The speakers enjoying the free-for-all debate period. Photo by Tom Sandler.
Glitz and glamour go hand in hand, but they are rarely accompanied by substance. Inside the ROM on Monday evening, however, the three coalesced in the third installment of the Munk Debates. Determined to offer a “substantive forum for leading thinkers to debate the major issues facing the world and Canada,” the revered series has brought high-profile speakers such as Mia Farrow, Samantha Power, and Charles Krauthammer to Toronto to debate critical issues like the need for humanitarian intervention and the 2008 U.S. presidential election’s effect on global security.
Monday night was no different. Debating whether or not foreign aid does more harm than good, Dambisa Moyo, the author of Dead Aid, and Hernando de Soto, president of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD), teamed up to argue that the aid model is broken and ineffective. Countering them was Paul Collier, the author of The Bottom Billion, and Canada’s own Stephen Lewis, who both sought to convince their opponents and the audience of the benefits and usefulness of foreign aid in developing nations.
Each panellist was given six minutes to express their arguments. Speaking first, Lewis spoke in the most general terms of the four debaters, ultimately justifying the benefits of foreign aid with tangible proof of its results: a greater number of people have access to HIV/AIDS antiretroviral medicines, and a greater number of girls can now attend school just like their brothers.
De Soto immediately countered, but did not waste time attempting to prove that foreign aid doesn’t work. Instead, he offered an explanation of why he thinks the model is broken, attributing blame to the lack of property rights in developing nations. Because they don’t exist, he claimed, individuals do not have the incentive to work to free their countries of their dependence on aid.
According to Lewis, aid has helped families afford to send their daughters to school. Photo by Giorgio Montersino.
Collier quickly riposted. Speaking softly, he slowly laid out his belief that capital of any sort will be of benefit only if the receiving nations have trade, governance, and security; in their absence, he argued, the money is lost to corruption. If these three fundamentals have been established, however, Collier advocated for foreign aid, citing its use in the redevelopment of Europe after the Second World War as proof of its effectiveness.
Speaking last, Moyo offered the most poignant argument. As an African native, she had a vested interest in the debate, and she was quick to list reasons why aid is useless: it fuels corruption, encourages inflation, kills off the export sector, and disenfranchises citizens. Unlike her peers, Moyo focused on developed nations that have prospered through capitalism, arguing that poorer nations must do the same. More specifically, she suggested that aid be cut off, forcing these countries to raise money privately through the international capital markets.
The arguments were followed by a free-for-all discussion, which led into a set of audience and online questions. Each speaker was then given two minutes to conclude their thoughts. Despite all that had been discussed, all four maintained their initial opinions—which isn’t surprising considering that they have spent years forming them. There was some conciliation from de Soto and Collier, though, as both men agreed that an ideal solution could include both public aid and private financing.
Foreign aid provided by UNICEF is unpacked after a shipment to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Julien Harneis.
Lewis and Moyo weren’t so ready to waver. As a stark advocate of public foreign aid, Lewis stood firm: “I’m not willing to forgo the African continent for some neo-liberal ideology that hasn’t been tested.” Countering, Moyo adamantly stated that African nations must take responsibility for their own development. “The only way to accomplish that is if you stop treating us like babies and start treating us like adults,” she said, in an appeal to the West. After citing numerous unsuccessful programs, such as aid for infrastructure in the 1960s, aid for poverty in the 1970s, and aid through structural adjustment programs in the 1980s, she emphatically stated: “Sixty years; one trillion dollars. You’ve had your chance.”
The audience voted on the debate upon its conclusion, ultimately refuting the argument that foreign aid does more harm than good by a slim margin. In the bigger picture, though, the poll was inconsequential—the global recession has dwarfed almost all mention of developing nations’ struggles in the mainstream media and Monday night’s discussion successfully brought these issues to the forefront, and did so in an enlightened discourse rather than in a watered-down conversation. The Munk series has shown that Torontonians are yearning for substantive debate, and everyone on stage on Monday night provided it.