Will development aid really change because of Moyo risin'?

Dambisa Moyo during Wednesday's debate in Amsterdam.   Photo WFA
Dambisa Moyo during Wednesday's debate in Amsterdam.  Photo WFA

Published: 9 October 2009 16:57 | Changed: 9 October 2009 20:07

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, who advocates scrapping aid to Africa, creates a sensation wherever she goes. Her critics say she is nothing but a media hype, but she is nevertheless an African voice in a debate dominated by white men.

By Mark Schenkel

Dambisa Moyo has been described as the 'Ayaan Hirsi Ali of development aid.'   Photo Geraint Lewis
Dambisa Moyo has been described as the 'Ayaan Hirsi Ali of development aid.'
Photo Geraint Lewis

It was standing room only during Damisa Moyo's lecture on friday at the Veerstichting, a student organisation in Leiden. Just like on Wednesday in Amsterdam, Moyo delivered her message in a few strong sentences: "Stop all development aid to African governments. A trillion dollars have not helped. Aid has only corrupted Africa and made it inert."

Her book, Dead Aid, in which she makes the case against development aid, propelled her to The New York Times best sellers list early this year. Time magazine included Moyo (40) among the 100 most influential people on earth. African leaders ask for her advice. Everywhere she goes she creates a sensation, including in the Netherlands, where her book has just been published in the Dutch translation.

'She's cute'

The question is why. The criticism that development aid isn't working, or is counterproductive, is almost as old as development aid itself. And experts have torn Moyo's book apart because of its juggled statistics, one-sided interpretations and lack of a credible alternative to development aid.

Ton Dietz, scientific director of the institute for development issues at the University of Amsterdam, offers an explanation: "She's cute, glamorous and well-spoken. This works well in an entertainment-driven society."

Farah Karimi, director of Oxfam Novib, also refers to Moyo as a 'media hype'. Karimi attended Moyo's lecture on Wednesday in Amsterdam, where an extra room had to be opened up to accommodate the hundreds of people who showed up. Karimi says it's a good thing Moyo has given the debate about the effectiveness of aid a new impulse, but she feels the "shortsighted" way she has done so is "inherent of the times we live in".

Karimi compares Moyo to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch anti-Islamcrusader. "In the end, what has Hirsi Ali really accomplished with her harsh criticism of Islam? She offered few solutions for the integration issue, and she polarised people. Who still talks about her now?"

Dietz is afraid the media's portrayal of Moyo as an expert has undermined the support base for development aid at a time when more nuance is what is needed.

'Very naive story'

The Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) is about to publish an evaluation of 60 years of Dutch development aid. Politicians and aid organisations are preparing for a debate about the fundamentals of policies. Development minister Bert Koenders has anticipated the criticism by announcing his own cuts in what he called the "aid industry". The right-wing liberals in the Dutch parliament want development aid cut by half; the anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV) wants to scrap it altogether.

Jan Willem Gunning, a professor of development economics at the Free University of Amsterdam, was Moyo's promoter at Oxford. Gunning too calls Dead Aid "a media hype" and "a very naive story", but he is less concerned about the book's negative impact.

Gunning: "It is good that Moyo's African voice is being heard, because until now the debate has been monopolised by white men like me." He thinks readers will see Dead Aid for what it's worth. "My students browse through it to stay up to date, but they are not fundamentally changing their opinion because of it."

But Dietz is more worried about disgruntled voters who will never read Dead Aid or attend a Moyo debate, but only remember the sound-bites they picked up on the internet. He compares Moyo with Dutch anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders (PVV). "The same professionalism, the same extreme simplification of the message, the same lack of serious alternatives."

The subject of all this controversy sighs deeply when she is confronted with the criticism. Then she responds like she does during all her public appearances: driven, firm and self-assured. "I stand by everything I have written in Dead Aid," she says. "Western countries have had their chance in Africa. It is time for different solutions."