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Debate on the efficacy of development aid


Tapiwa Gomo
IT was in 2009 that Zambian-born economist and author Dambisa Moyo rocked the world with her truth-telling book titled Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. The book argued that in more than half a century, trillions of dollars have been transferred by Western countries and their donor agencies towards development aid but this assistance has failed to improve the situation in Africa. If anything, some of the recipient societies are worse off as a result of aid.

Just three years before Moyo’s book, another economist William Easterly had published a book titled The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

Easterly raised similar questions before reminding the world of Robert Owens’s idealistic vision that, “through the progress of physical and mental science . . . perpetual prosperity” for all is achievable.

There are several of these critical views that emerged before and after the turn of the millennium when the world sought to rebrand the same old ideas into the 21st century campaigns.

While these arguments have continued to baffle the development sector, little or no action has been taken to shift the approach or rather dismantle the idea itself and pave way to rethink development. For starters, there is no consensus on what development means yet it is funded in trillions of dollars.

Today, major European and United States of America (USA) development agencies are grappling with the same question. This could be because they are confronted by a myriad of questions and emerging challenges which summons a moment of introspection. The world faced major global recessions between 2009 and now. The COVID-19 pandemic has dented major economies pushing most governments to prioritise response to domestic challenges thus reducing aid to African countries.

Between 2009 and now, geopolitical dynamics and power shifted. China and Russia are now economic powerhouses with a major influence on global politics.

The West and USA powers are now checked by the veto power of these two. China, Japan, India and other Asian countries combined make up the world’s biggest market. The perpetual inefficiency of official development assistance (ODA) is whittling down interest among citizens of donor countries.

Of course, development aid has historically been used to arm-twist developing countries to accept conditions to allow further exploitation of resources by donor countries or their friendly counterparts.

That is easy to deal with at political level. This is why between 1960 and 2013, OECD countries gave $3,5 trillion of ODA.

Several reasons have been offered on why development aid has not helped African countries. However, analysis has unsurprisingly tended to blame African leaders for lack of political drive to improve their own countries, stealing the aid funds via Western-linked corrupt cartels or those in power use the money to fund armed groups and overstaying in power. There is colossal evidence to give credence to those accusations against African leaders because the corruption cartels have Western links.

However, the main question should never be, why development aid is not transforming the fortunes of Africa but why are African countries not developing. The latter opens up several windows of debate, one of which is that development aid has no history of transforming societies. This is simply because it was never initiated to do so but to keep recipient countries oppressed by conditions attached to it.

If there is a question that needs to be addressed around the efficacy of development aid, it should be the extent to which it has benefited donor countries by maintaining colonial relations and oppressive conditions in Africa which have stalled the continent’s  development over the past seven decades.

There has been recent suggestions to refocus the development aid approach. Sadly, most of these are rooted in the ideology of paternalism — one that assumes that Western countries have a major role in directing African development.

They propose that development aid must focus on a capacity-centred strategy which aims to strengthen local capacity, their administrative structures and essential services.

They also accept that using aid to achieve radical political change has been futile and concede that politicising aid impedes development. It is a model that presumes that African governments need to be motivated to develop their societies and that they should refrain from abuse of power.

The desire to direct and control the affairs of African countries is insatiable and impeding these new analysts and academics’ ability to let go, let alone to see what is happening in some African countries, in Asia and some in the Middle East.

Countries that have made it in recent decades in these regional blocs did so after realising that development aid is crippling and has limited or no intentions to improve conditions but to maintain paternalistic relations.

They dumped the Western modelled development aid approach. They harnessed local capacities, converted their potential into economies, grew their economies to benefit their people with some challenging global economic powerhouses.

Some have become major global donors today and yet some analysts in Western countries are still stuck on the old and barren idea of how to improve development aid efficiency in Africa.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.



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