“Dead Aid”, by Dambisa Moyo – Extreme Poverty, The Problem with Development Aid, and How There is a Better Way for Africa

“Africa is addicted to aid. For the past sixty years it has been fed aid. Like any addict it needs and depends on its regular fix, finding it hard, if not impossible, to contemplate existence in an aid-less world. In Africa, the West has found its perfect client to deal to.”

— Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid

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For those of you who are new to Godlike Discipline, I’m Matt Karamazov and I’m on my way to reading 1,000 books before I turn 30. This was number 394.

I take notes on everything I read, with my notes organized by book and by year.

My most important notes from each book get added to one single “master” document and I sell these notes in order to raise money for Doctors Without Borders, the international human rights and disaster relief organization.

I also write about self-discipline, fitness, and other topics related to self-development. 

If you don’t have time to read 100+ books every year like I do, then I HIGHLY recommend that you check out Blinkist. Thousands of high-quality non-fiction book summaries all in one place; you really can’t go wrong. Check them out.

If you think about something all day every day, then you just have to write about it. That’s how I feel about books and literature, so here are some of my best notes and meditations on the book, “Dead Aid”, by Dambisa Moyo. Enjoy!

Dead Aid International Development Charity Disease Poverty Helping Democracy Starvation

FROM AMAZON: A national bestseller, Dead Aid unflinchingly confronts one of the greatest myths of our time: that billions of dollars in aid sent from wealthy countries to developing African nations has helped to reduce poverty and increase growth. In fact, poverty levels continue to escalate and growth rates have steadily declined―and millions continue to suffer.

Debunking the current model of international aid promoted by both Hollywood celebrities and policy makers, Dambisa Moyo offers a bold new road map for financing development of the world’s poorest countries.

Much debated in the United States and the United Kingdom on publication, Dead Aid is an unsettling yet optimistic work, a powerful challenge to the assumptions and arguments that support a profoundly misguided development policy in Africa. And it is a clarion call to a new, more hopeful vision of how to address the desperate poverty that plagues millions.


In “Dead Aid”, Dambisa Moyo argues that the four horses of Africa’s apocalypse are corruption, disease, poverty, and war. Our old aid models are wrong, she says, made irrelevant by the fact that more than 2 trillion dollars in aid have been dispersed from rich countries to poor, although there is no evidence that any of it has led to economic growth.

We should have known this would happen, because the world is a complicated place, and no single person understands the whole thing. In the case of aid, you have a legion of good-hearted people (and some people who will inevitably try to game the system) all with their “hearts in the right place” but with no real plan. Or worse, with a faulty plan that’s doomed to failure.

That’s what Moyo believes is happening to foreign financial aid in Africa. I’m with her to the extent that she argues that we’re not making the kind of progress we SHOULD be making.

Dead Aid International Development Charity Disease Poverty Helping Democracy Starvation

Trillions of dollars have changed hands over the years, and still, the life expectancy in Swaziland is 30 years; basically what it was a hundred thousand years ago.

The low life expectancy in many African countries is mainly due to the AIDS pandemic, and one in seven children across the African continent die before the age of 5. This is preventable.

These people (these children) don’t have to die, but they are, and they will, because we don’t know what we’re doing, and we’re too busy buying things and impressing people to care.

I’m done moralizing. I’m just as much a part of the problem as you are. And everyone else is. I also happen to think that just because our aid programs aren’t doing what everyone thought they would in the beginning, doesn’t mean that we should give up on aid entirely. In fact, 2 trillion dollars really isn’t that much, considering all the wealth that we collectively possess. It’s nothing, actually, and if we were to REALLY send aid, then we could solve many of these problems. Call them “Four Horsemen Problems.”

Dambisa Moyo writes that much of this aid money is only going to the pockets of those wielding power in the developing African countries, and that this also leads to instability by marking out those power holders as targets for violent insurrections. There’s something to this. It’s definitely an incentive to start a civil war if you know that should you win, there’s going to be billions in aid dollars flying straight to your door.

I say: fine. Let them pocket the money. And if SOME of it ends up in the right hands, and goes towards alleviating real suffering, which it does, then we should freely give it.

Dead Aid International Development Charity Disease Poverty Helping Democracy Starvation

Who the hell cares if a few members of the ruling class get filthy rich, if we can bring back at least a few African toddlers from the clutches of death? I don’t measure my life in terms of dollars and cents, and if we have to spend a billion dollars per starving child, then I say let’s do it.

If there are ways to do it cheaper, we’ll find them, but while we’re looking for better solutions, there are real people who need our help.


Further on, Moyo dwells on the importance of good governance in pulling Africa together, and I don’t think many people could plausibly deny this.

In the absence of some Platonic philosopher-king who wields absolute power with wisdom, justice and perfect virtue, democracy seems like the way to go. But the way that Moyo forced me to think about the issue was interesting in itself.

She says that democracy has had only a nominal effect on the fortunes of the African continent and that democracy is not the prerequisite for economic growth that aid proponents maintain.

Rather, it is economic growth that is a prerequisite for democracy.

Looking at the risks for a democratic government being overthrown, she shows how a strong economy and healthy middle class can make African democracies, or democracies anywhere, virtually immune to violent revolutions.

A democracy can be expected to last for 8.5 years in a country with a per capita income under $1,000 per annum, and above $6,000, democracies are virtually impregnable.

Dead Aid International Development Charity Disease Poverty Helping Democracy Starvation

That means that once a country has achieved a certain level of economic prosperity, governments are harder to overthrow, and democracies can effectively take root. As someone not interested in finance whatsoever, I still find this result fascinating.

In the West, we have this prevailing idea that democracy is the supreme good, and it is the best chance we have at global sustainability.

While Moyo is not saying that the structure of the government is irrelevant, in the early stages of development, it matters little to a starving African family whether they can vote or not.


Africa is a complex system. I doubt that there are many people in the world, even Dambisa Moyo herself, who know the whole story of how Africa became what it is today, and the exact nature of the forces working for it and against it.

But she’s right about one thing (and many others, as we’ve seen),and that is that we have to disregard what others pressure us into doing, and start doing what will actually work.

Real Africans need to be consulted about the aid crisis and possible solutions thereof, and we’ve seen that in many ways, the money we’ve tossed in the general direction of this problem has failed those real residents of Africa. We’ve become more or less a monkey hitting the combustion engine with a hammer, trying to fix it.

The trouble with the aid-dependency model is that Africa is fundamentally kept in its perpetual childlike state. We’re not trusting the people of Africa  as much as we need to trust them, and we’re hardly consulting them at all.

Aid employs close to 500,000 people when you total the employees from various organizations who make their living dispensing aid, and so it’s easy to see why many people are living in willful ignorance of potential solutions. It’s evidently true that people find it hard to understand the problem when their entire pay check is dependent on them not understanding the problem.

Corruption and good governance is where the aid battle primarily needs to be fought.

“In most functioning and healthy economies, the middle class pays taxes in return for government accountability. Foreign aid short-circuits this link. Because the government’s financial dependence on its citizens has been reduced, it owes its people nothing. A well-functioning civil society and politically involved citizenry are the backbone of longer-term sustainable development.”

— Dambisa Moyo, “Dead Aid”

Infrastructure is absolutely critical to developing and foreign direct investment is the wave of the future for any developing economy. Business-people aren’t going to invest in countries with shoddy corruption records.

FACT: Western farm subsidies basically give $2.50 per day to every single EU cow, when that’s more than a billion people, mostly Africans, have to live on each day

Moyo asserts convincingly that this needn’t be viewed as charity. There are national interests at risk too because of aid, including the waves of refugees coming from Africa who are putting pressure on western economies and because of the fact that fragile states often support terrorism.

Aid is putting pressure on our downside, and reducing the size of our upside. For no sizable return, it’s draining our resources and not producing the intended result. We have a mix of ethical obligations and economic incentives that demand that we take a closer look at foreign aid, contrast it with the benefits of effective governance and foreign direct investment, along with a few other factors that we and Moyo have already considered.

With respect to foreign direct investment, the mistake the West made was giving something for nothing. China, on the other hand, sends cash to Africa and demands returns.

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When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective. We often assume that we know the best way to help people, but as Moyo and others have shown, this is often a fantasy.

Another powerful voice in the development sector belongs to Will MacAskill, one of the creators of the Effective Altruism movement, and co-founder of the Centre for Effective Altruism in England.

Dead Aid International Development Charity Disease Poverty Helping Democracy Starvation

His book, “Doing Good Better”, is…excellent. It’s one of my favorite books now, and certainly one of my top 10 from 2017. He argues, persuasively, that because the best aid programs are extremely good, there is a difference between the typical aid program and the average aid program.

Most of the aid programs Moyo is talking about are absolutely garbage, but there have been aid programs in the past that have MORE than made up for the others’ deficiencies.

Take, for example, smallpox:

In the 20th century alone, smallpox killed more than three hundred million people, before it was eradicated in 1977.

The death toll from every single war and terrorist act since 1973 has been twelve million. Prior to its eradication, smallpox killed 1.5 to 3 million people every year, so, by preventing these deaths for over forty years, its eradication has effectively saved somewhere between 60 million and 120 million lives.

The eradication of smallpox is one success story from international aid, saving five times as many lives as world peace would have done.

This is huge. And it’s all because of aid. The very aid that Moyo has been criticizing. So is she wrong?

I don’t necessarily think so. She’s wrong to condemn aid COMPLETELY, especially when you consider that development programs concerned with eradicating smallpox have saved 60 million lives. Who cares if some of that money went to the wrong people? Are we going to measure human lives in dollars and cents?

Five Key Questions To Ask When Deciding Which Cause To Support:

1) How many people benefit, and by how much?

2) Is this the most effective thing you can do?

3) Is this area neglected?

4) What would have happened otherwise?

5) What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?

MacAskill notes that there has been 2.3 trillion in aid spending over the last 50 years (1 trillion to Africa in particular). Even with the low estimate of lives saved at 60 million from smallpox, foreign aid has saved a life with every $40,000 spent.

In comparison, government departments in the United States will pay for infrastructure to improve safety if doing so costs less than about $7 million per life saved. So aid has saved lives for 1/150th of the cost that the US is currently willing to spend to save the lives of its own citizens.

Over sixty years of aid spending, one trillion dollars amounts to less than 17 billion dollars per year. Divided by 400 million people, the average population of Africa during that period, that’s only $40 per recipient per year.

So what’s to be done? Find the most effective causes and donate to them directly. If you can influence one person to make the same changes you’ve made, then you’ve doubled your impact.

All the best,

Matt Karamazov

“Dead Aid”, by Dambisa Moyo: Complement it with “Doing Good Better”, by Will MacAskill, “Antifragile”, by Nassim Taleb, “Portfolios of the Poor”, by Daryl Collins et al, and The Greatest Books of All Time.



You can now download your free copy of my OWN book, The Godlike Discipline Handbook, by following this link HERE.

It features 13 concepts that are absolutely critical to achieving superhuman self-control, and gives 64 specific, actionable strategies to help you master self-discipline and willpower.

May your discipline become godlike.

Dead Aid International Development Charity Disease Poverty Helping Democracy Starvation


Matt Karamazov is a human rights activist, nightclub bouncer, and hardcore reader. He writes about books, self-discipline, and human rights at Godlike Discipline, and you can get his free ebook on how to radically improve your own levels of self-discipline. Between workouts, Matt is trying to read 1,000 books before he turns 30, and start a non-profit that allows volunteers to earn money just by tracking the hours they already spend volunteering. He would be straight-up honored if you would support the life-saving work of Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch. Here he is on a horse.

Dead Aid International Development Charity Disease Poverty Helping Democracy Starvation

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