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Tuesday, 26 May 2009

EAZ's Dead Aid Debate

Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid (reviewed here), was recently in Zambia to promulgate her views. Fr Henriot reports on arguments, the tone and feelings from a debate hosted by the Economics Association of Zambia (EAZ). 
Dead Aid: lively debate, deeper issues, Fr Pete Henriot, The Post (subscription), Commentary :

It was a very packed room and the debate was also very packed! Last Friday night’s programme of the Economics Association of Zambia (EAZ) featured Dr Dambisa Moyo presenting her thought-provoking book, Dead Aid.  As lively as the debate was about her arguments, I thought much more significant was the revelation in the discussion of several deeper issues facing the future of development in Zambia.

So, first let me sketch some comments on the debate about the book, and then offer some highlights of the deeper issues coming out of the discussions.

Not “either-or”

Moyo’s presentation at the EAZ meeting (and in several other public appearances last week) defended the two major theses of her study. First, foreign aid for Africa has failed to promote development, and second, there are alternatives that are more promising. She speaks of Africa in general, but her argument is applicable to her homeland, Zambia. 

What has aid brought Africa and Zambia? Corruption, dependency, dysfunctional governments, lost opportunities, debt burdens, conflicts, et cetera. Certainly no positive and long-lasting gains! Add to that the depressing story of non-African “do-gooders” spreading terrible stories about Africa in order to appeal for more help for us poor folk!

And what are the alternatives for Africa and Zambia? More foreign investors, closer business relationships with China, engagement with bond markets (negotiated debts), trade, more use of local money and remittances from overseas Zambians, et cetera. Coupled with ending aid, all this would stimulate more local entrepreneurship and a brighter future. 

Moyo argues in person as persuasively as she argues in print and must be taken seriously. But I thought that one of panel respondents, my JCTR colleague Humphrey Mulemba, stated the most telling critique of her arguments: “It isn’t either-or!” Just as there can be another side to the dark picture she paints of aid, so there is another side to the bright picture she paints of her liberal alternatives. 

For example, some foreign aid received by Zambia has indeed worked well in creating employment and long-term development. One thinks of feeder roads in rural areas, or clinics and schools in many parts of the country. And assistance to meeting the HIV and AIDS pandemic has certainly been life-saving.

And some of Moyo’s alternatives are certainly open to questioning. Foreign investors have dubious records of promoting corruption, returns in bond markets aren’t too likely if the global economic crisis continues, and Chinese connections need much closer evaluation for social benefits as our recent Zambian experience well demonstrates. 

The point made by Mulemba that deeper thought is needed in order to break out of an “either-or” approach was echoed by one of the first audience respondents, a woman who asked for more nuanced argument. Two concluding respondents, Zambian Aids Council Chairperson Bishop Joshua Banda and former Bank of Zambia Governor Jacob Mwanza, made similar points about the need to dialogue between the two positions if we in Zambia were really to move forward.

Clearly, a simplistic one-way approach is neither correct nor helpful.

Audience feelings

But what fascinated me more upon reflection was the general tone of reactions from the audience on Friday evening. I hope I’m fair in thinking that much deeper issues were being touched upon than the question of the pluses and minuses of foreign aid for Zambia. Central to the issues being raised was a widespread feeling of disappointment, dismay, even disgust, about the current role of our government, Parliament, and political parties - both ruling party and opposition parties - in addressing the country’s needs. 

Repeatedly during the discussion there arose grievances about failures of our political leaders to seriously address the ineffectiveness of government development policy. Moyo’s complaints about corruption were cheered with examples given from the audience of current scandals in too many GRZ offices. (A gentleman who identified himself as an employee in the Ministry of Health had difficulty in making his intervention amidst raucous heckles from the audience!) 

Criticisms about the lack of effective policies were reinforced with examples of indabas with unfulfilled recommendations, international meetings that appear never to result in meaningful implementations and foreign travel (complete with expensive airport send-offs and returns) that seemed only to benefit the travelers and not the people who remained home. Moyo’s call to innovate was countered with citations of mediocre leadership. There seemed to be a feeling that the current crop of politicians of whatever party is more innovative in hurling petty insults than in proposing solid programmes. 

Enough is enough!

I got a sense that the hearty applause directed toward the thesis laid out by Moyo was in reality at the deepest level a cry of “enough is enough!” to the current drift of government policy, politicians' dialogue and citizenry passivity. Zambia is simply too rich a country to have two-thirds of its population living below a demeaning and unacceptable poverty line! 

Yes, I believe that the lively debate about this particular book should really tell us here in Zambia something much more profound than the ups and downs, positives and negatives, of foreign aid and its various alternatives. One of the panelists at the EAZ event, Dr Fred Mutesa from UNZA, called for us to “think outside the box” of ordinary development discourse. I feel that two of the major hindrances to that exercise are selfishness (unwillingness to sacrifice power and profit) and lack of serious feeling of what people are suffering (absence from real-life contact). 

Coming back from the Friday evening discussion, I wished that some key government leaders and politicians from different parties had been there to hear the cries of people who want and expect something better from them. 

Sad example

Let me cite one very sad example, the fact that on the very day of this spirited debate about good governance the National Constitutional Conference (NCC) froze in facing up to the challenge of greater accountability and transparency. Led by key Government officials and ruling party members, the NCC failed to endorse the well designed, widely debated, and convincingly accepted constitutional clause that mandated parliamentary oversight of new loans negotiated by the government. 

At the very moment of unfolding and mounting scandals in government about lack of accountability and transparency – scandals that are resulting in massive suspensions of funding for live-saving assistance to key ministries – leading politicians are rejecting more accountability and transparency in aid programmes! Do they not see the irresponsibility displayed by such action? A chance to turn back the consequences of Moyo’s anti-aid arguments is simply rejected out of hand.

For me, the lively debate provoked here in Zambia over Dead Aid is a “wake-up call” to pay greater attention to much deeper issues of the relevance and credibility of political leadership. Am I right or wrong?

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