Unquestioning aid is worst kind of support for the world

My following article appears today in ABC Religion and Ethics:

Cholera is killing Haitian men, women and children. For three years the United Nations has refused to take full responsibility for its Nepalese peace-keepers bringing the deadly disease to a nation they were tasked to protect. More than 8,300 people have died and more than half-a-million citizens have been made sick. Even today, with overwhelming evidence of UN complicity, the organisation refuses to pay compensation to the victims.

The New York Times editorialised last week:

“there is no denying that the United Nations has failed to face up to its role in a continuing tragedy. It should acknowledge responsibility, apologize to Haitians and give the victims the means to file claims against it for the harm they say has been done them. It can also redouble its faltering, underfinanced response to the epidemic, which threatens to kill and sicken thousands more in the coming decade.”

It’s hard to get past the tragic irony of the situation. A devastating earthquake hits the nation in January 2010 and kills tens of thousands of people. Already weakened infrastructure is destroyed and the world rushes to help. More than three years later, the country remains mired independence on foreign aid and USAID contracts. Haiti is independent in name only.

When I visited Haiti in 2012, I saw a once proud people struggling to adapt to handouts. Poverty was rampant.Wikileaks documents prove that the United States uses Haiti as a battering ram against perceived enemies and demands authorities keep the minimum wage criminally low to benefit American multinationals.

My new book, Profits of Doom, aims to show that unparalleled amounts of aid and development routinely contributes to a nation going backwards, and that private corporations have a strong incentive to maintain the status quo of replacing the role of governments while providing inferior services. In reality – as I demonstrate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and across Australia – what I call vulture capitalism has led to unaccountable activities in the areas of war, intelligence, detention centres, aid, resources and mining.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have pledged to reduce Australia’s aid budget. This was met by a wave of outrage by aid organisations and advocates, all claiming the most vulnerable across the world would be negatively affected.

Politicising Australia’s aid budget is nothing new – all governments use foreign assistance to push Australian business interests, such as Canberra backing Rio Tinto’s plans to re-open its polluting mine in Bougainville in Papua New Guinea – but there ismounting evidence that valuable programs will be cut by the new Coalition government. This should be challenged, but not without questions being raised about the effectiveness of Australia’s aid spending.

Across PNG I hear about organisations, like the Madang-based Bismarck Ramu Group, who are questioning successive PNG governments that are reliant on an Australian development model that has failed to lift the country out of poverty and instead backs environmentally destructive mining, such as BHP’s Ok Tedi mine.

There are alternatives - like tourism and agriculture – but they’re rarely as financially beneficial to Australian corporations. AusAid’s Mining for Development is implementing the wrong kind of assistance, something Australian NGO Jubilee is challenging through its #NotOnMyWatch campaign, demanding accountability for mining firms operating in challenging overseas environments.

Afghanistan is another country facing immense challenges, and yet Western involvement since 11 September 2001 has largely made the problems worse. Millions of American dollars has been mis-spent on failed programs and the Afghan people, once the vast bulk of Western troops leave by the end of 2014, will wonder what has been achieved over the last decade. A growing middle-class exists, enjoying bowling and frozen yoghurt, but only a tiny minority are able to afford these luxuries.

Copper mining, at the Mes Aynak site outside Kabul, is being touted as the possible saviour of the country, reaping billions for a select few elites. In reality, I can’t think of one developing country that has wisely extracted its resources to benefit the bulk of its population.

Aid isn’t the answer to Western guilt; it’s merely the beginning of a conversation.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World. You can listen to Antony in conversation with Andrew West on RN’s Religion and Ethics Report.

11 comments