“Smart Aid” for Africa

Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph Professor Emeritus - Northwestern University, Former Brookings Expert

April 7, 2009

Editor’s Note: The debate has heated up over whether western foreign aid has done Africa more harm than good. In an interview with Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview, Richard Joseph discusses the approach of “smart aid” and how a focus on incentives and accountability will lead to smart thinking about aid.

Jerome McDonnell: The aid for Africa debate seems to fall into two camps. One says that massive foreign aid from the West hasn’t worked and if it’s ceased, Africa would be better off. The other side says that the real problem is that Africa hasn’t received enough aid and that doubling or tripling levels would bring the desired result. Richard Joseph, do you and your colleagues have an opinion about these arguments?

Richard Joseph: We’ll we’re pretty much a plague on both your houses. My colleagues and I, we come pretty much down the middle on this. We say we are not part of the aid optimists or the aid pessimists. In fact we don’t really find that debate very helpful, at all. Aid is a very large, very complex system, and there is need for it, if you just look at the current crisis we are under going in Africa, there’s a need for a lot of humanitarian aid, aid to post conflict societies, and there’s also going to be aid to help countries deal with this economic recession. So we can’t run away from it. On the other hand, simply saying things would be so much better in Africa if we gave them twice as much, three times, and so much more aid, in fact has been harmful. Myself and many of my colleagues, we have really been quite exasperated because that latter approach has really carried the day. And we have Africans themselves speaking out saying we’re tired of aid dependency, tired of being international welfare, we want to talk about growth and trade and investments and so on. So we’re taking a different approach, and we call it “smart aid”.

McDonnell: Is smart aid a combination of things that aren’t aid? You’re talking about trade and investment. The Clinton Administration use to talk about “trade not aid for Africa”. And people say we should drop the subsidies of agricultural products in this country, and that would be the best thing we could do for Africa. Is there a combination approach that is this smart aid you’re looking for?

Joseph: We’re saying, first of all, it’s important to sort of step back and discover that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves into a quagmire, a labyrinth, call it whatever you may. We have this very complex aid business now in the world going on, and part of this book was really having colleagues really look at specific aspects of it. It was a learning experience even for us, some of us who thought we knew. I mean there’s a chapter there on U.S. aid to Africa that even those of us who Americans thought were really up to it, will be really mind boggling when you see how complex it is. So first of all it’s necessary to step back and really sort of understand what’s really going on. Secondly, it’s being able to say what are we really after. And what we’re really after is really saying African countries want to progress in ways that all countries want to progress, all peoples want to progress. They want to grow their economy, they want to see prosperity. They want to be able to take part of basic things like health, education and so on. So you have to ask to what extent what we’re doing is really contributing to that. And if it’s not, well then maybe we need to rethink it. My colleague Larry Diamond, who wrote a very good introduction to the book, he says it’s a real process of reinventing it. We emphasize two things, one – incentives, getting incentives right. Incentives in the sense that you have certain goals you’d like to achieve, you’d like to see certain kinds of behaviors. What sort of actions can actually promote that? And then – accountability. And here I must say, our new President Barack Obama is very right on this score. He hasn’t had to say much about Africa, it didn’t come up in the campaign. We’re still waiting to hear what the policy’s going to be. But the few times he has spoken he’s really right on the mark. He recognizes the governance deficiencies, the institutional failings, the corruption. But he also says a number of things, one – we’re going to respect you. We’re going to deal with you on a basis of respect. Secondly, accountability – we are going to hold you accountable. We’re willing to provide assistance but we want you to be accountable. And we want you to be accountable to your people, not just to us. So I think that we have the elements out there, of not only of smart aid, but smart thinking about aid.

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