To be Dambisa…

It’s not every day I have a chance to see one of Time’s “Most Influential People” (Mark Zuckerberg has not visited Oxford recently), so today I availed myself of an opportunity see Dambisa Moyo speak at the Rhodes House.  I’m fascinated by Dambisa Moyo because she has managed to take a topic no one cares about (international development), mix it with a rash and crazy idea (we should cut off all foreign aid to Africa within five years), back it up with some tired and discredited economic ideas (learned while working for Goldman Sachs) and turn it into a bestseller, Dead Aid.  In short, she’s an excellent model for any aspiring academic who wants to use an Oxford education and a love of obscure topics to advance substantive change: i.e. me.

Here’s the thing about Dead Aid, though: it’s a really bad book.  That is different from saying that it’s a really wrong book: my own ideas on foreign aid have evolved a lot since I last blogged about the book a year ago.  That said, this book is absolutely chocked full of nonsense.  Moyo writes—without a citation—that thanks to foreign aid poverty in Africa rose from 11% to 66% from 1970-1998.  Excuse me?  By whose measure was Africa’s poverty rate in 1970 equivalent to Germany’s in the present day?  At another point she writes that “Since the 1940s, approximately US $1 trillion of aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa…This is nearly US $1000 for every man, woman, and child on the planet today.”  This makes sense if the world population is about 1/6th of its actual size, or if 5.8 billion people do not fall into the categories of “men”, “women”, and “children.”  As one of my professors described it, Dead Aid is a “not-particularly-well-done review of the tertiary* literature on foreign aid.”

Okay, I’ll admit these two are cheap shots, but the rest of the book is not any more coherent.  Moyo’s main thesis is that African nations should eliminate their dependence on foreign aid as a means of financing development… and replace it with a dependence on foreign bond markets.  Leaving aside the rosy experiences of Greece and Ireland with respect to private bonds, I am incredibly skeptical that there are many private lenders who want to give money to small African countries.  Her proposed solution is that large African countries, like South Africa, guarantee the loans of smaller ones.  You know, in the same way that you put your house up as collateral so someone living in a nearby town who you have never met can buy a new car.  What…?

Clearly, Moyo’s ascension to public-intellectual superstar has to do with something other than the rigor of her ideas.  Nearly every magazine piece on her mentions that she is an African woman.  Not just any African woman, but a beautiful, Oxford-educated, black African woman.  I struggle with this.  It is incredibly important that African voices be heard in debates about Africa.  Nonetheless, I don’t think “being African” grants any special privilege to make up non-sensical “facts” just because they are about Africa.**  Could Moyo be getting away with shoddy scholarship just because she was born in Zambia?

Fortunately, though, by going to her talk, I feel like I no longer have to answer that question.  If I had to offer one explanation for her success, I would now guess that it’s because she is an objectively incredible presenter and public speaker.  It had nothing to do with her identity and everything to do with the fact that she was the most articulate advocate for a controversial position that I’ve heard speak in a long time.  And, I realized, people pay attention to Moyo because she has organized both her books and talks around a single compelling and seductive narrative.

To Moyo, everything is about incentives.  There are no “bad guys” in the story of African development; just misguided Western donors providing mountains of aid, African leaders responding rationally to the incentives for corruption that aid creates, and the unintended consequences for poverty that entails.  All we have to do is change the carrots and sticks of the development game and, viola, problems solved!  Here narrative is all the more compelling because it suggests that, for this to happen, all we as Westerners need to do is stop giving aid.  In short, we can do good by doing nothing!  This textbook economist view of the world is so powerful that it applies everywhere: Moyo’s most recent book, How The West Was Lost, tells us about how we Northerners have screwed up our own societies by not obeying the golden rule of the all-rational free market.

Now that I have decided to pursue an academic career, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to make an impact—and why economists are inevitably called up by the New York Times to comment on popular issues, and not sociologists.  I am reminded that it’s because a view of the world that reduces messy things like history, values, and politics to rational economic stimulus-response is convenient for policy-makers and straightforward enough for public consumption.  We pay for our own accuracy by sacrificing our own relevance.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s actually a good trade-off, if the terrain of relevant social science should really be so easily conceded to people like Moyo just so we can be a bit more airtight and confident about the articles we publish and no one reads.

At least, this is what I will be debating when, at 65, I open up Time’s “Most Influential Persons” issue and realize that I haven’t made the list.  Again.

– – – – –

* Historian friends: what the hell is a tertiary source?

** Being the lead singer of U2, though, does give you the right to say whatever you want about international development and have it be accepted as true.

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3 thoughts on “To be Dambisa…

  1. I’ve been reading Marxist theory this week, and it’s significant that a hundred years ago the people mapping out how the world works and how to use that map to effect change were sociologists and social theorists, not economists. I know whom I side with: I think you’re absolutely right that the world is complicated, and that it takes many different disciplinary perspectives to get closer to comprehending it.

    I didn’t think there was any such thing as tertiary sources, but that goes to show what I know. Maybe historiography is tertiary, in that it studies secondary sources? No one calls it that, though.

    1. It’s interesting, of course, how these kind of disciplinary divisions didn’t used to exist. I’m glad you’re reading Marxist theory; I think the Marxist’s analysis was incredibly insightful on a lot of things, even if some of it is discredited.

      Apparently tertiary sources are newspaper articles about peer reviewed studies. At least that’s what she cites.

      1. Wow, who knew? And yes, Marx was *so* important to making social history what it is today (or so I argued in my essay). Just because the Marxist influence isn’t readily discernible in modern social history doesn’t mean it’s not there.

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