I’m late to this show – I was traveling last week when the whole Gates/Moyo throwdown happened. I was going to let it go, but I have received enough prodding from others to offer my thoughts – probably because I have offered extended critiques of Moyo’s Dead Aid (links below), while also noting that Gates’ understandings of the problems of aid and development are a bit myopic. So, here we go…

Bill Gates finally voiced what has been implicit in much of his approach to development – he sees aid and development critics as highly problematic people who slow down progress (or whatever Bill thinks passes for progress).  Honestly, this is thoroughly unsurprising to anyone who has paid any attention to what Bill has said all along, or indeed anything the Gates Foundation does.  There just isn’t much room for meta-criticism at the foundation or its work – sure, they evaluate their programs, but there isn’t much evaluation/consideration of whether or not the guiding principals behind those programs make much sense.  There is an assumption that Gates’ goals are somehow self-evident, and therefore critics are just problems to be solved.

Let’s just start with this part of what Gates said. To me, his comments represent a profound misunderstanding of the place of aid and development criticism – his comments represent critics as annoyances to be brushed away, implying that criticism is an end unto itself. I do not know a single aid/development critic for whom criticism is the end. Critical thinking, and any resultant criticism, is a means to the end of changing the world. Simply put, without critical thinkers to constantly evaluate, challenge, and push the thinking of those in the world of development policy and implementation, where would we be? Take gender, for example. Today, nobody questions the need to consider the gender of the beneficiary when we think about policies or programs, but in the late 1960s those who first raised this issue were critics, often viewed as “annoyances” who slowed down the process of designing and implementing projects with their silly concerns about the needs of women. Gates does his foundation, and the entire enterprise/discipline of development a disservice in this rather sad misrepresentation of the aid critic.

Had Gates simply said what he did about aid critics in the abstract, I think it would have passed without much comment. But he didn’t. Instead, he singled out Dambisa Moyo as an archetype of aid criticism. As a result, he gave a platform to someone who clearly loves the attention. I fear he also somehow made her the archetype for the aid critic, validating a writer whose “critical” arguments are rife with errors and problems (I detailed these in an extended review of her book here, here, here, here, and here). In short, Gates was rather clever here: he picked the contemporary aid critic with the greatest conceptual shortcomings and held her up as the problem, as if the rest of the critical thinkers shared her thinking, shallow arguments, and factual problems. Further, he (apparently rightly, given the reaction of twitter and the blogosphere) seems to have assumed that such critics should and would rally to her support.

Well, not me.

I am without question a critical thinker when it comes to development and aid. I have a hell of a paper trail to prove it. But I do not see myself as a colleague or contemporary of Dambisa Moyo. I’d prefer to be a colleague of Bill Easterly, Arturo Escobar, James Ferguson, James Scott, and Timothy Mitchell (all more senior than me), and I see myself as a colleague of Katharine McKinnon, Kat O’Reilly, Mara Goldman, and Farhana Sultana (all friends or colleagues of my generation).  All of these scholars have conducted extensive scholarly work on the problems of development, and backed up their work with evidence. I don’t think any of these scholars is perfect, and some have produced pieces of work that I see as deeply flawed, but all hold their work to a much higher standard than that I saw in Dead Aid.

The fact is that Gates was right: Moyo doesn’t know much about aid and what it is doing – Dead Aid made this rather clear (seriously, read my review of the book). On her webpage, she argues that she “dedicated many years to economic study up to the Ph.D. level, to analyze and understand the inherent weaknesses of aid, and why aid policies have consistently failed to deliver on economic growth and poverty alleviation.” First, a Ph.D. is no guarantee of knowing anything – and I say that as someone who holds two Ph.D.s! I have seen absolutely no scholarly output from Moyo’s Ph.D. work that supports any sense that she developed a rigorous understanding of aid at all. Indeed, her very phrasing – she sought to analyze and understand the inherent weakness of aid – suggests that her work is not analytical, but political. And after two years in D.C., one thing I have learned is that the political has very little to do with facts or evidence. In that regard, I can safely say that Dead Aid is a political book.

Second, being born and raised in a poor country does not mean that one understands the experiences of everyone in that country. Zambia is a culturally, economically, and environmentally diverse country, home to many different experiences.  Just as I cannot make any claim to understand the experiences of all Americans just because I was born here, majored in American Studies, and have lived in five states and a federal colony (D.C.), Moyo’s implicit claim that being born in Zambia allows her to speak for all those living in countries that receive aid, let alone all Zambians, is absurd.

Finally, she argues that she has served as a consultant at the World Bank, implicitly suggesting this gives her great purchase on development thought. It does not. As I have argued elsewhere, working as a consultant for a donor is not the same thing as working as an employee of a donor. I too have been a consultant at the World Bank. Technically, I am currently a consultant for USAID. These are very different roles from those I occupied while employed at USAID. Consultants are not privy to the internal conversations and machinations of development donors, and have at best partial understandings of what drives decisions about development policy and implementation.  Moyo has no practical experience at all with the realities of development donors, a fact that comes through in Dead Aid.

So let’s divorce the two things that Bill Gates did in his comments. He completely misrepresented aid critics in two ways: first, in failing to recognize the contributions of aid criticism to the improvement of aid and development programs, and second in lumping aid critics into the same basket as Dambisa Moyo.  This lumping is pretty egregious, and the overall characterization represents a significant flaw in Gates’ thinking about development that is likely to come back to bite his foundation in the ass in the near future – without criticism of the overall ideas behind the foundation, it’s programs will wither and die.  We can separate this first problem from Gates critique of Dambisa Moyo, which aside from characterizing her as doing evil (which is just going too far, really), pretty much got the assessment of her thinking right.

In short, let’s push back against Bill’s thinking on development criticism, but not valorize Moyo’s crap arguments in the process.