Words matter and they can also harm. We have an example of that recently in the furious controversy over the so-called "anti-foreign aid" polemic by publishing sensation Dambisa Moyo.

Her book, Dead Aid, has been heralded in some conservative circles as the definitive dismantling of the whole let's-help-Africa ideal.

These people have leapt eagerly upon such self-confident Moyo conclusions as "Millions in Africa are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty have not ended but have increased." And, "aid has been an unmitigated, political and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the world."

dambisamoyo

Economist Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid. (CBC)

In case anyone still doesn't quite get it, Moyo has given numerous media interviews where she has observed that 40 years of Western aid efforts, urged on by her pet dislikes, rock stars Bob Geldof and Bono, have "done more harm than good."

A Harvard- and Oxford-trained economist, Moyo argues that do-good intervention has only undermined the responsibility of African governments to provide for decent health care, education and infrastructure, while breeding corruption and cultures of dependency.

She's much quoted as wanting all foreign aid cut off within five years, to be replaced by loans from international capital markets, particularly from China, as well as more corporate investment, fairer trade rules and micro-financing.

The flurry of resulting headlines such as "Why African Aid Must be Stopped" and "End Aid Now" have thrown non-profit aid and development groups into a state of near panic.

Poisoning the well

These non-governmental organizations, which currently do much of the heavy lifting in the poorer parts of the world, fear that both Western governments and individual donors will seize Moyo's claims to stop donating to humanitarian causes.

One of the world's leading aid advocates, Columbia economist Jeffery Sachs, insists Moyo's words will cost real lives. He's launched a ferocious counterattack, claiming "the debate about foreign aid has become farcical."

"The big opponents of aid today," says Sachs, are people like "Dambisa Moyo, an African-born economist who reportedly received scholarships so that she could go to Harvard and Oxford but sees nothing wrong with denying $10 in aid to an African child for an anti-malaria bed net."

Most critics are more restrained, although many point out Moyo's work has all the hallmarks of a simplistic polemic, including a striking absence of facts to back it up.

Even the generally conservative Financial Times observes that "the book does not establish in any scientific way the link between the hundreds of billions of dollars poured into Africa over decades, and the poor performance of economies. It also studiously ignores evidence of development assistance working.

"Kevin Watkins, director of UN's Human Development Report Office, says it is the equivalent of 'blaming the fire engine because it is near the fire.'"

Qualifications

The more one looks at the Dambisa Moyo phenomenon the more one discovers myriad qualifications, regretted exaggerations, misquotes and generally confusing conclusions.

I met and interviewed Moyo this week and, like others, was impressed by her intelligence and composure in the face of heated controversy.

What I found most useful, however, was the chance to hear her views tested at length in the annual Munk Centre debate in Toronto, a superb 90-minute policy tag-team match on the question "Whether aid has done more harm than good?"

A packed audience saw her duel mainly with aid champion and former Canadian ambassador Stephen Lewis, as well as with leading development expert Paul Collier from Oxford. Her side was supported by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.

It was a good example of why public debates, at least high-quality ones, are useful and coming back in vogue. Only lengthy debates really allow nuance to emerge as speakers explore not just sound-bite areas of divergence but hidden areas of agreement.

(I had stumbled on some of this same common ground earlier when I interviewed Moyo and Collier together for a segment on Our World, to air on Newsworld on June 13 and 14.)

Who will lend to Africa?

When pressed over details, Moyo maintains an attitude of attacking, even as she carries out a tactical withdrawal — an old debate trick but one that only the very skilled can carry off.

Still, when you look closely at her position, it is not all that it seems at first glance and certainly not worthy of shock headlines.

For starters, Moyo is not against emergency humanitarian aid. Nor, does she condemn private, non-profit attempts to help local development in Africa. That is surely a pretty significant qualification.

Her complaints are focused on the bilateral and UN aid that flows into Africa. Yet even here she seems unable to refute the undeniable examples where aid has worked and saved millions of lives.

Looking at the numbers, it is hard to see how Africa has been crippled, as she says, by outside assistance that has helped sharply reduce infant mortality and malarial deaths over the past decade and which has provided thousands of hospitals and local health clinics where none existed before.

Working with local groups, NGOs have helped raised adult literacy through much of Africa from 27 to 62 per cent in recent decades, while primary school enrolment has climbed from 53 to 70 per cent.

Given that her book arrives at the same time as a global credit crisis and the collapse of lending, it's particularly hard to believe Moyo's assurance that private capital markets are just waiting in the wings to help Africa.

As Paul Collier points out, even in boom times, international businesses, for the most part, weren't in Africa and are unlikely to leap in now.

No simple answer

Most importantly, Moyo now denies she ever said aid must be ended within five years (a misquote, she insists).

Pressured further in the debate, she refused to cite a date in the foreseeable future when aid to Africa should be cut off. So, after all the sensational claims, what are we left with?

Well, for one thing, agreement all round that we're locked into a transition period of unknown duration during which billions of dollars of private and public aid to Africa must continue.

The reason for that is not because aid advocates believe Africans are inherently helpless, as Moyo has implied. But rather because the continent is uniquely disadvantaged with its historic lack of infrastructure, geography, uneven population density and limited natural resources.

Even global warming is projected to devastate southern Africa more than any place on Earth, according to many experts.

There are certainly many examples of poorly planned and self-defeating aid, and Moyo is rightly heralded, even by her critics, for sharply demanding abuses be corrected.

She's dead-on in insisting that corrupt African governments, feeding off aid, be confronted and held accountable.

And yes, she's right to insist that Africans themselves are responsible for Africa. But every aid group, I know, espouses the same views.

In reality, aid is an enormously complex subject. But the well-being of the poorest people on the planet depend in large part on the Western world and Africa together getting the reform of aid right.

To seize on a simplistic ideological panacea to Africa's problems that should be "tested" for a decade or so, as some of her supporters suggest, is to risk a future catastrophe.

The only simple truth in this debate is that there are no simple solutions. Nor, as Moyo seemed ready to concede last week, is there any easy exit for the rest of us from the obligation to help out.