The breakfast room of the Hotel Balzac on the Champs-Elysees is slowly filling up with the well-heeled when Dambisa Moyo makes her entrance in an oyster-colored sheath dress and platform heels half as high as her calves. She is, if not demure, very ladylike, tightly controlled and girlishly friendly. After attending a party in Paris the night before, she knows most of the people making their way to their 76 euro (US$97) breakfasts and says “hello” to them in her quiet American accent.
She is forthright, however, on the subject of what she refers to as “the book” rather than her book: Dead Aid, which was published this month and in which she argues, in no uncertain terms, that foreign aid has been bad for Africa and must stop.
People are listening. Rwandan government ministers read her book and asked for a meeting. A piece she wrote on the subject in a national newspaper drew responses from policy directors of three major charities. Paul Collier, a former mentor whose theories about the effects of geography and resources on economic growth she draws on, began his review of Dead Aid by comparing her to Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose critique of Islam has forced her into hiding. Many people will disagree vociferously with her; many will think she is being recklessly contrarian — but, as Collier pointed out, they cannot easily dismiss her.
It isn’t just her string of degrees — a bachelor’s in chemistry from Lusaka, Zambia, a master’s in finance from the American University in Washington, a master’s from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a doctorate in economics from Oxford — that has people listening. Nor is it her past jobs as consultant at the World Bank and head of economic research and strategy for sub-Saharan Africa at Goldman Sachs or the fact that Dead Aid is written by an African woman in a time when critics bemoan a lack of big-idea books from women. The reason Moyo is garnering so much attention is that everyone knows things aren’t quite right and that something must be done.
Moyo would be the first to admit that others before her have made the argument that aid simply doesn’t work. William Easterly makes the case in The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, while Peter Bauer, the Hungarian-born economist to whom Moyo dedicated her book, argued that large transfers of aid were a mistake as far back as the 1960s.
It is a common argument in Africa, too: Moyo’s mother, chair of a leading Zambian bank, and her father, a linguist-turned-anti-corruption campaigner, couldn’t believe she was spending evenings and weekends on writing tens of thousands of words about what they felt was self-evident.
“They were kind of, like: ‘So what? It’s kind of the emperor has no clothes. Yes, nice book. Great that you could articulate it, and you can turn the pages, but everybody knows it doesn’t work,” Moyo said.
Moyo makes it clear at the outset what kind of aid she means. She does not mean humanitarian and emergency aid; she does not mean charity-based aid given to specific organizations and people on the ground to achieve specific things. Moyo herself sits on the boards of several charities, one of which distributes antiretrovirals.
Moyo is hopeful about a new attitude to food aid, whereby the money is used to buy food from farmers within a country and distribute it to those in need instead of flooding the market with foreign food that undercuts local growers. But she is critical of “systemic aid,” the vast sums regularly transferred from government to government or via institutions such as the World Bank.