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03.26.09

Is Angelina Bad for Africa?

In a new book, controversial economist Dambisa Moyo argues that aid to African countries, whether from governments or celebrities, is actually doing more harm than good.

In Dead Aid, provocative economist and Women in the World Sunday speaker Dambisa Moyo argues that aid to African countries, whether from governments or celebrities, is actually doing more harm than good.

“I’m not such a baddie,” Dambisa Moyo said, with the uneasy laugh of a woman who knows she’s a target. The young Zambian and I were just wrapping up a pleasant conversation about her incendiary new book, Dead Aid, which argues that foreign assistance to Africa actually makes her home continent poorer and more conflict-prone. The book has become a sensation, in part because of its gleeful disparagement of the kind of tabloid philanthropy practiced by Angelina Jolie, which has in turn made Moyo into something of a paradox: an anti-celebrity celebrity. She squeezed in our talk between two television tapings, one with CNN and the other with Charlie Rose; ahead was a gala book party at the Four Seasons, hosted by the billionaire free marketer Steve Forbes. A former investment banker who speaks with the elegantly indeterminate accent of a longtime expatriate, Moyo explained her argument: If Western countries cut off almost all of their aid, African governments would be forced to improve themselves in order to appeal to the bond markets and new private investors, especially from China. To her many vocal detractors—such as the economist and antipoverty crusader Jeffrey Sachs—Moyo is, at best, a shill for right-wing ideologues, and at worst an accomplice to death by neglect. She shrugs off the criticism because she says little of it comes from Africans.

Read an excerpt from Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid

Reading your book reminded me of many conversations I used to have when I lived in Uganda. Why is it that so many young, smart, educated Africans are so critical of aid?

I think the world as a whole should be critical of aid. It’s not necessarily the case that it’s only educated Africans. Many Africans on the ground that are not that educated are also critical, but perhaps they don’t have the platform upon which to be more vocal about it.

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I think it’s a very different perspective to a lot of Americans. People must have that reaction: “Why aren’t you grateful?”

People understand incentive structures, and if they understood that aid actually gets rid of positive incentives—so we shouldn’t be grateful because it’s not actually making us do better, it’s making us do worse—perhaps they would be much more critical.

You took a class at Harvard with End of Poverty author Jeffrey Sachs. I saw he recently said something about your book to the effect of: “She wouldn’t say this if she had a child in an African village.”

I think that Professor Sachs is being slightly intellectually dishonest. Because as I said, I took his course, where he spent all of his time talking about the virtues of the market for Europe, Poland, Russia, Bolivia. And then somehow he has dedicated his life in the last few years toward pushing more aid to Africa, which is a model he did not support when he taught me. So, what I would love to hear from him is what is it that he sees as different about Africa and Africans.

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Dead Aid: How Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a better Way for Africa. 208 pages. Farrar, Straus &Giroux. $24. ()

But beyond that he seems to forget that myself—and perhaps other Africans who are on the international stage and talking about these issues—we do come from rural Africa, our parents are from rural Africa, our families suffer the consequences of an economic system that’s failed because of aid on a daily basis.

Do you, like many successful Africans, support an extended family network?

Absolutely.

How many people are dependent on you?

Around 10 people. By that I mean providing education, providing health care, daily living, subsistence and so on. These are by and large able-bodied Africans who could do something and want to do something.

When I read your book I was surprised because it actually makes just one brief mention of Bono. I kept waiting for the screed to come.

I am so glad that you say this. Frankly, we don’t care about the celebrity culture, because there’s a bigger issue here. The celebrities are a complete red herring. They are wrong to be pushing more aid to Africa, but you know I don’t blame them. Perhaps they are just not familiar with the economic arguments that I lay out in the book about why it doesn’t work. Maybe they should read that and brush up.

The thing that I find particularly disappointing and objectionable, vis-à-vis the celebrity culture, is that they perpetuate a negative stereotype of Africa. I have never, ever, seen any celebrity stand up and say, “Guys, this continent has problems but you know what, look at these positive things that are happening. They have 15 stock markets.”

So aid is about making people like me feel generous.

That’s the contrast between the aid model, which is rooted in pity, and the Chinese model, which is rooted in a sense of business. People need jobs, they want jobs. They don’t want pity.

"Frankly, we don’t care about the celebrity culture, because there’s a bigger issue here. The celebrities are a complete red herring."

If aid was having this deleterious effect on their growth, wouldn’t it be showing up?

The numbers that you’re just talking about are just over the last few years. We’ve had 60 years of $1 trillion or more of aid. What you’re pointing to right now is in spite of aid, not because of it. If you stripped out the role of the Chinese in these estimates, I’m pretty sure we’d still be on a path of destruction.

But if some of the countries that are receiving the most aid are also doing the best in terms of economic growth.

I see what you’re saying. I don’t agree with you at all.

How does the current economic crisis affect the prescriptions in your book?

If you look at the traditional markets, U.S. and Europe, of course things are really bad. But I think that there’s a lot of scope for African governments to start to look at nontraditional markets, the Middle East and China—who, by the way, continue to invest in the continent even despite these dire situations.

Yes, the markets are challenging, but we know that at some point the system will be back. Should it not be important to emphasize that African countries should be ready to participate in the economy when the market comes back? What does that mean? That means things like getting a credit rating, which have been traditionally a first step toward accessing the market. Why aren’t African governments focusing on the fact that there are only 15 countries out of 50 countries in Africa that have a credit rating?

The Institute of International Finance estimates that net private capital flows to emerging markets are going to fall to about $165 billion this year, down about 80 to 90 percent from where they were in 2007. Would it really be a good idea to cut African countries off right now when they don’t have these backup options?

Why do they not have backup options? They should have prepared. But we’ve lulled everybody in this false sense of security. That it’s OK, don’t worry, you can get more aid. Well, this might be the wakeup call that they need.

Is your book available in Zambia yet? Can Africans read it?

It’s been sold in Lusaka. It’s not as widespread yet as I had hoped.

So would you support a subsidy program to allow Africans to buy it?

Absolutely not. That’s aid!

Andrew Rice’s first book, The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda, will be published in May by Metropolitan Books. He is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Portfolio and a contributing writer at the New York Times magazine. Between 2002 and 2004, he lived in Uganda as a fellow of the nonprofit Institute of Current World Affairs.