Aid for scoundrels

From the NYRB:

‘Donor countries that claim they are politically neutral are not. Aid increases the slush funds available to the government, financing more repression of democratic opposition. The government can deny aid to opposition supporters, as a new Human Rights Watch report found occurred in Ethiopia in 2009–2010. As one farmer told HRW, “[Village] leaders have publicly declared that they will single out opposition members, and those identified as such will be denied…access to fertilizers, ‘safety net’ and even emergency aid….” Aid also increases the incentive to stay in power, making the government all the more unwilling to risk the voters’ verdict. The African writer and economist Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid (2009) observes this tendency. “With easy access to cash,” she writes, “a government remains all-powerful, accountable (and only then nominally) to its aid donors.” How can donor countries and agencies live with such hypocrisy? From the very beginning, aid history is awash with rationalizations for donors supporting autocracy…

…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.”

Well, yes. The article looks mostly at aid to Africa, where dictators such as Kagame and Biya have been the recipients of huge quantities of aid during their rule without this translating into any notable improvement in the quality of life of their citizens. Biya has received $35bn since he took power in 1982, whereas the average citizen of Cameroon has, since then, grown poorer. It reminded me of the excellent ‘Rule of Experts’ by Timothy Mitchell, which while focussing on Egypt makes the following general point:

‘Development discourse wishes to present itself as a detached centre of rationality and intelligence. The relationship between West and non-West will be constructed in these terms.’

Development is construed as an unstoppable march forward towards something – something often ill-defined and left undiscussed. As Easterly’s article points out, the progression of development is not necessarily a march forwards, either.

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