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‘This House Believes Foreign Aid has done Africa more Harm than Good’ an in-depth review

Foreign aid has done Africa more harm than good.

This was the motion before the Cambridge Union Society on the 3rd of November 2011. One of the evening’s key-note speakers, Lord Paul Boateng PC, put this motion in a national context by pointing out  at this point in time both the political elite and the majority of the broader population of England agree that the level of aid for Africa should be maintained despite the global economic recession and currency crisis in the Euro zone. This consensus shows how highly the public value the Aid programme and its potential for global social change in Africa. However, it also highlights the resulting obligation to examine and publicly discuss the positive and negative impacts of foreign aid on receiving states and communities. Therefore, the debate organized by the Cambridge Union Society was a welcome event, as indicated by the full and vocal audience.

The Proposition was headed by Andrew Mwenda, founder of the Ugandan Magazine ‘The Independent’ and well-known opponent of charity agencies; he was joined by Francesco Caselli, specialist in Development Economics at LSE, and by Mara-Tafadwa Makoni, MPhil student in Engineering for Sustainable Development at the University of Cambridge.

The Opposition side was headed by Lord Paul Boateng PC, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and former High Commissioner to South Africa; he was joined by Goylette Chami, PhD student in Economics and Infectious diseases, and Anna Stransbury, 2nd year student in Economics, both currently studying at the University of Cambridge.

The proposition side propounded three main arguments. These were as follows:

1) The conditionality of foreign aid has caught Africa in a debt-trap and resulted in economic instability.

The structural adjustment of African economies, implemented due to demands from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, has had devastating effects on local industries, leaving them uncompetitive in the global market and subject to the economic speculation of donor states. The unsustainable grounds on which loans have been allocated have entangled Africa in a debt-trap that prevents sustainable economic growth. Furthermore, the rolling back of the state has generated declines in social services such as education and health care, and has generated social polarisation. These declines have been confronted by foreign development agencies; however, because these organisations have no formal obligation or accountability towards the population, there is a democratic deficit. Therefore, aid is a short-term and unsustainable solution to underdevelopment. What Africa needs instead is an increase in foreign direct investment and a rise in export and levelling of imports.

The argument was supplemented by a member of the audience, who suggested that what “Africa needs is not aid but fair trade, including fair prices and the removal of barriers to Western markets.”

2) Foreign aid has aggravated rather than mitigated political corruption and violent conflict.

Government officials have used their political power to divert a vast amount of development aid into their own pockets. Yet they remain in power. The reason for this is that they are accountable to donors rather than their populations: when a state generates its main income from taxation, the citizenry can – regardless of how oppressive the state may be – withhold its productive effort in order to challenge the decisions and power of state officials. This opportunity vanishes when the main income is constituted by aid. The situation is worsened by the fact that international donors have provided aid indiscriminately of whether they support corrupt political leaders. The fact that politics is a lucrative business has generated political unrest and civil war. In this context, the manipulation and diversion of aid is an important political weapon. What Africa needs is for people who want to make money to leave politics and enter the market. Therefore, Africa needs the flow of aid to stop.

3) Foreign aid has created a dependence-mentality among the African population that hampers innovation and entrepreneurship within societies.

In order for a state to benefit from the global market, it needs to enhance its strengths rather than even out its weaknesses. Foreign aid does the opposite. It seeks out the miserable and, consequently, it turns people in Africa into passive and incapable beings, who would rather rely on charity than earn their own income. Aid disregards and discourages innovation and entrepreneurship within Africa. Instead of aid, “what Africa needs is investment in its innovators and entrepreneurs, and for these people to step forward as change agents.”


These arguments were challenged by the opposition side, whose three main arguments were the following:

1) Foreign aid has improved standards in the provision of health care, education and infrastructure, thus creating the foundation for economic and social development.

The biggest social and economic challenges facing Africa are low levels of health, education and infrastructure. The transfer of health technology and improved access to education that has been facilitated by foreign aid is one of the most important promoters of human capital. Diseases such as smallpox, river blindness and malaria have either been eradicated completely or significantly reduced. At the same time, poverty indicators such as child mortality, life expectancy, primary school enrollment and adult literacy have all gone in a positive direction. This is important, not only for the individuals for whom it has improved life quality, but also for the potential of growth in productivity and economic activity within African states. Improved health and education provides a stronger and more capable labour force, the expansion of infrastructure facilitates interaction with the global market. At the same time, health initiatives, such as the introduction of bed nets, generate new industries and relocate resources to other social programmes. Therefore, the advancements within health, education and infrastructure provided by international donors provide a platform for human and economic sustainable development. “What Africa needs is the continuation of investment by foreign donors in health technology, education and infrastructure.”

2) Foreign aid does not cause corruption and violent conflict; rather it ensures the provision of social and economic opportunity despite of it.

The idea of a causal relationship between foreign aid and corruption is invalid. Rent-seeking political officials would be pursuing their own economic interests even if aid was not provided. The difference lies in the severity with which corruption limits the development potential of African societies. The fact that a portion of foreign aid disappears into the pockets of corrupt politicians does not change the fact that aid promotes social opportunities, which would otherwise be non-existent. This is what matters for African people. In order to stop corruption one must not abolish foreign aid. Instead corrupt political elites must be fought from below through organisation among citizens. What Africa needs is foreign aid to help generate human capacity and in effect contribute to the establishment of a civil society capable of putting forward demands for representation and accountability.

3) If foreign donors have not met their intended goals, it is not due to inefficiency, but due to the low level of aid provision. What Africa needs is more aid.

Historically, foreign aid has made great achievements in enhancing sanitation, health, education and infrastructure. The democratic development and economic growth in post-war Germany and England are prime examples of that. Aid is not an inefficient tool in promoting development; if anything, inefficiency in the African context is caused by the strikingly low levels of aid that have been directed at the continent: aid given to post-war Europe was £ 200 pr. citizen, in Africa it has been £24. Abolishing aid would demonstrate to the world’s poor that we do not care about their social destitution, their hopes and their aspirations. Therefore, what Africa needs is higher and more consistent flows of aid.


The event was successful in the sense that both the speakers and the audience were enthusiastic and opinionated on the topic of the role of foreign aid in Africa. The charismatic performances by the evening’s two key-note speakers, Andrew Mwenda and Lord Paul Boateng PC, were an experience in themselves. However – and maybe precisely because – personal appearance and rhetorical skills are given a place of pride in the Cambridge Union Society, the arguments presented throughout the evening tended to be based on oversimplifications, generalisations and exaggerations. The most disturbing example of this was when Andrew Mwenda argued that internally displaced peoples camps in Sudan encourage economically unproductive and politically passive behavior among the civilian population (the livelihoods of whom have been subject to violent attack from the Sudanese government and rebel movements as part of their military strategies!).

Foreign aid was discussed as a one dimensional concept without any particular attention paid to the distinction between the different forms of aid (for example budget support, programme aid or project aid) and its different donors (i.e. governments, inter-state institutions or non-governmental organisations). In the same manner, Africa was presented almost as one economic and political unit, leaving little room for different interpretations of African states’ diverse development paths. This allowed the participants to put forward their arguments without ever really confronting the points made by their opponents, and thus contributed to the very black- and- white nature of the discussion. This was regrettable, because it was evident that the very knowledgeable and reflected members of the debate panel would have been able to provide a more balanced and constructive debate.
However, the debate panel, the audience and the Cambridge Union Society should be commended by their success in providing an entertaining and somewhat educative event.



  1. Simukai Tinhu permalink

    This is not a new argument. As early as 1980s, aid in all its forms had become tremendously unpopular. By 1990, the pendulum had completely swung against aid, with even free marketers and right wingers condemning it. Absurdly, mainstream literature, led by the likes of Collier, continues to underplay this increased skepticism. In fact despite evidence of contradictions in the aid philosophy, Collier and co are advocating for increased aid to. *Sigh* Why? I think the answer lies in the ability of the neo – liberal ideology backed by US strategic interests in reasserting itself and stigmatizing any criticism of the aid paradigm.

  2. Krsitine Albrektsen permalink

    These are valid points, Simukai. However, I also believe that it is important to recognise that the introduction of modern technology and capitalist markets in African societies has not generated the same level of wealth and social security as it has in Western Europe and North America. In completely rejecting the ability of Western aid to improve living conditions in Africa; and in arguing that aid is merely a project of establishing neo-liberal hegemony, we may overlook the material wants that people living in poverty often express when they talk about ‘modernising’ their communities.

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