Alex Perry: The 'misery myth' that’s corrupting Africa

The aid industry has infantilised the whole African continent. Merryn Somerset Webb talks to author Alex Perry.


Africa is a vibrant and innovative place aid keeps it down

See Merryn's full interview with Alex here.

The aid industry has infantilised a whole continent, says Alex Perry.

Alex Perry likes a difficult subject. The last time I saw him, just after the referendum (in which the Scottish population very firmly voted tostay in the UK), he had just been released from spending week after week followingAlex Salmond around the country in order to write a profile of him for Newsweek. He was exhausted, as I suspect anyone would be. But if you think the determination of the minority in Scotland to ignore reality is stunning, it is nothing as to the way most of us ignore the reality of the subject of Perry's latest book, The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free.

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Think of one image that represents all of Africa to you, says Perry. Odds are it is a starving child "with flies in its eyes". That makes sense. Why? Because our main connection to Africa is via the aid agencies, and that's how the aid agencies want you to see Africa. Aid is "the biggest business" on the continent: it's worth some $55.8bn a year the equivalent of the combined GDP of the 20 poorest countries in Africa. And if it wants to stay that big, it has to keep spreading the myth that Africans can't survive without endless support from the West that it lives inside an endless rolling crisis. It has to "infantilise an entire continent".

That makes it a stunningly dishonest model, I say, particularly given that many of the donors in the West can't really afford to be donors. It's worse than that, says Perry. The money is also largely misused or entirely wasted. Look first at the "legitimacy problem". Aid agencies demand certain behaviours. They not only tell a false story of Africa. They are also constantly "telling people what to do and how to behave" on subjects from sexual diversity through to carbon emissions.

Then there is accountability. The bigaid institutions are "just massive".You couldn't reform them even if you wanted to, and no one really calls them to account anyway: "you raise your money over here, but you do your work somewhere very distant where nobody can really check up on what you're doing On top of that you're doing work in areas where there's no data. South Sudan, Congo no one's got an idea within even a million people what the population is, let alone how effective your aid is."

That allows agencies to pick and choose data and report "awesome results" when and how they like.I ask for an example of statistics that suggest there is more need than there is. There is no shortage. Take Congo, says Perry. All the aid agencies use 5.4 million as the number of people killed in the war. That would mean "an average of 45,000 people a month over a thousand a day every day for over a decade that just hasn't happened."

Yet "5.4 million dead" is "consistently used by every aid agency in Congo" to justify their presence, and in particular, the presence of their very highly paid workers in Congo. Note that an aid worker package with benefits can easily add up to $500,000 plus. They might have entered their industry with the best of intentions, but too many aid workers have ended up full members of the 1% at our expense. Lots of other people's money and no accountability: it isn't the kind of situation that breeds good results.

So what if every aid agency pulled out of all of Africa tomorrow? This brings us to the next problem with aid. Its scale and constant presence has taught African governments something awful: they don't need to bother to do much governing as long as they don't, someone else will do it for them. "The responsibility of government as, say, South Sudanese ministers seem to interpret it, is to steal as much oil money as possible education, infrastructure, health, that sort of stuff other people will do that."

The key point here is that aid agencies and African governments operate in a horrible equilibrium. The agencies don't want Africa to be seen to do well (it would put them out of a job in the end) and the governments don't want it either (good GDP growth would mean foreign donors might expect them to run their own schools). "Is it in the interests of, you know, any African government to make out that it's doing OK, faced with a giant aid complex in the capital city?" No.

So almost everyone has an interest in the perpetuation of the misery myth and the result of that is simple (if depressing): even after decades of huge aid programmes much of Africa remains ungoverned by African governments. If aid is withdrawn (and it should be, says Perry) it must be withdrawn "slowly and carefully".

We move on to talk about the ways in which Africa is not a starving child. Even on the (possibly dodgy) GDP numbers that are released, says Perry, Africa's growth has been "double the world average since 2002-2003". It is from a low base, of course, but it is also worth noting that everyone under-reports their income (try equating the $600 average wage in Kenya with the number of "BMWs on the streets of Nairobi") and that, even on published numbers, the average sub-Saharan African on an annual income of $1,720 a year is "$200 richer than the average Indian".

At the same time, while you still have a few Mugabes knocking about, democracy of various sorts "is becoming more or less the rule", with a lot of Africa looking to the Singapore model as a good one to follow (money first, full freedom later).Africa has commodities and commodity exchanges. It has a fast-growing infrastructure (it needs this it's bigger than China); it has "leapfrog" technologies (those that enable you to skip a level of infrastructure development that more developed countries have undergone) in mobile, solar and agriculture (there has, says Perry,been huge success in the "regreening"of the Sahel).

Where would he live if he could choose any African country? Rwanda. Twenty years ago it was in the middle of a foul genocide. Today, Kigali is 100% wireless and its government is planning stunningly innovative things, such as "the world's first drone airport". Rwanda, says Perry, "is astounding... and the fact that human rights groups and a lot of aid groups can't see that is a monumental testament to how blind they are and how they are blinding the rest of us".

In much of Africa there are still huge problems. But, says Perry, "development is not a smooth path to progress it's up and down, often bloody" just as it was in Europe. But the bumps in the road to riches don't make all of Africa into one starving child.

Who is Alex Perry?




Duringhis career as a journalist he has lived and worked across Asiaand Africa in 2007, he was held in jail in Zimbabwe for fivedays reporting from more than 100 countries and coveringmore than 30 wars. He was born in Philadelphia and raisedin the UK, and now lives in Hampshire in England. The Rift(published in hardback by W&N, price £20) is out now.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.