In which I actually (sort of) rush to the defense of Dambisa Moyo?

Charles Kenny and Andy Sumner take a swipe at Dambisa Moyo in a post a the Guardian:

So what’s behind all of this sudden income growth? Is it a story about aid? One prominent Zambian, Dambisa Moyo, has written of her country that “a direct consequence of the aid-driven interventions has been a dramatic descent into poverty. Whereas prior to the 1970s, most economic indicators had been on an upward trajectory, a decade later Zambia lay in economic ruin”. In the 1980s, aid to Zambia averaged about 14% of the country’s GNI. In the 2000s, a decade of strong growth, the same proportion was 17%. If Zambia’s ruin in the 1980s was the result of aid, is Zambia’s graduation to middle-income status in the new millennium a sign that aid now works really well?

Of course both the ideas that previous stagnation was all the fault of aid, or current growth was all the result, are ridiculous. The price of copper (Zambia’s major export) was depressed in the 1980s and saw its price rocket in the middle of the last decade as China and India’s economies grew and demand for the metal soared.

Kenny and Sumner are right about the determinants of Zambia’s growth – it has always been extremely closely linked to the price of copper. In the graph below, which starts after the initial slump of copper prices, you can see an upsurge in the price at the turn of the millennium is closely associated with Zamba’s uptick in growth. I don’t think anyone, including Moyo, would debate this.

Meanwhile, (not shown) aid as a percentage of GDP is moving in a roughly countercyclical pattern – surging in during the 90s, then trickling away (although some of this is due to the wax and wane of the denominator in the equation).

Yet, instead of worrying about the immediate effects of aid on growth, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why, in nearly 50 years since independence, Zambia hasn’t managed to make itself less dependent on copper (Zambia experts, feel free to start pitching stones now, I’m wading into unknown territory)? It seems to me that a country needs a reasonable degree of governance and reliable institutions to dig itself out of primary commodity dependence.

After seeing plenty of evidence that aid might negatively affect governance in Malawi (anecdotal, although two straight years of close-up anecdotes add up to something), I’ve always been sympathetic to Moyo’s argument that large, indefinite aid flows don’t create the best incentives for recipient governments, and have the potential to be incredibly damaging to governance in the long run. Without as much aid during the copper cricis, might the Zambian government have been forced to think of alternative, more structural ways out of their hole, rather than just waiting for the demand for copper to soar again? Or might the country just been more mired in economic decline?

Again, this is when the Zambian experts need to start wading in – but I don’t think the impact of aid can be either quickly condemned or dismissed as suggested by Moyo or Kenny and Sumner.

Finally – why do we keep pretending like Moyo is still relevant in the aid debate? Hint: she’s not – she moved on to her next book tour a long time ago. The aid debate is fairly bereft of high-profile critics, especially since Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi ascended to a higher plane of being, so Moyo still feels like the most appropriate punching bag. Punch away, I suppose, but it won’t get us very far.

Intentionally missing the point

BBC News is running an article about the recent arrest of Chansa Kabwela, the editor of the Zambian newspaper The Post.

Zambia’s public health system recently suffered a pay strike – one of the many woman that were unlucky enough to go into labour during this time ended up giving birth in the street, to a baby who ended up dying. Someone took photos of the whole event. Kabwela, apparently struck by the human cost of the crisis displayed explicitly in the photos, sent them on to government ministers.

How did the government respond? They arrested Kabwela and charged her with spreading indecent material, punishable with imprisonment of up to five years. Even worse, the penal code doesn’t clearly define what obscene material is.

A vibrant, intelligent and critital media is both one of the most needed and lacking institutions in this part of the world, where ‘democratic’ governments routinly crack down on a press they never really understood.