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Dead Aid at the World Bank

Ryan Hahn's picture

Dambisa Moyo Dambisa Moyo is a formidable critic - this much I learned from her presentation at the World Bank earlier this week. Moyo is the author of Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, a book critical of the aid industry that the Economist recently dismissed with the following words: "her arguments are scarcely original and her plodding prose makes her the least stylish of the critics." After hearing her speak, I realized that the Economist had completely missed the point.

At the beginning of her presentation, Moyo made clear that the point of her book was not to develop new arguments as to why aid has failed. Those arguments have already been made quite rigorously in any number of academic papers. Her goal is to get this point across to a mass audience, and then to propose alternative strategies for development. Seen in this light, Moyo's book can't be judged simply on its own arguments, but rather on the degree to which it helps move public discourse on the aid industry - and by public discourse, I don't mean rarely read academic journals - in the right direction.

Will the book achieve that goal? That's tough to predict, but judging by Moyo's poise during her presentation, I'd say she has a sporting chance. In just a few sentences, she managed to skewer the self-absorbed Western pop stars who have managed to become the face of Africa. Moyo came across not as a firebrand (unlike some critics), but as a highly polished and able debater. Her complaints about the aid industry were many - promotion of rent seeking, the Dutch Disease, a disincentive to entrepreneurship. But her harshest complaint was the last in her list: Aid to Africa - at least as it's currently practiced - disenfranchises Africans. Coming from an African, that's one complaint that's hard to ignore.

Update: I have started making my way through Dead Aid, but will reserve further judgement until I finish it. But in the meantime, a review of the book from Owen Barder makes it look like there's a big difference between the quality of Moyo's presentation and the quality of the arguments in her book:

Moyo’s evidence that aid does not work amounts to no more than this: Africa’s growth has decreased while aid has increased. This is a strangely naive argument – it is like saying that because the US spends $2 trillion a year on health care, mainly on the sick and dying, and yet people still get sick, we can conclude that health care does not work. The evidence linking aid to growth is handicapped by the weakness of our statistical tests, but if anything it does seems to show that aid is correlated with growth.

Many reasonable people believe that bad aid can be harmful. The conceptual arguments for this tend to be more persuasive than the evidence, but there is certainly a case to be made. Sadly, Moyo does not make it. She just asserts that aid causes corruption, bottlenecks, losses of competitiveness and erosion of accountability. This last concern, in particular, merits thorough consideration which it does not get here. Moyo does not support any of this with any evidence, and – more alarmingly – she misrepresents the academic literature to pretend that it supports her conclusions.


Submitted by Veryshuai on
I think that your post is a bit unfair to the Economist. The Economist wasn't comparing Dead Aid to academic papers, it was comparing it to other books on the market which are written for a non-academic audience such as those by Easterly and Collier. The point isn't that the arguments in Dead Aid are found elsewhere--the same could be said of all popular development books. It is that Moyo's book isn't as effective as others that make the similar points.

Submitted by Ryan Hahn on
Veryshuai, Perhaps I was a bit hasty in coming to a judgement - I bought Moyo's book at the end of her presentation, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet. I was judging based on the quality of her presentation, which I would say was quite high. I'll get back to you once I've read the book.

Submitted by David Michael on
I found some of Moyo's comments and analysis quite interesting and original and worthy of much more investigation, but sometimes I think she does a bit of 'fishing' to find data to suit the analysis. Her assessment of increased use of bonds to fund development is a major theme and interesting, though it might be quite a challenge in the current financial environment to get many investors, unless the Bank or IFC or IMF steps in to guarantee, or partially guarantee the performance. I think the data on poverty performance in Africa might have just improved over the past couple of years compared to 2005 observations which she uses to support the claim that poverty has not improved over the past decade or so in SSA. I wrote a more detailed critique of this book. But on balance, I believe she makes an important contribution to the formation of development policy. Her style is more anecdotal and conceptual than Easterly.

Submitted by Duncan Green on
I agree with Veryshuai that Dead Aid is actually one of the weakest aid critiques to emerge in recent years. But then, the interesting question is why has it gained so much more interest than other better books? I discuss this on my own From Poverty to Power blog if people are interested.

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