Reviewed by: David Black.

Richard Joseph and Alexandra Gillies, eds. Smart Aid for African Development. Boulder, Colo.; Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009.

Some five decades after the start of the post-decolonization era—an era marked by the pervasive presence of foreign aid in African political economies—controversy over the effects and effectiveness of the “aid industry” continues to rage. “Aid pessimists” on both the right and the left posit various deleterious consequences of external aid in Africa, including its contributions to corruption, weak institutions, unaccountable leadership, and entrenched inequalities. At the same time, “aid optimists,” or perhaps more accurately “humane internationalists,” assert that increased aid is imperative, though insufficient, to meet the pressing developmental and humanitarian challenges faced by too many Africans.

The authors in this collection advocate a middle way between these poles. While largely agnostic on the question of whether more aid is necessary, the contributors all share a commitment to the need for “smarter aid.” Writing in the shadow of the “big push” for increased aid, debt relief, and trade reform promoted by the 2005 Commission for Africa and the Gleneagles G8 Summit—a push that was already losing momentum by the time the book was published in early 2009—the contributors collectively argue that increased aid that does not take account of the pathologies to which it has historically contributed merely sustains an “international welfare system” (256) and the global aid industry.
What, then, is “smart aid”? It is, first of all, “more nuanced, flexible, and adaptable.”

It is particularly attentive to the need for institutional reform and improved governance as a critical condition of “sustainable, equitable growth” (256). It tends to be unapologetic about the need for selectivity and conditionality in pursuit of these objectives. It is rooted in a close understanding of national, historical, social, and especially political contexts. For many of the authors in this collection, including Joseph, Kew, Bratton, Logan, Anyang’ Nyong’o, and Diamond, it is indissolubly linked to the fostering of conditions for more robust democratic governance. In this regard, however, there is an interesting and underexplored tension among the authors, with a minority arguing that for smart donors, other imperatives may need to take priority over democratizing reforms and an idealized “democratic social contract,” at least in the short to medium term. Reflecting on the Nigerian experience, for example, Callaghy argues that “support should be given to governments that actually engage in real, sustained economic reform, whether they are democratic or not” (99). Similarly, Reno’s rich historical analysis of corruption in Liberia leads him to some provocative conclusions regarding its potential functionality in the quest for postconflict security and stability.

There are a number of important strengths to this collection. Its contributors provide succinct and sophisticated analyses of several of the most important contemporary innovations in aid practice, including the Paris Declaration, general budget support, debt relief, poverty reduction strategy papers, and interventions tailored to the particular needs of postcon-flict or “failed and fragile” states. They highlight the degree to which the achievements of these new modalities have been more modest and ambiguous than hoped; but in general they argue for learning from and adapting them rather than abandoning them. Many of the individual contributions also reflect the long experience and keen insight of their authors, drawing on richly textured case-based analyses that illustrate the nuanced and con-textualized understandings that “smarter aid” would require
There are also, however, some key gaps and limitations. There is a strongly American cast to the volume as a whole (including some two-thirds of the authors). This matters, in part because the “aid regime” is firmly and increasingly transnational and because many of the most sophisticated aid agencies—those that one would expect to be “smartest”—are European. In this regard, as well as in the idiosyncracies of the American debate on and approach to democratization, the U.S. is an outlier. Similarly, African scholars immersed in the recipient side of the aid “partnership” are underrepresented, with only two of fifteen authors.

*African Review Studies