Foreign aid: Curse or boon?

Here are three related but separate arguments why foreign aid is hurting Africa and its people -- the most strident of which is made by a Ugandan radio journalist, Andrew Mwenda.

First, the New York Times has a great piece that reveals how "donors that have poured more than $300 billion into African nations since 1980 .. watched too much of it vanish into a sinkhole of fraud, malfeasance and waste." It goes on to look at whether the new standards for governance proposed by Tony Blair will make a difference this time around.

Der Spiegel strikes a tougher and less optimistic tone than the Times, but also expands the discussion to include the skewed priorities of donor nations:

Basically it is always the same reasons why development aid in Africa tends to disappear down a black hole: incompetent planning of the donor nations, which means that aid is always distributed according to the wrong priorities, as well as a combination of corruption, selfishness, greed and arbitrary use of government power in the recipient countries themselves.
Finally, Mwenda lays out a case for actually stopping aid to countries like Uganda. He argues that his country could actually fend for itself if only the Ugandan government were willing and able to, one, collect taxes from the wealthy; and, two, stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the military and itself. According to Mwenda, foreign aid actually subsidizes this pattern of poor governance and corruption, allowing Ugandan leaders to carry on with business as usual.

While these articles offer a useful corrective to the Pollyanna-ish rhetoric that has characterized the recent push for foreign aid, I'm not sure any of them offer solutions for what is essentially a chicken-and-egg situation. How can you have significant political reform when the civil society is in shambles? Then again, how can you strengthen civil society through aid when most of the money ends up in the pockets of corrupt leaders? In this sense, Blair's approach that ties funding to concrete plans for political change seems to be at least a first step toward tackling this dilemma.

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