypocrites mixes points that confuse people and doesn’t help resolve this longtime disagreement. Reasonable aid critics do not say all foreign aid is bad. The main point they make is whether the aid helps to achieve long-term self-sufficiency or whether it creates ongoing dependency. It is not cruel to suggest that much of the billions of dollars in aid that has been extended over the years never reached the intended beneficiaries. We know aid money has been misappropriated and/or stolen. So to suggest that Moyo and others are calling for suffering is disingenuous. It is the governments that fail to apply aid properly that are responsible for much of this suffering.

The prime examples Sachs and others offer as countries that have used foreign aid to become self-sufficient always seems to feature South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Israel and other countries not in Africa. The best Sachs could offer of aid recipients on the continent weaning themselves from aid are Egypt, which he describes as being “on the path,” and Rwanda, Tanzania and Ghana. The issue critics raise is how long it takes to become self-sufficient and whether the aid itself or policy changes to encourage entrepreneurship is the reason for progress in eliminating poverty.

Rwanda, for example, is now heavily dependent on foreign aid, which supports an estimated 70% of the government’s budget. Rwandan President Paul Kagame is furiously trying to lessen this dependency. As Moyo points out in her response to Sachs, if a continued high level of aid were the answer, why is Kagame trying so hard to reverse course? Moyo points out that after all the aid provided in the last couple of decades to African countries, 70% now live on US$2 a day as opposed to only 10% in the 1970s. Where is the success in that?

When many of us in the Africanist community first expressed support for the African Growth and Opportunity Act in the 1990s, we were criticized for wanting to cut aid in favor of trade. The fact that Africans wanted to be self-sufficient was lost on some U.S. government officials who thought Africans couldn’t succeed on their own without aid. There is nothing more damaging to progress for Africans trying to overcome poverty than the bigotry of low expectations. To borrow an old phrase: Africans need a hand up not an everlasting handout.

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