Is Foreign Aid Harming Africa?

Jun 29, 2012

Part 3 of TED Radio Hour episode Africa: The Next Chapter. You can watch Andrew Mwenda's full Ted Talk, A New Look At Africa, at

About Andrew Mwenda's Talk

In this provocative talk, journalist Andrew Mwenda asks us to re-frame the "African question" — to look beyond the media's stories of poverty, civil war and helplessness and see the opportunities for creating wealth and happiness throughout the continent.

About Andrew Mwenda

Andrew Mwenda is a print, radio and television journalist, and an active critic of many forms of Western aid to Africa. Too much of the aid from rich nations, he says, goes to the worst African countries to fuel war and government abuse. Such money not only never gets to its intended recipients, Africa's truly needy — it actively plays a part in making their lives worse.

Mwenda worked at the Daily Monitor newspaper in Kampala starting in the mid-1990s, and hosted a radio show, Andrew Mwenda Live, since 2001. In 2005, he was charged with sedition by the Ugandan government for criticizing the president of Uganda in the wake of the helicopter crash that killed the vice president of Sudan. He has produced documentaries and commentary for the BBC on the dangers of aid and debt relief to Africa, consulted for the World Bank and Transparency International, and was a Knight Fellow at Stanford in 2007. In December 2007, he launched a new newspaper in Kampala, The Independent, a leading source of uncensored news in the country.

Mwenda also maintains a blog and you can follow him on Twitter.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.

Andrew Mwenda is a Ugandan journalist who has spent his career fighting for free speech and economic empowerment throughout Africa. In 2007, Mwenda founded The Independent, a weekly magazine with a fierce tagline.

ANDREW MWENDA: You buy the truth. We pay the price.

STEWART: Andrew Mwenda joins us from Uganda's capital, Kampala. Andrew, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

MWENDA: It's my great pleasure to be hosted by you, Alison.

STEWART: Andrew, when you gave your TED Talk, it was at a fortuitous time. It was when the G8 summit was taking place. And you used this as an opportunity to introduce your point. Let's listen to a little bit.


MWENDA: We are hosting this conference at a very opportune moment, because another conference is taking place in Berlin - the G8 Summit. The G8 Summit proposes that the solution to Africa's problems should be a massive increase in aid, something akin to the Marshall Plan.

Unfortunately, I personally do not believe in the Marshall Plan. One, because the benefits of the Marshall Plan have been overstated. Its largest recipients were Germany and France and it was only 2.5 percent of their GDP. An average African country receives foreign aid to the tune of 13 - 15 percent of its GDP. And that is an unprecedented transfer of financial resources from rich countries to poor countries.

STEWART: So, Andrew, you point to the fact that eight countries - France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, US, Canada and Russia - were all going to discuss this African action plan to take what it described, as the many challenges of Africa. And in some ways, that alone proves your point, that the way people view Africa - some people, we should say - is as much a problem as anything else. Tell me a little more what disturbs you about the way countries in the G-8 view Africa.

MWENDA: Well, Alison, my view is that most of the rich countries are attracted to Africa's poverty rather than its wealth. And in the process, they end up subsidizing our failures, rather than rewarding our accomplishments. Although Africa has gross and grave problems, it also has a lot of opportunities and potential. And we would prefer to see people in the western world, especially leaders of the G8, talking to their business community, talking to their traders about opportunities that are available for people to make investment in Africa.

Instead, they talk about curing our malaria, teaching us how to use condoms, how to plant cassava and things like that.

STEWART: I want to get back to something in your TED Talk where you discuss the - sort of the dark side of compassion, which is pity.


MWENDA: Africa has immense opportunities that never navigate through the wave of despair and helplessness that the western media largely presents to its audience. The effect of that presentation is it - it appeals to sympathy. It appeals to pity. It appeals to something called charity. And, as a consequence, the western view of Africa's economic dilemma is framed wrongly.

The wrong framing is a product of thinking that Africa is a place of despair. What should we do with it? We should give food to the hungry. We should deliver medicines to those who are ill. We should send peacekeeping troops to serve those who are facing a civil war. And in the process, Africa has been stripped of self-initiative.

I want to say that it is important to recognize that Africa has fundamental weaknesses. But equally, it has opportunities and a lot of potential. We need to reframe the challenge that is facing Africa, from a challenge of despair to a challenge of hope. And that is worth creation.

The challenge facing all those who are interested in Africa is not the challenge of reducing poverty. It should be a challenge of creating wealth. Sending somebody to school and giving them medicines, ladies and gentlemen, does not create wealth for them. Wealth is a function of income and income comes from you finding a profitable trading opportunity or a well-paying job.

STEWART: Andrew, the argument you make is one you hear sometimes in the United States, that social programs, aid, it creates a victim culture. And the other point of view is that aid sometimes gives people what they need to get on their feet so that they can take advantage of opportunities. Does either argument apply to aid to Africa?

MWENDA: Well, I consider that aid is not a homogeneous effort. It is heterogeneous. There is one form of aid specifically, and this is government to government aid, which I find much more destructive than people to people aid. You see, you, Alison, as an individual, if you identified a young child in Africa who has great potential to go to Harvard University and become the best neurosurgeon in the world and you provide that child with a scholarship to study; certainly that is a very positive intervention.

First, because you are intervening in the life of this poor child to promote innovation, to promote or to leverage this child's strength, which is great brain power that can produce a nuclear physicist or a - a great political scientist. But the question I have is with the government to government aid. These are large transfers of taxpayers' money from the western world to governments in Africa.

The net effect of those transfers is to disarticulate the government from the population, because the government looks now - for every fiscal shortage, it looks at international donor community for resources. That makes it lose interest in the productivity of its own citizens. So the only way we can refocus governments in Africa to have a vested interest in the entrepreneurial abilities of their citizens is to make their fiscal survival depend on their own people for tax revenues

STEWART: So much of this is about the way you frame things. And a lot of it will come from ignorance. You've heard people sometimes refer to Africa as a country. Talk to me about the right framing of Africa in the year 2012.

MWENDA: Well, if we look at Africa as a continent that has the most profitable stock exchange market in the world; if we look at Africa as the place with possibly the largest concentration of mineral and other natural resources in the world; if we look at Africa as the place with the youngest population of any continent in the world, there we will be able to see the kind of potential that is - Africa can bring onto the global trade and investment table.

Look at the biggest problems facing African cities today. One is load shedding. There is insufficient electricity in most African cities to meet the demand. That is the best problem you can have. You know why, Alison? Because it creates an opportunity for people to invest in dams, solar and biomass energy to produce electricity for Africa's increasing and growing urban populations and even rural populations who now have the incomes to demand for electricity.

In fact, every problem presents a great opportunity for investors, not only to make money, but also to transform societies.

STEWART: I found it fascinating in your talk. I listened back to it a couple of times. You described it as aid industry, charity industry.


MWENDA: Aid is the bad instrument. Do you know why? Because if the government's fiscal survival depends on it having to raise money from its own people, such a government is driven by self-interest to govern in a more enlightened fashion. The problem with the African continent and the problem with the aid industry is that it has distorted the structure of incentives facing the governments in Africa.

STEWART: Do you really see it as some sort of almost corporate entity?

MWENDA: Yes, because the aid industry is about $60 billion a year strong. That $60 billion has constituencies who profit from it - they may private sector companies, they may be international aid experts - that profit from it, so they have a selfish personal interest in its perpetuation.

But also, the aid industry sits on a very high moral, even though lopsided, plane in the sense that when people are hungry and you propose that you need to give them food; when medicines are not available in hospitals and you propose that you should give money to governments in Africa to improve the health care delivery, on the face of it, it looks a great altruistic and humanitarian effort to make the right intervention in people's lives.

The problem, of course, is aid has one important dysfunction. And that is that it lacks accountability systems both in the donor country and the recipient country. And that is why oftentimes it is diverted into the pockets of international aid bureaucrats and local politicians and civil servants.

STEWART: Where does the issue of corruption in government play into this discussion?

MWENDA: Corruption in Africa still remains a challenge, although across the continent the growth of democratic institutions, the stabilization of the political dispensation are all impacting heavily on corruption and corruption may be reducing. But remember, Alison, corruption in and itself is not a threat to an investment. Neither is there economic evidence that corruption per se is an impediment to economic development and transformation.

So I don't think that corruption per se is the biggest problem in Africa. Perhaps the perception of corruption in Africa could be the biggest problem. The state has significantly shrunk and, with the shrinkage of the state, the opportunities for corruption are also shrinking.

You see, previously, governments controlled the foreign exchange. The only way an investor could get foreign exchange was by going and bribing government officials so that they can be given the foreign exchange license. Today, anybody can establish a forex bureau. You can go to any bank and buy foreign exchange. So the opportunities for corruption have been curtailed.

And therefore corruption right now has remained a bad brand that Africa was associated with in the past, rather than a significantly consistent constraint to investment.

STEWART: But I'm wondering about - at the end of your TED Talk, you give that long list of where some of the aid money goes to. To the 70 cabinet ministers, the 114 presidential advisors.


MWENDA: We have 81 units of local government, a bureaucracy, a cabinet, a parliament and so many jobs for the political hangers-on. Three hundred and thirty-three members of parliament. One hundred and thirty-four commissions and semi-autonomous government bodies, all of which have directors and cars and...

MWENDA: Yes, and the point I was making there is that whenever you have resources flowing to the government, in the context where the person giving the money and therefore able to hold a government to account is not a citizen of that country, then you tend to reinforce corruption. Just imagine of all the aid that comes to Africa, to finance a parliament that can only sit in a stadium, to finance very many units of local government. Assuming that money was coming in the form of private investment, as much as possible avoid creating alliances between international politicians and local politicians through an industry called charity or aid.

Create opportunities for African citizens who are enterprising in the market to be able to invest and trade with equally enterprising individuals from the western world. Only then can you create opportunities of mutual benefit through innovation and private enterprise.

When the alliance is between politicians and politicians, what you get is corruption.

STEWART: I want to conclude our conversation sort of where we began - talking about media and perception. And you've described a situation where people in Africa are aware of the descriptions of their continent and their countries and the generalizations about their lives. And that it's actually reinforced the reality of some of these negative stereotypes. How do you see this played out? And how should we approach topics differently so that this is not an outcome?

MWENDA: I think that we need to begin a conversation and I am happy that many individuals and institutions in the west, including organizations like the BBC and CNN, have been going through a review. If you look at The Economist, in 2000 they had a cover with the map of Africa. And the headline was, "The Hopeless Continent."

Last year, the same Economist had a new cover with a map of Africa. And it was saying, "Africa rising," so that even the most skeptical newspaper in the world, The Economist, about Africa, right now is beginning to change its narrative on Africa.

By me and you and so many other listeners out there, if we keep saying, look, yes, it is important for us to cover Africa's failures, cover them accurately, cover them truthfully in a fair and balanced way, but also do not only focus on Africa's failures. There are great things happening on this continent. Let us give them coverage. And I think that is beginning to happen, the positive story is beginning to come out.

So all these efforts are an attempt to create an intellectual space through which we can articulate the view that, so far, the coverage of Africa, while truthful, has focused more on purveying the prejudice rather than conveying information.

STEWART: Andrew Mwenda, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the TED RADIO HOUR.

MWENDA: The pleasure is all mine, Alison, and thank you so much for hosting me.

STEWART: Journalist Andrew Mwenda, founder of the news magazine, The Independent. You can link to The Independent's website by going to

Joining us once more is TED's, Emeka Okafor. Emeka, when I spoke to Andrew Mwenda, he was so optimistic about the potential for investment in Africa. As someone - if you were thinking just completely within business confines, why would I invest somewhere where I'm not confident the government is not corrupt?

EMEKA OKAFOR: Well, firstly we're talking about 54 countries.

STEWART: Right, obviously, yes.

OKAFOR: And the level of corruption varies as much as the number of countries.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

OKAFOR: And if we were to use the metrics of corruption to talk about where we invest, I would like to ask where Americans currently invest that doesn't have some degree of corruption. I think it's more perception of how corrupt a society is than whether it presents enough opportunity. Even an African, a Nigerian, a Kenyan, they have to deal with these challenges as much as the next person.

If they wanted to do business within their own countries, talk less of what an American investor may think. So there is a need for that to lessen for the Africans themselves, which I think is actually the more important conversation than it is for the investor in New York or Los Angeles.

I think, when it comes to the American investor, what a number of people believe will happen is, by the time Americans see many parts of this continent as a place they should invest, others would have beaten them to it.


OKAFOR: It's already happening. Be - be it the Chinese, be it the Indians, be it the Malaysians or people from other African countries who look at their history. You know, because of a Chinese person or an Indian or someone from Brazil is in a place like Angola or Nigeria or Liberia, to some degree they see themselves.

They see what they have overcome and where they are now. And by the time things are as pristine - and it's not just about corruption, it's also about an infrastructure, it's also about the perception of violence - by the time we - you get to the point where it is safe and comfortable, it's already over.

STEWART: Let's project five years out, right? We've been talking so much about what has changed since the 2007 conference. Can you think about 2017? What you hope you'll see? What stories we hope we'll be telling? How the narrative will have shifted?

OKAFOR: You know, when you look at much younger Africans in places like Lagos, Nairobi, Accra, they don't have this perception of not being able to do things. There is a very vibrant popular culture scene in music, in fashion, that is very, you know, it - it doesn't have any doubts about itself.

STEWART: And people from other places on the globe don't have those doubts who are there...


STEWART: ...period.

OKAFOR: So, you know, you have young African musicians and artists and fashion designers circulating within Africa who, if you were to talk to them about this depiction, they would look at you askance and wonder, well, where are you - what planet are you from? One could argue, maybe, it's more evident with the diaspora than it may be within certain groups on the ground.

STEWART: That's interesting.

OKAFOR: But if we see these trends continue, there will be surprises, pleasant surprises. I think the extent to which we can continue to lend a helping hand, a supportive hand, and actually be involved ourselves with those who are on the ground is critical.

So I would say five years from now, in areas of culture, innovation, manufacturing, we're not just going to see the emergence of trends that surprise us, but we might see much more bi-directional activity, where it's not just about what we can do with our money. It's what we're learning from them. And I think the world will be better for it, if that happens.

STEWART: Emeka Okafor, thank you for being with us on the TED RADIO HOUR. It was a pleasure talking with you.

OKAFOR: And likewise. Thanks for having me.

STEWART: You can watch dozens of TED Talks about Africa, and hundreds of others. Go to I'm Alison Stewart. You've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading on the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.