Dambisa Mayo: The Siren of Decline

Dambisa Moyo Chris Floyd / Contour-Getty Images

When Dambisa Moyo wrote a book claiming that aid was bad for Africa, many in the West were ecstatic. This was no right-wing, isolationist, middle-aged, white, male author, but a glamorous, young, black, female, African economist. Dead Aid won itself a load of publicity when it came out in 2009, not because its argument was particularly new, but because it came from such an unexpected source.

Moyo's new book, How the West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly—and the Stark Choices Ahead, may be rather less welcome to Western audiences. The 42-year-old Zambian argues that we have become feckless, overborrowed, and obsessed with consumer goods. Our governments have fed our foolishness with policies that meant well but ended badly. Meanwhile China and the other emerging economies, which she dubs "the Rest," have been catching up fast and have so far made few of the same mistakes. At the end of the book, she controversially floats the possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its debt.

Having grown up and gone to college in Zambia, but having studied for a master's at Harvard and a doctorate at Oxford, where does Moyo herself fit in to this story? "It's the most fortuitous position I could ever have asked for because I'm neither a Westerner nor a 'Resterner.' I come from the laggard in the whole game: Africa." That said, Moyo looks every inch the glossy international jet-setter, with her designer dress, crimson nail varnish, and vertiginous heels, perched in the tearoom of a breathtakingly expensive Knightsbridge hotel. She has apartments in both London and New York, travels to Asia four times a year, and goes back to Zambia every couple of months. She is ubiquitous on the global conference circuit of Davos, Bilderberg, and Aspen. Where does she consider home these days? Full-throated laughter: "A British Airways flight!"

There is no hint of schadenfreude in Moyo. She isn't gloating at the decline of the West. Far from it. "Having grown up in Africa and watched all the most amazing American and British TV—Dallas, Dynasty, Fawlty Towers—and having lived in a time when going to America was a big aspiration, it makes it even more of an issue to say, 'You've got to get it right! How can you disappoint my childhood dreams?' At the same time, seeing what China's done in moving 300 million people out of poverty gives me so much hope for what's possible for my home continent of Africa."

Moyo's argument is that Western governments unwisely encouraged their citizens to borrow too much and sink the money into the unproductive investment of a home, with all the subprime consequences that we have seen since. They set up unaffordable Ponzi state-pension schemes. And they failed to incentivize young people to study mathematics and science at college. How can such societies then compete against the highly educated, prudent Chinese, who don't have the economic burden of a welfare state?

Moyo condemns the short-term outlook of Western politics and half admires China's ability to make quick, tough decisions unencumbered by democratic constraints. She cites the moment when China killed 2 million birds in a matter of days to avert avian flu, while America failed to kill any. Given that bird flu killed no humans in America, perhaps the democratic process has something to be said for it. (The chickens are doubtless grateful too.)

But she claims not to be a closet authoritarian. "I'm not saying democracy is a bad thing. In fact, a lot of the proposals I make are suggesting that you can fix this political invasion of economic policy within democracies by stripping out the political element, and that could be anything from having longer terms, or coalitions, or—as Obama has tried to do—to be more bipartisan."

It is Moyo's "scenarios" (she is adamant that they are not recommendations) at the end of the book that have caused the most controversy. One is that the U.S. could engage in much greater protectionism. Another is that it could default on its government debt. Giventhat Dead Aid blamed Western trade barriers for the continuing poverty in Africa and that she is an avowed free marketeer, this seemed to some reviewers at least a little odd.

She denies that she is actually in favor of either default or protectionism. "No one wants to see the U.S. default—the implications are catastrophic. And nobody wants to see more protectionism because it's not a good thing for countries to be more isolationist. Africa has 20 percent of the world's population but only 2 percent of world trade. And that's because of protectionism in the West. So there's no way I'd ever advocate protectionism just by virtue of being an African, let alone an economist. But are these two options on the table for the U.S.? The answer is clearly yes."

This conclusion led to a recent spat between Moyo and Nigel Lawson, chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, on a BBC radio program. He accused Moyo, somewhat patronizingly, of being "muddled" and "confused." There was more than a hint of condescension that he probably wouldn't have dared to use toward a distinguished male economist with an M.B.A., a Harvard master's, an Oxford doctorate, and a seat on the board of Barclays Bank.

Does this irk her? She laughs. "My parents just didn't get the memo because they've always raised us to be color, gender, and country-blind, and so if people are going to address my arguments based on where I'm from or because I happen to come in the packaging I come in, that's not my issue, that's their issue. Address the point; don't be patronizing."

The book hasn't achieved universal acclaim, though. For a start, it is not well written. In the course of just two sentences, Moyo manages to pack four clichés: "fine print," "turn a blind eye," "elephant in the room," and "sweep under the carpet." For an expert on China to head a chapter "The Ying [sic] and the Yang" is pretty unforgivable. And it contains enough errors of fact to have infuriated reviewers.

But Moyo's ascension from a Zambian classroom in which there were only two desks for every five children to the World Bank, Goldman Sachs, and a place on Time magazine's "100 most influential people in the world" list is still extraordinary. She doesn't even have a birth certificate. She shows me the affidavit that tells her that her birth could not be registered because both her parents were black Africans.

"My parents could have been like, 'Woe is me'; instead they just forged on, and that's how we were raised. They could have given us a lot of reasons: you're a girl child; you're in Africa; you're in one of the world's poorest economies; forget it, you're never going to go to Harvard; you're never going to go to Oxford; you're never going to write books."

Instead, Moyo has achieved all those things and more. She left Goldman four years ago and now serves on three corporate boards. She has just signed a contract to write her third book. What's it about? Will it be as controversial as the last two? She's not telling. "But I hope it will be as interesting," she says with a mischievous smile.