Is Aid to Africa Doing More Harm Than Good?


NPR (National Public Radio) has recently held an interesting debate on the effectiveness of foreign aid in Africa featuring six experts with opposing views on the subject. A recording of the entire debate is available online. Here are a few key excerpts:

John McArthur, associate director of the Center for Globalization and Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said: “Let’s talk about some of those successes. There’s the smallpox eradication that happened around the world, of course, thanks to the U.N.’s World Health Organization that set the target, set up a Smallpox Eradication Unit and got rid of the disease. There’s the fight against AIDS. In 2002, we had perhaps 50,000 people on anti-retroviral treatment in Africa.”

William Easterly, a professor of economics at New York University, countered: “We’ve already spent, as official donors, $600 billion in aid to Africa over the past 45 years, and after all that, children are still not getting the 12-cent medicines (to fight malaria). … So aid would be a great thing if it worked. But the sad tragedy is that — and this is really one of the scandals of our generation — money meant for the most desperate people in the world is simply not reaching them.”

David Rieff, a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and contributing editor to The New Republic, emphasized the lack of incorporation of local knowledge into administering foreign aid: “The problem with aid, in short, is that it sets itself up as the kind of know-all and end-all. …Aid, by definition, is outsiders telling people in a place how to do it.”

Gayle Smith, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, admitted that foreign aid has its problems, but asked: “If we conclude that aid is doing more harm than good, and therefore we should get rid of it, what’s our alternative?”

C. Payne Lucas, a co-founder and former president of Africare and senior adviser to AllAfrica Global Media, answered: “No, aid is (currently) not right, but we have an opportunity to change it. One thing we have learned over the years: Our programs must be owned by Africans, they must be African-led, they must be sustainable and they must be accountable.”

George Ayittey, president of the Free Africa Foundation, added: “You need to separate the humanitarian impulse from the record of aid itself. … We’re not suggesting now don’t help Africa. But if you want to help Africa, folks, please, for Pete’s sake, ask the Africans what they want. Don’t assume that you know better than the Africans. What Africans want — three things: reform, reform, reform (political, economic, intellectual).”

So does foreign aid do more harm than good? The key problem of aid is that even successful programs rarely address the underlying institutional core of Africa’s development problems. Better health, education, and infrastructure are undeniably important for greater prosperity, but not sufficient. Lasting improvements require transparent and accountable democratic governance and inclusive, vibrant economy that creates a level-playing field for all. Meanwhile, African political and economic systems are all too often permeated by corruption and inefficiency. Foreign aid (at least in the form of the existing aid system) has done little to change that because it fails to create grassroots ownership of reforms.