What’s Ailing Africa?

I am happy to see my countrywoman Dambisa Moyo ("The Next Big Thing: Africa," May/June 2009) taking on those in the aid industry who exaggerate the effectiveness of their medicine. Aid is indeed medicine. But it is only a painkiller. The big mistake of aid activists is to think that this painkiller can actually cure ...

I am happy to see my countrywoman Dambisa Moyo ("The Next Big Thing: Africa," May/June 2009) taking on those in the aid industry who exaggerate the effectiveness of their medicine. Aid is indeed medicine. But it is only a painkiller.

I am happy to see my countrywoman Dambisa Moyo ("The Next Big Thing: Africa," May/June 2009) taking on those in the aid industry who exaggerate the effectiveness of their medicine. Aid is indeed medicine. But it is only a painkiller.

The big mistake of aid activists is to think that this painkiller can actually cure the disease. But Moyo’s mistake is to think that taking the patient off this painkiller will help cure the patient. She believes that the “medicine” is in fact the cause of the illness. Both sides are wrong.

In fact, Moyo’s article helps the case of her opponents and undermines her own claims. By boasting that Africa is "rising" economically, she is effectively saying that the aid medicine is working (because this rise has happened under its dosage). For her advocacy to work, she needs to abandon this important contradiction.

The statistics she cites as proof reflect a common fallacy committed by economists: comparing small apples to pineapples. If a poor man with one dollar makes just one more dollar, he has achieved 100 percent growth, but Bill Gates needs to make more than $50 billion to achieve the same growth rate. Even with a 3 percent or 7 percent growth rate, Africa is still in an economic coma.

The answer is not funding, whether from donor aid or financial markets. African presidents and their cronies feel a need to control those who make money so that their power is not threatened, meaning that only corrupt sycophants normally gain wealth. They cannot afford to permit a free, meritocratic environment in which anyone can create wealth. If aid doesn’t work, and markets can’t help, what’s left? The answer is political transformation. African political culture is still inspired by the ways of the traditional African village: The national leader, like the local chief, is obsessed with the feeling of complete authority. Africa will only rise when this absolutely corrupting power of its incorrigible leaders is somehow brought down.

—Chanda Chisala
John S. Knight Fellow
Department of Communication
Stanford University
Palo Alto, Calif.

Dambisa Moyo replies:

There are two factors that clearly contributed to Africa’s economic growth over the last decade. One is Chinese foreign direct investment, and the other is the commodity price boom. The notion that aid has created jobs in Africa is completely unfounded. After 60 years and over a trillion dollars, why, miraculously, would aid suddenly become a contributor to growth?

I also find laughable the argument that we must eliminate corruption before tackling the problems with aid. They are two sides of the same coin. Most corrupt African governments survive in an environment where they do not tax their citizens and almost wholly rely on foreign aid for funding. Sadly, Africans are getting the governments they paid for.

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