Monday, November 8, 2010

Foreign Aid for Scoundrels

by William Easterly

New York Review of Books
November 25, 2010

I was in a New York bar recently with a group of African intellectuals. To my surprise, I was sitting next to a democratic opposition leader whom I have long admired. He had been elected to a major office in his home country, but then the country’s leader sentenced him to life in prison. He eventually got out and left Africa, but he is still so fearful of the security forces of the autocrat that he asked me not to use his name or even his country’s name.

This opposition leader said one thing that will always stay with me. While he was in jail, he read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. He found these words in the acknowledgments:

My work in Africa has been blessed by help and guidance from a large number of colleagues and African leaders…. In particular I would like to thank Africa’s new generation of democratic leaders who are pointing the way, including...

One of those Sachs included was the opposition leader’s jailer. He pleaded with me to communicate to Western audiences that Africans have the same standards for democracy as they do—not a double standard by which the prison warden of members of the opposition could be one of a “new generation of democratic leaders.”

The international aid system has a dirty secret. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, the nations and organizations that donate and distribute aid do not care much about democracy and they still actively support dictators. The conventional narrative is that donors supported dictators only during the cold war and ever since have promoted democracy. This is wrong.