The Trouble with Aid

Issue section: 

Jonathan Glennie, Zed Books, £12.99

The image of Africa often shown in the media is of a poverty ridden and war torn continent in desperate need of emergency aid. But as Jonathan Glennie shows most aid money is not given by charities but in the form of "development aid" given by government and other official aid agencies for medium and long-term socio-economic development. He argues that while aid should not be immediately cut, the answer to the many problems Africa faces is not simply more aid and genuine development takes time, and of course he is right.

Throughout the book Glennie rightly highlights many of the hypocritical polices of western governments and aid agencies – for example how the strategic priorities of the Cold War have been replaced by those of the "War on Terror" in the giving of aid. He shows how in return for aid the World Trade Organisation is used by rich countries to pressure Africa to reduce subsidies to its people and dismantle trade barriers whilst they continue to subsidise their own agriculture and how the paltry sums of aid given by the richest countries often come with strings attached that favour western and commercial interests.

Yet an underlying theme running through the book is captured by the idea that "good governance" is "perhaps the most important means to achieving growth and poverty reduction. If Africans are going to build economies in which the market thrives..." Despite exposing the weakness of the market Glennie still sees a more regulated market and what might be called controlled liberalisation as the answer.

Although I agree with much of the criticism levelled in the book at the usual suspects (although not the very annoying way Glennie poses questions on whether polices such as privatisation have been useful or not and answers: it 'depends'), the book ends up feeling like a moral plea to "our politicians" to recognise the error of their ways. While many of the richest G7 countries such as the US and Britain can quickly find hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out banks (for the price of the bail out global poverty could have been ended every year for the next 23 years) as Glennie constantly reminds us they are the worst performers when it comes to giving real aid.

Whilst aid is not the answer, contrary to what Glennie concludes, I believe it is still important that campaigners call for more aid to be given to Africa, alongside the demand that tax havens be closed and that aid is not given with conditions.

As is often the case with books on development it is a mine of useful. But, there is no sense of Africans: of Africans striking, rioting and campaigning. With the "New scramble for Africa" and plunging commodity prices set to devastate the lives of millions, the answers to Africa's continued underdevelopment are to be found in the food rebellions and general strikes that have taken place in Africa in 2008.