What I’m Reading: Dead Aid

While in Uganda, I noticed something that I wanted to look further into.  In one of the more avant garde bookstores in Kampala, I saw a number of books by Africans questioning the value of all the international aid pouring into the continent every year.  It was an intriguing idea: the recipients of so much aid were beginning to ask difficult questions as to the effectiveness of it all.  As mentioned in a follow-up post, on my way back to the States passing through the Amsterdam airport, I saw a book that summarized this restlessness and ordered it upon arriving home.

In her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, Dambisa Moyo, who is from Zambia and a former consultant for the World Bank, tackles these questions head on.  The implications of her conclusions are controversial; for some they are a breath of fresh air, while for others they are outright rejected.  But the facts cannot be avoided.  Consider just a few:

  • Since 1970, sub-Saharan Africa has received over $300 billion in development assistance, yet remains the poorest region in the world.
  • The poverty rate in Africa has actually risen during the periods of peak aid flows.
  • A World Bank study found that as much as 85 percent of aid flows were used for purposes other than that for which they were initially intended.
  • Many of the civil wars and conflicts on the African continent in recent decades can be tied to who controls the large aid disbursements made to African countries.

This only scratches the surface of the problems associated with the large amount of aid flowing to Africa on an ongoing basis.  However, one of Moyo’s biggest points that jumped out at me has little to do with quantifiable data.  It has to do with the voices behind the cries for even more aid:

This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa.  One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied.  As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.

We are so busy figuring out how to help Africa that we forgot to include Africans in on the conversation!  Much more could be said, but rather than go through the entire book, I’ll simply encourage you to read it – or something similar – on your own.

While most of us will not find ourselves on the front line of shaping aid policy, we are faced with choices everyday regarding charity, whether donating time to a cause, serving on a church missions board, or sparing some change for the guy on the corner.  Regardless of scope, a key issue is that of intentions versus outcomes.  Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes.  There is a line of thinking that I have seen in the church, which essentially holds that good intentions are what God wants from us; leave the outcome in God’s hands.  While this may sound spiritual, I believe God wants wise stewardship as well.  Are the causes we are promoting actually solving problems or might they actually be contributing to the problem?  After my time in Uganda and reading this book, I continue to wrestle through this issue.  I believe we are in need of fresh theology on the subject of missions and social action.  Maybe I’ll be bold enough one day to collect my thoughts on the subject and post them!


4 thoughts on “What I’m Reading: Dead Aid

  1. I hope you will, Dave! This is something that Jake and I discuss daily. We have visited Ethiopia twice in the past six months and are now raising a beautiful little girl who was born there, so this subject is very important to us. We’ve fallen in love with the place and the people and hope to be “shrewd” in whatever it is that God is prompting us to do…or not do. Keep writing!

    • Leslie, I’m thrilled for you guys! That sounds awesome. I’ve only flown through Ethiopia, but was on a long enough layover in Addis Ababa to take a taxi into town and grab a wonderful meal. It was enough to make me want to go back.

      Hope you all are well.

  2. While the book focuses on Africa, in general, the same issues apply whenever aid distributes. Further, many social programs currently experience similar issues. Aid without teaching or empowerment encourages dependency and will exacerbate problems related to poverty. The School Library Journal wrote that, “charity from Western nations cripples African governments by fostering dependency and corruption without requiring positive change.” Giving with no thought towards how the aid gets used shows a lack of responsibility.

    From my perspective, aid must accompany teaching. Proverbs 30:8-9 and Ecclesiastes 5:10-15 highlight the importance of wisdom accompanying giving. Giving without thought to how aid is distributed potentially serves to increase the influence of evil throughout the world. I agree with Moyo, lazy giving represents a destructive practice for Christians (Matthew 7:6).

    • Jonathan, agreed! Moyo’s observations apply to any type of “one size fits all” social program or aid without accountability. One of the things that really was impressed on me in Uganda was how much you really had to understand the issues on the ground and at the local level to have any idea whether a particular aid approach was going to do any good, much less have negative consequences. I had some good conversations with Mark about this and he had some interesting stories and examples of people trying to help out the orphanage. It’s a huge issue.

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