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Africa bites back

May 14, 2009 - 9:00am -- Nick Young


‘Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa’ by Dambisa Moyo, 2009 Allen Lane, London, 188 pp.

‘Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror’ by Mahmood Mamdani, 2009 Verso, London, 398 pp.

Dead Aid contains little original thinking but it is new and refreshing to find aid scepticism synthesised by an African woman with a big brain and a voice that is loud and clear: “Aid has become a cultural commodity. Millions march for it. Governments are judged by it. But has more than US$ 1 trillion in development assistance over the last several decades made African people better off? No.”

Moyo, a Zambian, quotes figures showing that “between 1970 and 1998, when aid flows to Africa were at their peak, poverty in Africa rose from 11 per cent to a staggering 66 per cent.” The trillion bucks, she says, merely weakened economic initiative, fostered corrupt elites, deterred efforts to create a sustainable tax base and created cycles of dependency. What’s more, despite much hand-wringing about corruption, Western donors have continued to support odious regimes on the grounds that an aid withdrawal would hurt the poor. Nonsense, Moyo retorts: aid almost never reached the poor anyway.

Bravely, she challenges the Western conceit that democracy is key to development. Rather, “It is economic growth that is a prerequisite for democracy” and poor countries would often do better with “a decisive, benevolent dictator.” Whilst conceding that despots are in reality seldom benevolent, she cites East Asia—China, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, whose people were poorer than many Africans at the end of World War II—as showing the development benefits of firm government.

Moyo’s critique of the aid industry is compelling, if seldom nuanced, but her 5-10 year plan for doing away with aid is much less so. Hers is a banker’s vision (as one would expect from someone who, after Harvard and Oxford, rose fast in the World Bank and Goldman Sachs); and it does not make convincing reading in the throes of a global recession caused, in large part, by bankers.

Donor development finance, she argues, should be replaced by African countries obtaining credit ratings from private agencies like Standard & Poors and then offering government bonds to private investors in international capital markets. Ghana has already led the way in this—with apparent success—and several others have followed. But, alas, demand for such bonds is now plummeting, as institutional investors seek safe havens; and Standard & Poors, who told us Lehman Bros. were OK, no longer look like geniuses.

Second item in Moyo’s rescue package is her insistence that “The Chinese Are Our Friends” (the title of Chapter 7). She unreservedly welcomes China’s “aggressive investment assault across the continent.” Foreign investment is exactly what is needed, the West has provided precious little, and it doesn’t matter a damn that China (like other Asian and Middle Eastern nations) is only after resources: there are still great opportunities for Africa here.

Moyo’s enthusiasm for business with China is underpinned by the general argument that trade, including regional trade, is a better source of growth than aid. It is hard now to find anyone who would disagree with that, yet recent commodity price volatility—up when Moyo was writing, decidedly down now—is a reminder of the structural weakness of African economies. (For example, the price of cocoa, Ghana’s main export, is now set for the steepest fall in 50 years, according to a May 11 Financial Times report.) It is as yet too soon to say for sure whether Asian investment and trade will give African countries a chance to develop a broader economic base before the mines and soils are exhausted.

Moreover, Chinese government statistics show that trade with Africa is highly concentrated in just five countries—Angola, South Africa, Sudan, Nigeria and Egypt— accounting for more than 60 per cent of the total. Despite overall growth in African exports to China of over 110% between 2006 and 2008, several countries, including Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda, have seen their exports to China drop.

Alongside her praise for trade Moyo offers a panegyric to microfinance: building capitalism from the bottom up by giving little folk—notably women—a few dollars to release their entrepreneurial skills. Also stressed is the importance of remittances (from relatives working overseas) and informal savings. OK; but the microfinance record is in fact patchy and needs a more robust defence than we find in the few pages devoted to it here. And those migrant remittances are now almost certainly diving as jobs shrivel in the north.

Beyond all of this lies the issue of government leadership and capacity. Moyo seems to believe that switching the public donor-client relationship to a private investor-client relationship will in itself smooth away corruption and rent-seeking. Her only argument for this is that “You can steal aid every day of the week [because the donors keep coming back with open wallets] whereas with private capital you get only one shot.” But what’s to stop corrupt administrations (whether elected or not) settling for one bite at the cherry and then baling out and letting the country rot? Moyo claims that better governance “will naturally emerge in the absence of the glut in aid.” Naturally? Come on: this, like much market fundamentalism, is metaphysical assertion, bereft of empirical evidence.

Whilst Moyo wants to disengage Africa from Western aid, Mahmood Mamdani—a Ugandan of Asian descent—attacks Western “humanitarian” advocacy which, he warns, may mask “recolonisation” of the continent.

Mamdani, a Professor at Columbia University, sandwiches 160 pages of dense scholarship on Sudan’s history and politics between powerful opening and closing essays whose main target is the US “Save Darfur Coalition.” This successfully united churches, NGOs, human rights organizations, assorted celebrities and many mainstream media around the claim that a “genocide” is under way in Darfur, perpetrated by “Arabs” from outside against indigenous “Africans” and led by the Khartoum government (with the tacit support of those wretched Chinese.) Mamdani shows this to be a gross distortion of a complex conflict that has ecological roots and a regional dimension but in which the central government at first played no part.

Firstly, he finds that the apparently racial identities of “Arab” and “African” are in fact political. He considers, in painstaking detail, the widespread supposition that back in the mists of pre-colonial time there was a “mass migration” of Arabs into Sudan, and finds no evidence for this. Elective acculturation—choosing, generally for political and economic reasons, to become culturally “Arab”—yes; an influx of Arab blood, no. (Whereas there were numerous influxes of West Africans into Darfur.)

It was, rather, British imperialism that “racialized” Sudan. A general feature of “indirect rule,” was classifying subject people according to tribe in order to administer them through “native authorities.” In Sudan, this define, divide and rule approach was urgently needed because of the early, ethnically united and initially successful opposition to Anglo-Egyptian rule, led by Muhammad Ahmad (‘the Mahdi.’) Indirect rule was a way of “sterilizing and localizing the political germs” as governor-general, Sir John Maffey, put it in 1927. Accordingly, Sudan was classified into 570 tribes, spread across 57 “groups of tribes” and just two “races”—“Arab” and “Negroid.” Despite this sterling effort of imperial taxonomy, anthropological studies show that these identities in fact proved plastic even in quite recent times: members of “Arab” tribes in Darfur have become “African” and vice versa—by intermarriage and acceptance of new lifestyles—when their livelihood needs require it.

The colonial system also “discriminated in favour of settled groups (which it defined as native) as opposed to nomadic groups (which it branded as nonnative strangers or settlers.)” Most settled tribes were assigned homelands, whereas pastoralists were often not, and Sudan’s post-colonial government never corrected this anomaly. Thus, when rapid desertification of the Sahel had by the mid 1980s made a 100 mile belt of semi-arid land completely unusable, pastoralist tribes in Darfur began to move south to claim grazing rights, and conflict erupted in 1987. (Matters were not helped by the fact that Ronald Reagan and Libya’s Colonel Qadaffi were fighting a proxy war in Chad, flooding Darfur with refugees and cheap AK47s.) At this time, Sudan’s central government was conspicuous only by its absence from Darfur, and Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir, now charged by the International Criminal Court with masterminding a “genocide,” had not yet assumed the presidency.

With nothing done to address the causes of the conflict, tensions simmered for years and exploded in 2003 when “African” rebels launched an armed insurgency. The central government, whose “initial response was to encourage reconciliation” by arranging local conferences and trying to talk to the rebels, then unleashed a “brutal counter-insurgency campaign” that included arming local “Arab” militias.

Even so, Mamdani argues, Save Darfur advocates exaggerated the number of deaths and largely obscured the fact that these (and other atrocities) occurred on both sides of the conflict. By 2007, when Save Darfur had picked up speed—“turning into a massive ad campaign, a set of mega posters, dedicated to spreading and sustaining a lethal illusion” with a “full-blown pornography of violence”—the violence had in fact largely abated under African Union supervision and, according to The Independent’s Julie Flint, mortality rates in much of Darfur were lower than in Khartoum’s slums.

How did the do-gooding campaigners, leading the broadest moral crusade in the United States since the anti-Vietnam war movement, get it so wrong? And how does Sudanese government violence get labelled “genocide” whereas the US-led invasion and forced pacification of Iraq—where more civilians died than in Darfur—gets labelled “counter-insurgency?”

Mamdani answers that “Darfur appeals to Americans who hate to pay taxes but love to donate to charities. In Darfur, Americans can feel themselves to be what they know they are not in Iraq: powerful saviors.” Saviours, moreover, for whom “lack of precise knowledge of a far-distant place need not be reason enough to keep one from taking urgent action,” including calling for military intervention.

Thus, he concludes, “At best, Save Darfur was a romance driven by a feel-good search for instant remedies. At worst, it was a media-savvy political campaign designed to portray ‘Arabs’ as race-intoxicated exterminators of ‘Africans’ . . . The harsh truth is that the War on Terror has provided the coordinates, the language, the images, and the sentiment for interpreting Darfur.”

Mamdani urges a political, not “humanitarian,” solution: based on political, not moral or “racial,” compromise between the survivors, and without the manipulation of external “saviours.” Reconciliation requires “survivor’s justice,” including the determination to forgive without forgetting exemplified by post-apartheid South Africa, not the criminal justice which the International Criminal Court demands.

More broadly, he fears the erosion of African sovereignty by a new “humanitarian” order that assigns Western powers a moral imperative to intervene where, from a position of general ignorance, they suspect “genocide.” This risks turning African states back into “wards” and preventing progress towards rights based on citizenship rather than ethnicity. “Humanitarian” interventionism, however well-intentioned, echoes the externally imposed structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s, where “Those who made the decisions did not have to live with their consequences.”

Nick Young
Kampala, May 14 2009