Revisiting Dead Aid and rethinking the "Make Believe" in international aid.

dead aid

This post is somehow a follow-up on my early thoughts in The shrinking digital divide and other aid fairy tales.

I have been reading in "Dead Aid" by Dambisa Moyo, a book I have mentioned before.

First a common misunderstanding about this book: Moyo distinguishes three forms of aid:
- humanitarian aid, in the form of assistance in natural or man made disasters;
- charity aid, in the form of mostly smaller, localized and targeted assistance; and
- government aid.

In her book, she is only attacking "government aid", not the other two. Many misunderstood this.

I support her thoughts on the ineffectiveness of government aid even though it would be truly worth while to write a sequel to this book to also put the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and charity aid under the magnifying glass, but that is for another post.

Now, one of the points she makes is that in the past, aid to African governments (but I would generalize that to "any government") had political goals. She specifically mentions how aid was targeted to stop the hail of communism by the freshly independent African states in the 60ies and 70ies. And how the West poured aid money over any government as a form of financial assistance in exchange for their loyalty to the one and only true belief: Western Capitalism.

Little did the West care about the human rights abuses, the corruption or (God forgive) the inappropriate use of aid by the African governments. This grew to an institutionalized support of corrupt and often cruel dictators, for as long as they sang the song of the West, and not that of Moscow.
The fact that we also got cheap oil and minerals in exchange was definitively a good bonus. And the fact they were a good market for many of our cheap products (including Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola) and arms made us all sugar-happy. Hey, the other -Red- side did exactly the same too. Little did Moscow care how aid was used.
But this also made many African states aid dependent.

In my view, this is quite correct. And it was not only the anti-communist aid flavour which is worth to be mentioned, but we also clearly saw and still see an "anti-muslim aid flow" trying the stop the advances Islam made southwards through Africa.

Draw a horizontal line just north of the equator and you more or less have drawn the line between Muslim and Christian Africa. Check out those states on the border line. And see which have been able to count on the political, military and financial support from the West. South Sudan, Kenya, DRC, Uganda, CAR... (True the line goes a bit further North in the West). Interesting, no? So were all the secret US arms shipments stacked on Moyo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi and Entebbe airport in Uganda. And the tons of unlabeled cargo planes with registration numbers starting with "N". (which country has plane registrations starting with "N" again? Hmmmm.. the US, right?)

I always had -idealist as I am - an issue with the "politization" of aid. I have felt this first hand in Afghanistan and Iraq after both countries were invaded by the alliance of the willing (and their puppy dogs). As a humanitarian aid worker, not only did my conscience struggle, but I have seen the first hand consequences where the affiliation of aid agencies with 'occupying' powers made the former a target for hostilities. Many of us have died because of this alliance.

And what stopped us? Well.. we were not going to bite the hand that fed us, were we? Why would we, aid agencies and aid workers bite the hand of donors? Who are we to question the intentions of those who give us money? In the end, we are helping the poor, curing the sick, sheltering the homeless and feeding the starving masses, no? Would we question that many of these are caused by the same fraud political systems who donated us the money?

Yes, of course we realize that not everything was kosher, but shhht.. this is a well hidden secret, and not something to be talked about. The hand that feeds us, you know!

Now here is another thought: the same goes for the countries we work in. How much are we willing to compromise our conscience and work with corrupt and sometimes completely abusive or repressive governments because if we upset them, we 'might just as well be thrown out of the country'?

Asking the wrong questions is often already enough. Protesting loud enough for aid cargoes stuck at airports is enough reason to PNG. Pointing to corruption and syphoning off aid funds and goods is always a winner to get thrown out. That would not help the poor, we reason.

I am not cynical, I am realistic. We *have* to make compromises. We do have to close our eyes, bite our lip, and sit on our hands sometimes. But up to what point? Up to what point is this still ethical? As of what point are we becoming part of a corrupt system ourselves? We, the do-good-ers. We, the world changers. We, who mean well.

Sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Alertnet just published two excellent articles by Jan Kellett on this subject. Further food for thought: "Darfur: A humanitarian compromise too far?" Part 1 and Part 2. Enjoy!


Marvia 28 March, 2009 01:26  

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and something of your struggle on this matter. Believe me, working with the church I face a similar struggle sometimes especially partnering with groups I know have no interest in the people but just taking photos to show how 'good' they are at 'missions'. But that's another story as you say..

We live in the grey areas, in the struggle - and it's only striving to ensure that we keep our integrity intact that keeps us from just throwing in the towel and turning into rabid cynics sometimes.

Press on...and the struggle means you are still alive.


Paul C 28 March, 2009 09:59  

The unfortunate truth is that we are all complicit, but that we all have the choice. I didn't go back to Afghanistan once I realised how problematic the politicisation was in practice (although I was fine with the war in principle); I had an objection to the war in Iraq in principle, and left when I realised that objection poisoned the well of the humanitarian effort. I don't work for organisations that I don't think genuinely hold humanitarian principles, and I don't work for people that don't even see the flaws in the system.

Maybe this is self-defeating - as you say, there has to be compromise, and it probably explains why I haven't worked much in the last few years. Yet imagine if everybody in the sector insisted on that, instead of feeling like their principles are being slowly eroded by the very system in which they work. It might lead to real change in the system... or maybe the gaps would just be filled by a thousand and one well-meaning recent graduates from America and western Europe.

Maybe my approach is completely self-defeating after all. I certainly feel defeated.

Peter 28 March, 2009 12:41  


That is what I keep on saying to myself: For as long as I am fighting, this means I am still alive.

@Paul C:
I truely believe that continue to fighting the "make believe" from within the system DOES make a difference. I don't want to stay on the sideline. I want to continue to "kick the people until they have a conscience" (as my favourite Belgian writer Louis Paul Boon used to say).
Progress is slow. The fight is painful and sucks up a lot of energy, but the cause is worth it. That is how I feel!

Thanks to both of you to comment.


Mats 28 March, 2009 19:14  

Working in the Humanitarian "Industry" has opened my eyes much more than I would ever have imagined and while I will never put the blind eye to the wrongs I see, I do bite the lip and sometimes its quite bloody. I also believe that the main (but not only) way to change a larger system is to be part of it and chip away at the wrongs even though moving mountains is a very slow and painful process. Sometimes I might think that there is no progress at all but then suddenly something has changed and I wonder maybe someone somewhere did listen after all. If not and they came to the same conclusion... Even better. Then I know there are more people chipping away. The day I feel I have no more energy to continue chipping, I know its the time to get out as otherwise I would become part of the problem. There is however a lot of people who should get out as their drive to make change is lost already.

Paul C 29 March, 2009 20:47  

Mats: what if the system is fundamentally flawed, and all the changes one could make to it are simply re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic?

Marco Zennaro 02 April, 2009 08:52  

There was a comment on today's Guardian on Moyo's book (which I haven't read). You can find it here:


Peter 02 April, 2009 11:15  

Thanks Marco!!! will read it this weekend!


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