Book explores role of foreign aid in Africa

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Syl Kacapyr
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A new book explores the role of foreign aid in African politics and whether that aid has actually helped or hindered democratization efforts.

“Democratic Trajectories in Africa: Unraveling the Impact of Foreign Aid” (Oxford University Press, 2013), co-edited by Nicolas van de Walle, the Maxwell Upson Professor of Government, and Danielle Resnick, Ph.D. ’10, includes the work of 11 contributors from a study prepared by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research.

The book includes case studies on seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Benin, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. Authors used quantitative and qualitative research, as well as fieldwork that included interviews with donors, government officials and civil society organizations, to explain the role of democratic aid.

“We don’t come out saying there’s a simple relationship. There are pluses and minuses,” van de Walle said. “But we establish a road map on how to think about the political effects of aid.”

The book’s authors find that certain types of aid play a key role, while others seem to undermine the efforts of local African parliaments or judiciaries. And the success of different aid strategies varies by country.

“A great deal of existing cross-country literature on aid and democracy arrives at mixed findings because authors rely on different time periods that often aren’t theoretically grounded, include disparate samples of countries, and use different measurements of democracy,” said Resnick, now a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. “A great deal of more editorial work on aid and democracy claims that aid contributes to corruption and supports autocrats, but the cases that are selected as examples, such as Cameroon or the Democratic Republic of Congo, are badly governed to begin with so the contribution of aid to such dynamics is difficult to disentangle.

“Thus, we focused on countries that already transitioned to democracy in order to better understand how aid contributed to such transitions in the early 1990s as well as how it has helped or undermined greater progress towards consolidation,” she said.

Some of van de Walle and Resnisk’s policy recommendations include:

  • improving coordination among donors to establish sustainable, partnered efforts that avoid duplication;
  • reducing the imbalance in support between civil society and political parties, focusing on activities that benefit all parties; and
  • increasing budget support to strengthen the capacity of central governments, with a clear understanding of the behaviors and policies that are expected of governments in order to keep receiving aid.

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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