The aid system: is it broken?


Aid in the popular media has been portrayed as a noble endeavour with the honourable aim of achieving the appropriate society in which rights would be enjoyed through financial investment. However, beneath this picture that we, regrettably, may call a façade, is a more grim reality that must be explored. The representation of developing countries and their unhealthy reliance on aid must be reformed.

poverty has a womans face
Ultimately, our representation of developing countries in aid is manipulated and misleading. This is profoundly true of Africa: Win (2007; 61) points out that ‘the development industry has thrived on the stereotypical image of an African woman who is its “target” or “beneficiary”’. This is a fundamental issue that I may link to my opening statement: that aid is seen as an investment. This dehumanises aid’s recipients and for it to be fruitful it must be reformed. Here, Hancock’s (1989; 191) shocking analogy of ‘Africa… [as] a continent-sized beggar’ forces us to ask whether even the basic notion of imagery has caused the system to be irreversibly ‘broken’ .

Dambisa (2009) explores the idea that development is ‘dead’ due to overreliance on aid and didactically compares contemporary aid to the Marshall plan. Europe was not entirely dependent on aid: it never accounted for more than 3% of GDP whilst 15% of Africa’s GDP is aid. This dependence on the zeitgeist of charity in donor countries creates a significant tone of uncertainty (Lensick and Morrissey 2000, cited in McColloch 2009; 1). A relevant, contemporary example is India; Glennie (2010) points out that ‘the main criticism of aid to India is that India doesn’t need it. But that is exactly the reason why it can work well’. I believe that India’s reduced reliance invigorates real life, grassroots development. This is the way forward for development.


A second significant difference was that the Marshall Plan was finite whilst modern aid appears interminable. Consequentially, ‘African governments view aid as a permanent, reliable, consistent source of income’ (Dambisa, 2009; 36). For me, this view illustrates the continuation of a colonial, blinkered view of the Northern “prerogative” of maintaining “the rest”. This creates a ‘dangerous’ ‘moral tone’ for the future of aid (Hancock, 1989; 189). However, this argument is not universal. Perhaps the view of the necessity of endless aid is held in the public eye only and those ‘in the business’ recognise the futility of over-reliance on distant sustenance. A prime example of this, for me, would be in Botswana where they ‘vigorously pursued numerous market economy options… Botswana succeeded by ceasing to depend on aid’ (Dambisa, 2009; 34).

A final way in which I see the aid system to be ‘broken’ is its unsustainable nature. Dambisa (2009; 44) outlines the ‘micro-macro paradox’ in which a short term intervention (a Hollywood star sending 100,000 mosquito nets) may have few discernible, sustainable long-term benefits. Worse still, it can unintentionally undermine whatever sustainable development may already be in play: the African mosquito-net maker whose relatives depend on his income is out of business. For me, this approach is parallel to the defective colonial image of short term material aid.

To conclude I agree with that Hancock’s (1989; 190) idea that ‘if the statement “aid works” is true… then aid’s job should be done by now and it ought to be possible to begin a gradual withdrawal’. However, in the majority of cases this is clearly not true and it would be irresponsible of donor countries to do so. From this we may take away lessons from the history of aid, reflect on the flaws of its structure and aims and focus on sustainable development. We must simply amend our methods of achieving our aims and extend our objectives further than the end of the next set of millennium development goals.

Ababa, Adis (2009) as cited in Newsnight (2011) ETHIOPIA billions of dollars of development aid as a tool for political oppression [online]. Available: [10th November 2012].

Barder, Owen (2010) ‘Beneath the Appeal: Modestly Saving Lives’, Open Democracy.

Glennie, Jonathan (2008) The Trouble with Aid: Why Less Could Mean More for Africa, London: Zed Books.

Glennie, Jonathan (2010) If India Doesn’t need aid, why do foreign governments still give it? Guardian.

Hancock, Graham (1989) Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige and Corruption of the International Aid Business, New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

McColloch, Neil (2009) Aid Under Pressure: Support for Development Assistance in a Global Economic Downturn, IDS.

Moyo, Dambisa. Dead aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Win, Everjoice (2004) ‘Not very poor, powerless or pregnant: The African woman forgotten by development’, IDS Bulletin Vol 35(4): 61-64.

Images from:

‘Making it work’

‘poverty still has a woman’s face’

Word count


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