By Whitlaw Mugwiji
With more than 40 million African citizens facing food insecurity and some outright starvation, Donald Trump’s proposal to cut the American aid budget by 38% couldn’t have come at a worse time. It is unfortunate that as Africans we find ourselves thrust in this precarious position, sitting and passing judgement on America over its own budget plans.
When instead we are supposed to focus our attention on our governments that subcontract their responsibilities to foreign governments, leaving African citizens to rely on western benevolence. Such an approach is unsustainable and very irresponsible, more so now when the anti-aid sentiments are on the rise in many western capitals.
If ever we are going to be able to respond to future human and natural disasters on our own, we need to revisit the aid-development debate, which once gained international prominence in 2009 when Dr. Dambisa Moyo published her book Dead Aid.
Aid festers corruption, laziness and makes our governments unaccountable
In her book, she asserts that aid festers corruption, makes our governments lazy and less accountable to their citizenry. Rimmer and Hope in their journal article titled Aid and Corruption notes that there is widespread systematic corruption in Africa when it comes to aid. Even more worrying they note that western governments have at times used aid as a tool for patronage, festering corruption in order to further their foreign policy objectives. Mobuto’s Zaire provides a classic example in that regard.
Robert Mugabe, the ‘expatriate’ president as he is commonly known in some circles illustrates how African governments can be very lazy and irresponsible. In 2016, Mugabe spent over US$50 million in travelling expenses at a time when Zimbabwe’s government hospitals did not have medicines and had to rely on foreign donations for their basic medical supplies. Just a month ago, Zanu PF spent close to a million US$ on a lavish party, celebrating Mugabe’s 93rd birthday whilst over a million Zimbabweans facing starvation were being fed by the international community.
This irresponsibility is not unique to Zimbabwe alone but to many places were donors play a major role in the economy. According to a 2010 article on the Economist, Kenyan Members of Parliament were the highest paid in the world in relation to their country’s gross domestic product. Yet in the very same year Kenya received over US$ 400 million in foreign aid.
Aid has failed to foster Economic growth
Consistent with earlier findings by other economists Burnside and Dollar found that aid had little impact on economic growth. Thus, reaffirming the doubts over the ability of using aid to fight poverty. Some economists even argue further that aid can create a dependency in the recipient countries which is detrimental to their long term economic development as it induces them to create structures and institutions that are more sensitive to aid than to their long-term goals.
How then can we disagree with Dr. Dambisa Moyo when she says that aid is doing no good in Africa? If we disagree how then do we explain the paradox that Africa has received over a trillion dollars in foreign aid since 1960 and yet poverty has substantially increased from 280 million in 1990 to 330 million in 2012 (World Bank, 2016)?
Least I be misunderstood, let me categorically state here and now that I am not against humanitarian aid but against foreign aid or development aid. My conscience could never allow me to sit here arguing against humanitarian aid. For I know too well that humanitarian aid will be the difference between life and death for those facing starvation and food insecurity.
There are important lessons to learn from China
Chinese wisdom tells us that when you give man a fish you feed him for a day, but when you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. It’s time to look up to China for inspiration, for they have managed to debunk the aid-development model which we have adopted and used with little success. They have managed to move hundreds of millions out of poverty in the past four decades and yet they receive very little foreign aid.
China’s success story has confounded many, politicians and academics alike. Instead of just praising China to spite the west, our African academics and policy makers must conduct an in-depth study and provide us with adaptable lessons that we can use to grow our economy. In my narrow, rushed and limited research, these are the lessons I found most interesting and I believe they can help spur our economic growth.
Building strong institutions
Quantitative studies done on the Chinese economy (Lin, 1992; Fan, Zhang, Zhang, 2004) inform us that institutional reform contributed immensely to the Chinese economic growth. As former president Barak Obama once remarked, Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions.
Even though China currently lacks multi-party democracy, it has strong institutions which have provided stability and an impetus for their economic growth. We too need strong institutions, institutions that do not bend to the whims of an individual but more importantly institutions that provide stability and in turn an environment conducive for business.
Re-aligning our development strategies towards agriculture
As part of the Chinese reform agenda, they realigned their development strategies towards cheap labour where they enjoyed a massive comparative advantage. Initially towards agriculture, and then increasingly towards export-oriented rural industries.
We too must realign our development strategies around agriculture where we have a comparative advantage. Food demand is expected to increase substantially by the middle of this century if the world’s population forecasts are anything to go by. Having an abundance of arable land and a favourable climate, at least most of the times presents us with a unique opportunity to play an important role in meeting that challenge. Even if we fail to feed the world, we should be able to least feed ourselves without fail.
Experimentation and learning by doing
During Mao Zedong’s era, drastic policy measures such as the agricultural and the cultural revolutions resulted in starvation and the death of millions. As a result, the Chinese under Deng Xiaoping learned pragmatism, adopting evidence-based policies, where they experimented with small scale policy reforms and scaled them up if they were successful or times with slight modifications. As with any reform agenda, there are potentially many routes that we can take to spur our continent towards development but we too must learn by experimentation.
We must gradually wean ourselves off aid
In as much as I agree with Dr. Dambisa Moyo that foreign has done our continent little good, I personally think that a complete closure of the foreign aid tapes would be too drastic a measure. Many African countries are dependent on aid, without which they will not be able to finance their recurrent expenditure.
I therefore suggest that we must gradually begin the weaning process. Instead of focusing on foreign aid we must concentrate on finding policies that spur economic growth and improve inter-Africa trade. Policies that create a conducive environment for business and entrepreneurs to thrive.
For how long shall our people rely on western benevolence for their survival?
- Whitlaw Mugwiji is a political analyst and social commentator for Khuluma Afrika