A Few Thoughts On An Aid Antagonist: Dambisa Moyo
Wednesday evening Dambisa Moyo regaled the Washington, D.C. intelligentsia with a chat about her new book How the West Was Lost. She was reliably controversial, verbally dexterous, and painfully pessimistic. Ultimately, though, I feel most people seriously misunderstand Dr. Moyo. While she does make grandiose predictions and sweeping statements about the decline of the West and about aid’s acrimonious outcomes, her role is not that of problem solver or expert analyzer. Her role is best viewed as conversation pusher, agenda setter, and question inducer. Many of her suggestions are said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and more still are explicitly clarified (by her) as being a bit facetious. Let’s consider one of her arguments from her last book, Dead Aid.
In Dead Aid, Moyo suggested that the aid tap to Africa should be completely shut off with five years warning. She did not say this because she literally thinks that a blanket solution like completely shutting off all aid to all of Africa in five years is the best solution to Africa’s development woes. No, she provides it merely as a poignant point to highlight what aid is supposed to be and what it is not supposed to be. The Marshall Plan was a plan (I’m not going to argue here about its efficacy). Under the Marshall Plan, the goals and agenda were very actionable and time-aware. However, most major aid organizations, like USAID and the World Bank, are very much embedded institutions. It is healthy to talk about when the aid tap will shut off, to at least create such expectations. The UK is apparently ending aid to 16 countries in its new budget. It is important for this to be the expectation. It is important for the aid industry to look to examples where international aid has not been a mainstay for development, like in China, Singapore, perhaps Somaliland - there are various examples to look to. Moyo suggests in Dead Aid that she is not against all aid, just most aid and permanent aid. That’s a conversation worth having.
Moyo seemed to most aggravate the audience when she offered advice to decrease governmental interventions into industries and markets, and to increase governmental interventions into industries and markets. Indeed, such advice seems totally contradictory and befuddling. Her claim, as I understood it, is that there is little to no role for government subsidies and a much greater role for sorts of “organizing” regulations. Yes, I cannot say that I am convinced by such arguments. Essentially, she offers advice that is far from actionable. However, her basic point is that the U.S. and Western Europe would benefit from having more farsighted policymakers. Political myopia causes the U.S. to fail at aiming for long-term goals. Indeed, one specific suggestion she offers is longer election cycles. Perhaps, 6 year terms for U.S. presidents and anything longer than 2 years for representatives. It’s not a bad point, but it’s almost as useless as saying that there should be less money in political campaigns. We all know this to be true, but how we accomplish such a thing remains elusive.
Ultimately, I think Moyo tends too much towards populist psychobabble. However, her desire for
book sales controversy means that she raises points many establishment types are wary of bringing up. So yes, value Moyo’s controversy insofar as it encourages interesting conversations, but don’t expect her to offer clear solutions.