Dead Aid: More Kool Aid
by C. Uzondu
Dambiso Moyo pounds the talk show circuit proclaiming that foreign aid is Africa's worst problem. Her prescription: heavy doses of capitalism - as if the continent doesn't have enough of it: “Shell in the Niger delta, Canada’s Banro Corporation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Vodafone in Ghana, China’s NPOC in the Sudan, and Debeers in South Africa are all capitalist enterprises in neo-colonial states that never destroyed the colonial-capitalist state apparatus they 'inherited' from their colonial masters.” Moyo used to work for the World Bank and Goldman Sachs, and it shows.
Dead Aid: More Kool Aid
by C. Uzondu
“Moyo argues that Africa needs more capitalism.”
Dambisa Moyo is hot. Western commercial media salivates as the Harvard and Oxford (giving her instant validation) trained Zambian speaks the unspeakable. Her book Dead Aid is the rave, a New York Times bestseller. Already she has been named by Times magazine as one of the 100 most influential people. Her fame rests on a simple argument: Aid is hurting Africa and it needs to stop.
I wish the hype would die a quick death.
Here is why. Dead Aid is more Kool Aid, dangerously popular and dangerously unhealthy.Let me be clear. When I say Dead Aid is like Kool Aid, I don’t mean that there is nothing of value in the book. Instead, I am questioning just who exactly this book is of value to. Moyo argues that this book is written in the interest of Africans. I cannot dispute what is in her heart. I can and will raise some questions about this book.
First, let me give credit where it is due; let me state what Moyo got right. Yes, aid to Africa has not brought development, and aid cannot be the basis of development. Correctly, Moyo notes the dependency induced by aid. Moyo is right in critiquing celebrity culture. If she can shut up Bono and others that have appropriated the right to speak on behalf of Africans, we will be eternally grateful. Moyo is right to critique the almost incessant production of Africa as tragedy. The Western media’s focus on corruption, disease, poverty, and war, what she calls the four horseman of African apocalypse, seem to be more about shoring up Western sense of superiority than any real concern with lives of Africans. Please, Dambisa Moyo go on … shut them up too.
But now we must part ways.
“Dead Aid is more Kool Aid, dangerously popular and dangerously unhealthy.”
Moyo starts from a peculiar assumption. She seems to think that aid was truly designed to help Africa. What if we start from a different assumption? What if we assume that “aid” was/is a technique of power, a mechanism of control? After all, we know that the word “aid” is the wrong word to use. Let’s imagine that a family loses their home in a fire. They are given money by a local NGO to rebuild their home and lives. They will have to repay the money with interest at some time in the future. Would you describe this money as aid or as a loan? How much aid goes back to the donor to purchase their goods and pay their consultants? The gift of “aid” from the West is the gift of debt.
When we understand “aid” and the debt trap it creates as a mechanism of control we understand why the West continues its “giving”: they take much more in return.
Let’s accept for the moment that “aid” is given with no intentions to establish relations of domination and control. There are other questions we must ask: What kind of “aid” is provided? Is it military aid to train soldiers and police in torture and repression so they can better protect the interest of Western capital? (Think about Africom and the ongoing training of Nigerian military by the US to curb “terrorism” in the Niger Delta).
What are the conditions attached to “aid”? Consider the Bush administration’s Presidents Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR). Critics contend that PEPFAR compels recipients of funding to purchase the more expensive US made anti-retroviral medication as opposed to cheaper generic medication. According to Catherine Caufield, in the early 90s the US gave about $1.94 billion to the World Bank. The return was more than 10 times that amount for US businesses. What the “donors” give with the left hand they snatch back, and then some, with the right hand.
“The gift of 'aid' from the West is the gift of debt.”
So, I am with Moyo in one sense: “aid” is deadly. Then we part ways. An analysis that starts from the premise that “aid” was designed to bring about “development” has limited utility; it ignores the imperial context of “aid.” To ignore imperialism, especially when the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (should we add Pakistan?) demonstrate that even the most explicit aspects of imperialism remain central to our political times, is profoundly naïve or disingenuous. To ignore imperialism is extremely dangerous.
By ignoring imperialism Moyo reinforces the dominant tendency to localize all of Africa’s challenges. This is not new. Much writing on Africa reduces Africa’s challenges to the lack of “good governance,” “transparency,” and “democracy.” Of course, Africans want democracy, transparency, and good governance. This is precisely what the struggle against colonialism and contemporary struggles against neo-colonialism are about. But will the end of corruption mean that Africa will suddenly control the global trade in diamonds? Or the end to the massive subsidies the US and the UK provide to their agricultural multinational corporations?
Moyo presents other dangers.
Moyo, like another “rock star” on the global stage, has the ability to gain the support of her own. For one, her aggressive adversarial style pleases us, especially as she verbally kicks the ass of her usually white male adversaries (the lords of development). Stephen Lewis is perhaps her most recent victim. Moyo is appealing because she is a critic of the whiteness of “aid.” She does not shy away from revealing white arrogance and white paternalism all of which are grounded in global white supremacy. So, her arguments resonate with those of us tired of the West’s claim to superiority, which is almost always embedded in their “save the Africans” missions. But this justifiable critique of whiteness is also what makes Moyo so dangerous. If we have not already been convinced by the simple logic of her “We must do for self” argument, we are attracted to what is a partial critique of white supremacy as it is manifested in “aid” and “development.” But is this sufficient for us to support Moyo’s proposed solutions?
“By ignoring imperialism Moyo reinforces the dominant tendency to localize all of Africa’s challenges.”
Moyo’s solution is capitalism. What she argues is that Africa needs more capitalism. She desires a vibrant bond market in Africa. But Africa has had capitalism? This is what pried the Orange Free State from the mass murderous grasp of King Leopold and opened it up for the rest of the West to pillage. Africa has capitalism. Shell in the Niger delta, Canada’s Banro Corporation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Vodafone in Ghana, China’s NPOC in the Sudan, and Debeers in South Africa are all capitalist enterprises in neo-colonial states that never destroyed the colonial-capitalist state apparatus they “inherited” from their colonial masters. Will Moyo’s bond markets change this?
Also, let us not conveniently ignore the fact that trade liberalization, the privatization of state-owned enterprises, deregulation of financial markets and labor markets have done more to place the wealth of Africa’s peoples in the hands of foreign corporations, and some crumbs for their domestic collaborators, than to positively change the majority of African peoples quality of life. Let us not be confused, Africa knows capitalism. It is just that “primitive accumulation,” accumulation by dispossession and plunder, remains the dominant and preferred form of capitalism imposed on Africa.
Let me conclude by briefly responding to this question: whose interest does Dead Aid serve? Can it serve the interests of African peoples to the extent that it energizes social justice movements that aim to hold respective African states accountable first and foremost to the human beings with their colonial borders? Because the audience to whom Dead Aid is addressed is not the African masses, this is unlikely.
Can Dead Aid serve the interest of the humanitarian-human rights-academic-industrial complex, which seems to be one of Dead Aid’s targets? It may seem paradoxical, but the answer is yes. “Aid” will not stop; it will be worked to make it more “sustainable.” It is important to remember that an anti-democratic institution like the World Bank has increasingly used NGO’s to do its under-development work in Africa. Therefore, as long as the WB and the IMF are in business, so too will the NGOs be in business. Moyo’s Dead Aid will surely serve as a catalyst to help the humanitarian-human rights-academic-industrial complex to reinvent itself. Indeed, we can expect that the new “aid” will come with greater intrusiveness. The same way that “welfare” in the US deliberately fails to empower “recipients” towards self-determination and routinely dehumanizes them, so too will revamped “aid” continue to undermine African self-determination.
“Dead Aid serves capitalist imperialism because it absolves it yet again from responsibility for the misery, death, and violence that is has imposed on humanity.”
Can Dead Aid serve capitalist imperialism? I understand that Moyo may simply be trying to open a space where Africa can take control of what is within its realm of control. Her argument is the well known “personal responsibility” argument. There is some truth to it. Still, the “personal responsibility” argument, polluted as it is with neoliberalism, gets us only so far, because it overemphasizes agency and erases away structure. Therefore, right-wing imperialists are empowered to attack “aid” as they have always done. And the (not as far-right) liberal imperialist will feel good that they tried to save Africans from ourselves. Some will accept that maybe their far-right friends were correct. Others will retain their belief in their white man’s (and woman’s) burden, and continue the mission.
More critically, Dead Aid serves capitalist imperialism because it absolves it yet again from responsibility for the misery, death, and violence that is has imposed on humanity. So when I reflect on the fact that Moyo worked for the World Bank and Goldman Sachs and that financial capital is the dominant sector of capital today, then it seems that Dead Aid serves as an ideological attack on “the competition” – the “development aid” industry. Who will be the primary beneficiaries of the bond market that Moyo advocates? In Dead Aid the agency of the “free market” is served as Africa’s only hope. Granted, Dead Aid does not aspire to join Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, but it does claim to be interested in the lives of non-elite Africans. However, since it ignores the structural force of neoliberal/neo-colonial capitalist imperialism it certainly is not a meaningful tool to challenge global apartheid.
C. Uzondu can be contacted at email@example.com.