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08.02.2009 Feature Article

Who Best Aids The Aid Debate: Yao Graham, Dambisa Moyo or Joseph Stiglitz?

His demeanour was very scholastic, as we have always known him, and he made it count in the way he went about answering a simple question on tomatoes. His appearance was so simple you might think he had underdressed for the main presenter of a documentary on primetime television: an inexpensive-looking short-sleeved shirt over a pair of trousers, and a very ordinary pair of shoes. That quite suited the simple profile we have always dealt with. The question was just as simple: If we cut the importation of tin tomatoes, would we survive with what we grow in Ghana? Instead of choosing the conference room of an international institution as the backdrop, the producer decided to film empty chairs on a desolate field, occasionally interspersing the footage with snapshots of market women doing business in a typical African market. Everything was simple, except the presentation, which was fantastic. He remained quite positive about the prospects of local entrepreneurship, after presenting some good arguments on whether free trade, when followed in its most honest form, will benefit poor countries. The camera zoomed in, then out, with a long-angle shot of the presenter supposedly dissolving into the desolation of the weathered fields. The symbolism and the metaphor were unmistakable but the broader questions posed by Dr Yao Graham some six or seven years ago, about free trade, aid and dependence, remain unanswered.

Today, Dr Graham keeps in his office a can of tomato paste produced by local farmers in Wenchi. That serves as a palpable indication of the potential of local farmers. He is not against direct foreign investment, aid, or grant; what he doesn't favour is the “monoculture of a single development model rooted in neo-liberal economics.” Well, that is something I picked from the sea of papers he has presented at numerous conferences around the world. From my base in Ottawa, Canada, I reached the ultra-eloquent Third World Network Coordinator on telephone, for his side of the aid debate. In full-throated ease, he lent the discussion so much intellectual aid that if his thoughts could be quantified in money, I would have thought that would go a long way in solving half the problem. But the aid debate is not all about money or the lack thereof; it is about how it has been managed by the recipient countries and the conditionalities that donor countries attach to their assistance. It is even more about the vastness of the African continent and the chequered political administration of the region. Graham is emphatic: “A country like Nigeria should not be receiving aid, but you cannot say the same thing for Niger or Burkina Faso.” He dismisses the claim by a Zambian Afropolitan, Dambisa Moyo that the aid debate has not faired well because it has been championed by musicians like Bono and Bob Geldof, instead of well-informed political and economic brains. “There was aid long before Bono and Geldof.” He was almost impatient with that line of thinking, but he was quite patient in answering the follow-up question: “Can we set a time frame to end aid, say five years, as the Afropolitan intellectuals are suggesting?” He doesn't think it is an easy prospect considering the enormity of the problems on the continent, but he expresses optimism with all-consuming conviction: “It would be good if we could…”

So, who are these Afropolitians? I heard about Dambisa Moyo when I was in London. I longed for a chat with her but somehow I decided to divert my energies somewhere else. She is, I understand, a gorgeous Zambian girl with a CV as powerful as Spio-Garbrah's. She has Harvard and Oxford degrees under her belt. She has also done some thinking for important international bodies: she ever co-authored a World Bank annual World Development report. And she had done a book: Dead Aid, something worthy enough to interest the respected Financial Times newspaper. Her take on aid is perhaps the most radical I have heard since this debate started before I was born: That donor countries should pick up telephones and tell African countries that in five years the taps would be turned off. That way, African governments would look for alternative sources of funding for their infrastructural developments and sustenance. They could, say, make a forceful presence on the international bond market. Quite laudable, but how do we do that?

Stylistically, her position is not very different from other African development economists who have shepherded the aid debate for so long. Their stance has often been 'antagonistic' towards the West. So, we have become used to expressions like the elephant and the ant, a phrase that has become popular in the lexicon of trade talks. And they back these expressions with actions, such as walking out of conferences, as we witnessed not too long ago. They have been unequivocal in their demands, and have yelled them at a crescendo: 'Give us greater autonomy, do not impose policies on us, remove aid conditionalities etc.' But Dambisa takes the discussion to a different level: She thinks we have been pampered for so long, so we are not thinking. Rich countries should stop helping poor countries, so that poor countries, in their desperation, would think out strategies to improve their situation. It is just like a pampered child who would not eat porridge because the milk from the mother's breast is sweeter. To get her to eat, the mum can decide to wean the baby at once, or apply something as bitter as colloquintinda or acerbe on the nipple, or even good old quinine, as my mum did to me.

Dambisa makes other interesting observations. If we could ever imagine Agya Koo or Bob Okala representing Ghana to sign an agreement on bilateral trade between Ghana and Nigeria, then we should not worry why the call to end global poverty has meant nothing for those who should listen most. Dambisa thinks the exercise has been a joke because it has been championed by musicians like Bono and Geldof. Would anybody trust Michael Jackson with solutions on the credit crunch, she asks? Well, not quite; at least, not these days, when he himself is in crisis. Maybe he would have made sense in the 80's when he thrilled everybody with his Thriller. Still, Dambisa's point cannot be dismissed altogether: Has the approach to the crisis not been too much of a drama?

The approach to solving the many problems of the poor is what forms the thesis of Joseph Stiglitz's bestseller Globalisation and Its Discontents. Stiglitz, an advisor to President Clinton's economic team and Nobel Prize winner for Economics in 2001, shocked the Bretton-Woods establishment when he challenged the long history of hypocrisy and the inequities in the international economic order. These things had been questioned before; but this time we had an insider standing outside and telling the story of the poor from the standpoint of the rich. It sat well with the point people in the developing world had been making all along: How does anybody sit in Washington or London and decide what the average farmer in a poor African country needs, especially when they haven't been there? Most of us loved him because he questioned why the IMF and the World Bank were headed by people from the rich countries, and not personnel from poor economies who best know what they need to solve their problems. There was a 'historical anachronism' that ensured that those who were behind the globalisation agenda did not bother why the developing world was tied to the apron-strings of the West. Globalisation was helping the rich than the poor. In the end, there was a semblance of global governance in place, but there was no global government. And, where there is no government, governance is often difficult. These were truisms - audaciously presented. Stiglitz became a friend of the poor on account of these startling revelations.

This was in 2002, and I was learning for the first time that the IMF and the World Bank belonged to the poor in the third world, just as it belongs to the Americans who managed them. I had been wondering: If we are always at the receiving end of things, would we ever have the same authority as those who gave? Globalisation and Its Discontents helped settle a few of these issues. But has the situation with the poor changed since Stiglitz exposed these discontents? Perhaps, it has gotten worse. Not too long ago, former British Premier called Africa a blight on the conscience of the world. Today, the statistics are still terrible: 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day, 1 billion manage on a dollar a day, and about 850 people are malnourished, scrapping their daily bread from nowhere. And they don't get the bread daily. So while the death a child in rich countries is news, it is no news that 27,000 children in developing countries die everyday. 65% of able-bodied men and women with secondary or some college education cannot find work.

I have stopped following the statistics because they get worse by the day. Well, there are improvements in a few areas. For example, current information has it that 62% of 42 African countries are making progress in realising the first millennium development goal: reducing by half the number of people who do not have access to food. I have before me literature from the hundreds of charities concerned with helping the poor in Africa, as well as raw data from important international bodies that deal with the poor. They are all saying the same thing: remove trade barriers, empower women, finance local entrepreneurs etc. You cannot miss their central plea: we must double our efforts to face failure. Equally, they are definite about the time we have to achieve our millennium objectives: 2015. There are eight of them, including combating HIV/Aids and a global partnership for development. How far have we gone? We have some six years to go.

When Stiglitz suggested that those who could best help the situation of the poor are the poor, he expressed great confidence in the intelligence of African economists, “many of them trained at the world's best academic institutions. These economists have the significant advantage of familiarity with local politics, conditions, and trends.” Well, perhaps, Stliglitz would wonder why none of these economists has had the 'audacity' to walk into the offices of their country's most important newspaper, to demand to edit it for a day. Bono may not be the person to champion the big campaign against poverty, but he took a lot of us by surprise when he offered to edit the UK based Independent newspaper, writing in bold red ink the serious issues of poverty that he has been singing. Of course, it is refreshing to watch TED broadcast the bold ideas of Prof George Ayittey. Yao Graham could analyse those disturbing imbalances in very eloquent prose without a slip or a waffle. Dambisa sets us a deadline and offers a threatening position: cut the aid and let's do it ourselves. Have we done too much poetry or it is the prose that needs to change?

Benjamin Tawiah is a journalist; he lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Email: [email protected], [email protected]

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, © 2009

This author has authored 235 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwesiTawiahBenjamin

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