Socialist Review

Published December 1997

Hurting, not helping

Clare Fermont

Clare Short proudly announced recently a new white paper on international development, modestly called 'Eliminating World Poverty'. She explained how Britain will be pouring more aid into the developing world, which will be targeted at the poor rather than linked to British trade deals as in the past. On the face of it, this sounds great.

It seems obvious that rich people helping the poor must be a good thing. As so often, however, the common sense view of the world is wrong. When the help comes in the form of overseas aid, or is organised as 'charity', it is always a menace.

Anyone who doubts this should read a marvellous new book, The Road to Hell, by Michael Maren, an experienced aid worker in Africa who is now an investigative journalist. He shows how aid is the modern form of colonialism, a 'humanitarian' cover for maintaining imperialist domination.

His most striking example is the heartbreaking story of Somalia. In the Cold War years the US government poured aid into the country to prop up the dictator Siyad Barre. The food aid fed Barre's troops and allowed him to buy off a large loyal circle, who sold the food on the black market. The aid organisations didn't care. As long as they were offloading their charity, no one asked them any questions.

The non-governmental 'charity' organisations (NGOs) were essential to the scam. As journalists arrived in the capital, Mogadishu, the charities enthusiastically led them to images of despair. Pictures of the norm -- Somalis rioting or going about their lives as usual ­ would not have brought in new donations. So photos of helpless black people were flashed around the world, reinforcing the idea that 'Western civilisation' was needed to save Africans from their own failings.

Soon Somalia had been turned upside down by the NGOs. Rents rocketed in Mogadishu as the NGOs spent half a million dollars a month on their houses, often the old colonial mansions. The government printed money at will to cope with the aid projects, so inflation soared. By the early 1990s the 'relief industry' accounted for two thirds of the economy. A country that had always managed to feed itself was now almost totally dependent on aid, and factions began to jostle for control of the free food bonanza.

Internal conflict broke out in 1988. Tens of thousands of people were killed, many more became refugees and there was widespread hunger. By mid-1992 the famine had eased and conditions were improving. Yet at the end of the year President Bush decided military intervention was needed to 'save' Somalia, and US and UN troops were sent in. On 3 October 1993 around 700 Somalis were killed in a botched attempt by US troops to abduct General Aydeed, an opposition leader. Five months later US forces withdrew, leaving the country in tatters. A total of $4 billion of aid was spent in Somalia, and the people are now immeasurably worse off than before the aid and charities arrived. Meanwhile, crisis had erupted in Rwanda, so the NGOs abandoned Somalia and moved on like vultures to their next victims.

The US has unashamedly used food aid to further its imperialist aims since the Second World War. At that time the government was confronted with the 'problem' of a vast surplus of grain. In a sane world the surplus would mean cheaper and plentiful food for everyone. But under capitalism such an option is not possible ­ falling prices mean falling profits.

At first the surplus was stored. But by the early 1950s the stores were rotting and overflowing. The federal government had to create demand. Europe didn't need grain, so there was only one place to go ­ the Third World. The problem was that the states emerging from colonialism had little foreign currency, and the US grain exporters had no use for weak Third World currencies. So the US government became the middleman and absorbed the weak currencies. The mechanism adopted was Public Law 480 of 1954, which proudly states that its purpose is to 'make maximum efficient use of surplus agricultural commodities in furtherance of the foreign policy of the US'.

By 1956 trade under Law 480 accounted for 32 percent of total agricultural exports. Income to farmers increased by over $600 million in the programme's first three years as food prices rose. But the main advantage to the US was increasing its international influence in the postcolonial world. Senator Hubert Humphrey spelled this out in 1958: 'There needs to be a greater recognition and acceptance of Public Law 480 as a government-wide instrument of international economic policy in support of our foreign policy objectives, rather than the narrower concept of it being merely an agricultural surplus disposal programme.'

No one believed in this more passionately than President John F Kennedy. Almost his first act after his inaugeration in 1961 was to set up the Office of Food for Peace, whose purpose was to pour cheap food into Vietnam (not renowned then for its poverty). The local currency it raised was mostly spent on financing the American armed forces in the region, whose purpose was to 'contain communism'.

Similarly in former Zaire, US aid flooded in to support the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who pocketed $5 billion for himself and turned what could be one of Africa's wealthiest countries into poverty stricken and anarchic chaos.

The pattern continues. The US government wants to make friends withthe new rulers in North Korea, so for the first time US aid is being sent to the country. Israel continues to receive 200 times more aid per head than Bangladesh. Yet in 1991 Israel's GDP per capita was $13,460, while Bangladesh's was a meagre $220.

Maren graphically describes how the same pattern has been repeated in Africa. A crisis is declared by the Western media. Plane loads of eager white people arrive with their jeeps, bottled water and beer. Towns are overrun with foreigners demanding housing and services, which are happily supplied by the rulers and their sidekicks. Mountains of food are heaped on to the economy, destroying local farming and making the threat of famine a reality. Black market sales finance arms purchases. Corruption and violence increase. And then conflict erupts. It is no coincidence that the three largest recipients of US food aid in Africa have been Somalia, Liberia and Zaire, all of which are now racked by civil war and hunger.

Other examples given by Maren include Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, where NGOs colluded with ethnic cleansing. The government deprived certain ethnic areas of food. The desperate people were lured to the centre of the country by food aid. Then organisations such as Save the Children loaded the refugees onto buses and took them to what were effectively concentration camps.

The truth is that aid is all about the drive by the rulers of rich nations to dominate the economies of the developing world for immediate economic, political or strategic advantage. The financing by Britain's Overseas Development Agency of the Pergau Dam, for example, was bound up with sales of British arms. USAID, the largest US NGO, gives 80 percent of its contracts to US firms, as does the ODA to British firms. Three quarters of the food aid shipped to Somalia went on US flag vessels at grossly inflated prices, reaping rich rewards for US shipping magnates. In fact, around two thirds of all aid is 'tied' to deals which mean the recipients have to buy goods and services from the donor country.

Clare Short says her department will tackle such blatant misuse of aid by ensuring that aid will not be 'tied' but will go directly to help the poor. But a glance at her white paper reveals that the poor should not hold their breath. Firstly, the paper accepts the 'reality' of 'economic liberalisation' and globalisation. The 1997 Human Development Report explains what this 'liberalisation' will mean. 'During 1995-2001 the results of the Uruguay Round of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) are expected to increase global income by an estimated $212-$510 billion.' But not everyone will benefit. 'The least developed countries stand to lose up to $600 million a year, and Sub-Saharan Africa $1.2 billion.' The same report says that the least developed countries of the world, with 10 percent of the world's population, now have 0.3 percent of world trade -- half their share of two decades ago.

Secondly, the white paper says, 'Overall private capital flows have come to dwarf official flows as a source of funds for development... From a business perspective the developing countries contain a majority of the population in the faster growing countries. There is therefore a shared interest in a constructive approach between government and business.' In other words, Clare Short would have us believe that businesses are not motivated by the hunt for bigger profits and cheaper labour, but that they have a 'shared interest' in eradicating poverty.

How does she explain the fact that in 1960 the wealth ratio of the poorest 20 percent of the world's population to the richest 20 percent was 1:30, in 1990 it was 1:60, and in 1996 it was 1:78? The gap between the rich and the poor is growing larger and larger, at a faster and faster rate. That could not possibly happen if the rich and their businesses were seeking to spread their wealth in the interests of the poor.

International charities have similarly disastrous consequences for their supposed benefactors. Maren gives so many examples of the ravaging effects of good intentions that it is hard to imagine a 'good project'. The water well that draws nomads out of the desert and then leads to the starvation of livestock as the nomads can no longer reach seasonal waterholes; the irrigation project that pollutes the water; the new road that throws people off their land and destroys villages; the numerous white elephants that are started by charities, photographed for fundraising brochures, and then abandoned; the big businesses using charities as conduits for dumping surplus produce abroad (all donations being tax deductible), including inappropriate or unsafe medicines.

The horror stories are not the inadvertent consequences of good intentions. They are the inevitable outcome of the colonial attitude that rich people in the West can show the rest of the world how to live.

The Road to Hell by Michael Maren is published by Free Press

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