Aid to Africa: Killer or Savior?

Aid to Africa

Investing in people raises the question of aid – humanitarian, foreign and investment aid – and will constitute my final consideration. It is not my intention to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the politics of aid. A brief excursus would suffice to identify some terms of the aid debate and point a way forward for Africa and its partners-in-aid, by drawing on the tenets of Catholic Social Tradition.

There are vociferous protagonists and antagonists in the frequently acrimonious debate about the perils and promises of aid to Africa. If we believe the most vocal anti-aid campaigner, Dambisa Moyo, there are many things wrong with aid as it is presently conceived and delivered in relation to Africa. For Moyo, aid is not a problem; “Aid is the problem;”1 it is the most effective retardant of Africa’s development.2 What is more, aid is a potent contributor to the continent’s “cycle of dysfunction,”3 its chronic dependence on and addiction to foreign assistance,4which in turn is the “greatest aides” of corruption.5 Her strident rhetoric aside, central to Moyo’s argument is a simple and compelling fact: Brazil, China and India have lifted an unprecedented number of people from poverty without relying on aid.6Why should it be different for Africa?

Global patrons of private philanthropy, such as Bill Gates, but also the prominent economist of development, Jeffery Sachs, hold opposing viewpoints. As I understand it and to simplify Sachs’s argument, for less-developed countries, poverty is a trap compounded by geographical, cultural, fiscal and demographic factors that disempower and paralyze the poor. Simply put: the poor are too poor to help themselves. “When poverty is very extreme, the poor do not have the ability—by themselves—to get out of the mess.”7

Thus, Sachs argues, if development were akin to climbing a ladder, where poor countries face the prospect of permanent relegation to the lowest rung, all it takes “to gain a foothold on the ladder” is a little push: “The rich countries do not have to invest enough in the poorest countries to make them rich; they need to invest enough so that these countries can get their foot on the ladder. After that, the tremendous dynamism of self-sustaining economic growth can take hold.”8

If we distilled their respective argumentations to simple jingles, Moyo’s would read: “Aid kills!” and Gates’ would proclaim: “Aid saves!” What solutions do these economic gladiators propose? While Moyo proposes “systematic aid,” Sachs recommends “clinical economics.” Without tarrying over details and differences, it would seem to me that both approaches highlight particular aspects of development assistance that actually converge in their wider objective of a more effective development strategy. However, both lines of thought also seem problematic if detached from the lived experience of the subjects of their analyses.

On the one hand, branding the poor – however we determine the constituents of this category – as incapable of helping themselves impugns their agency and capability, potentially leaving the door open to fatalism and debilitating dependency. For far too long Africa has endured the deleterious effects of such conditions. In reality, this opinion cannot be sustained in the face of multiple examples of creative and transformative initiatives towards economic empowerment of the poor and by the poor that run the gamut from Grameen-Bank-style micro-credit schemes to neighbourhood self-help savings schemes popularly known as “Susu” in some parts of West Africa. Therefore, David Blair is right: “The world may not have noticed, but most of Africa has spent this century gradually hauling itself out of poverty.”9

On the other hand, to simply claim that aid is antithetic to development skews empirical evidence. Through foreign aid several African countries have made considerable gains against diseases such as river blindness, polio, guinea worm, Tuberculosis and malaria, and expanded educational opportunities for millions of children, where such opportunities did not previously exist.

Polemics apart, in regard to development assistance, to give or not to give, that is not the question. What some development experts overlook is the simple truth that in our increasingly globalized world, nobody succeeds alone – communities, societies and countries develop either with the help or at the expense of others. Therefore, the crucial task is to rethink and redefine the terms of relationships that depend on the transfer of aid from one entity to the other, bilaterally or multilaterally.

I believe that Paul VI struck the right balance when he proposed the idea of holistic development. That is what Africa needs. Anybody who knows Africa understands that the essence of life is the vital connection between the individual, community, God and the environment – what I previously in shorthand described as ubuntu. Development is not development if it merely turns people into interesting statistics and fails to comprise “a joint effort for the development of the human race as a whole” (Populorum Progressio, no. 43). Thus stated, I believe that Paul VI also resolves the deadlock that Moyo and Sachs create in a manner that rhymes with African sensibility when he outlined a triptych of obligations deriving from the principle of solidarity that must regulate relationships at communal, country and international levels.

First of all, argues Paul VI, privileged nations must support the developmental goals of less-privileged nations; second, economic relations and transactions must be founded on equity and justice; and, third, we must practice a mutually beneficial global charity that empowers all partners to “give and receive, and where the progress of some is not bought at the expense of others” (Populorum Progressio, no 44). In light of the insight of Paul VI, in what concerns Africa, individuals and organizations that believe in Africa and seek to engage in its transformation and development, need a refocusing of strategies and interests away from purely theoretical and technical considerations towards key principles of the Catholic Social Tradition. I present an abridged list of these principles relative to the subject of this lecture in no particular order of importance.

The first principle is solidarity which I would define as movement from treating Africa as an object of charity addicted to aid towards engaging the continent as partner. This entails the ethical imperative to hear the cry of our brothers or sisters and answer it together with love (Populorum Progressio, no. 3; emphasis mine). Solidarity is antithetical to a mindset that would treat Africa as an arriviste whose place at the gathering of the development of peoples is conferred as a favour rather recognised as a right.

The second principle is subsidiarity. The lifecycle of aid can be fickle, pegged explicitly as it is not only on the circumstances and disposition of the givers, but also oftentimes implicitly on a mentality of noblesse oblige. Genuine belief in the development of Africa necessitates the empowerment of people to take charge of their future themselves in a manner that is dignified and sustainable. As the first president of the United States of America of African descent declared on his maiden presidential visit to Africa, “We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.”

The third principle is mutuality. It would be dishonest to project an exclusively altruistic motivation for believing and engaging in Africa. Historically speaking, nothing could be farther from the truth. Those who seek to engage in the developmental process of Africa must assume the courage and conviction of critical self-interrogation, starting with a simple question: what’s in it for me? It is questionable to reduce aid to disinterested transactional affairs of transfer and receipt of funds, no matter how well intentioned, without honoring the right to “give and receive, and where the progress of some is not bought at the expense of others” (Populorum Progressio, no 44).

All of the foregoing presupposes, as a fourth and final principle, relationality. In the final analysis, no matter how sophisticated and efficient the measures applied to engage Africa in a process of development, the truth remains: development is about people – their dignity, their humanity, their rights, their values, their gifts. As Paul VI has insisted, in a language that Africa understands, “[People] must meet [people], nation must meet nation, as brothers and sisters, as children of God. In this mutual understanding and friendship, in this sacred communion, we must also begin to work together to build the common future of the human race” (Populorum Progressio, no. 43).

A crucial task facing the continent of Africa is to construct an image of itself and generate an agenda of development worthy of the belief, trust and investment of Africans and the global geopolitical fraternity. In spite of harmful stigmatization and stereotypical portrayal, Africa has defied formidable odds and demonstrated resilience and resolve borne on the courage and hope of a billion people. As should be clear, belief in Africa is first and foremost belief by Africans in Africa! To pretend otherwise is to fall prey to a self-defeatist moral alibi.

The obstacles to progress are many; I have outlined only a few in the course of this lecture. Yet the claim of a billion reasons to believe in Africa is not, as might at first be feared, fanciful and delusive; there is ground for “a future full of hope,” as promised in the Christian Scripture (Jeremiah 29:11). For a continent whose image is desecrated by conflict and poverty, chaos and crisis, it would take more than a can of coke to redeem its fate, revive its fortunes and restore its self-belief. The Coca Cola Company, that self-ppointed global purveyor of carbonated happiness, dares us to try.

By Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator
Excerpted from the Pope Paul VI Memorial Lecture 2013


1. Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 47.
2. Ibid, 28, 49.
3. Ibid, 6.
4. Ibid, 75, 143.
5. Ibid, 48.
6. Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid, 111; Winner Take All: China’s race for resources and what it means for the world (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 19.
7. Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Times (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005), 56.
8. Ibid, 73.
9. Blair, “Africa is now more peaceful.”


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