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Development? A handful of recent books offer differing and challenging views on foreign aid by JAMES THOMAS


However, in The End of Poverty, Sachs points to some hopeful developments. Many Asian and South American countries have climbed out of the dire circumstances they faced a few decades ago. He assures us that other countries, the majority of which are in Africa, can do the same. Once a country can get a firm foothold on the bottom rung of the development ladder, he explains, it can successfully climb without further aid. The challenge for the countries still in extreme poverty is that the ladder is suspended too far above them; they can’t reach the bottom rung. That is where international development aid comes in. There is aid that is from one country to another, called bilateral aid, such as the USAID project I worked with in the Congo. And there is international aid, generally loans from banks into which the wealthier countries put money, called multilateral aid; these include the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sachs and the ONE Campaign want the US to put more into USAID, the World Bank, and the IMF for a “Big Push” to end dire poverty. Sachs proposes eight Millennium Development Goals that, if achieved, will lift the poorest countries up to the bottom rung of the development ladder.

ono and World Vision are urging you to support the ONE Campaign. Should you? Their goal is to increase the official American contribution to fighting global poverty. This goal is not a new one. When I was a college student in the late 1970s, a similar call arose to increase the amount of US development aid as a proportion of our gross national product. Today, AIDS is the international health issue that most grabs our attention, but in the ’70s it was overpopulation and famine. I responded by majoring in nutrition at the University of California at Davis and helping launch a campus chapter of Bread for the World. A few years later, I was on the payroll of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) grant obtained by a Christian mission organization. I developed a program to nourish starving children back to health in the Congo, then called Zaire. I am now in a school of public health where I study and teach about AIDS in the US and Africa. Thirty years after I first advocated for more international aid in the US budget, the proportion has not increased. A miniature Bono sits on my shoulder exhorting me to keep pushing for an increase, but my experiences cause me to question whether I should listen to him. To help sort this out, I’ve turned to several recently published books on international development in the 21st century. One is The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (Penguin, 2006), by Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs. Dr. Sachs is an old hand at development. He is most noted for advising former Soviet countries on a path to capitalism. Critics of his policies say that his socalled “shock therapy” adjustments achieved measures of macroeconomic progress only by exacerbating poverty.

Pushing in the wrong direction William Easterly, however, is ready to push the Big Push over a cliff. Dr. Easterly is a professor of economics at New York University, just across town from Sachs’ Columbia. In his book White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin, 2007), he pointedly challenges Sachs’ assumptions and recommendations. The title of his book

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is a reference to a poem by Rudyard Kipling that talks about the duty of Europeans (including the majority of Americans) to oversee the betterment of non-Europeans. Easterly notes that Big Push ideas date back to post World War II, with ideological links to the Marshall Plan in which the US helped rebuild Western Europe after the war. While Sachs would argue that a Big Push has never been achieved for emerging economies such as those in Africa, Westerly would say that international aid programs are inherently flawed and never should be geared up to a Big Push. Easterly points out, for example, that funds spent by USAID stipulate that they must be spent on US goods when possible. I can give you an example of this. When living in the Congo, my USAID project needed to buy a truck. It was well known that Toyota Land Cruisers were the most durable for the socalled roads in our area. But, because of the USAID grant, we had to import a Chevy truck. It was perhaps the only Chevy truck of its kind in the whole country, meaning we also had to import spare parts. The truck’s lesser durability limited its utility, making the primary benefit to the Congo’s economy the import fees it collected for the truck and its parts. Easterly also shows that there is very little accountability in the development system.The World Bank and IMF, he asserts, don’t measure the benefits gained by their expenditures.According to Easterly, who spent 16 years at the World Bank, their principal measure of success is whether money left their coffers, not whether it achieved its intended change. What, then, does the former World Bank economist recommend for development? Rather than support a topdown World Bank plan imposed by experts from outside, he would put money into bottom-up grassroots efforts born from within the country. Societies are complex and unique, says Easterly; they cannot be programmed into success. Rather, they must grow bit by bit through trial and error. To drive home the distinction, Easterly says the development world can be divided into planners and searchers. “Planners,” he says, “apply global blueprints; searchers adapt to local problems. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what [they] needed; searchers find out if the customer is satisfied.” In the years I have lived and worked in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, I have been deeply impressed by the ingenuity, resilience, and industriousness of the local people. I have seen, for example, an upper-class Kenyan woman develop an income-generating program for women infected with HIV in one of Nairobi’s slums (see Another community in Kenya has refused to wait for outside assistance to improve its situation; its members de-silted an old reservoir by hand, restoring green to the land with the

new water source and making possible the cultivation and sale of sweet potatoes (see These are examples of local people searching for sustainable solutions. To support such efforts, I began a nonprofit organization called Africa Rising ( But that is not to say that I have cast my vote entirely with Easterly’s worldview. Although he states that “searchers find things that work,” what I have seen is that virtually no one working in development, including the grassroots “searchers,” evaluates the effects of one’s work. Private companies will measure their success by their profit margin, but that is not the same as a benefit to the wellbeing of customers or the country. Nonprofit organizations may ask whether the intended recipients feel they benefited from the program, but there can be a big difference between perceived benefits and real benefits. Most often, programs are judged by their intentions rather than their results. This holds true for bottom-up initiatives as much as it does for top-down programs. For this reason, one of the goals of Africa Rising is to help the organizations we support to gain skills in various types of evaluation.

Please don’t feed the vampires I also take Easterly and Sachs with a grain of salt because they are both white male academic economists (this, said by a white male academic epidemiologist!).That’s a long distance from the people working at the grassroots in Kenya. A bit closer to them is George Ayittey (pronounced ah-YEE-tay), a Ghanaian professor of economics at American University in Washington, DC. Like Easterly, Ayittey has little faith in international development institutions. But his reasons for discontent and distrust, expressed in Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Africa’s Future (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), are different from Easterly’s. Ayittey’s principal concern is with African leaders. Too often, he says, they are experts at gaining and keeping power through violence and corruption, placating their constituents with favors. Because they often pocket large investments from development banks and private companies, stealing the benefits from their people, Ayittey calls them “the vampire elite.” One of the best at this game was Joseph Mobutu, president of what was then called Zaire, who ruled during the time I lived there. The jungle hospital I worked out of was a

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Aid is the problem

couple of hours motorcycle ride away from Gbadolite (pronounced bah-doe-LEE-tay), Mobutu’s home village. Driving to Gbadolite, I’d pass through miles of dense jungle and occasional small villages with mud huts and grass roofs. Then, suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, an immense expanse of pavement emerged from jungle. It was a landing strip for Mobutu’s private 747 jet. Its presence in the middle of the jungle can only be called absurd. During his reign, which Ayittey refers to as a kleptocracy, Mobutu amassed an obscene fortune estimated at $8 billion, most of it stashed in Swiss banks. Ayittey faults official Western development efforts for confusing the African people, those most needing assistance, with African leaders. When we direct aid to African leaders, very little of it makes it to those truly in need. Furthermore, he says that Western development money feeds a hungry nonprofit bureaucracy. He is referring to the bevy of large nonprofit organizations that deliver the projects funded by USAID. Several of them are based in the Chapel Hill area, where I live.They include Family Health International, Research Triangle Institute, and the Measure Evaluation Project. This model and critique can be extended to private donations to charitable organizations. Not only do Western organizations have a voracious appetite for government and private funds, Westerners in general, says Ayittey, are “crisis junkies.” Westerners love to charge into dire situations with solutions, usually ones that rely heavily on technology. Ayittey is not ungrateful for Western generosity. Rather, he feels it has not been invested in the right places. His principal concern is that when the former colonists gained their independence, they threw out everything associated with their colonial rulers. They ran away from democracy and market economies, even though both had rich expressions in their pre-colonial indigenous societies. Instead, they embraced what Ayittey calls statism, or autocratic state-driven economies that undervalue and disempower market forces. What, then, does Ayittey prescribe for moving African countries forward and emerging from the mire of extreme poverty? He says African governments should not be given any more development money until they build the institutions necessary for a self-sustaining society.The institutions he wants to see are an independent central bank, independent judiciary, independent and free media, independent electoral commission, neutral and professional armed security forces, and a professional and efficient civil service. Any development investments should be made in what he calls “the cheetah generation”— people who are figuring out how to move the country forward without waiting for government assistance. He calls those who wait for international aid or government assistance “the hippo generation.” Ayittey’s cheetahs are not dissimilar from Easterly’s searchers.

If Ayittey’s principal beef is with African leaders, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo’s is with aid itself. In her book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), she argues that not only does development aid fall into the hands of corrupt leaders, it helps create corruption. Large sums of money and the absence of transparency and accountability are a combination that proves irresistible for most of those with access to the aid flow. Moyo also demonstrates how development aid squelches markets, chokes off trade, and contributes to civil wars. Her solution? Gradually but decisively cut off all development aid within five years; forgive some debts; create incentives for investments (rather than development loans or grants) and trade; and build the civil institutions listed by Ayittey. As an example, Moyo points to the case of Botswana. Development aid is the majority source of income for some African countries. At the peak of its aid receipts, Botswana’s proportion did not exceed 20 percent of its national income. By the year 2000, it was down to 1.6 percent. In the meantime, the country pursued numerous market economy options. The result? Between 1968 and 2001 Botswana experienced one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. What do we say, then, about the ONE campaign and its advocacy for more aid? Among the experts I’ve read, Jeffrey Sachs stands alone as the cheerleader for development aid. The others, most notably the African experts, say that aid is the problem, not the solution. There is room for reform of development aid, but it needs to be radical reform in the direction of market incentives and accountability structures. For my part, then, I will not be adding my name to the ONE campaign. I know this won’t be a popular conclusion in some Christian circles, because they’ve adopted development aid as one of their tenets of global justice. But I will not be turning my back on the need for solutions to global disparities. I will be supporting grassroots African organizations, searchers, and cheetahs. n James Thomas is an associate professor of epidemiology and director of the public health ethics program at the University of North Carolina. He is also the founder and president of Africa Rising (

PRISM 2009


Arrested Development  
Arrested Development  

Is foreign aid productive or counterproductive? Four authors — two from the West and two from the developing world — weigh in on this import...