The stakes of international aid in Africa: A brake to the growth of the African states

The international aid (aka the development aid) refers to a voluntary action by an external stakeholder or organization whose objective is to promote the development of a country (so called developing country). The concepts of development are numerous as well as the forms of aid. 

Regarding the economic situation of some African countries, development aid flows have essentially gathered on this continent since their independences, that put an end to European colonial empires. 

To that extent, economic public assistance organizations (such as the Bretton Woods institutions or the Public Development Agency), or private companies (such as donor countries), grant substantial sums to African states, so that projects of an economic or social nature, improve the daily life of the African populations. Nevertheless, it is clear that the results have never matched the amounts allocated, and even worse, several voices are being raised to strongly criticize the consequences of this phenomenon. Indeed, instead of participating in the development of the continent, the multiple aids have amplified the corruption, financial mismanagement, as well as the nepotism.

The Official Development Assistance is the official agency of finances which is distributed to developing countries in order to promote their economic development and their social welfare system. The financial aids flowing to Africa does not only come from government-to-government aid programs but also from international development programs of the IO such as the World Bank or/and the IMF. 


Several factors explain the « disasters » of these aids: the institutions that receive these financial windfalls are weak and/or highly corrupted. As a result, the money is easily diverted to personal projects or to maintain leaders in the office. Knowing that this aid is supposed to support the development programs of the developing States, it is the African populations that are, paradoxically, the victims of these embezzlements.

Moreover, we must also question the international awareness, or the dynamics surrounding this system of assistance, set up by Western nations, at the cost of developing countries. Due to the non-productive results for most countries, we can ask ourselves why the biggest donor countries continue to grant aid, without questioning the requirements.  The requirement is defined as a set of conditions required by global economic organizations (the IMF and the World Bank are perfect examples) in exchange for investment loans, credits for projects or reforms. 

Nevertheless, some terms and conditions require mandatory changes for the receiving country (less public spending, privatization, more social protections, more taxes, budget for education or infrastructure, or devaluation of the national currency).

From the origins of international aid in Africa…

   The first forms of aid in the African continent should be traced back to the colonial era, and more precisely, during the « late colonial » period with the creation of the FIDES (Investment Fund for Economic and Social Development) in 1946. This organization was created for the overseas territories and those of the French Union, in order to develop medical, social or road infrastructures.

However, this project had above all the objective of embellishing the civilizational role of France, to respond to the demands formulated by the « educated » Africans of the continent. Their claims were on the one hand, that the western states keep their promises made during the Second World War, and on the other hand, a better living conditions.


From then on, a continuous cycle of economic aid extended to the entire continent, especially after the waves of independence in the 1960s. According to the economist Dambisa Moyo, since that same decade, Africa has received more than a trillion dollars in aid.

First for the industrialization in the 1960s, then for the reduction of poverty in the 1970s, then for the structural adjustments of the Bretton Woods institutions from 1980 onwards, and finally for post-Cold War democratization. According to the Zambian economist, Africa is today, even poorer than it was in the post-independence years, the ravages of aid seem devastating, and the expected growth and level of development have never taken off.

Unlike the Asian and South American countries, if we take Africa as a whole, it has  several trains left behind. Whereas it was at the same level as these same regions during the 1960s. The statistics also compared the inflation levels of the 1970s-1990s due to decline of the raw materials and due to the oil prices shocks. Indeed, African countries have to pay for their dependence on their natural resources which are the cornerstone of their undiversified economies.

To the deep necessity of this economic « assistance », on which many African countries depend…

Given the astronomical amounts provided by Dambisa Moyo, it is legitimate to ask and understand why the international community is so generous with the African continent. Does the success of the Marshall Plan at the end of the Second World War necessarily push the West to repeat the same pattern with Africa?

Clearly, a sort of « morality » seems to govern the idea that only substantial aid would be able to stimulate the dynamics of developing countries. Indeed, the only solution to erase poverty would be to give even more to the same decaying institutions, without ever questioning the real usefulness of this method.


With the Millennium Development Goals (reduction of extreme poverty and famine, gender equality, infant mortality, major pandemics, etc.), launched in 2000, in addition to the bloody regional conflicts and humanitarian but also natural disasters that have shaken the continent, aids channels have multiplied. While maintaining and dreaming of an Africa attracting pity and begging, especially since the slavery and colonial periods persist, both in the Western and African mentalities. In this sense, foreign aid appears to be an imperative necessity, notwithstanding the results that are concretely visible on the ground.


While other countries manage to develop without depending on aid

What are the direct and indirect consequences for the African countries concerned ? First of all, it is essential not to consider Africa as a heterogeneous continent. This is an error of judgment and a poor perception.

Africa is indeed evolving at several speeds/levels. Even within a regional bloc, countries do not have the same level of development (such as the CEMAC zone, the ECOWAS or the COMESA). Thus, the international aid produces results that depend on local bureaucracies and administrations.

In several countries, particularly those in the CFA Franc zone, some leaders are known for their habits of embezzling the aids received. This generalized corruption has adverse effects, which paralyze the good work of the administrations. Moreover, there is a correlation between the indices of corruption and the amount of aid allocated. According to Dambisa Moyo, aid contributes to the mismanagement of institutions, fuels corruption, and maintains a certain dependence on countries in need.

In the end, if international aid proves to be a failure overall, it is the consequence of one thing: the agencies or donors who generally pay out money without necessarily respecting conditionality.

Some political regimes are very corrupted and authoritarian, supported by the Western Countries, China or the Gulf powers countries, and yet they benefit from international aid. We know that these aids will not be fully injected into the projects initiated, so why maintain states that have a deeply rooted lack of good governance and ethical transparency? For the specialists, a stable and democratic political regime, with an operational and efficient state apparatus and a low rate of corruption, would make better use of the aid paid by donors.

Ranking of the most corrupt African countries in the world

The paternalistic attitude of the leader countries towards underdeveloped countries is increasingly criticized by economists. Some wonder whether aid comes from a good intention. Countries like France openly support African countries, whose close ties have been maintained. Is the aid a form of goodwill exchange? Given France’s support for illegitimate African leaders to secure its strategic, commercial and cultural interests, aids are seen as a means to preserve them in office.

Should development aid be restructured? Should the biggest donor countries pay more attention to conditionality, like the Scandinavian countries or Australia? The latter send delegations to investigate the fulfillment of conditionality in recipient countries. Therefore, if the requirements are not respected, these countries can reserve the right to cut off aid, or to reduce the amount, in order to make the states accountable.

In Dambisa Moyo’s « L’Aide Fatale« [1], the author suggests a gradual weaning of aid, a reasoning that provoked reactions when her book was released. African countries must « be weaned for their own good » to use the author’s metaphor. Following the example of Ghana, Botswana and South Africa, which she takes as examples, aid relative to the strict needs of governments, decreases dependence on it, which encourages African countries to use it with caution, to invest it properly in the sectors of activity concerned

[1] MOYO Dambisa, L’aide Fatale. Les ravages d’une aide inutile et de nouvelles solutions pour l’Afrique (Dead Aid), traduit de l’anglais par André Zavriew, collections JC Lattès, 2009, 249 pages

Author :

Shiva Loog

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