The Magazine

The Cost of Big Aid

Sometimes the cure is as bad as the disease.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By BARTLE B. BULL
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In absolute terms, too, the poverty story in Africa is not nearly as bad as Sachs and the Big Aid industry require us to believe. An example is Ghana, one of the original 10 countries selected for Sachs’s Millennium Villages. The 2010 International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook shows the country’s GDP rising from $10.7 billion in 2005 to $29 billion in 2013. This near-tripling of an economy in eight years is impressive enough. Then, later in 2010, the IMF revised its 2009-13 estimates of the size—not the growth, but the baseline size—of Ghana’s economy upwards by 66 percent on average. Meanwhile, the actual Ghanaian economy is, in fact, far larger than even these revised numbers say. This is true across Africa. Almost none of the continent’s quotidian economic activity—daily trading, most farming, small-scale resource activities, local lending, medicine, law, vehicle maintenance, services of any kind—is officially measured. IMF-type GDP numbers heavily overstate the continent’s poverty. 

Kenya and its neighbor Ethiopia, another of Sachs’s Millennium Villages targets, are favorite playgrounds for Big Aid. Seventy-five percent of residents of Kenya possess cell phones, and economic growth in Ethiopia, which exports nothing significant but coffee, has outpaced China’s over the last decade. Such cases abound across the continent. 

Nina Munk writes well about Africa. But we sense that, for her, Africa is really a portal, the literary wardrobe or looking-glass through which she bravely ventures into a stranger and more frightening place. This is Sachsland, a nightmarish realm where the fevered natives, chanting acronyms, conquer Africa in pressed khaki trousers for their zombie empire. 

The doughty Ms. Munk ventures courageously into the darkest reaches of this phantasmagorical hell: the canteen at U.N. headquarters, forward cabins on intercontinental flights, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These people are malarial. They are stupid and lazy and cannot help themselves. They gorge dementedly on the funds and misery of others. Leprous with arrogance and defensiveness, they have lost the facility of normal language. Outwardly well-meaning and clean, they are infected with a virulent creed of sociopathic condescension that causes them to inflict terrible harm on millions of innocent people far, far away. They are snared in the comfortable trap of the poverty of others. 

Munk writes with notable modesty for someone able to turn this dreary material into not only an important book, but a truly enjoyable read. She does not boast, but the reader cannot avoid the impression that her intrepid years in Sachsland have demanded all the inner steel of the most hardened explorer or war correspondent. 

Presiding over Sachsland’s well-heeled global empire is the figure of the Great Professor himself. He received tenure from Harvard at 28. At 48, another university gave him the keys to his first multimillion-dollar townhouse. Now, since Africans are too African to get anything done, the Great Professor must act for them. Deus ex machina requires a deity. Munk mercilessly allows Sachs’s own words and behavior to show just how much he revels in the role. Well-known Irish entertainers call him guru; macabre Hollywood sex kittens make videos with him. No matter that Africa has long been emerging boisterously from precisely the Sachsist dirigisme that got postcolonial Africa into its 1980-2000 hole in the first place: The neo-colonial has managed to combine the worst of imperialism and the worst of post-imperialism. 

King Leopold and the Five-Year Plan are back—at the same time. Africa will see them off.

Bartle B. Bull, former foreign editor of Prospect, manages an Iraq-focused investment fund.