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Foreign Aid for Scoundrels


Of course, the colonial system itself fell apart soon after these statements. But this had less to do with any change in these ideas than with the postwar collapse of Britain and France as military powers. And as Wolton noted, the old colonial powers were reborn as aid donors who still today have the role of “protector and developmental economist.”

After all, the idea of aid is that, along with the necessary funds, the donors have superior knowledge—about health, agriculture, technology, institutions—that they are conveying to the recipients. Why let the ignorant recipients vote on what to do when the donors already know? As the future Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal said in 1956: “Super-planning HAS to be staged [with]…a largely apathetic and illiterate citizenry…this is why [planning] is unanimously endorsed by experts in the advanced countries.”

Of course, today’s “experts” can no longer be so frank, and have to use code words. One code phrase is “benevolent autocrats,” a concept sometimes disguised even further with code words like “developmental state” or “strong leadership.” The World Bank Growth Commission Report in 2008 gave as one of its few unambiguous conclusions: “Growth at such a quick pace, over such a long period, requires strong political leadership.” Unfortunately for this view, as Dani Rodrik of Harvard has recently summarized the academic consensus, “authoritarian growth” is not a generally workable formula but a “myth.”16 For every Lee Kuan Yew there is a Paul Biya.

On the above list of aid-receiving autocrats, the one most likely to be seen by outsiders as a “benevolent autocrat” is Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia previously had this role, before a few too many jailings and shootings. Before that it was Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, until it became clear that there was too much corruption in Uganda and that he had an unseemly determination to stay in power at all costs. Now Kagame seems to be going the same route, as shown by the Rwanda elections in August, which were preceded by repression of the opposition and mysterious assassination attempts. Benevolent autocrats have the distressing habit of not staying benevolent.

It is always possible that an autocrat will be able to advance development. But the donors’ use of this possibility is inherently undemocratic—they presume to evaluate the ruler instead of the citizens (usually based on questionable information), and thus undemocratically decide who should have democracy.

A similar presumption informs Paul Collier’s book Wars, Guns, and Votes(2009), in which he goes from an empirical proposition that democracy in poor countries increases political violence (a conceivable conclusion, even though based on dubious criteria for defining democracy in this case) to a recommendation that donors oppose elections in the “Bottom Billion” in the aftermath of civil wars. There may indeed be tradeoffs between democracy and other development goals, but why should outside aid donors be the ones who make these tradeoffs?

The concept of development helps rationalize the position of autocrats by postulating an unstoppable transition toward a bright future. This is why donors call all poor countries “developing.” Once the donors started paying lip service to democracy, they could label undemocratic aid recipients as “democratizing.” Let’s call this the Gerund Defense for supporting dictators. Thomas Carothers, an expert on the connections between aid and democracy, described the Gerund Defense in a classic article. He quoted a USAID description of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as a country in “transition to a democratic, free market society.”17 (Such “democratizing” is still notably weak in 2010.)

The World Bank’s response to Helen Epstein’s article in these pages accusing the bank of supporting Ethiopian tyranny is a classic Gerund Defense. The World Bank’s country director for Ethiopia and Sudan, Ken Ohashi, replied:

We start…with a belief that in every country people want…to develop a transparent, accountable…governance system. Ethiopia is no exception. Our task…is to support that innate tendency.
However, building institutions… takes a long time…. Changes are incremental, and at times they may suffer serious setbacks….18

The Gerund Defense has the attraction of being irrefutable. We don’t know the future, so we don’t know whether a particular event is a “setback” to “building institutions,” or whether the “building” is a myth. We could of course observe the actual trend in “democratizing”—but this has been discouraging in Ethiopia, where parties and politicians that seriously challenge the government risk prison. Donors could conceivably overlook anything, even the 1994 Rwanda genocide, as a temporary “setback” to an “innate tendency.” Such a view is not as easily dismissed as you might think.

The World Bank in 1991 concluded that “Rwanda has made a creditable effort toward social and economic development,” although the Hutu government was already complicit in massacres of hundreds of Tutsis by Hutu mobs in separate incidents in October 1990, January 1991, and February 1991.19 The World Bank gave several aid credits to the government between 1991 and 1993. To be fair, this looks worse in hindsight, because the bank could not have anticipated such a rare event as genocide. Yet in what must be the historic record for a tone-deaf conception of aid, the World Bank saw no reason not to issue an anodyne report on Rwanda on May 16, 1994—when, by the report’s own admission, the genocide had been going on for six weeks. The report made recommendations like:

As immediate steps to control the budget deficit the Government needs to (a) re-establish budgetary controls and discipline, (b) reduce spending in non-productive areas including the military….20

The World Bank did at least finally suspend aid during the genocide, but the French government continued to aid the Hutu government even after the genocide had become public knowledge.

Faced with this indifference to tyranny of even the most lethal kind, African intellectuals are increasingly beginning to protest. In her book Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo struck a nerve because she protested so eloquently against the paternalism, presumption, and double standards of the donor countries’ aid agencies. In many cases, foreign aid, as a review of her book put it, “fostered dependency, encouraged corruption and ultimately perpetuated poor governance and poverty.”21 One of her central points is that aid can, in effect, disenfranchise Africans, since the population cannot “hold its government accountable.” The courageous journalist Andrew Mwenda started an independent newspaper in Uganda and has already survived several attempts by the autocratic Museveni to silence him for his criticisms of corrupt and ineffective practices. The Sudanese entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim has created an “index of good governance” in Africa and awarded an annual prize to a democratic leader who has voluntarily left office. Far from bending to any lower standard for Africa, Ibrahim has refused to award the prize the last two years for lack of an adequate candidate.

The history of democracy is that of a fight against double standards, of recognizing equal rights for black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, women and men, Muslims and Hindus, the rich and the poor. When will aid donors cease support for unequal rights in their actions as well as their rhetoric?

Recognizing the double standards in aid, perhaps also speaking for the opposition leader who was a victim of “a new generation of democratic leaders,” Mo Ibrahim said:

All Africans have a right to live in freedom and prosperity and to select their leaders through fair and democratic elections, and the time has come when Africans are no longer willing to accept lower standards of governance than those in the rest of the world.22

He knows that recognition of democratic values eventually leads to their realization; lack of recognition continues the subjugation of the poor.


Aid For Scoundrels April 28, 2011

  1. 16

    Dani Rodrik, “The Myth of Authoritarian Growth,” Project Syndicate, August 9, 2010. See www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/rodrik46/English

  2. 17

    Thomas Carothers, Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion (Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 2004), p. 169. 

  3. 18

    Cruel Ethiopia,’” Letters, The New York Review, June 24, 2010. 

  4. 19

    Peter Uvin, Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda (Kumarian Press, 1998), p. 65. 

  5. 20

    Report No. 12465-RW, “Rwanda Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Growth,” Population and Human Resources Division, South-Central and Indian Ocean Department, Africa Region, May 16, 1994. 

  6. 21

    William Wallis, “Foreign Aid Critic Spreads Theory Far and Fast,” Financial Times, May 23, 2009. 

  7. 22

    Mohamed (Mo) Ibrahim, “Prerequisite to Prosperity: Why Africa’s Future Depends on Better Governance,” Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Winter 2009). 

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