Criticisms of Official Development Aid

Official Development Aid is aid from governments, which can take the form of either bilateral aid – direct from donor country to recipient country, or multilateral aid, which is channelled through institutions such as the World Bank.

The value of Official Development Aid is much greater than aid channelled through non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam, and so has the potential to have a much greater impact.

You might like to read this post first: arguments and evidence for official development aid before reading the eight criticisms below!

Aid hasn’t generated economic growth in many recipient countries

The most vociferous recent critiques of Official Development Aid comes in the form of Dambisa Moyo’s recent book (2009) Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working And How there is another way for Africa. At root, her most basic criticism  is that Official Development Aid hasn’t actually generated significant economic growth in recipient countries. According to Moyo

‘Over the past thirty years, the most aid-dependent countries have exhibited growth rates of minus 0.2% per annum.  Looked at as a whole, Africa has had over $1 trillion dollars of aid money pumped into it over the last 60 years and not much good to show for it.’

Aid stifles the development of small businesses.

Moyo explains how this works as below…..

‘There’s a mosquito net maker in Africa. He manufactures around 500 nets a week. He employs 10 people, who each have to support upwards of 15 relatives. However hard they work, they cannot make enough nets to combat the malaria-carrying mosquito.

Enter vociferous Hollywood movie star who rallies the masses, and goads Western governments to collect and send 100, 000 mosquito nets to the affected region, at a cost of $1 million, The nets arrive, the nets are distributed and a good deed is done.

With the market flooded with foreign nets, however, our mosquito net maker is promptly out of business. His ten workers can no longer support their dependents.

Now think of what happens 5 years down the line when the mosquito nets are torn and beyond repair, we have now mosquito nets, and no local industry to build any more. The long term effect of the ‘aid injection’ has been to decimate the local economy and make the local population dependent on foreign aid from abroad.

Aid Encourages Corruption

In 2004 the British envoy to Kenya, Sir Edward Clay, complained about rampant corruption in the country, commenting that Kenya’s corrupt ministers were ‘eating like gluttons’ and vomiting on the shoes of foreign donors. In February 2005 (prodded to make a public apology), he apologised, saying he was sorry for the ‘moderation’ of his language, for underestimating the scale of the looting and for failing to speak out earlier

According to Dambisa Moyo – If the world has one image of African statesmen, it is one of rank corruption on a stupendous scale. One of the best examples of this is Mobutu, who is estimated to have looted Zaire to the tune of $5 billion. He is also famous for leasing Concorde to fly his daughter to her wedding in the Ivory Coast shortly after negotiating a lucrative aid deal with Ronald Regan in the 1980s.

Moyo further argues that at least 25% of World Bank Aid is misused. One of the worst examples is in Uganda in the 1990s – where it is estimated that only 20% of government spending on education actually made it to local primary schools.

Moyo argues that growth cannot occur in an environment where corruption is rife. There are any number of ways in which corruption can retard growth.

  • Corruption leads to worse development projects – corrupt government officials award contracts to those who collude in corruption rather than the best people for the job. This results in lower-quality infrastructure projects.
  • Foreign companies will not invest in countries where corrupt officials might siphon off investment money for themselves rather than actually investing that money in the country’s future.
  • Aid is corrosive in that it encourages exceptionally talented people to become unprincipled – putting their efforts into attracting and siphoning off aid rather than focussing on being good politicians or entrepreneurs.

Too much aid money is spent on salaries, admin fees and conferences

Not only are these often secretive and not open to account, but this also means reduced money spent on actual development. The aid industry employs hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. For example, in the UK DEFA spent £248 million on administration in 2007/08. This has led to some referring to aid agencies as the lords of poverty – ironically, it is actually in the interests of these bureacractic agencies for poverty to exist, or thousands of people would be out of work.

Dependency theory argues there is a political agenda to aid

The allocation of US and UK aid has often depended on whether the political ideology of the developing country has met with Western Approval. Dependency theorists argue that the main point of aid is to make the recipients dependent on the donors. Many neo-marixsts argue that along with aid packages comes western values, advice, culture, and aid merely ensures that the interests of west are maintained.

  • During the cold war developing countries were rewarded with aid if they aligned themselves with the Capitalist west and against the Socialist regimes of Eastern Europe and China. Both the UK and U.S. governments refused aid to the Ethiopian government in the early 80s on the grounds that the government was Socialist.
  • A similar focus is also found in US military aid. Much military aid was sent to South America where it was used by right wing governments to repress socialist movements that were opposed to the interests of US multinationals.
  • Even with the fall of the cold war, countries are still rewarded for promoting western interests. Kenya was rewarded in 1991 for providing the US with port facilities during the gulf war while Turkey was denied US aid for not allowing them to lease its air bases.
  • In 2005 developing nations were rewarded for assisting the Bush regime’s war on terror.

NB Tied aid is now illegal in the UK by virtue of the International Development Act, which came into force on 17 June 2002. Other countries, however, still only provide aid on the basis that a proportion of the aid money is spent on products produced by the donor country.

The World Bank aid has traditionally required countries to undertake ‘Structural Readjustment Policies’ (SAPs)

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are the largest and most influential of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), and these have pursued a neoliberal development agenda since the 1980s. The damaging strings that the World Bank & IMF attach to aid, loans and debt relief often make it more difficult for poor countries to effectively tackle poverty. These strings often force poor countries to undertake Structural Adjustment Programmes – cut vital spending on health and education, or to privatise their public services, which provide opportunities for international companies to take these services over. Tanzania, Guyana and Bolivia have all been told that they must privatize their water supplies in order to get millions of pounds in aid from the world bank[1] [2]

Top down aid is often irrelevant to the countries receiving it!

Much Official Development aid has focused on monstrous projects such as the building of dams and roads which have sapped local initiative harmed the environment and lead to social injustices[3].

Focusing on aid for developing countries suggests that recipients are helpless.

Live Sid Yasmin Aibhai- Brown argues that concerts such as Live Aid perpetuate the idea of Africa as a helpless continent incapable of helping itself, whereas the opposite is actually true. [4]

[1] – extract about water privatization in Tanzania from Action Aid.

[2] See Chapter on Bolivia water privatisation, The Corporation DVD

[3]  See for a critical look at the World Bank’s funding of dams in half a dozen developing countries.

[4] – a critique of events such as Live Aid.

Post-Development Perspectives

The Post-Development Perspective became popular in the 1990s. Theorists from within this perspective are critical of Western models of development, arguing that development was always unjust, that it never worked, and that developing countries should find their own pathways to development.

Post-Development as a Rejection of the West
Post-Development as a Rejection of the West

Escobar (2008) criticised modernisation theory for being ethnocentric. He argued that it was only ever interested in making poor countries like rich countries and was dismissive of many ancient philosophies and traditions which had worked in poorer countries for thousands of years. According to Escobar this is both arrogant and disrespectful, and created the potential for opposition and conflict.

Escobar argued that the Western model of development justified itself by claiming to be rational and scientific, and therefor neutral and objective. However, in reality, modernisation theory was a top-down approach which treated people and cultures as abstract concepts and statistical figures to be moved up and down in the name of progress. Modernisation theory effectively denied people within developing countries the opportunity to make their own choices and decisions.

Sahlins (1997) argues that Western Aid agencies often incorrectly assume that people who lack material possessions are in poverty and are unhappy. However, he argued that people in developing world may have few possessions, but this does not necessarily mean they are poor. They may actually be happy because they belong to a supportive community and they have the love of their family. This idea has been practically applied in Bhutan where development is measured in terms of Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross National Product.

Other post-development thinkers argue that modernist explanations of underdevelopment have rarely sought contributions from sociologists and economists who actually live in the developing world. McKay argued that development strategies are too often in in the hands of western experts who fail to take account of local knowledge or skills and that development often has little to do with the desires of the target population.

Post-Development sociologists further argue that Western models of development have created a diverse set of problems for the populations of developing societies. Indigenous peoples have been forcibly removed from their homelands, grave environmental damage is being done to the rainforests, children’s labour is being exploited and aggressive marketing of unhealthy products is taking place all over the developing world, all in the name of achieving economic growth and the name of progress.

Some post development sociologists conclude that development is a hoax in that it was never really designed to deal with humanitarian problems, rather it was about helping the industrial world, especially the United States to maintain its economic and cultural dominance of the world.

Consequently, post-development thinkers argue we need alternative models of development rather than the industrial-capitalist model promoted by western countries.

Post-Development Perspectives – How should developing countries develop?

Korten (1995) argued that development needs to be more ‘people centred’ – which means given people more of a say in how their communities (and countries) develop and getting them to play more of a role in the process of development.

Similarly Amartya Sen (1987) argues, development needs to be about giving people independence so they have real power and choice over their day to day situations, it shouldn’t be ‘top down’ coming from the west, via governments and then trickling down to the people.
People Centred Development theorists also have a much broader conception of what ‘development’ could actually mean. They don’t believe that development has to mean them becoming more like the West and development shouldn’t be seen in narrow terms such as industrialising and bringing about economic growth, development projects should be much smaller scale, much more diverse, and much more coming from the people living in developing countries.

Because of its support for diversity, there are many different paths to development within the Post Development/ People Centred Development perspective. Examples include:

  • Socialist models of development – where governments control most aspects of economic life – such as in Cuba
  •  The Islamic model of development – adopted by Iran – where ‘development’ means applying Islamic principles to as many aspects of social life as possible, rather than focussing on economic growth as the primary goal.
  • Indigenous peoples maintain traditional lifestyles, effectively rejecting most of what the west has to offer is also something post-development perspectives support, as in the example of Bhutan


Appropriate Development

Post-development perspectives aren’t against charities or western governments giving aid, but they want aid to be ‘appropriate’ to local communities where development is taking place. Thus this perspective generally supports the thousands of small scale fair trade and micro finance projects around the world are good examples of PCD style projects embedded in a global network.

Criticisms of Post-Development Perspectives

All the other theories argue that, eventually, if a poor country really wants to improve the lives of its people en masse in the long term, it needs money, this can only come from industrialisation and trade, is it really possible to improve standards of living through small scale projects?

Focussing solely on small scale development projects still leaves local communities in developing countries relatively poor compared to us in the West, is this really social justice?

In a globalising world it simply isn’t realistic to expect developing countries (such as Bhutan or groups living in the Rain Forest) to be able to tackle future problems if they remain underdeveloped – eventually population growth or climate change or refugees or drugs or loggers are going to infiltrate their boarders, and it is much easier to respond to these problems if a country has a lot of money a well functioning state and a high level of technology.

Post-Development perspectives are too relativistic – is it really the case that all cultures have equal value and diverse definitions and paths to development should be accepted? Do we really just accept that patriarchy and FGM are OK in places like Saudi Arabia and Somalia because that’s what their populations have ‘chosen’?

Related Posts

‘People Centred Development’ is closely related term to Post-Development – for the purposes of A level sociology, you can effectively treat them as the same thing!

Modernisation Theory was one of the main theories of development which Post-Development perspectives criticise:

Further Reading

Arturo Escobar – a post-development thinker to be reckoned with (Guardian Article)

This is a useful blog post on post-development perspectives


This post was mainly written using the following source:

Aiken D, and Moore, C (2016) AQA A Level Sociology Student Book 2, Collins.