Anti-Humanitarian Aid

The moral case for ending assistance to dictatorships


Aid to Africa remains a favorite cause for politicians and entertainers. From Geldoff to Bono to Blair, everyone wants credit for attacking poverty. Africa's dire need is undisputed, but good intentions aside, could it be that aid actually harms Africans—and that less help would do more good?

Western wealth is supposed to speed African development and fight grinding poverty, but the result doesn't match the intent. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has single-handedly destroyed the economy with western aid flowing. After a quarter-century of Mugabe, 80 percent of Zimbabweans live below the poverty line, inflation has soared to triple digits, and "land reform"—subsidized with British "development support"—takes lives and destroys agriculture. Mugabe takes the cash and blames the West, trashing the human rights of both large landowners and defenseless slumdwellers in Harare.

But surely "humanitarian aid" saves lives, right? New York University economics professor William Easterly points out that $568 billion in cumulative aid "still [has] not gotten around to furnishing those 12-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths." Kenyan economist James Shikwati contends western drought assistance undermined Kenya's farmers and merely delayed reforms. Good intentions can't justify stupid aid.

This is the moral conundrum: Can the hypothetical lives lost from ending aid outweigh the greater loss of life from each additional month a corrupt regime is subsidized, destroying its country for personal gain? If so, should we offer de facto support to that regime? We think that in this case, at least, the moral question answers itself. Yet by and large, the West won't ask the question.

The 20th century gives searing examples of impossible moral choices. In war-torn Germany the young members of the resistance movement Die Weiße Rose confronted their dilemma by refusing to donate sweaters, blankets, and food to German soldiers on the Eastern front. Even Germans who didn't support the Nazi regime felt a moral duty to support the innocent "cogs in the machine' who starved, froze, and bled to death in the Russian trenches. But Sophie Scholl's moral compass dictated withholding support from these innocents who, ultimately, prolonged the life of a government she deemed immoral. Her refusal to donate stunned many at the time, despite the moral clarity of the alternatives. If Die Weiße Rose's choice was brave but morally easy, the West confronts a less courageous but perhaps more difficult choice, shaded in tones of gray.

Western countries have a post-colonial complex, ignoring abuses of power in Africa for fear of being called meddling or racist. Even the worst offenders, like Uganda's Idi Amin, paid little for crimes against their people, posturing as indigenous leaders for modern Africa. But there are signs Europe might forget its colonialist history long enough to speak out against rampant corruption and lawlessness in Africa. The IMF may give Zimbabwe a pass for destroying its economy, and excuse Mugabe's gang for their outrageous, ongoing crimes against their own people—but Kenya's government-by-crony faces a harsh new negative light. Britain, citing rampant corruption, has withdrawn direct aid from Kenya. This small step, followed by the dramatic resignation of finance minister David Mwiraria, is a move in the right direction.

Surely we grasp that nobly motivated aid does more harm than good when it props up corrupt and brutal regimes. Dictators who demand aid to stave off mass starvation must account for the misery and hunger caused when they divert aid to supporters and cut off opponents. Why should they benefit politically while aid wrecks local agriculture? Aid placates enough people to ensure the regime's survival, but for every soul saved by foreign aid, more will perish because of the continued existence of that regime.

The problem extends to multilateral development banks, which make some of the worst aid decisions and lack direct political accountability. An anti-corruption gloss like the U.N.'s Millennium Project encourages the World Bank to "target" aid to nations with "good governance." Yet as NYU's Easterly points out, the 63 nations identified by the U.N. as having such governance include some of the most corrupt in the world (Nigeria, Chad). Is it any wonder that multilateral aid is doesn't correlate with economic progress in Africa? Free market rhetoric isn't enough. The West must start offering the tough love which is Africa's only true hope.

Nations and multinational institutions that want to help Africa should beg, cajole, and browbeat its nations to remove trade barriers continent-wide, the fastest and least risky way to enhance wealth and bring support directly to the small farmers, tradespeople, and entrepreneurs who are Africa's future.

It's not easy to deny aid to innocents for fear of keeping afloat an evil regime. We appreciate how difficult that decision was during the Third Reich, as morally unambiguous an era as any in history. Our challenge today is more ethically complex, entangling us with regimes of lesser criminality that menace their own people. Between extremes of forcible overthrow and outright support, Western societies too often give dictators implicit support pitched as humanitarian "help" for the powerless, disenfranchised and starving.

That fails the moral test. Official aid policy must be fundamentally rethought for the worst regimes; it must be driven by the goal of sustaining the African people, not dictators in league with ideologically blinded do-gooders. The West would then stake a genuine moral claim in Africa and make concrete its obligation to uphold the principles of liberal democracy—not just in cross-border relations, but in the posture of African states, elected or unelected, towards their own beleaguered people. Why be afraid to show the way?