Thu 20 Jan 2011
Well, we got off to a bit of a rough start with chapter 1. Let’s see how we do with chapter 2 . . .
p.10 In chapter 2, Moyo presents a history of aid. She chooses to start with Bretton Woods. One could nitpick this point, and how it begins during colonialism yet seems to ignore colonial infrastructural development in its history. Not to say that colonial efforts were meant to serve as aid (in that they might improve people’s well-being), but they did introduce a lot of new crops, infrastructure and institutional structures . . . which certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to a lot of aid and development efforts. But Moyo is not the only author who has chosen this somewhat arbitrary start date – A host of postdevelopment writers chose Truman’s 1948 speech decrying “underdevelopment” as the beginning of the development era without explaining how this speech actually created such a different world, given that decolonization did not really gain speed for another decade.
Well, OK, Moyo has decided to call the Marshall Plan development . . . fair enough, it certainly was a motivating force behind the idea that we could fix all the world’s problems. And Moyo has divided the history of aid by decades . . . well, everyone needs a typology, and this breakdown is not all that different from others presented elsewhere.
p. 14 Whoa, what just happened there? Moyo was just wrapping up a brief overview of the 1950s, in which she briefly laid out decolonization and the rise of the Cold War. She quite rightly notes that aid was a weapon in this war, and was given to rather unpleasant leaders by both sides in an effort to maintain influence in Africa. As a result, aid was not necessarily about how deserving or needy a country was, but about its geostrategic importance. And then she ends the section by saying “It is impossible to know for sure what the true motivations for granting foreign aid to Africa were, but granted it was.” Really? Seems to me that she laid out the dual imperative behind aid at this time, and the rationale for aid to different countries has been dissected in many venues such that I think we can say why aid was given to a particular country. Why eschew complexity in decisionmaking?
p. 17 Moyo’s politics are starting to leak out here. Explaining the shift toward a poverty focus in aid and development, Moyo says “By the beginning of the 1970s the growth-oriented strategy was widely believed in policy circles to have failed in its mission to deliver sustained economic growth.” The issue here is the phrase “was widely believed.” There was a pile of empirical evidence that “big push” modernization approaches did not work. This shift was driven by that evidence (McNamara was a data freak). But Moyo subtly dismisses and denegrates that evidence with the term “belief”, as if these approaches had not worked. Hmmm . . .
p.18-19 Moyo’s reading of the debt crisis is technically accurate, if broad, but it leaves open an odd question: why was everyone making such insane loans to Africa at this time? What was all of this lending for? Moyo completely ignores the huge glut of capital created by petrodollars at this time – a glut of capital that needed investment somewhere to stay productive. The saturation of markets in the Global North led to lending in the Global South – something of an analogy to the contemporary subprime mortgage crisis, where another huge glut of capital (the folks at Planet Money call it “The Giant Pool of Money”) overwhelmed “safe” investment opportunities, and as a result more and more risky options began to look palatable in the search for investment vehicles. Further, there is little doubt that these lenders all knew about the geopolitical ramifications of financial failure for a lot of these states, which meant they were secure in lending to them because various Western powers would gladly step in to prevent insolvency and the challenges to “friendly” leadership that would result – at least long enough for the lenders to get out with their shirts. This unasked question perhaps reflects the fact that Moyo was herself an investment banker . . . which leads one to wonder if she did not understand this aspect of the debt crisis and how it came about, or she is trying to erase it.
p. 20 We are in the 80s now, and Moyo has just offered the oddest reading of the Asian Tigers I’ve yet seen . . . she writes “The experience of the newly industrializing economies of Asia gave these market-based ideas [free trade, laissez-faire] a popularity boost in policy circles in the United States and Europe. Er, last I checked, the Asian Tigers were about as far from the free trade, laissez-faire model as you get: they were hugely protectionist, and strongly controlled investment in their economies to drive certain industries toward global competitiveness. How the hell is that free trade, laissez-faire? The Tigers have always been a bit of a challenge to that model, as I see it . . .
p. 24 And now we are into a full rewriting of the history of late 20th Century development . . . which oddly seems to contradict some of the very things that Moyo just wrote. In trying to capture the rise of governance as an important topic in the 90s, Moyo writes “So after three decades of aid-centric development models, it was left to Western Democracy to save the day.” Basically, Moyo has just rewritten structural adjustment as aid-centric to create a history of development that is all about aid. Look, development cannot be simultaenously aid-centric and laissez-faire (or really even free trade, as aid distorts markets) – you have to pick one or the other. There might be aid present in structural adjustment, but that aid is not at the center of the model – restructuring the economy is at the center of the model. Aid was a means to that end!
p.26 Must say that when Moyo turns to what she calls “the rise of glamour aid” in the 2000s, she is pretty spot-on. There’s been a lot of writing on this recently, what with Clooney’s Satellites for Southern Sudan and a general snarking at Bono and Angelina, and most of it is pretty consonant with what Moyo has written here.
p. 28 Moyo is right – aid (and development) have not delivered expected results. No doubt about that. But then she argues that aid remains at the heart of the development agenda “despite the fact there are very compelling reasons to show that it perpetuates the cycle of poverty and derails sustainable economic growth.” Fine . . . except she is making this statement in the summary of a chapter, making it sound like a summary of what she has just presented – when she has presented absolutely no evidence to support this point as yet. Narrative structure matters to the integrity of one’s argument, people.
Well, to summarize chapter 2: a rather whirlwind romp through 6 decades of development history. It is a very shallow reading of that history, which is a problem here because Moyo’s entire premise is that the history of aid is one of failure. To make this point, it seems to me, requires a serious engagement with the history of the enterprise. This is not a serious history. Further, the reading of that history which is presented is thin and at times confused/contradictory. However, it works to one end – it is shallow enough to skim over all those pesky counterexamples and details that might derail the central argument that aid is a central cause of Africa’s problems. This isn’t history, it’s an exercise in strategic argumentation that gives me little hope for the rest of the argument.