Excerpt from the Epilogue to African Chronicles
When Oxford educated economist Dambisa Moya writes in Dead Aid[i] that aid has not only failed in Africa but has made things worse, she is writing with a shortened view of history and a narrow definition of aid. “So there we have it: 60 years, over US$1 trillion dollars [sic] of African aid, and not much good to show for it.” Aid, she writes, is a silent killer of economic growth and development; it feeds corruption, foments coups and civil war, chokes the export sector, and increases dependency and poverty. In brief: as a development tool, aid is counter-productive. Given the historical parameters within which she writes, she is not wrong. For Moya the global history of aid begins in “the first three weeks of July 1944” at the famous meeting in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire with the formation of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the International Trade Organization. At that time the concern was mainly with aid to Europe – post-war reconstruction. The application of Bretton Woods thinking to Africa began gradually in the 1950s and was modified and intensified in the 1960s and modified again and again in the decades to follow, usually with results that ran in the opposite direction to the avowed goals. Thus economies shrank all across Africa, inflation rose and official poverty levels quadrupled.
In The White Man’s Burden, former World Bank research economist William Easterley[ii] sees the launching of modern western foreign aid as a component of US President Harry Truman’s January 1949 inauguration address with his call for a “bold new program” for improving the economies of “underdeveloped areas”. Easterley notes sardonically that Truman ignored past attempts at development assistance “as if they were hick relatives at a Park Avenue wedding.”
This penchant for dismissing the experience of non-government predecessors continued into the 1960s, and after that there was no looking back. Walt Rostow, the noted economist and director of policy planning in the US State Department during the 1960s, is quoted as follows more than thirty years later: “None of us at all knew anything about aid. Sort of on the outskirts were old China hands and children of missionaries who had grown up abroad and knew something about the problems of development. Nobody listened to them. They were yesterday. We were going to install the industrial revolution.”[iii]
So when the bold new programs faltered or failed, there was no looking back to an earlier, more robust, more sustained, if less grand and more plodding, approach. The new development experts, without a history of their own and with no intellectual forebears (having renounced the colonial officer and disdained the missionary), had nothing to fall back on and no historical basis on which to conduct a comparative analysis. So they forged ahead near-sightedly, making constant adjustments to a flawed design and encouraging donor countries to throw good money after bad, almost as if money alone were the solution – as if money were the essence of aid. It was a capitalist’s approach to a human relationship problem, especially as the money often came as a loan that had to be paid back.
[i] Dumbisa Moya, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a better Way for Africa (Far, Straus and Giroux, 2009), p. 47.
[ii]William Easterly, The White Man's Burden: Why The West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin: New York, 2006), p. 24.
[iii] David R. Morrison, Aid and Ebb Tide: A History of CIDA and Canadian Development Assistance (Wilfred Laurier University Press, Waterloo, ON, 1998), p35.