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The trouble with aid - why less could mean more for Africa

By Jonathan Glennie
Published by Zed Books
Website: www.zedbooks.co.uk
2008, 175pp, ISBN 978 1 84813 040 1(Pb), £12.99

Policy analyst Jonathan Glennie is one of a growing chorus of development workers who are calling for a radical overhaul of the system of government development aid because, they believe, it's doing more harm than good. Glennie's succinct and direct rebuttal contends that aid to Africa has, in many cases, actually increased poverty and hunger and damaged democracy. Even emergency food aid can, according to Glennie, "make the causes of famine worse", by "depressing prices, reducing profitability for food producers and destroying markets."

For Glennie, the present system of overseas development aid is a form of institutionalised exploitation and an aid revolution is the only answer. But complications with his approach arise quickly, especially as he tackles aid effectiveness. "Aid's advocates," he writes, "rely too heavily on the direct impacts of aid, as if these occurred in a bubble, while the many other impacts are ignored." On the surface this seems like the basis for a reasonable call for a broader and longer term approach to measuring the impact of aid, but it also opens a very slippery 'can of worms'. For example, at which arbitrary future point should you stop the ever-continuing chain of cause-and-effect to reflect on the moral worth of a past project? Surely we need some kind of "bubble" in order to define the limits of the enquiry and make ethical judgements possible at all?

Similarly, when it comes to formulating policies, why aim to save lives when over time this increases the likelihood of a neo-Malthusian disaster of overpopulation, famine and death for an even greater number of people - a prospect that would ruffle even the boldest utilitarian. And if, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, we're all dead in the long run, surely it's easy to understand why what Glennie decries as the "we should at least do something" attitude prevails in public policy.

But even with these conundrums unanswered, Glennie offers some suggestions on how to get the aid revolution started: there should be fewer conditions attached to aid and more autonomy granted to recipient nations; for the poorest countries, trade protectionism should be encouraged in order to cushion infant industries from the cold-blooded rigours of the free market and to encourage some level of self-sufficiency. Among other recommendations, he calls for international property laws to be relaxed, arguing that they have "made it harder for today's poor countries to do what today's rich countries did when they were poor - copy foreign technologies." Good governance also comes high up his wish list, despite remaining little more than a pipe dream in many countries for the foreseeable future.

If Glennie is aiming to shake-up the system, The trouble with aid certainly hits the spot. A concise and forthright critique and summary of the aid dilemma, its lack of prohibitive jargon and lofty rhetoric afford it wide and deserved appeal.

Date published: January 2009


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