First posted on 22 July 2008 as a comment in response to Duncan Green's blog assessing my book. Duncan Green is a respected development economist who is presently Head of Research at Oxfam. He describes the book as "crisp and well-argued" but is not convinced by my conclusions.

Hi Duncan,

I am pleased you liked (most of) the book. It was written for campaigners, students and all those interested in progress in Africa. The focus of Oxfam’s FP2P work, as you point out, has some important coincidences with the thrust of my book, which I hope contributes to the debate about where Africa should be seeking the money it needs to develop, and what the role of western governments could be.

Let me just respond to two of the issues you raise in your piece. I know I need to steel myself for having my views slotted into the “anti-aid” camp, and I suppose it is inevitable that my book will be seen by some as an “anti-aid salvo”, but it isn’t. I am not an aid pessimist – aid can do a lot of good and there is a case for increasing it in some African countries, most obviously Botswana. I am no more anti-aid than I am anti-foreign direct investment or anti-market or anti-state intervention. I am pro-all of these things when they support development and poverty reduction and anti-them when they don’t.
I am an aid realist. Aid optimists, are using the evidence selectively to make their case for big generalised increases of aid, just like aid pessimists do. To quote a little extract from the book:

“Aid realism means not getting swept away by the ethical clamour to ‘do something’ when a proper analysis shows that what is being done is ineffective or harmful. And it means not bowing to an ideological anti-aid position in the face of the rights and urgent needs of millions of people. It means carefully analysing the overall impact of aid on Africa, firstly to see how it can be improved and secondly, and more importantly given that improving aid will be a very hard job, questioning aid’s importance in relation to other policies and factors that influence development and poverty reduction in Africa.”

As I argue in my book, a combination of harmful policy conditionalities and the unforeseen consequences of aid dependency (a new phenomenon only seen in a handful of countries outside Africa) has meant that in many countries in Africa, the impacts of aid are ambiguous, with negative impacts possibly outweighing positive. While acknowledging some progress in improving the impacts of aid I argue that the key problems either persist (in the case of conditionality) or are worsening (in the case of institutional accountability and effectiveness). If aid doubles to Africa by 2015, almost three quarters of African countries will rely on aid for over half of their total public expenditure, according to an IMF projection, with almost half receiving over 75% of their government expenditure in aid. I like FP2P’s focus on active citizens and effective institutions (exactly where I would put the emphasis as well), but there is a serious danger that this scenario could undermine rather than underpin progress in these areas.

In such circumstances it becomes sensible for African governments to plot a course to reduced aid dependence over the next 10 – 15 years. You can’t just cut off aid and nor would you want to. But you can begin to take the steps necessary to reduce and replace it. Meanwhile in most of the poor world (India, China, Latin America) aid is negligible as a % of GDP. In neither circumstance does campaigning for a lot more of it make much sense.
Which brings me to my second point. I agree with your instinct that NGOs sometimes prefer to criticise than to propose – it is something we need to constantly be aware of. Which is why my final chapter is full of proposals (!!!).

Firstly I describe how Africa can reduce its dependence on aid by accessing other money streams, from stemming capital flight and debt payments to developing other revenues, reforming tax and banking systems, sometimes using policies frowned on and blocked by aid donors. Then I present a range of important things western governments can do to demonstrate real generosity, not just the sop of more aid. From fair intellectual property rights rules to the brain drain, from migration to the arms trade, from climate change to investment in vital health technologies, from reforming tax havens to regulating foreign investment – these and many more issues are the ones we should be focusing on, that would make a real difference to Africa. Most important of all is policy freedom, the right and duty of African governments to develop and make choices (and mistakes) as they see fit. Incidentally, I argue that while transfers of money to Africa may not be the answer, donors should meet and surpass the 0.7% target, but spend the money on developing transferable climate, health and other technologies which would have many positive impacts but far fewer negative ones.

The campaign against poverty in Africa has matured since the early days when more aid seemed like the best solution. We have learned a lot and most of us work on many other issues besides aid. But we only have a limited amount of collective political pressure, and while aid remains the number one priority, vital political energy is sapped from other more important campaigns. Isn’t it time to take the next step, to take our foot off the “more aid” pedal, and to persuade our government and others to do things that will make more of a difference?

posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 15:31

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