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The Sachs-Moyo-Easterly Aid Debate: An Activist's Perspective

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In reading and participating in the exchange about aid to Africa (in particular, the one that began with the ONE campaign's critique of Dambisa Moyo's book, Dead Aid, soon after its release back in March), I'm glad to see so many folks up in arms over the subject. Congratulations to Ms. Moyo for stirring the pot. And kudos to Jeffrey Sachs for continuing to defend his position so vehemently.

I'm not an economist, and I don't pretend to have any authority on financial matters involving huge sums of money between governments. Yet, as someone who's spent a few years advocating for the world's poorest people -- many of whom live in Africa -- what the ongoing debate between economists Jeffrey Sachs, Dambisa Moyo, and William Easterly says to me is that, no matter whose side you're on, you can't ignore the elephant in the room: extreme poverty in Africa is finally the hot topic we activists have wanted it to become for a long, long time.

Although neither Sachs nor Moyo is a household name, their sparring (along
with Easterly) here on the Huffington Post and in other news outlets has drummed up so much interest in the aid topic that even regular folks like me are chiming in with our two cents around the water cooler or trading foreign-aid tidbits with our neighbors as we unload groceries from our SUVs. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but everything from The Charlie Rose Show to The Colbert Report has featured Moyo and her book in recent weeks, with repercussive effects in print and online.

In one of Sachs' recent Huffington Post retorts, "Aid Ironies," he begins with the line, "The debate about foreign aid has become farcical." I know what he means, especially in the context of the rest of the article, which basically refutes Moyo's assertions that aid to Africa is an enabler, perpetuating much of the continent's struggle for economic rise. Still, I wouldn't say that the debate itself is farcical. If anything, all the back-and-forth about GNPs, geographical adversity, and microfinance is giving middle America a vocabulary lesson about aid to Africa and other parts of the developing world -- and that's a good thing.

As for jumping into the action, I, for one, am on Sachs' side -- if for no other reason than the numbers don't lie: Only around 50,000 people were receiving lifesaving antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS in Africa in 2002, compared with 2.1 million people in 2007. And what about the increase in the number of children enrolled in school in Africa since 1999 (up 34 million) -- would aid have anything to do with those results?

But it seems to me that the real fire behind the debate -- to aid or not to aid, or even how to aid -- isn't really based in numbers; it's grounded in the belief that Westerners are all too adept at imposing their ideas upon parts of the world that are both geographically and culturally distant from their own, while manipulating their (or should I say, "our") seemingly wealthy governments' aid to implement plans. Often, corruption impedes these plans, depending on where the money trail leads, and to this point, Easterly makes a valid plea in his latest post about the effectiveness of aid: "Make sure that aid reaches poor people, which usually means it should not go to poor governments."

While popular culture, including films such as 2006's Blood Diamond, is doing its part to expose the truth about neo-imperialist attitudes, nuanced examples of the relationship between the industrialized West and Africa (including Matt Charman's new play, The Observer, about a British woman sent to Western Africa to monitor elections in a fictitious country) are bubbling to the surface, raising more questions, and thus furthering the discussion.

So far, my favorite quote about the aid debate came early on, in Michael Gerson's April 3rd Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post, which granted Moyo a slight concession while hitting home the core of Sachs' argument: "If Moyo's point is that some aid can be bad, then it is noncontroversial. If her point is that all aid is bad, then it is absurd. The productive political agenda is to increase the good while decreasing the bad. The productive academic debate is distinguishing between them. Instead, Dead Aid...proposes a 'world without aid' on a five-year timetable. Moyo does not detail the possible outcomes. But we can reliably predict one of them: [Without aid], many now alive would be dead."

Gerson's last line is so true, because even though Moyo's book makes some interesting points, there's no time to sit back and see what happens to Africa in a "sink or swim" situation. While we're all busy arguing over aid, poverty and disease are killing people every day. Go ahead and call me a misguided Westerner if you like, or even a bleeding heart; I much prefer those titles to "bystander" -- innocent or not.