Michael Gerson on Dead Aid: Dead Wrong

In today’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson offers a largely critical review of Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid. Accusing the book of pushing “the envelope of absurdity” Gerson claims that under Moyo’s proposal, “many now alive would be dead.”

Excerpts below, full piece here. You can read more about this Hot Topic here.

Moyo is on firm ground in criticizing decades of direct foreign assistance to African governments. Such aid has often propped up corrupt elites, shielded leaders from the consequences of their own incompetence and delayed reforms necessary for the development of working markets. She is correct in emphasizing the decisive role of trade, direct foreign investment and local capital in the development of poor nations — sources of opportunity that dwarf aid flows in size and importance.

But Moyo does not take sufficient account of the broad reaction against this kind of direct aid beginning in the 1990s. The United States started taking a much more targeted and strategic approach. The Millennium Challenge Account directed new aid to nations willing to work as responsible partners, dedicated to reform and transparency. Initiatives on AIDS and malaria required and achieved measurable outcomes and have often worked through civil society instead of giving money directly to African governments.

But it is perhaps for the best that Moyo did not write on these issues, because she knows little about them. Referring to America’s AIDS program, she states: “In 2005, the United States pledged US $15 billion over five years to fight AIDS (mainly through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). . . . But this had strings attached. Two-thirds of the money had to go to pro-abstinence programmes.” The year of the pledge was 2003. And last year about one-thirteenth of the program was dedicated to both abstinence and marital faithfulness programs. It is not a small thing for an economist to be off by a factor of nine. And it is not a minor thing for Moyo to dismiss and distort the achievements of a foreign aid program that helped save her homeland of Zambia from social and economic ruin. In 2004, 7 percent of Zambians who needed AIDS drugs were receiving them. By September, that figure should exceed 66 percent. AIDS drugs, admittedly, do not guarantee economic growth. But I suspect that a generation of hopeless mass death would have undermined Zambia’s economic prospects.

If Moyo’s point is that some aid can be bad, then it is noncontroversial. If her point is that all aid is bad, then it is absurd. The productive political agenda is to increase the good while decreasing the bad. The productive academic debate is distinguishing between them.

-Chris Scott

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