To Build a Review of Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo

To Build a Review of Dead Aid

Dambisa Moyo confounded developmental economists and academia in 2009 with her pointed critique of the assistance regime surrounding development in sub-Saharan Africa when she published Dead Aid. Since that time, the ideas professed by Moyo have been considered rather profound yet divisive. Niall Ferguson sums up the initial basic question Moyo asks in his foreword to Dead Aid. Ferguson states, “why, ask Moyo, do the majority of sub-Saharan countries ‘flounder in a seemingly never-ending cycle of corruption, disease, poverty, and aid-dependency, despite the fact that their countries have received more than US$300 billion in development assistance since 1970” (Ferguson, 2009). Moyo claims within the writings of Dead Aid that the support or aid given to sub-Saharan Africa has failed in its scope by making the region poorer and that there are alternatives to the regime of assistance.  This essay will summarize and critique Dead Aid but also apply the findings to the broader debate on global integration. Moyo gives readers within Dead Aid a particular insight into the duality between ‘no-strings’ attached foreign direct investment (FDI) typified by the Eastern style of support to the Western ideology of democracy building as a contingency to aid.

Before diving into the summary and critique of Dead Aid, a few words on the uniqueness and background of Dambisa Moyo are in order. Moyo has a few significant benefits to the majority of theorist’s writing about sub-Saharan Africa. In borrowing from and summarizing Ferguson’s foreword to Dead Aid, Moyo is a black female born and raised in Zambia, a sub-Saharan African nation (Ferguson, 2009). On those merits alone she represents a perspective that should not be ignored. However, her education and career have taken her from places like Havard University all the way to Oxford University, and then to the professional world of economics with Goldman-Sachs for eight years in New York City (Ferguson, 2009). With her education and personal demographics, readers can see how she developed quite visceral views to aid in sub-Saharan Africa.

Part 1: Foundation

At the most basic telling, the foundation for Dead Aid is that assistance has not worked, and in fact might be contributing to the further decline in overall conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. In quoting Moyo (2009), she states, “the problem is that aid is not benign – it’s malignant. No longer part of the potential solution, it’s part of the problem – in fact aid is the problem” (p. 47). The foundations of her argument are further defined in describing the three types of aid and which one is the worse for wear: humanitarian or emergency aid, charitable aid and systemic or country to country aid. Systemic aid listed as being the most harmful in Moyo eyes, to which she states, “charity and emergency aid are small beer when compared to the billions transferred each year directly to poor countries’ governments” (Moyo, 2009, p. 8). The remainder of her writing is on the state to state transfers of assistance.

Before Moyo expands upon her solutions to sub-Saharan African aid, she does spend time setting up the lasting effects of imperialism within our current aid regime. However, not much time is placed on imperialism specifically other than to base the parent-child relationship between Western states and African nations firmly within that era up to the Marshal Plan. Moyo’s (2009) own words are much more colorful in this regard when she states, “the largely unspoken and insidious view that the problem with Africa is Africans” (p. 31). Moyo claims this has lead to a few individual outcomes that heighten the detriment to growth. If the world views Africans as perpetually in need of patronizing, Moyo argues a cycle of poverty be in constant motion (Moyo, 2009, p. 49). More simply stated, if we always view them as children, we are going to treat them as children, too.

Some of Moyo’s biggest concerns are not how the West treats aid, but in how politicians and leader receive aid. What might be of considerable concern in Moyo’s argument is the rent-seeking behavior receiving aid creates as well as how easily aid facilitates an increase in corruption. In a perpetual cycle of aid and poverty, Moyo claims leaders in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to seek aggressively further assistance, rather than instituting smart national policies aimed at lifting life and reducing aid (Moyo, 2009, p. 52). She is also able to tie rent-seeking to increased corruption. She states this effect in saying, “because foreign aid is fungible – easily stolen, redirected or extracted – it facilitates corruption. Were donor conditionalities remotely effective, this would not be the case” (Moyo, 2009, p. 52). As shown above, Moyo squarely sets her theory within the lasting relationship between givers and takers, or parents and children. Either side because of the current regime of aid in sub-Saharan Africa has developed behaviors more in tuned with continuing the cycle of assistance.

Part 2: Construction

This section will now examine the pieces and parts Moyo uses to build her argument. Dead Aid at certain points veers too far into lofty economist talk that while it does bolster Moyo’s case, it also muddies the conceptual snapshot for those readers not in tuned with digesting economic data. Arguably, though, even an overuse of numbers is acceptable considering the economic background Moyo brings to the table. When the literature is not heavy in numbers and data, there is a flow that is natural and easily read. This natural flow is especially welcomed considering the nature of her argument being one of economics.

When reviewing the notes and bibliography of Dead Aid aside from needed historical sources, the evidence and support utilized come from a current and broad amount of influences. For instance, when arguing the correlation to corruption and aid, Moyo lists off nations receiving high volumes of aid yet housing politicians in current corruption proceedings. She does not even shy away from drumming up arguments and sources regarding her home nation of Zambia. Moyo (2009) states this much by saying, “Zambia’s current President, Levy Mwanawasa, alleged embezzlement and theft of up to US$80 million by former president Chiluba. Yet during the period when the thefts occurred Zambia had received upwards of US$1.5 billion from the World Bank” (p. 53).

The evidence and theories drawn out as conclusions by Moyo are not without serious criticism. Owen Barder, Vice President of the Center For Global Development, goes so far as to say, “Dead Aid is poorly researched, badly argued, mendacious in its use of evidence, and pedestrian in its suggestions for alternatives to aid” (Barder, 2009). While this is a more sternly held critique of Moyo’s use of evidence, there are some questions regarding the use or lack thereof of evidence that might go against Moyo’s argument. For instances, Moyo used the success of Botswana to say the nation’s success comes not from receiving aid but from slacking off aid and installing sound policies. However, digging deeper into the Commission for Africa (2005) Annex 8 report, the facts show Botswana received a high amount of aid in the 60’s and 70’s. (pp. 365-366). Moyo does take an empirical leap of faith by not accounting for Botswana’s history of aid and any possibilities those funds contributed to its current scenarios. This leap Moyo takes hints at a larger argument made by Moyo’s contemporaries that dealing in absolutes of only ‘with’ or ‘without’ and not in ‘conjunction with’ is quite dangerous.

Part 3: Finish work

Now that we’ve built the structure with construction parts, we can move onto the finish work or solutions Moyo makes and how they apply to global integration. Moyo takes a decidedly realist and liberal stance on the alternative to developmental aid. She accomplishes this because her solution is rooted in self-reliance of the state through easing trade restrictions, attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) and the creation of financial services for the poor. In this self-reliance, Moyo professes that nations will be able to partake in the international system with greater ease and to the benefit of all. In reality, it appears she wants the same conditions for sub-Saharan Africa that the West gets to benefit. She has been accused of providing pedestrian solutions to the sub-Saharan Africa situation by not crafting unique solutions and instead using economic tactics already in place within international economics (Barder, 2009). The question remains, however, does it matter if the solution is pedestrian and lacks novelty? Would not a pedestrian method be better perceived by people already considered to be ‘lower’ than even pedestrian? There is sound logic in trying to install current economic methods for sub-Saharan African nations to utilize if the desire is for African countries to perform economically.

Moyo’s literature on Chinese FDI into sub-Saharan Africa is quite compelling. Because of a desire for self-reliance, Eastern interaction is more attractive than Western models, which comes with the contingencies of installing attributes of democracy (Moyo, 2009, p. 108). Dead Aid is not against democracy but rather holds the strongly held belief it must mature organically and cannot be shoehorned into former European colonies with arbitrary borders like found in Africa (Moyo, 2009, pp. 31-35). To summarize her more, the women of her fictitious country Dongo cannot worry about democracy in the future when they have to think about surviving the day at hand. (Moyo, 2009, p. 152). China makes no qualms about what it wants and will give Africa what it desires in return without any contingencies or colonialism (Moyo, 2009, p. 111). Moyo (2009) describes this as not using the “barrel of a gun; it is using the muscle of money” (p. 103). In agreement with Moyo’s stance on China being good for sub-Saharan Africa, David Haroz (2011) says, “many African governments see the Chinese presence as more likely to be sustained, not only out of goodwill, but also self interest” (p. 2).

No strings attached FDI or assistance fits squarely in with Moyo theory of sub-Saharan self-reliance through market forces and global integration. Without strings attached to its FDI, China allows sub-Saharan African nations to develop their political make-up organically and without shock value. True to form, even in her prescription for the West, she opinions that Western societies should adopt fewer contingencies set-up as roadblocks for developmental aid. Her message for the West is not to fear China but rather operate as it currently does, work together as trading partners, not parents and children. Alternatively, as He Wenping (2007) defines China’s interaction in Africa, he says it “reveals a deep relationship based on common experiences, values and principles” (p. 23). Respect for sovereignty and self-preservation has been proven to be true when looking at how China goes about Asian integration. Specifically looking at ASEAN, Yaqing Qin (2011) says, “East Asian regional integration processes have been marked by a kind of ‘soft institutionalism, flexible, informal, and often non-binding, which, quite different from that of European regionalism, neo-institutionalism finds hard to explain” (p. 250).

The model of Chinese FDI can be applied to globalization because numerous other nations appear to be following suit and reducing contingencies on aid to snag sub-Saharan Africa’s rich resources. Moyo takes all the leading nations contributing FDI to sub-Saharan Africa and highlights how each of them is reducing contingencies in line with China (Moyo, 2009, p. 112). The ‘China model’ potentially shows empirical evidence that as China continues to rise it is affecting the norms and understandings held within the international system relating to developmental assistance. China operates with more respect to self-interest and sovereignty than many pro-democracy nations that are built completely out of liberalized theories; this creates a paradox in how the West talks and how the West operates.


Dead Aid causes the reader to make hard decisions out of a dire situation in sub-Saharan Africa. Moyo proclaims that the assistance given by the West might be at the root of why Africa remains a vast wasteland of economic prosperity. To Moyo, the West using methods developed from colonialism and the Marshal Plan continues to treat the sub-Saharan region of Africa as if it is a problem child never to be allowed out of the corner. However, new developments stemming from China could be having an effect globally by shifting the norms of development in Africa. Moyo presents a compelling argument that might not be entirely accurate but contains a wealth of possibility. As an economist, she thankfully is still able to carry a heavy dose of political theory to bolster empirical findings. While Dead Aid can be lofty and overloaded with empirical data that might be somewhat molded to fit Moyo’s argument, the idea of African respect and self-preservation is more profound and does not require empirical economic data. The criticism of Moyo’s peers do hold some weight in asking why is it only with aid or without aid and not in tandem? To Moyo, unfortunately, Africans are facing horrible situations that do in fact require absolute decisions.


Barder, O. (09, March 31). Review of Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo. Retrieved from

Commission for Africa (2005) Annex 8 (pp. 365-366)

Ferguson, N. (n.d.). Foreword. In Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working And How There Is A Better Way For Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Haroz, D. (2011). THE ARAB SPRING: REVOLUTION AND SHIFTING GEOPOLITICS: China in Africa: Symbiosis or Exploitation? The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

Moyo, D. (2009). Dead aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Qin, Y. (2011). Development of International Relations theory in China: Progress through debates. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 11(2), 231-257.

Wenping, H. (2007). The Balancing Act of China’s Africa Policy. China Security, 3(3), 23-40.

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