Foreign Aid’s Effect on Africa

Foreign aid in Africa has had significant impacts on the continent, impacts that are sometimes contradictory. Foreign aid comes from a host of different countries, but the three biggest donors are Russia, the United States, Europe, and China. When an African state receives foreign aid, the state or group that provides the aid gains a little bit of influence on that African state.

Russia, both now and when it was part of the Soviet Union, has had a big influence in Africa. Russia has given plenty of foreign aid to Africa in many different forms. During the Cold War, the USSR provided several African countries with military aid, including the training of over 200,000 soldiers by the Soviets, while an additional 53,000 people studied at a military or political university in the Soviet Union. As a consequence, the Soviet Union made Africa more militarized, which allowed the violence in Africa to only become deadlier. Furthermore, through aid to authoritarian governments in Africa, the Soviets helped create many one-party states, which helped increase and strengthen the neo-patrimonial system in some African states. This creation of the one-party state was very appealing to many leaders of African states because it would help the leader personally benefit. The one-party system might not be as strong in Africa as it once was, but it has shaped the structures of many African governments today.

China’s policy about foreign aid differs from that of Russia and the Soviet Union. China has focused more on building up infrastructure in Africa states, in the hope that the aid that China provides will come back to help the Chinese economy in the long term. Unlike the United States, China is less interested in political influence over African states; the Chinese attitude is that less state intervention is better for trade and will help boost the state sovereignty of both parties. China’s work to modernize Africa’s infrastructure has been cited by many as contributing to the recent economic growth in Africa.

The United States also provides many African countries with foreign aid, both directly and indirectly, through multilateral organizations. The United States used its influence at the World Bank to help the U.S. status in obtaining certain Africa commodities like oil, gold, diamonds, tea, and coffee. U.S. aid towards Africa has resulted mostly in benefitting the United States, similarly to China, but in the political sphere, by contrast, the United States has tried to influence many African states through aid attached to anti-communist rhetoric during the Cold War. After the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign aid arrived alongside the rhetoric of “development,” as a way to encourage African states to position themselves under the American sphere of influence. Increasingly, in the 2000s and the U.S. “War on Terror” and beyond, there was a huge change in how U.S. foreign aid was given in Africa. The United States now primarily offers African states is military aid, which can be defined as better training for state military personnel, equipment supply, and the cooperation of many African states together, all as part of anti-terrorism efforts.

Some might argue that the aid that is given to Africa doesn’t help the problems but only makes them worse. Dambisa Moyo, an economist at Cambridge University, writes, “The aid has gone mainly to governments. This has produced corruption and made the control of the state the main path to wealth and prosperity. This, in turn, has led to an insurrection, political instability, and civil war. Political instability makes private investment in Africa out of the question, furthering the government’s addiction to foreign aid.” This quote highlights the idea that the aid given to a government only increases the dependence on the foreign aid for the state.

Since independence, between the Soviet Union, China, the United States, and many other countries in the Global North, the contribution of foreign aid has created many long-term effects that can still be seen today, effects that are not always predictable but are always complex.


“Weaning Africa off Foreign Aid.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 63 (2009): 85.

Goldsmith, Arthur A. “Foreign Aid and Statehood in Africa.” International Organization 55, no. 1 (2001): 123-48.

Englebert, Pierre, and Kevin C. Dunn. Inside African Politics. Boulder, CO: Rienner, 2013.

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