Today, I begin an series of posts “live blogging” my reading of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid. I had intended to read the book for some time, and over the weekend I finally was able to pick it up.  I got two chapters deep, felt deeply frustrated, and went back through to figure out why.  If I am frustrated, surely others are too.  So, over a series of posts (this is the first) I will offer my thoughts on Dead Aid as I read it.  Take them for what they are worth – I won’t correct the text, but I will raise concerns where I see them.  I am not doing this to tear anyone down – indeed, I see this exercise as an effort to either shore up the argument in this paper by cleaning up otherwise loose or problematic readings of development history and practice, or provide a clear basis for the rejection of the argument.  To that end, I hope that people will offer their own comments, argue with me, and argue with Moyo from a different perspective than my own . . . hopefully something good will come out of the mess.  So, away we go . . .

Chapter 1: The Myth of Aid

p.3 The book begins with the usual litany of positive developments and remaining challenges for Africa.  Fair enough, I have a bit of this at the outset of my book.  However, she ends this section by arguing that the reason Africa has not yet realized its potential has its roots in aid.  Ok, provocative.

p.7 Yikes, we are headed downhill almost right away, as Moyo defines aid.  She breaks aid into three types:

  • humanitarian/emergency aid (in response to disasters)
  • charity-based aid (disbursed by charitable organizations to people on the ground)
  • systematic aid (payments made directly to governments from other governments or multilateral institutions).

My issue with this typology is simple: it doesn’t clarify our understanding of aid, as the categories she uses overlap heavily: for example, humanitarian aid is often administered by charitable organizations, and may also consist of direct payments to governments.  Further, bilateral aid is often implemented through charitable organizations acting as implementing partners who conduct work on the ground – there does not seem to be any space for this sort of aid in her typology, or her analysis.   So, when Moyo then argues that the book is not concerned with emergency and charity-based aid, she is also (unwittingly) removing from play a lot of bilateral aid – a form of aid that she then reduces to concessional lending/granting. In short, it is not clear to me that Moyo actually understands the mechanics of aid and its implementation, which strikes me as a central part of any argument against it (or for it, for that matter).  We shall see how this plays out . . .

p.8 Ah, we finally come to the myth of aid (I think): a fundamental, pervasive mindset that aid, whatever its form, is a good thing.  Wait, what?  Really?  This strikes me as a very thin straw man, and it is supported by absolutely nothing.  It is a bald assertion about the “western mindset” that strikes me as oddly echoing the really embarrassing overgeneralized assertions about various African ethnicities on the part of early-to-mid 20th century ethnographers.  I’ll spare you the quotes.  Not only is this assertion embarrassing in a horribly ironic way, it is hardly the stuff of the central argument for a book like this.  Of course that attitude toward aid is a myth . . . it doesn’t really exist.  At least not anywhere of which I am aware.  It is really easy to prove something is a myth when nobody believes in it in the first place – which might have something to do with the success of this book: it is telling people something they already knew, which makes the reader feel good about themselves.