Africa is poor. If we send it more money it will be less poor. It seems perfectly logical, doesn't it? But it isn't. Along with its many benefits, government aid to Africa has often meant more poverty, worse basic services and damage to already precarious democratic institutions. Calls for more aid are drowning out pressure for action that would really make a difference for Africa's poor. Rather than doubling aid to Africa, it is time to reduce aid dependency. This book will show you why.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Blogging at The Guardian

I am now blogging every week for The Guardian's new Global Development website which you can find here:
Come and join the debate...


posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 12:42

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Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Some more great reviews

Alex de Waal (Program Director, Social Science Research Council): “This is a really fantastic book and one of the most accessible and well argued books on aid available.”

Madelaine Bunting (Guardian journalist): “Dambisa gets lots of coverage... but [The Trouble with Aid] is much better....”

Owen Barder
(Center for Global Development): “There are lots of rather dull, very worthy books about the aid business, and in my view this is not one of them. This is a short readable book full of anecdotes and examples about the way that aid works and missing out all the lofty rhetoric that you often read... So the ideas that might otherwise be quite boring, such as aid conditionality, are brought to life with examples that illustrate and support the arguments... It doesn’t slip into jargon, which is one of its great strengths.”

Emma Mawdsley (Cambridge University, for the Journal of International Development): “Glennie has produced an intelligent, judicious and accessible dissection of foreign aid to Africa. It ought to rocket to the top of any reading list on the subject, and in an ideal world it would displace the recent populist publications on foreign aid from the bestseller lists... He is unsparing in his insistence on evidence, and on not conforming to scripts... With a discernment and clarity that seems to elude many in the field, Glennie asks deceptively simple questions, but ones which I suspect will disconcert both aid pessimists and aid optimists. He concludes with a full chapter on prescriptions for change, and in keeping with the rest of the book, these are potentially achievable, radical and realistic at the same time. What they require is willingness to embrace a more holistic, evidence-led and situated understanding of aid effectiveness in reducing poverty... The Trouble with Aid is a tremendously good book. It is written with great clarity, and students will have no problem following the arguments; but at the same time it sets out discerning arguments that academics and policy-makers will find refreshing and challenging.”

Richard Dowden (Director, Royal African Society): “Brilliant... incisive, clearly written and with radical conclusions.”

Robert Molteno (Political scientist and publisher): “[The Trouble with Aid’s] lines of argument ought to command attention for many years to come... The arguments, always nuanced rather than simplistic and sweeping, [provide] the bones of a constructive, alternative development and aid policy.”

New Agriculturalist: “The Trouble with Aid certainly hits the spot. A concise and forthright critique and summary of the aid dilemma, its lack of prohibitive jargon and lofty rhetoric afford it wide and deserved appeal… Glennie offers some suggestions on how to get the aid revolution started.”

Richard Aidoo (Africa Today): “Well-thought-out, [The Trouble with Aid] responds to both the optimists and the pessimists in the aid debate… Glennie’s arguments have contributed to other scholarly discussions which build on the idea of not just increasing aid, but providing support that will really help Africa’s development.”

Lucy Corkin (SOAS, for Pambazuka News): “What makes this book unique is the attempt to collect and synthesize the entire range of arguments for and against aid, in a way that lays bare the complexities of the issue. This is no easy task and Glennie is painstaking in his effort to capture the nuances of arguments... Glennie has done an admirable job in keeping the tone of the book balanced, recognising the importance of conveying a message in a way that, albeit hard to swallow, has a hope of being digested.

D.J. Shaw (Development Policy Review): “[Glennie] suggests not a sudden break but a deliberate change of direction...”

Some Amazon reviews:
“[The Trouble with Aid’s] conclusions are surprising and troubling now, but I suspect will be the orthodoxy by 2020… Glennie's book has shifted my understanding of this subject completely, and I'm still slightly stunned by it.”

“I like this book. It crams a great deal of good sense into a short space... The book is different – maybe paradigm-changing...”

“Glennie's work is a must read for Africanists... Albeit controversial, Glennie's argument... provides a concrete foundation for a paradigmatic shift in development discourse and practice.”

posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 06:01

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Saturday, 1 May 2010

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posted by Trevor @ 13:18

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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Surprised by applause

I was at the European Development Days in Stockholm last week on a panel with IMF, World Bank, recipient country and European development agency representatives. Some of the usual issues came up (conditionalities, harmonisation etc) but the biggest applause came when I said what I thought might be provocative, given the overwhelmingly aid business audience. "When", I asked, "will development agencies and recipient countries set out a timetable to bring aid to an end?" Radical suggestion? Apparently not given the reception it got. Even some panel members appeared open to the idea. In a way, that's not very surprising I suppose. We all recognise that aid that doesn't end is not really aid. But it seems people in the aid industry are more open than ever to the problems of long term and deep aid. I left feeling optimistic that new thinking was being welcomed by the aid community.

posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 13:37

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Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Jonathan Glennie takes on both the aid optimists and the pessimists

This article was first published in the New Internationalist on 1 Sept 2009

I knew this would happen. The intellectual initiative on African development seized by a free-market ideologue, now listed by Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

It is clear what side of the fence Dambisa Moyo is sitting on. The foreword to her book Dead Aid is written by leading conservative historian Niall Ferguson, and her write-up in Time was written by none other than (ex-President of the World Bank) Paul Wolfowitz. In her eight years with Goldman Sachs, I doubt she was a subscriber to the New Internationalist.

Some people think the danger of Dead Aid is that it will lead to reductions in aid. That isn’t the danger. As I argue in my book, we need to set out a plan to reduce aid in the medium term, rather than continue the traditional clamour for aid increases in the face of growing evidence of the harm it can do. No, the danger of Dead Aid is that just when the opportunity exists to fundamentally challenge the extreme form of capitalism that has held sway over Africa, and most of the world, for the last three decades, we lose the intellectual initiative by clinging to an outdated position on aid.

Despite the many flaws in her book, Moyo’s success is a good thing. We need to debate aid. I wrote my book because I was frustrated by the lack of intellectual rigour behind calls for huge aid increases to Africa. While most of my colleagues in the ‘aid industry’ have responded positively, some argued that it was ‘risky’ to question the unalloyed benefits more and more aid will offer to the African continent.

Now they have been hit with Dambisa Moyo, who is selling more books than Jeffrey Sachs could dream of and whose polemic – however far removed from the facts – is gaining ground in influential circles. The risk for those of us who realize the flaws in the neoliberal, market fundamentalist approach is that we stop being trusted by the public as we persist in the same tired defence of aid based not on the facts but on habit, self-interest (if you work in a charity, you are somewhat linked to aid increases) and a kind of ‘something must be done’ mentality.

Tempting trap
The main technical criticism of Moyo’s book must be that it is very prone to exaggeration. Hers is not a serious analytical study but an anti-aid polemic of the kind common in the conservative media in the US, where the only facts used are ones that bolster a case, and exaggeration is considered par for the course – after all, the other side is doing it. Exaggeration is a very tempting trap for an author to fall into. A thoughtful assessment is rarely as blistering a read as a no-holds-barred romp through the evils of one thing or another. And publishers (and publicists) want to sell juicy rants. My book on aid to Africa has a plaster on the front in the shape of the African continent. As you can see if you look at my blog (, there were other, more positive, options for both title and cover. But my publisher insisted, and I agreed in the end, that if I wanted the book to sell I would have to bow to some of the pressures of a competitive market.

In the book itself, however, I was obsessive in my attempt to present a balanced approach to the subject of aid to Africa, because that is what I think both western and African publics deserve. In contrast to aid optimists (like Sachs) and aid pessimists (like Moyo), I emphasize that the impacts of aid are complex, some good, some bad. Only when we assess these impacts dispassionately and systematically can we have any real expectation of making a positive and sustained impact on human rights, development and poverty reduction in Africa. I call this approach aid realism. Aid realism means not getting swept away by the ethical clamour to ‘do something’ when a proper analysis shows that what is being done is ineffective or harmful. And it means not bowing to an ideological anti-aid position in the face of the rights and urgent needs of millions of people.

Currently I manage a Christian Aid programme in Colombia. I have worked in the NGO sector for over 10 years but have never been as inspired as now, as I see the way donated money is being spent to bolster the movement for change in this country. Without the presence of our and similar international agencies, the organizations, communities and individuals that make up that movement would be far weaker, battered on all sides by the violence of the state and illegal armed groups, and many might simply have ceased to exist.

Dependence and independence
We are not giving charity, we are helping build a movement for human rights and justice. Justice for the four million women and men displaced from their homes by armed groups seeking wealth and power. Justice for the victims of violence and persecution. Justice for the 50 per cent living in poverty in an upper-middle income country. Moyo doesn’t get that at all. She seems to think that everything will be solved if we open a few banks and liberalize some more. But Latin America has shown that change comes when the movement for justice is strong. And when aid strengthens that movement, it is doing a vital job. Our programme in Colombia is part funded by the Irish and British governments and publics, and part by the EU. So, yes, aid can do good. We need more of that kind of aid. The big problem is with very large amounts of government-to-government aid.

Moyo’s critique of aid dependency is one of the areas where she and I are in agreement. The harm done by very high levels of government-to-government aid to the development of effective and accountable governance in Africa is one of the great silences in the aid debate. While politicians – from Tony Blair with his 2005 Africa Commission to Barack Obama in Ghana earlier this year – demonstrate an increased awareness of the importance of state institutions in development, they do not appear to understand the harm aid itself does to governments that rely on it too heavily. Moyo does – and the issue has seldom had so much coverage.

Radical humility
The way to respond to Moyo, then, is not to reel off more misleading ‘millions of lives saved per billions of dollars spent’ scenarios. The western public has stopped believing them, while the African public knows they are unhelpful exaggerations. The aid community needs to publicly recognize the flaws in aid and the harm it can sometimes do. And then it needs to defend the good things about aid.

After which, it needs to move on to more important issues. The irony of this debate is that aid is not really the issue at all. Both aid optimists and aid pessimists exaggerate the importance of aid. No country has ever developed because of aid, and while relatively small amounts of private giving do lead to the kind of programme I am proud to run here in Colombia, they are not going to change the world. Countries develop when they get their policies right. We should be campaigning on tax havens, on climate change, on human rights, on trade justice, and on policy freedom. Although Moyo hardly mentions the issue, it is aid conditionality, more than aid itself that has caused so much damage to Africa. Under intense pressure from donors, the entire economic direction of the continent has changed since the early 1980s. For such a large and diverse group of countries, you would expect a range of responses to the various problems of poverty and development. Instead the response has fitted the Washington-designed blueprint of privatization and liberalization. That is no coincidence, and while lock-in trade deals have played their part, aid has probably been the main instrument used by rich countries to get what they want. Efforts have been made since the late 1970s to rein in aid conditionalities, but they are still just as harmful as ever.

I am not concerned about Moyo critiquing aid; she is right to. What concerns me is the certainty with which she states what African countries need to do to develop. Certainty is also a key part of marketing a book. You generate a scandal and then dive right in. But it is galling to see in this case, precisely because she utters with such certainty prescriptions that have been shown so utterly to have failed.

At a recent debate in London, hosted by the International Rescue Committee, Moyo repeatedly asserted that ‘we know what works’. We don’t know, and that kind of attitude, so common among the donor community for the last few decades, is exactly what we have to move away from.

Now is the time to demonstrate radical humility; not to compromise on principles, but to adopt an attitude of creativity and respect. Now is the time to trust people and their governments and parliaments, for all their many problems, more than blueprints flown in on a laptop.

So I make the following appeal. The pull of neoliberalism has been broken. Its failings scar Africa and shame the West. Development is more complicated than neoliberals (and neo-cons) would have us believe. It is time for a new era of intellectual openness. In contrast to 30 years of clamping down on choice, let the decades ahead be the decades of choice, of experimentation again, and of sovereignty.

posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 04:55

3 Comments comments

Saturday, 4 July 2009

A new America?

I went to the US Embassy Independence Day party yesterday (celebrated a day early) – the huge military compound was transformed into a theme park for the night. The Colombian guests sang their national anthem with gusto, but the Americans gave a pretty poor rendition of theirs (just as the British usually do). Sometimes listening to the American anthem sung tiredly, you can forget what a majestic song it is. Never moreso than in the mouth of Marvin Gaye. Nothing moves me more than watching his version on YouTube. I discovered it a few years ago and started watching it obsessively, singing it while making coffee, humming it in meetings, driving my friends to distraction by incessantly repeating the exquisite penultimate line. I was thrilled by the bravery and creativity that took an iconic, slightly rowdy, not very beautiful tune and turned it into a sexy R&B melt-in-your-mouth chocolate bar, relying only on a drum-machine and the odd chord. Marvin Gaye is one of the great musical geniuses of the last century and his phrasing is amazing.

The occasion is moving too. Addicted to drugs and sex, Marvin is only months away from a cataclysmic argument with his mad dad that left him dead (shot) just as he was reclaiming his status as THE great black artist in America. You have to watch the video. He comes out in front of the crowd as they wait for the NBA final in his shades and for the next three minutes or so holds them in the palm of his hand. The crowd. Not his shades. He is everything a great artist should be. Natural, cool, surprising, complete. Building slowly and effortlessly he lifts the emotion of the song as it climaxes, ever so slightly putting his shoulders into it, and never losing control of his mesmerising voice. An astonished and enthralled crowd is blown away.

When I watch his perfect rendition it reminds me what the United States was meant to be, what it could have been, before it all went so wrong. It is not like the Jimi version, the other classic, which sums up an ecstatic era of rebellion and new possibilities. It is thoughtful and soulful. And painful. Because the slightly colourful but still noble aspirations so clearly expressed in the words of the song are set, in my mind at least, against the reality of racism and inequality at home and violent imperialism abroad.

In 1983, while Marvin was singing in a basketball stadium, Ronald Reagan’s White House was busy funding and supporting some of the most deadly regimes of the twentieth century. Pinochet was still murdering and raping his way through Chile; further north, the murderous gangs of El Salvador ravaged peasants, human rights leaders and priests; next door in Guatemala the civil war that had raged in the hills ever since a US-sponsored coup in 1954 was getting more and more brutal; Nicaragua was at war with a US proxy army – the contras. In Colombia in 1983 armed bands of paramilitaries, strongly linked to the army (trained, inevitably, by the US) were remerging. Their previous emergence in the 1960s had been an explicit part of US counter-insurgency strategy in the country. The history books will record that any perceived threat to US economic interests in twentieth century Latin America was brutally put down, with not even a cursory glance at the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

But it was not always thus. In the early years of South American independence from Spain, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, with their iconic constitution, their audacity in imagining a new way of running a state, had inspired Simón Bolívar and his followers as they wrote the constitutions of Gran Colombia (which initially included Venezuela and Ecuador), Peru and Bolivia. Although it soon became a strong trading competitor threatening Colombian economic development, the political vision of the leaders of the United States was one of the main reasons that Colombians were brave enough to fight renewed attempts by the Spanish to reclaim their colony. The Star Spangled Banner is a kind of weird but ultimately, I think, quite an evocative homage to that vision. And the word spangled pleases me.

Skip on roughly 150 years and a slightly drug-muddled Marvin is wowing the crowd while economists down the road are laying the plans for the neo-liberal era. The United States, which had grown to untold prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th century using all manner of policies to protect its growing manufacturing and agricultural base from competition, led the assault on the rights of today’s poor countries to do the same. Policy choices that didn’t fit in with those defined in Washington were not, and are still not, an option for those countries reliant on aid to keep their economies afloat. We are only now emerging from more than two decades of narrow-minded policy enforcement which led to slow or no growth in most of Latin America and the reversal of years of development and poverty reduction in post-colonial Africa. Meanwhile profits for US companies grew at record levels as the US forced other countries to accept rules and policies that suited its well-developed economy and multinational companies.

When Marvin sang of freedom he probably didn’t have Latin America in the forefront of his mind nor, if I am honest, would he have been meditating deeply about trade liberalization and the price of chickens in Ghana. Knowing as I do his other works I am yet to find reference to the killing squads of Central America or a detailed critique of World Bank structural adjustment policies.

But he was certainly aware of the barriers and injustices poor people still faced in his own country, the land of the free (he sings that word with his voice stretched, his muscles flexed), not least black people, with the added burden of centuries of racism to contend with. And I am sure that some of those listening in the stadium heard his crystal vocals as a political call for black people to reclaim as their own a nation they had helped build as slaves. Marvin was not only sex in dark glasses. He was also a civil rights icon. And this, his final televised performance, was his last word: “This is not your country, it is mine too.”

The anthem ends with a question: “Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” If anyone at the US Embassy was thinking of the words at all last night, the final line came out as less of a question, more of a declaration, taken for granted. But in Marvin’s mouth the question is still very much alive. And the answer today, as in 1983, is “No”.

But there are some hopeful signs, the most obvious being the rise of Barack Obama to the presidency, carried to victory by a generation of Americans yearning for something different. For change. Obama will find it hard quickly to turn around the rapacious military and industrial machine that the USA has become, and he doesn't seem to understand the harm done by American economic policy to the poorest countries (let's hope he reads my book). But he appears to want his country to live up to the universally inspiring values of its founding fathers, and he has himself inspired a generation of Americans to begin again on the road to justice and a decent life for all, not just at home but abroad as well. He came out reasonably quickly in condemnation of the coup d'etat in Honduras that has everyone sensible on the continent worried again about the real strength of democratic guarantees in Latin America.

Is it too much to hope that the Iraq disaster, growing state powers elsewhere in the world, and a tentative consensus among the “experts” about the disastrous hubris of the neo-liberal experiment, might mean change is on the way? Let’s hope the new president has a listen to Marvin and a good think about where his beloved country, with its blessed ideals, went wrong.

posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 16:33

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Saturday, 20 June 2009

Wind of Change in Latin America

I have re-found an article I wrote a couple of years ago for the BOND newsletter - here it is below. In it I exhort the western development community (the main readers of the newsletter) to 'catch up' with movements in the south, particularly South America. But I also note that African social movements should be checking out developments over the Atlantic. This is still very much the case. Given the swing to the soft left in Latin America, with new and creative ideas for how to manage and turn the tide of neoliberalism, it strikes me as odd that there is still so little cross-pollination of ideas between Africa and the Latins. In particular, the unique nature of Latin America's social movements makes them an interesting model for other continents to look at, particularly Africa, where a relatively weak civil society is one of the reasons for slow progress on human rights and poverty reduction.

First published in BOND’s newsletter in 2006

Every country in South America, except Colombia (a real exception because of its devastating internal conflict), is today run by a left-of-centre government. The picture is more balanced through Central America but if gone left in July – and it still just about might as protests against alleged fraud continue – the rejection of neo-liberalism in Latin America would have been almost complete. The IMF, architect of twenty years of failure to tackle poverty, is being paid off and, where possible, asked politely to leave.

The New Left (with the possible exception of Hugo Chavez’s self-proclaimed ‘revolution’ in Venezuela) is marked by a rejection of ideology and a refreshing appreciation of the complexity of linking growth, stability and poverty reduction. Learning from past mistakes, and even from some of neo-liberalism’s successes, it has embraced fiscal prudence as pro-poor, while at the same time getting actively involved in the market-place.

If, as many hope and expect, the creative policies of this new wave of leaders lead to a faster reduction in poverty and inequality than in the last two decades (not that hard, actually!) it will be largely thanks to the successful mobilisation of social movements. Bolivia is the most recent and obvious example of this trend – Evo Morales leads a government packed with former road blockers who appear as impressive in ministerial armchairs as standing by burning lorries. But even more moderate governments, like those in Brazil and Uruguay, have relied on strong social movements to ensure their transition to power.

The growth and increasing organisation of social movements in many southern countries is one of the most important dynamics of the present era. With so much uncertainty over what is actually necessary for pro-poor sustainable development, something we can all be pretty sure of is that a strong civil society, holding government and private sector more and more to account, is one thing that will speed our world’s progress towards justice.

Most new and emerging African social movements are not nearly as strong as those in Latin America, which raises serious doubts whether the type of political transformation necessary to ‘make poverty history’ in Africa will happen any time soon, irrespective of whether aid is double, debt is cancelled or donors stop forcing countries to open their markets.

So what can the NGO community in the North do to help? First we need to make working in solidarity with social movements in poor countries one of the main objectives of our work. There has been a big shift over the years in the perceived role of Northern NGOs, from primarily providing charity to an increasing focus on structural change. But so far we have focused most of our attention on trying to persuade the powerful in the North to act in the interests of the poor in the South.

While this is an important part of the jigsaw, the changes in Latin America underline the fact that the key to long term improvements in the lives of poor people is the development of movements and organisations representing their interests, coming up with sensible answers to difficult problems, and standing up to power when it blocks progress.

We must change the way we judge our successes. Traditionally we have sought to quantify campaigning success in ‘deliverables’, such as how much the G8 promises to give as aid. That is important. But so often the promises of Northern powers do not come to fruition, or what appear to be acts of generosity metamorphose into new acts of imperialism – the self-serving conditionalities attached to aid and debt relief are the most obvious example.

So we need to judge our wins in more than simple financial terms. How much have we supported the growth of movements for change, we should ask, and how has the power balance shifted? Sustainable change will come only if those who have little power today have more power tomorrow.

Politics matters. History happens slowly. We are behind southern social movements in our analysis of what creates real and long lasting change – and some of them are beginning to ask what we are up to. We need to catch up.

posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 02:28

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Jonathan Glennie