If the money was simply wasted it would be bad enough. But much of foreign assistance from the United States and other industrialized states, as well as international agencies, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, did more harm than good. For instance, the aid agencies never met a dictator that they didn’t like and wouldn’t subsidize–generously. Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Ceausescu’s Romania, Deng’s China and Mobuto’s Zaire all received grants and loans from bilateral and multilateral sources.
The World Bank, in particular, exhibited a taste for social engineering schemes, the more grandiose the better: Millions of peasants have been pushed off their lands and many have been herded into collectives as part of World Bank‐funded “development” projects.
Western governments funded projects to enhance agricultural production in countries that consciously stole from their farmers and destroyed their rural economies.
Today, donors find themselves in the embarrassing position of urging their clients to privatize the very enterprises and reverse the very policies that had been so long subsidized.
Still, a decade ago the foreign aid lobby resolutely defended its work, even as client after client slipped into poverty and chaos. The problem was seen, naturally enough, as inadequate past assistance. Another program, a few more dollars, a different plan and all would be well.
Thankfully, the collapse of socialism around the globe has sobered even most one‐time aid enthusiasts. Today few analysts, whether at the Brookings Institution or the World Bank, attempt to justify the foreign aid follies of the past. Instead, they argue that aid organizations have learned their lesson and are now prepared to spend money more wisely. Trust them.
So Richardson shows up in Lubumbashi, Congo, with a gift for Mobuto’s successor. If there is any nation where donors should be cautious, it is the former Zaire. The Mobuto regime collected $8.5 billion between 1970 and 1994. The only evidence that remains of that aid is the deposed dictator’s luxurious villas in France and Switzerland, assorted bank accounts frozen by the Swiss government and his country’s huge, uncollectable international debt.
All told, Mobuto is thought to have amassed a fortune of between $4 billion and $7 billion by looting his national treasury and the foreign aid that flowed into it.
Fifty years of failure have demonstrated that foreign assistance more often harms than helps. That has certainly been the case in Congo. It is time administration and congressional policy‐makers finally learned from the past: Foreign aid can’t buy reform.