The image of Africa is often shown in the media as a poverty ridden continent in desperate need of aid. In turn, sympathizing with Africa has become a trend among the rich, with stars like Angelina Jolie and Bonno publicly embracing Africa and helping to raise tens of millions of dollars through live events and concerts. Helping the poor is not a new phenomenon, the rich world has been giving aid to the poor world for roughly half a century; however, as Jonathan Glennie argues in his book “The trouble with aid: Why less could mean more for Africa,” aid to Africa has actually caused more poverty, worse basic services for poor people and damage to already unstable democratic institutions. Through an honest assessment of both the positive and negative consequences of aid, Glennie manifestly demonstrates that, while aid should not be immediately cut, the answer to the many problems Africa faces is not simply more aid. Rather than the Make Poverty History slogan “Double aid to Africa,” Glennie suggests the opposite: “Halve aid to Africa,” and of course he is right. The solution lies in establishing a promising and beneficial aid system that ensures a sustainable development and a reliable socio-economic growth for Africa.
Glennie maintains that he isn’t opposed to aid but rather calls himself an aid ‘realist.’ Aid realism, he proclaims, means not getting “swept away by the ethical glamour to ‘do something’ when a proper analysis shows that what is being done is ineffective or harmful.” Therefore, his book sets out to provide a careful analysis of the overall impact of aid on Africa. All the impacts of aid, positive and harmful, long and short term, easy to measure and hard to calculate, must be taken into account if we are to get a true picture of how aid is contributing to or undermining efforts to reduce poverty. That the author, an aid practitioner himself, reaches the conclusion that much aid has been deleterious and should in fact be reduced is compelling. He does not deny that there are aid activists and charities out there with good intentions; however, he singles out for criticism the bilateral donors, laying bear the aid politic and the reason that it is seen as an easy and strategic alternative by developed world governments to making the hard decisions that would affect long-lasting change in the developing world.
Glennie presents, in very clear terms, the effects that aid has had on African economies, laying particular emphasis on the indirect impacts, all the more deadly because they are often overlooked in other assessments. Indeed, it is the conditions rather than the aid money itself that has the most lasting effect on the recipient economy. The balance of evidence suggests that the lasting impact of policy conditions is greater than that of the actual financial resource transfers associated with them. Over the last twenty-five years, western governments and institutions have gotten very involved in setting the policy agendas of the majority of countries in Africa and the aid system has been their tool of choice, with trade agreements and other forms of diplomatic pressure used to underpin it. In 1962, US president John Kennedy asserted that “Aid is a method by which the United States maintains a position of influence and control around the world.” As Glennie attests, the largest recipients of US aid are not the poorest countries but those the United States sees as strategically important. Recent large increases in US aid to West Africa are strongly linked to the fact that the US has identified the region as the potential source of a quarter of its energy needs in fifteen years’ time. The West is giving aid not because it works but as a cost-efficient way of buying economic advantage and political support, all the while, making it seem to be responding to the continuing and unacceptable poverty that exists in most of the world.
African nations are now developing policies which respond to what it knows to be donor preferences; therefore, government capacity, its ability to plan and develop coherent policies, is undermined by dependence on aid. The reordering of government away from the people and towards donors has grave implications for the development of an accountable state. The more African governments are dependent on international aid, the less ordinary citizens such as farmers, workers, teachers, or nurses have a meaningful say in politics and economic policies. Furthermore, not only do citizens lose what trust they might have had to their ability to influence their governments, but the nature of people entering politics may even change, with people motivated by a desire to change things, being replaced by people seeking a slice of the government cake. This can be detrimental for the future of Africa as it can easily lead to an increasingly corrupted governmental body. Furthermore, Glennie claims that aid can further lead into corruption when there is urgent pressure to disburse large amounts of money without proper oversight mechanisms being in place.
To admit to the public now that, actually, aid in many countries in Africa is not doing much good and might be doing a good deal of damage is never going to be easy. Still, what is required is a deliberate change of direction, moving away from aid dependence. So the question is – where should the money come from? Glennie concludes the book with a full chapter on prescriptions for change, and in keeping with the rest of the book, these are potentially achievable, radical and realistic at the same time. In an ideal world, everyone would pay something, so that everyone has the right to demand an accountable government. Ultimately, Glennie states that a strong personal income tax collection system is needed; however, that is a long way from being possible in much of Africa, where people do not receive an income, or do so in an informal way that is hard to register. Low income and mostly agricultural and rural-based economic agents form the backbone of the country; however, the privatization of banks does not cater to their needs as these banks lend to large borrowers such as the public sector, large enterprises and wealthy households. Therefore, developing more informal and semi-formal saving and investment mechanisms needs to be a top priority for Africa.
Overall, the dilemmas surrounding aid are not easy to solve, and will not melt away if enough money is thrown at them. Aid is not helping to build sustainable development, but rather creates increasingly dependent nations. A sustainable solution must go beyond immediate responses and focus on systems that work for the long term. We must look into why western societies invest in certain projects. What are the real reasons behind these initiatives – to help the poor or to benefit themselves? Most importantly, African governments need to reduce their dependence on aid to have the power to set their own development agenda, as well as regulate and formulate policy as they see fit, not as they are told to do by donors that stand to benefit from certain economic policies. Furthermore, rather than transferring millions to poor countries, we should be spending money on the development of new technologies, including life-saving drugs, renewable and clean energy, and other global public goods. After all, as Glennie argues “an investment in technologies that matter to Africans is an investment in Africa.”