The detainees were all desperate to speak to us. They were all Afghan men under thirty, mostly from the Hazara ethnic group, though I saw a few older men with gray beards standing behind the others. The police had picked them all up in Athens, after they had lived free in the community for different periods of time. Some told me that they had been inside detention centers for more than eighteen months — the maximum time allowed, until the law changed in 2014, that the Greek state could indefinitely detain a refugee. Some had been detained for more than two years.
The Greek Council for Refugees argued that this new directive was in breach of Greek, European, and international law. In such a toxic political climate, it was left to this group to manage the huge load on the Greek system. Spokesperson Elina Sarantou was angry about her country’s attitude towards refugees. The European Refugee Fund, as well as national and international foundations, supported her group. With around sixty staff and little public trust in NGOs after some high-profile scandals, its profile was small and funds were limited. As a consequence, the council was overwhelmed by the demand. It had only twelve lawyers and twelve social workers in a country that needed thousands more— they saw over 8,000 refugees annually. “We are running programs of legal support for victims of racist violence, by police, far-right thugs, and others,” Sarantou said, “though 80 percent of these victims don’t have legal papers so are scared of taking the cases to court.”
The sheer number of asylum seekers arriving on Greek shores has given Greece an opportunity to use both its head and its heart. Sarantou explained how the government started an Asylum Service in 2013—a small and positive step towards addressing the abuses in arbitrary detention. The UNHCR praised the move. Despite this, she said, police still saw asylum seekers as “clandestines”; the police still had an “Aliens Department.” The service was mostly funded by the UN and remained in need of more backing. The EU’s border management agency, Frontex—condemned by Human Rights Watch in 2011 for “exposing migrants to inhuman and degrading conditions”—said that eight out of ten refugees coming to Europe were entering through Greece.
The Greek infrastructure of control for asylum seekers included a first-reception center in Evros, on the land border with Turkey, which was funded by the UNHCR and the EU. It had a maximum stay of twenty-five days, and claims were assessed in that time if possible. “It’s a decent place,” Sarantou said, “though still like a prison, and you can’t leave. We oppose these facilities, as there are few rights. The state has laws that put Greeks first for employment and asylum seekers last. They should provide protection for those in need—especially minors, single-parent families, and those with health and psychological problems.”
Instead, Athens announced in 2012 that it had opened thirty new camps for immigrants on disused army sites. With countless refugees living in squalor in and around Athens—I saw many sleeping rough and in need of a good meal and a wash—it was unsurprising that the government announced the decision as a response to rising levels of violent crime. With unemployment soaring and the youth jobless rate reaching well above 50 percent, the state reacted according to a tradition of impulsiveness, lacking any long-term plan.
“Hundreds of thousands of people are wandering aimlessly through the streets,” said the former citizens’ protection minister, Michalis Chrysohoidis, “being forced to break the law, being exploited by criminal networks and deterring legitimate immigrants from staying in the country.” Authorities announced that migrants would be moved into shabby “closed hospitality centers,” to keep them off the streets and out of sight of angry Greek voters.
In mid 2014, Global Detention Project released a comprehensive list of Greek facilities that itemized over thirty central and remote locations that were mostly staffed by police—a group with a long history in Greece of assaulting refugees.
It was a strange and sad experience, standing on one side of the Corinth fence, under the glaring sun, unable to get inside the center, and exchanging halting words with caged men. Everyone wanted to talk to us—to share their stories, explain their pain, and protest their detention. “We are suffering in here,” they said. A mass hunger strike by detainees occurred in June 2014 to protest a new ministerial order allowing indefinite detention, unofficially supported by harsh European Union directives. The facility was hit with riots in 2013. A statement released by the migrants read in part: “With the systematic and open-ended detention, the Greek government is massacring us. They are wasting our lives and killing our dreams and hopes inside the prisons. All of that while none of us has committed a crime.”
Chaman translated for me. None of the men wanted to return to Afghanistan because they feared persecution or worse. They all hated Greece for the way it treated refugees. They wished to get to Germany, or other European nations with better conditions. One man showed me a bullet lodged in his foot since he had been shot by guards while trying to escape. He had asked for surgery to remove it but was refused. All the men stated that the police regularly beat them, and that conditions inside were awful. The European Court of Human Rights had condemned conditions inside Greek detention centers eleven times, as had many Greek courts when considering excessive periods of detention. The UN opposed extended periods of administrative detention as “standard practice aimed at discouraging irregular entry or stay in the country.”
After one minute, the guards wanted us to leave. We refused and said we needed more time. I passed the tea and sugar to the detainees, and after ten minutes we were directed to leave. The fence was firmly shut. The smell of sweat hung in the air from men cooped up in the searing heat. Chaman told me that he felt obliged to help his fellow Afghans and visit them in detention, taking them to lawyers and doctors in Athens when they were released. “It’s part of my mission,” he said.
Excerpted from “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe” by Antony Loewenstein, published by Verso Books.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. When disaster strikes, who profits? That’s the question asked by journalist Antony Loewenstein in his new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Traveling across the globe, Antony examines how companies, such as G4S, Serco, Halliburton, are cashing in on calamity. He describes how they’re deploying for-profit private contractors to war zones and building for-profit private detention facilities to warehouse refugees, prisoners, asylum seekers. Now Loewenstein has teamed up with filmmaker Thor Neureiter for an upcoming documentary by the same name that chronicles how international aid and investment has impacted communities from Haiti to Afghanistan to Papua New Guinea and beyond. This is the trailer.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: For three years, I’ve investigated what happens after the spotlight fades from disasters in developing countries. What comes when the money and goodwill ends?
UNIDENTIFIED: This country is like a republic of NGOs. And these people, as employees, they are getting paid very fat salaries.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Often these natural and man-made disasters create an atmosphere reliant on foreign money.
UNIDENTIFIED: They say first we should bring security, then investment. I say first we should invest, then security will come.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: When aid runs out and most NGOs move on to the next disaster, pro-business policies are created in the name of recovery. This investigation has taken me to the streets of Haiti, the mountains of Afghanistan and the lush forests of Papua New Guinea, where I’ve met the people caught up in a struggle between recovery and the policies that cater to foreign interests.
UNIDENTIFIED: When you talk about disaster capitalism and the capitalists coming in and sweeping up and taking over, they don’t need a conspiracy, because those are the interests that prevail, and they’re going to get their way.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the forthcoming documentary based on Antony Loewenstein’s new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Well, journalist and author Antony Loewenstein joins us now in studio, also a columnist for The Guardian.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Antony. So, explain disaster capitalism.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: People who make money from misery. So, one of the reasons—I was inspired by Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, and she coined the term “disaster capitalism” in 2007. For me, it was really about deepening and widening that definition. So I focus particularly on Afghanistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, U.S., U.K., Greece and Australia. Immigration is a key part of that. So, the fact that—as you said in your introduction, there are key companies—G4S, Transfield, Serco and others—who are very happy about the massive influx of refugees. Warehousing refugees is huge profit-making business. So I was focusing on that, going to these places and actually seeing the effects of that on both immigrants and also those who work in those centers; looking at, say, in Haiti, the issue of aid and development after the earthquake in 2010, which was a key reason why the U.S. government, as WikiLeaks documents showed, were keen for U.S. contractors to make a fortune; in Papua New Guinea, a country near my own country, Australia, a situation where you have massive mining interests—Rio Tinto and others—again, making a fortune from mining and misery. So, for me, it was about making the connections between various different countries and corporations, and saying—I’m not arguing that Afghanistan is the same as Greece, of course they’re different, but ultimately often the same corporations are at play, and the fact that the corporation has become more powerful than the state, which, to me, is a problem.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about a place some call the Guantánamo Bay of the Pacific. The Manus Island detention center is paid for by the Australian government and run by an Australian contractor, Transfield Services, but located offshore on Papua New Guinea’s soil. The prisoners are not accused of any crimes; they’re asylum seekers from war-ravaged countries who are waiting indefinitely for their refugee status determination. Earlier this year, Democracy Now! spoke to Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson about Manus Island.
JENNIFER ROBINSON: I’ve been to PNG, and I’ve spent times in West Papuan refugee settlement camps, so I can speak with first-hand experience that PNG is not a state that is capable of accepting our asylum seekers and refugees. Ninety percent of these people who come by boat to Australia have been determined to be refugees in the past. The conditions in PNG are terrible. Australia is—it is unlawful for Australia to be continuing to send asylum seekers to conditions the U.N. has found to amount to inhuman, degrading treatment. We are in breach of our international obligations.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson. Antony Loewenstein?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: It’s a problem. I mean, one of the things also we should also say is there’s Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, but also Nauru, which is a Pacific island. So, Australia for the last years has been sending thousands of refugees to essentially prison camps in these islands, as you rightly say. They run for profit. It was G4S, it’s now Transfield. In a recent Australian Senate report, it was found, clear evidence, that often refugees are being raped and tortured. This is not an allegation, this is a fact. There was one allegation by a guard that he saw evidence of waterboarding. So, ultimately we have a situation where the Australian government, which increasingly, I might add, is being used by the European Union as inspiration in potentially how to deal with their refugee crisis—the key point about the offshore detention camps, and indeed onshore in Australia, is that they’re privately run. And the key problem—it wouldn’t make a difference if it was publicly run. I mean, it shouldn’t be there in the first place. But Australia wants an unaccountable system. Journalists can’t get there, as Jennifer rightly said. You essentially have a—it’s a black site. The journalists can’t get in there, human rights workers can’t get in there. You can visit Manus Island as a tourist, but you can’t get into the center. Nauru charges $8,000 to apply for a visa. And if you don’t get the visa, which you wouldn’t, you don’t get that money back. So, essentially, many Australians—and sadly, I would argue, only a minority of Australians are outraged by this. But the truth is, like in Europe and like in the U.S., after decades in my country have privatized detention camps, sadly, a lot of people regard those people as a threat who need to be essentially seen as silenced and as a number, that’s all. It’s a massive problem, and I write about that in the book.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the larger issue of for-profit prisons. Last month, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate—
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —introduced new legislation aimed at banning government contracts with private prisons. Sanders said banning for-profit incarceration is the first step to ending the system of mass incarceration.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: As a first step, we need to start treating prisoners like human beings. Private companies, private corporations should not be profiteering from their incarceration.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, also a senator.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So he’s introduced legislation.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: So encouraging. I mean, one of the things that is less talked about in the U.S., Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio have taken massive amounts of money from the private prison industry. I’m not saying that their policies are solely based around that, but it’s an important part. In the book, I visit some private detention camps in Georgia, particularly run by CCA, which is the largest American privatized corporation running prisons and detention camps. In these centers, human rights are awful. Healthcare is bad. Food is bad. Mental health is bad. And ultimately, like we see in Australia and the U.K. and elsewhere—
AMY GOODMAN: And CCA is Corrections Corporation of America.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Indeed, indeed. And ultimately, I think one of the things is, these corporations have no incentive to provide decent care. I mean, that’s the bottom line. Profit, of course, is the most important. So putting aside the rights of refugees and immigrants themselves, what I find also in the book is that the guards who are working in those centers, without proper training, they’re almost by definition going to abuse refugees. That’s part of the problem. I think Bernie Sanders’ call was an important one, but sadly, no other major candidate has come out and agreed. And I think one of the interesting things in the U.S., as we move forward with your presidential campaign, someone like a Donald Trump, who talks, as we know, about potentially getting rid of 11 million undocumented migrants, the private prison industry is very excited about his presidency, and they’re scared of any serious reform in the U.S. One of the things that CCA and GEO Group, the two major companies, talk about in their annual reports are that serious reform—in other words, less people locked up—is bad for business. And they’ve spent over the last 20 years at least $30 million to $40 million. One of the things that comes out in my book, in my investigations, is that this is legalized corruption, that it’s nothing—it’s not illegal for CCA to assist a congressman or woman in their campaign. That’s legal. But the problem is that the result, in state—in state after state in the U.S., is a mass incarceration culture. And sadly, even under President Obama, there’s been no serious look at removing that incentive. I mean, there’s a Congress-approved quota that every single night there are 34,000 refugees locked up in the U.S.—every night.
AMY GOODMAN: “Richard Sullivan”—this is from The Intercept, I believe—”of the lobbying [group] Capitol Counsel, is a bundler for the Clinton campaign, bringing in $44,859 in contributions in a few short months. Sullivan is also a registered lobbyist for the GEO Group, a company that operates a number of jails, including immigrant detention centers, for profit.”
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: That’s the nexus, Amy, that I’m talking about in the book, that is—again, this sort of thing is not illegal. It is legal. But the problem is that almost by definition that means that major candidates—Hillary Clinton has said, Jeb Bush, particularly Marco Rubio in his state, as well, has taken massive contributions. And the fact is, without those contributions, the policies would be different, obviously.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Afghanistan. Wednesday marked the 14th anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which began on October 7, 2001. President Obama declared an official end to the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan last year; however, the U.S. has around 9,800 troops there. And according to Foreign Policy magazine, there are three times as many for-profit private contractors in Afghanistan than U.S. troops, not including the contractors supporting the CIA, State Department, USAID or other government agencies. You have traveled to Afghanistan, Antony Loewenstein, and spoke to some of these contractors. What did they tell you?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: They are worried about the war winding down. For them, they are scared about—I was there in 2012 and also this year in May, in 2015. And one of the things that many of them were saying, both in 2012 and in 2015, is that they realize that the U.S. is winding down its war, but ultimately, as you say, Obama has declared the war finished. It’s been rebranded. The occupation continues. There is now talk about possibly raising troops. The Afghan security forces, which, I might add, were trained by private companies—DynCorp trained the Iraqi security forces and the Afghan security forces, massive failures on both fronts, which has had no impact on DynCorp getting more contracts, I might add. So, ultimately, one of the things in Afghanistan—and the attack on the Kunduz medical center, MSF medical center, goes to the heart of that—there’s a reduction in space for humanitarian actors.
I mean, I was there this year with my film partner, Thor Neureiter. We were looking at what Afghanistan’s likely to look like in the next five or 10 years. And the resource industry is what the Afghan government and the U.S. government talks about. Briefly, there are apparently $4 trillion of resources under the ground in Afghanistan, mostly untapped, including copper. And one of the things we do in our film is go to an area called—in Logar province about an hour from Kabul, which has the largest copper deposit in the world, run by a Chinese company. They are desperate to start mining those resources. And the problem is, in the last years, the U.S. has given hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to support a resource industry there. So the nexus between private security and mining industry in that country is devastating for the local people.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to testimony just yesterday in the House. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, is pushing to keep more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than under President Obama’s scheduled drawdown, following the Taliban seizure of Kunduz last week. California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez pressed General Campbell during his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee Thursday.
REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: So, within your own current testimony, let alone the testimony that Mr. Jones brought before you from before, you basically are saying, “I don’t know that there’s a long-term viability for these security forces.” We’re paying the majority of that. How much is the majority? How much money does that mean, to have a force that you don’t believe has a long-term viability?
GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL: Ma’am, if I could—
REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: How much? How much? That’s the question. How much?
GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL: Yes, ma’am. Today, for calendar year ’15, the United States put $4.1 billion to build the Afghan security forces.
REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: $4.1 billion.
GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL: For ’16, $3.86 billion.
REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: Thank you. $4.1 billion.
GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL: Every year we continue to reduce that by gaining efficiencies. We’re not providing infrastructure that—
REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: General, I’ve heard this. I’ve heard this for 14 years.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Doctors Without Borders says 24 of its staff members are still missing, following the U.S. airstrike on its hospital in Kunduz Saturday. That’s in addition to at least 22 people who died in the strike, including 12 medical workers, 10 patients, including three children. Antony Loewenstein?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: I mean, what that testimony shows is that the U.S. has spent over $100 billion since 2001. As you say, it’s the 14-year anniversary now. And even the U.S. government itself, SIGAR, which is the sort of the government arm to investigate where money has gone, has found that the vast majority of that has gone to corruption. It’s disappeared. It’s gone to helping a failing mining industry. It’s gone to pay private security. Afghanistan is one of the great disgraces, in some ways, of our time, because, in many ways, the fact that private companies—U.S. companies, Australian companies, British companies—have been used as a replacement for government. One of the things that’s so often ignored, and I talk about this in the book, is that the U.S. routinely was paying, to transport goods from A to B, Afghan security, private security or foreign security to basically give money to pay off insurgents to not hit them, to not attack them. So, really, the U.S. taxpayer is weirdly either comfortable or doesn’t know about the fact that America is fighting a war against insurgents that they’re also paying off to not attack them. It’s a crazy situation, but that’s what’s been happening for years.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Haiti. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake that killed, oh, 300,000 people and left more than one-and-a-half million Haitians homeless in what was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In tent camps housing the displaced, Haitian residents said international donors have left them behind.
CLAUTAIRE FENEL: [translated] My message to the international donors is that the money they gave to help the people in Haiti is being put to use for the interest of other people instead. It is used to buy luxury cars, pay for hotels and go to high-priced restaurants paid in U.S. dollars.
EUNICE ELIASSAINT: [translated] I don’t see a future here. I can’t hide anything from you. There is no tomorrow. Last night, the children went to bed without anything to eat.
AMY GOODMAN: Lay out what’s happened in Haiti, Antony.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Soon after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the U.S. ambassador at the time—WikiLeaks documents showed this—wrote a cable essentially saying that a gold rush is on, a gold rush meaning for U.S. corporations and others. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars there, mostly for U.S. contractors. Most of the money the U.S. has spent there since the earthquake has remained in America. Haitians are not really being trained. Haitians are not really being supported. The solution that the Obama administration gave for Haiti, pushed by Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, their daughter, were industrial parks—essentially, places that Haitians can get underpaid and not trained to make cheap clothing for Gap and Wal-Mart that you and I maybe, hopefully, won’t buy in the U.S. That’s the solution that the U.S. sees for Haiti.
AMY GOODMAN: You know—
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: And many Haitians—sorry—actually also argue that they feel occupied by foreign interests, the U.N. and the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! went down to Haiti a number of times before and after the earthquake. And I remember one of those times, President Clinton, he was down in Haiti giving a speech, saying there’s two things he cares about in the world. One is his daughter’s wedding. She was just—Chelsea Clinton was about to get married. And the other is restoring Haiti.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, the legacy of the Clinton Foundation—and I examine this deeply in the book—is utterly appalling. There are example after example of the Clinton Foundation funding a number of centers that have been infected by chemicals, which also, I might add, the Clinton Foundation were investing in failed things after Hurricane Katrina, as well, here in the U.S. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and others—I mean, they’re one example—their solution has primarily been industrial parks. And one of the things that comes out very clearly, the suggestions—and we talk about this in our film, as well—that the solution for Haiti is not to build massive industrial parks to make clothing that you and I can buy in the U.S. The solution is empowering locals. It’s about speaking to locals and saying, “We actually have a solution that empowers you and trains you.” And one of the things that comes out also clearly is that so many Haitians feel pretty pissed off with the fact that so often there’s actually little or no encouragement of them. And ultimately, Haiti really has never been an independent country, Amy. I mean, the U.S. has had involvement there for a hundred years. And many Haitians ultimately feel that they actually really need to separate themselves from the U.S., but America doesn’t actually view that as a viable option. And the book goes into detail about why that is the case. Haiti is seen as too economically viable for America to let it go.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, where do you see the hope in this dark history of multinational corporations and the plunder of the most vulnerable?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: The hope are hearing local stories. And one of the things I talk about in the book, and we do in the film, is actually say that so many in the media—and I’m obviously part of that, and you are, as well—I know Democracy Now! is an exception to this—but too often don’t report local stories, don’t actually hear local people saying what they want. So when disaster strikes in Haiti, don’t just focus on celebrities like Sean Penn, focus on other people actually there who are doing good work, empower them, pay them, train them. It’s not rocket science how to change this. Ultimately, Haiti’s economic structure, as one example, needs to change, but it’s not going to change with U.S. contractors doing the job.
AMY GOODMAN: Antony Loewenstein’s new book is Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the new U.S. poet laureate. Stay with us.
Britain’s conservative government is proudly dismantling many established social services. Austerity on crack.
While we are on asylum-seekers and refugees, let’s look into the places these people are incarcerated. Antony Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism exposes the way profits are extracted from desperation. Since 2012, Serco and G4S have become custodians of vulnerable men, women and children. Here is what the author witnessed at a centre in Wakefield: “The rooms were home to rats and cockroaches. Pregnant women were placed in poor housing with steep stairs. Food poisoning was common. Some private contractors did not pay council fees, and tenants’ heating and electricity had been disconnected.” The hellish place is called Angel Lodge. But there are good returns in this developing market. And for “the ordinary people” among us, the living wage promise by the PM is as credible as his commitment to help refugees. He doesn’t mean it, and is only placating current public sentiments. The dispossessed and low paid have no place in Toryland. Poverty is fecklessness. Those who commit suicide after losing benefits are worthless. Free lunches for schoolchildren were Clegg’s soppy idea which must be taken off the table.
My new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, is now out and last week I was interviewed by the great Californian radio show, Middle East in Focus. We talked about war contractors making money in Afghanistan, privatised immigration centres in America and beyond:
My story in Al Jazeera America:
When an earthquake struck Nepal in April, thousands of locals died in the carnage. But many foreigners had far more luck as members of Global Rescue, a company committed to rescuing its clients from dangerous environments. “Why shouldn’t we be able to hire private armies to ensure our safe return home from vacation?” posed a recent article in Wired, headlined “The tricky ethics of the lucrative disaster rescue business.”
Global Rescue is booming, opening offices in Pakistan, Thailand and beyond. There’s nothing illegal about its operations, and its mandate makes a certain amount of sense: Anybody in the middle of a natural disaster would want to be helped immediately. But the corporation’s interests aren’t humanitarian — they’re profit-driven, with an annual membership costing approximately $700. In Nepal, limited numbers of helicopters were fought over to transport injured foreigners, while the vast majority of Nepalese had no choice but to wait for help from overwhelmed relief services. “It’s beyond our scope” to assist those locals trapped on snowy mountains, said Drew Pache, a Global Rescue employee and former U.S. special forces operative.
It’s hard to find a better characterization of disaster capitalism than this — companies making money off catastrophe from the privileged few while ignoring the desperate pleas of the majority. But it’s not just natural disaster that fuels such profiteering. From Greece and Papua New Guinea to Afghanistan and Haiti, countless industries are thriving by applying this rule to immigration, war, mining and aid. These businesses aren’t conducted secretively, in part because it’s nearly impossible to hold an American company to account if it breaches human rights in a faraway nation. Their success builds on an ideology, empowered by the existing political and media structures, that exploits the widespread anxiety or panic that follows a man-made or natural crisis. Companies such as Global Rescue thrive because of it. The process depends on powerful forces pushing through exploitative policies in the name of relief, progress or reform.
Further profits are being harvested from Europe’s refugee crisis. In Britain, the private outsourcing company Serco still runs the Yarl’s Wood immigration center, a facility with a shocking record of abuse against detainees. Despite this being known for years, David Cameron’s Conservative government reappointed the multinational firm in late 2014 with another eight-year contract. It makes no sense — I visited the center last year and found depression and bleakness — unless we view it through the grim lens of disaster capitalism. Companies such as Serco exploit the refugee crisis in Libya and Syria to bully and fund politicians and guarantee an increase in their bottom line. Serco is savvy enough to see dollar signs from the guaranteed exodus of people — and in turn, today’s political system, fueled by excessive money and donations, all but ensures this outcome.
The profit motive for firms isn’t a new phenomenon. Recall the East India Co., arguably one of the world’s first disaster capitalists, which oppressed Indian and Chinese locals to become leading corporate raiders. But the global reach of today’s companies and their extravagant takings place them in a unique and often unassailable position.
For example, British multinational security firm G4S, the largest of its kind in the world, continues to operate despite suffering innumerable scandals in the last decade. The firm is always willing to exploit a crisis for profit, including by offering protection to Western travelers or by building and staffing detention centers during the current refugee crisis. Its underpaid employees in South Sudan and South Africa are prone to abuse or accidents because the company simply won’t spend enough on training. Last year on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, an Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Barati, was murdered while in the supposed care of the company and the Australian government. Nobody has yet been brought to justice.
In Greece, years of harsh austerity have left the country economically broken. The collapsed health care system is keeping citizens sick and unable to access vital medicines. Instead of relieving this pain, the European Union has advocated mass privatization, including of water and airports, which will enrich the outsourcers but do nothing to help the Greek people. The governing party Syriza has struggled to fulfill its anti-austerity election commitments, and the far-right, neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn continues to draw support.
Disaster capitalism’s logic is clear as long as the system, according to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, is “rigged.” This logic is on clear display in the U.S. as well. Since the global economic meltdown in 2008, financial firms such as Bank of America received tens of billions of dollars of government money to save them from collapse while committing vast fraud in the process. Virtually nobody was punished. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, legally obligated to hold these companies to account, didn’t just squib his responsibility, he even returned to corporate law firm Covington & Burling after leaving office earlier this year to work again with corporations on its client list that he failed to prosecute when in office.
While the financial elite plays with each other’s toys, the American population has rarely been so reliant on state handouts. More than 1 in 5 children need food stamps. The middle class often struggles to pay rent, students are burdened with debt, and Americans, according to studies, have little hope for the future.
To defeat the current stasis requires challenging business as usual. Imagine a political system in which doing business with such outlaw outfits was either banned outright or reduced to a tiny trickle. Corporations such as Chemonics and Dyncorp, with dubious records both in the West and in developing nations, should not receive further governmental contracts unless they implement drastic internal changes to ensure accountability. That would be a massive first step in reducing the ability of disaster capitalists to get what they want from the political system.
My investigation in New Matilda:
Barely a day goes by without new allegations of sexual assault, self-harm, violence or dysfunction at Australia’s privatised, immigration centres.
Whether on the mainland, Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, detention contractors Serco and Transfield are seemingly immune from censure. No controversy, failure or aggression by their staff is enough to lose the billion-dollar deals with Australia.
They’re bullet proof, protected by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) and a political culture that refuses to apologise or care if human rights are breached.
The recent news that Transfield was named “preferred bidder” by the then Abbott government, for another five years running the offshore facilities, was therefore unsurprising. The decision goes to the heart of a broken relationship between failing accountability and refugees who are deemed unpeople, those not worthy of appropriate support.
They’re often brown, Muslim and poor, easily dismissed and silenced in an age of mass migration and incarceration. If the litany of revelations and secrecy from this year’s Senate inquiries, including details of alleged water-boarding, weren’t enough to kill Transfield’s chances of having its contract renewed, then there must be something else at play.
I’ve spoken exclusively to a person involved in a bid for Australia’s immigration detention contract. He agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity and I didn’t view his statements as being solely based on self-interest. I’ll call him Greg.
From my discussion with him I understand there were up to nine bids for the contract including Transfield/Wilson Security, Serco, Spotless, Agility Logistics and five other large and small entities from Australia and PNG.
Many of the bidding companies are experienced in the profitable business of detention. Transfield is the incumbent offshore service provider while Serco has the on-shore contract. Other bidders have previously undertaken large-scale projects for the Commonwealth Government including building offshore processing facilities and providing logistics services.
Greg was shocked that Transfield was announced as the “preferred bidder”. He told me that when bids were submitted in April, he thought Transfield had a good chance of retaining the contract because it appeared to have done a “reasonable job” and hadn’t been accused of abuse and mismanagement like G4S, a previous service provider on Manus Island.
Then came the Senate enquiry and everything changed.
“I thought they couldn’t possibly retain the contract after these allegations”, Greg said. “There are over 100 serious allegations made against the company and they were totally unprofessional in their responses to questions from the Senators.
“They took even the simplest of questions on notice and behaved in an arrogant way towards them. They were caught out manipulating the truth and withholding critical pieces of information. Not to mention they spied on a member of the Australian Parliament during her visit to Nauru.”
Since the Senate enquiry there have been more allegations of sexual abuse including a rape allegation. The three accused Wilson Security employees were quickly evacuated from PNG and returned to Australia before PNG police could interview them. Transfield and Wilson had, until recently, been reluctant to assist the PNG police with enquiries.
I asked Greg why he thought Transfield had obtained the contract and he pointed out the close connections between the company and the Liberal Party. The company’s Chair is Diane Smith-Gander, a well-connected business woman who is President of the Chief Executive Women, a group of 300 senior women.
After the recent elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the Prime Ministership, she was quoted as calling on the government to more clearly focus on women. The former Chairman of Transfield, Tony Shepherd, is now the head of the Commission of Audit established by former PM Tony Abbott.
“The decision to reward Transfield was probably a captain’s call given the closeness of Transfield’s current and former chairpersons to the Liberal Party”, Greg argued.
Greg confirmed that rumours of Transfield’s demise had been circulating for weeks before the announcement at the end of August that they were the preferred tenderer.
“When the announcement was made there was stunned silence in our office”, he said. “The Government wants us to believe that the bid from the company with hundreds of allegations of mismanagement, human rights abuse, child sexual abuse and employee complaints was still a better option than any other bid.”
With no feedback on the failing bids, Greg told me that this was clearly a political decision, outside the scope and consideration of the tender.
“Sort of makes government tendering a pointless exercise,” he said. The decision to reward Transfield, he argued, “puts Australia in the same league as undeveloped countries in terms of corruption.”
Privately managed offshore processing centres are set to continue for the foreseeable future. “If offshore processing has to occur then surely it’s better to be done by a team that treats the people properly”, Greg explained.
Sadly this isn’t a new phenomenon and has been occurring in Australia for years. For more than two decades, Canberra has been sending its refugees to corporations with no financial incentive to treat people with respect. Of course, this isn’t a problem unique to Australia. Both Britain and the United States outsource some of their immigrant facilities to companies, such as Serco and CCA, with a history of mismanagement and abuse.
Public outrage, if it occurs at all, is small and mostly politically impotent. A rare and notable exception is the growing divestment campaign in Australia against Transfield, hitting the company where it counts, the bottom line.
Even Transfield head Diane Smith-Gander missed out on heading Tourism Australia because the government feared her association with Transfield would focus attention on the toxic immigration issue.
There is current debate in Washington about immigration and prison reform, to lower massive incarceration rates, but virtually nobody is talking about the profit motive as a key factor in perpetuating the skyrocketing number of people behind bars. However, Democrat Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is pushing for an end to privatised prisons.
In August, Transfield chief executive Graeme Hunt defended his company from an onslaught of criticism and claimed that his firm was just “executing the services we’re contracted to.”
He then explained the nub of the privatised immigration issue by arguing that off-shore detention had “been issued and implemented by two successive governments of different political persuasions, remains supported by both major parties and, so far as I can tell, the vast majority of the Australian people”.
A bipartisan commitment to cruelty against refugees is a global scourge from Europe to Australia. Until desperate people are treated with dignity and respect, and not numbers to be processed, jailed and outsourced to multinationals with woeful human rights records, the detention industrial complex will continue to thrive.
* Antony Loewenstein is one of Australia’s most prominent freelance journalists, and the author of a new book, Disaster Capitalism, available here.
My investigation in Alternet:
The industrial park in Caracol, northern Haiti, never receives tourists. It’s a collection of factories producing clothes for some of America’s leading retailers including Walmart and Target. The opening of the facility in 2012 saw then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, actors Sean Penn and Ben Stiller, and fashion designer Donna Karan attend and celebrate the establishment of a center that was advertised as producing 65,000 jobs. “We had learned that supporting long-term prosperity in Haiti,” Hillary Clinton said, “meant more than providing aid.”
Today, it’s clear the promises were empty. “People unfamiliar with the area [Caracol] may see the people standing in front of the park looking for jobs and think the Caracol Industrial Park was a great idea,” Castin Milostène told me recently. He’s a coordinator of AREDE, a campaign group of Haitian grassroots organizations working with vulnerable Haitians to influence aid accountability after the devastating 2010 earthquake. ActionAid is the convener. “You may see the need and think we should have many more parks,” he continued. “But the people standing at the doors of the park looking for work have nothing, they don’t even earn on average 58 gourdes (US$1) a day — they are living in extreme poverty.”
I visited Caracol in 2012 and found few signs of employment. Many poor Haitians loitered outside the main gates looking for work and complaining about low wages. Prime agricultural land was taken with farmers left landlessand given little compensation. The US$300 million investment in the South Korean-run factory has quickly become yet another failed attempt to boost Haiti’s economy. The Financial Times headlined a story about the situation this year, “Haiti’s economy held together by polo shirts and blue jeans.”
This tragically captured the precarious nature of America’s close neighbor, a situation exacerbated by Washington’s 100-year meddling in a country that it doesn’t believe should be allowed to chart its own, independent path. Many Haitians know that United States Marines landed in Haiti in 1915 and occupied the nation for 19 years. The commercial interests that contributed to President Woodrow Wilson sending a military force have changed little in a century. One of the architects of the occupation, Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, infamously admitted in 1935, “I helped make Haiti…a decent place for the National City Bank Boys.”
Haiti is undergoing profound political trauma. Recent elections were flawedwith millions of citizens feeling disempowered from the process of government. More than five years after the earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left the capital Port-au-Prince like a war zone, the nation is wracked with an administration that is incompetent and corrupt and a government installed by the Obama administration in 2011. Only 11 elected officials remain in Haiti and President Michel Martelly is one of them.
The country is facing huge challenges. Cholera continues to ravage the population (and the United Nations, which brought the disease to the country, refuses to take responsibility for it), neighboring Dominican Republic seems determined to expel its Haitian immigrants back to an economically volatile state and billions of dollars in foreign aid has either disappeared or been stolen by foreign contractors or local officials. The American Red Cross stands accused of incompetence and dishonesty over the money it raised after the 2010 earthquake.
“Haitians often use the proverb, Lave men, swiye ate[wash your hands, dry them in the dirt] to describe the often contradictory US policies towards Haiti, and the proverb applies more than ever to the Obama administration,” explained Brian Concannon Jr., executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti based in the United States.
Timothy Schwartz, an American anthropologist and author with decades of experience in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, speaks scathingly of American complicity in Haiti’s malaise. He argues that Washington simply doesn’t try to understand that throwing more unaccountable and privatized aid at the problem isn’t going to solve the structural issues. He targets Cheryl Mills, a trusted appointee of Hillary Clinton, who was intimately involved in working with the former Secretary of State.
“She [Mills] tried to force programs on Haiti that didn’t fit,” Schwartz told me. “One example is that rather than repairing damaged houses after the earthquake, she disregarded advice from USAID and those on the ground in Haiti and tried to build massive new housing complexes, something that failed over and over because of the primacy of the informal land tenure system — there essentially are no ‘legal’ titles and hence the projects would collapse under legal scrutiny – and the egregiously corrupt construction companies that operate in the arena of international concessions…To this day that housing disaster that Mills created goes on with homes being built that should have cost 3 to 5 thousand dollars running into the 30s and 40s of thousands.”
It’s the same mindset when building more industrial parks. Local Haitians are barely consulted. During my two trips to Haiti over the last years, a constant refrain from locals was how many of them were ignored when they had warned to anybody who would listen about the economic and environmental destructions caused by clothing factories. In place of a sustainable policy that would create long-term jobs with fair pay, Haitian politicians and their American masters advocate policies to benefit foreign corporations.
According to research undertaken by the Solidary Center, an American non-profit organization aligned with the labor movement, Haiti’s garment industry is beset with low wages, arbitrary firings and poor conditions. Although there are over at least 32,000 clothing workers registered nation-wide (and around 5000 employees at Caracol), employers constantly set unrealistic quotas and low prices per piece assembled, making it impossible for workers to earn the production minimum wage in a standard eight-hour day.
The Center’s Haiti co-ordinator gave me examples of workers being discriminated against in Caracol and elsewhere: “One union reported that its members must show up to the factory on Saturdays and wait in line for hours to receive their earnings. For instances in which the employer does not have exact change, the workers are shorted what they are owed.” Workers can barely afford to pay for lunch and transportation to and from the factory.
Viewing Haiti as a repository of cheap labor defines Washington’s relationship with Port-au-Prince. Padilla Peralta, author of the book, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, and lecturer in humanities at Columbia University to previously incarcerated adults, told me that he completely rejected the uneven dynamic between the two nations. “Why should Haitian bodies have to be subordinated to the imperatives of global capital?”
He urged the Obama administration to reverse a century of domination. “The US should commit itself to providing as much efficaciously disbursed humanitarian aid as possible — and resist the temptation to tip the scales in favor of specific candidates most likely to be pliable to American geopolitical-corporate interest (but I know better than to hope that it will).”
The proposed presidential election in October is not guaranteed to take place. Political uncertainty surrounds the entire process. This could be a unique opportunity for Washington to change its relationship with its neighbor if only there was the will.
The following review of my newly released book is written by Robert J. Burrowes and appears in The Lahore Times:
In his just-released book, ‘Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe‘, Antony Loewenstein offers us a superb description of the diminishing power of national governments and international organisations to exercise power in the modern world as multinational corporations consolidate their control over the political and economic life of the planet.
While ostensibly a book about how national governments increasingly abrogate their duty to provide ‘public’ services to their domestic constituencies by paying corporations to provide a privatized version of the same service – which is invariably inferior and exploitative, and often explicitly violent as well – the book’s subtext is easy to read: in order to maximize corporate profits, major corporations are engaged in a struggle to wrest all power from ordinary people and those institutions that supposedly represent them. And the cost to ordinary people (including their own corporate employees) and the environment is irrelevant, from the corporate perspective.
Loewenstein spent five years researching this book so that he could report ‘the ways in which our world is being sold to the highest bidder without public consent’. In my view, he does this job admirably.
Taking as his starting point the observation of famed future studies and limits to growth expert Professor Jørgen Randers that ‘It is profitable to let the world go to hell’, Loewenstein set out to describe precisely how this is happening. He went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to explore the world of ‘private military companies’, Greece to listen to refugees imprisoned in ‘brutal’ privatized detention centres, Haiti to investigate its ‘occupation’ by the United Nations and ‘aid’ organizations following the earthquake in 2010, and Bougainville to understand the dilemma faced by those who want progress without the price of further corporate environmental vandalism (for which they have paid heavily already).
Loewenstein also checked out the ‘outsourced incarceration’ that now ensures that the US rate of imprisonment far exceeds that in all other countries, the privatized asylum seeker detention centres in the UK which are the end product of ‘a system that demonizes the vulnerable’, and the equivalent centres in Australia which ‘warehouse’ many asylum seekers in appalling privatized detention centres, including those located on offshore islands.
It is easy and appropriate to be outraged by some of the details Loewenstein provides, like the ‘three strike’ laws in the United States ‘that put people behind bars for life for stealing a chocolate bar’, but it is obviously important to comprehend the nature of the systemic crisis in which we are being enveloped by ‘disaster capitalism’ if we are to have any chance of resisting it effectively. So what are it’s key features?
In essence, predatory corporations (which usually keep a low profile) are financed by government money (that is, your taxes), supported by tax concessions and insulated from genuine accountability, political criticism and media scrutiny while being given enormous power to provide the infrastructure and labor to conduct a function, domestically or internationally, which has previously been performed by a government or international organization. If this happens at the expense of a nation truly exercising its independence, then too bad.
Moreover, because the corporate function is being performed ‘solely to benefit international shareholders’ which means that maximum profit is the primary aim, both the people who are supposedly being served by the corporation (citizens, refugees, prisoners…) and the corporation’s own employees are invariably subjected to far greater levels of abuse, exploitation, violence and/or corruption than they would have experienced under a public service equivalent.
Loewenstein provides the evidence to demonstrate this fact in one case after another. The ones that I found most interesting are the use of mercenaries in Afghanistan which provided further evidence that US policy, and even its military strategy and tactics ‘on the ground’, is being progressively taken over by corporations, and the ‘occupation’ of Haiti, post-earthquake in 2010, by the UN and NGO ‘aid’ agencies which forced locals into the perpetual victimhood of corporate-skewed ‘development’.
The use of private military companies (jargon for government-contracted companies that hire and deploy mercenary soldiers, ‘intelligence’ personnel, private security staff, construction teams, training personnel and provide base services such as food, laundry and maintenance) in Afghanistan has meant that there are far more US contractors than US soldiers in Afghanistan and ‘troop withdrawal’ means just that: troops not contractors. The occupation is far from over, Loewenstein notes.
Moreover, he asserts, the US mission in Afghanistan is ‘intimately tied to these unaccountable forces’. As many of us have been observing for considerable time, with control of US government policy now largely in the hands of the US elite (a select group compared with the military-industrial complex of which departing president Eisenhower warned us in 1961), its controlling tentacles reach ever more deeply into US actions at all levels. This is reflected in the way that military tactics are often designed in response to the development of weapons (such as drones) rather than, as should be the case, policy and strategy determining the nature of the tactics and weapons (if any) designed and used. It’s not so much that the corporate ‘tail’ is now wagging the government ‘dog’: the ‘tail’ is now bigger and more powerful than the ‘dog’ itself. In essence, the ‘US government interest’ means the ‘US corporate interest’.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not the only ‘horror story’ in Loewenstein’s book. I was particularly pained by his account of the multi-faceted violence that has been inflicted on Haiti since the devastating earthquake on 12 January 2010 that affected three million Haitians, killing more than 300,000. On 1 February 2010, US Ambassador Kenneth Merton headlined his cable ‘The Gold Rush Is On’ and went on to explain his excitement: ‘As Haiti digs out from the earthquake, different companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services.’ Merton’s lack of compassion for those killed, injured or left homeless by the earthquake is breathtaking.
Tragically, it isn’t just corporate exploitation of Haitians that exacerbated the adverse impact of the earthquake. The United Nations was horrific too. The evidence clearly pointed to its responsibility for a cholera epidemic shortly after the earthquake, which affected more than 700,000 people, killing 9,000. And given the responsibility of UN troops, allegedly present to enhance safety, for previous violence against Haitians, most Haitians simply regarded the presence of UN troops as ‘another occupation’ following the French colonization, which they overthrew in 1794, and the US occupation which led to the Duvalier dictatorships, that were resisted until their defeat in 1986.
But whatever damage the UN has done, it is the governments of the US, France and Canada, whose aid dollars via many corporations never reach those in need, NGOs like the Clinton Foundation, and the predatory corporations that truly know how to exploit a country. This is why the civil infrastructure in Port-au-Prince remains unrepaired nearly six years after the earthquake and the average city resident still lives in ‘rubbish, filth, and squalor’. Somehow, the corporations that were given the aid money to rebuild Haiti or provide other services were able to absorb billions of dollars without doing much at all. Although, it should be noted, company profits have been healthy. Are they held accountable? Of course not. Disaster capitalism at its best.
So can we predict the outcome for Nepal following its earthquakes earlier this year? We certainly can. The corrupt diversion of aid funds to corporate bank accounts. And ordinary Nepalese will continue to suffer.
I could go on but you will be better off checking out the book yourself. Loewenstein writes well and he has fascinating material with which to hold your interest. By the way, his personal website if you want to keep track of his journalism is here. He has recently been doing research in South Sudan.
So is there anything I didn’t like? Well, given my own passion for analysis and strategy, I would have liked to read more about Loewenstein’s thoughts on why, precisely, this all happens and how we can get out of this mess. He is an astute observer of reality and hopefully, in future, he will be more forthcoming in making suggestions.
In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding why many individuals have a dysfunctional compulsion to make profits at the expense of human and environmental needs, my own analysis is briefly outlined in this article: ‘Love Denied: The Psychology of Materialism, Violence and War‘. But there is much more detail explaining the psychological origins of violent and exploitative behaviours in ‘Why Violence?‘
And if you are someone who does not outsource your own responsibility to play a role in ending the elite-driven violence and exploitation in our world, you might like to sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘. The Nonviolence Charter references other documents for action if you are so inclined.
Anyway, apart from this observation, the main reason why I think this is such a good book is because it gave me much new and carefully researched information that got me thinking, more deeply, about issues that I often ponder. There is a good chance that it will enlighten you too.
Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?‘ His email address is email@example.com and his website is at http://robertjburrowes.wordpress.com
My article in Foreign Policy:
In the middle of a hot, clear day on Aug. 21, roughly 2,000 people packed around the John Garang Mausoleum in downtown Juba to shout down the latest deal to end South Sudan’s nearly two-year-long war. Organized by the government, it was an event for true believers, those somehow insulated from the economic ravages of the war: young boys and girls in school uniform, men in suits, and women in colorful dresses. As a DJ sang over pre-recorded music blaring on massive speakers, praising South Sudan and its president, Salva Kiir, participants held large signs written in English declaring “one army, not two” and “no regime change through violence.”
For regime loyalists in the crowd, the nation’s success or failure was connected inextricably to Kiir, seen by them as the liberating hero who brought independence to South Sudan. On Aug. 19, a letter was distributed on the letterhead of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling party, calling on the government not to sign any peace agreement with the opposition. It opposed the “recolonization” of South Sudan by foreign powers, Sudan, the U.N., or the African Union — a fear expressed by many locals.
It did not come as a surprise then that the cease-fire penned in the last days of August has failed, and did so almost as soon as it began. Despite both government and rebel forces agreeing to stop fighting from midnight on Aug. 29, days after Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel leader Riek Machar to stop the 20-month conflict in the country, little has changed on the ground. Clashes in Unity State are ongoing with the government and opposition both accusing the other of breaking the peace. In late August, a town in Payinjiar County was allegedly shelled by government troops trying to wrestle it back from the rebels.
Both Kiir and Machar have maintained that they are still committed to the deal — Kiir is set to present the agreement to the national legislature for ratification on Tuesday, and Machar has promised approval on a similar timeline — blaming the other for breaking the peace. But there is ample reason to doubt their commitment: If the deal fully falls apart, it will be at least the seventh to collapse just after being signed. And the West, so far, has appeared powerless to stop the carnage. On Friday, the U.N. Security Council met to discuss an arms embargo and sanctions against leaders who have thwarted the latest attempt at peace.
One of the most daunting impediments to a sustainable peace in the country is the people who run it — for the moment, the elites only stand to lose, both financially and politically, from a settlement. And the international community has struggled to address that ugly fact. Though the U.N. has threatened new sanctions, few would change the country’s dysfunctional patronage system. There has yet to be a concerted attempt to focus on vested interests, including asset freezes in outside countries. Although NGOs, such as the Enough Project’s recently launched endeavor The Sentry, have begun to target the financing of Africa’s worst conflicts, state efforts have lagged behind.
Even as he signed the latest cease-fire agreement, President Kiir made it clear that he was deeply suspicious of the deal pushed by African nations, the United Nations, and United States. “The current peace we are signing today has so many things we have to reject,” he said. “Such reservations, if ignored, would not be in the interests of just and lasting peace.” During the signing of the peace agreement, Kiir even attached a list of amendments, rejected by the Obama administration, outlining his concerns.
Components of the deal include demilitarizing the capital Juba, cessation of hostilities, reinstalling Machar as vice president, sharing oil fields, and improving humanitarian access for civilians. It also calls for a transitional government to take power in 90 days.
Arguably, Kiir only signed because Washington and the U.N. threatened an arms embargo and new sanctions designations against senior military and government figures; it’s a stalling tactic he has used before. On Sept. 1, the United States reiterated that threat: State Department spokesman Mark Toner reminded the warring parties that “anyone acting to spoil the peace agreement implementation will face consequences.” The State Department declined to comment further on the chances of the United States imposing sanctions if the conflict persisted.
South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in 2011, but the country collapsed into war in December 2013 as Kiir and Machar, his former deputy, fought over power sharing and access to copious oil reserves. Although reliable figures are hard to find, the International Crisis Group has publicly stated that the death toll could be at least 100,000. Hundreds of thousands of children are living without education, and 2.2 million — more than one-sixth of the country’s population — have been forced from their homes, with almost 200,000 taking shelter at U.N. bases. At least 40 percent of the population is severely hungry, and levels of brutality are extreme.
So what can the West do?
Humanitarian leaders have called for action that better targets the elites perpetuating the war. After the recent signing of the peace agreement, international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Enough Project, and Oxfam, continued advocating for tough measures against leaders and military heads who willfully caused civilian suffering. They also called for effective mechanisms to implement justice for victims and perpetrators. There is still no road map toward establishing a robust court capable of hearing cases of war crimes or genocide; a proposal in the peace agreement calls for a court with South Sudanese and Africans overseeing violations of international law. Meaningful sanctions with bite remain an option for America if war continues, though Washington’s engagement is likely to be minimal as the Obama administration is consumed with troubles in the Middle East.
Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation, recently wrote, “Political survival [in South Sudan] is determined by the iron laws of the marketplace: The politician needs a political budget sufficient to secure the loyalty of subordinates and to compete with rivals.” Kiir’s hesitation to agree to peace, de Waal explains, was “because he has a limited and shrinking political budget, the price of loyalty has not decreased, and the number of claimants on those funds is increasing. In the current political marketplace system, he cannot make peace without more money.” More pointedly, fighting will continue as long as the current patronage system for dividing wealth survives. Sanctions can’t fix it, but targeting assets is an important first step toward ultimately replacing the corrupt political system.
The U.N. and the United States, however, have so far been unable or unwilling to do so. Justine Fleischner, the Sudan and South Sudan policy analyst with the Enough Project, told me that her organization wants a court to “prosecute economic and atrocity crimes, including pillaging and grand corruption.” The U.S. Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, she said, “is another tool that may be deployed to support efforts to prosecute economic crimes,” but the political will to pursue those committing the crimes is absent.
An arms embargo, which was reportedly discussed at the U.N. on Friday, is “notoriously difficult to implement, and any effective arms embargo on South Sudan would have to be regionally and globally enforced,” she said. Weapons are coming from countries such as Uganda, China, Israel, and Sudan. Even with the peace agreement signed and the most serious sanctions taken off the table, Fleischner believes that the difficulties of enforcement aren’t a reason to avoid an arms embargo. “It would allow the U.N. Panel of Experts to more closely monitor arms flows. It would also provide a basis for secondary sanctions and public exposure directed at any state or entity facilitating arms deals.”
It’s a position shared by Human Rights Watch. Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, told me, “No matter what happens with this peace deal, we think the U.N. should be taking steps to impose an arms embargo, widen and implement sanctions [on] individuals responsible for serious crimes against civilians, and take concrete steps to plan a justice mechanism.”
While the U.N. contemplates updating the remit of its peacekeepers to help implement an already faltering peace agreement, the people of South Sudan are no closer to experiencing a peaceful present and future. Rhetorical battles over peace deals mean nothing for the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire. If the U.N. and Washington are serious about ending the endemic violence and corruption in South Sudan, a radical new strategy must be adopted, targeting the key players behind the violence. Unless this happens soon, the already bad situation can only get worse.
My following article appears in Al Jazeera America:
“Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary wrote in a recent column, referring to the monster storm that nearly wiped out the city of New Orleans in 2005. “Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.”
McQueary wished for a storm to wipe away Chicago’s corruption, slash the city’s budget and introduce private education. However, she did not mention how African-Americans in New Orleans were disproportionately affected by the disaster or how race became a determining factor in what was rebuilt, how and where.
A decade on, much remains unfinished. New Orleans still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, though a recent study by the Data Center found a 67 percent drop in the city’s prison population since Katrina. The private prison industry appears pleased with its successes, contracting many facilities with troubled records. At least a quarter of New Orleans’ population gets by at or below the national poverty line. Illiteracy is rife. But not everyone agrees: According to a new study by Louisiana State University, a majority of white residents in New Orleans said they believe that the city has mostly recovered, while black residents reported the opposite.
McQueary’s column received a deluge of criticism. “I wrote what I did not out of lack of empathy or racism but out of long-standing frustration with Chicago’s poorly managed finances,” she explained in a follow-up post the next day. But it was too late: No amount of call for “revolutionary change” in Chicago and an end to “borrowing our way into bankruptcy” would repair the damage.
None of this should have been surprising. McQueary was being honest about a phenomenon that Canadian writer Naomi Klein termed disaster capitalism, which profits from vulnerable people’s misery. McQueary was tone deaf to the human cost of her preferred policies. For example, she endorsed dismissing labor contracts and teacher unions,calling for “a free-market education” model and “a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur.”
In practice, this means deregulating and privatizing companies and services with lower pay for employees, fewer unions and inflexible working hours. The prevailing neoliberal economic order ensures that the profit motive is built into the delivery of services. This is why avoiding another Katrina requires examining what Klein refers to as “the reality of an economic order built on white supremacy.”
Politicians and commentators the world over see disaster capitalism as rational and necessary after a natural or man-made crisis. This is good for you, we’re told; better housing, schooling and infrastructure will follow. In reality, however, the much-vaunted austerity — sold as an answer to economic woes in Greece, Puerto Rico and cities across the United States that lack a secure safety net for the poor — simply doesn’t work. But it lines the pockets of corporations that see the crisis as a financial opportunity.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many myths have developed around the crisis and its aftermath. The news isn’t uniformly negative. Studies show that New Orleans residents are more able to deal with stress and express great pride in their city’s culture in the last decade. In addition, black residents now have better choices of fresh food at grocery stores than they did before the disaster hit. Yet this shift wasn’t a result of multinational corporations opening stores in the neighborhoods but an outcome of the Fresh Food Retailer’s Initiative, a cooperative plan that offers low-interest loans for grocers to get started or rebuild in troubled areas of New Orleans.
Privatization advocates contend that Katrina brought essential reforms to Louisiana’s education system. But the facts tell a different story. “A key part of the New Orleans narrative is that firing the unionized, mostly black teachers after Katrina cleared the way for young, idealistic (mostly white) educators who are willing to work 12 to 14 hour days,” wrote Andrea Gabor, a professor of journalism at Baruch College, in a detailed story in The New York Times last week. “For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for some students, but it also hurt the most disadvantaged pupils.”
Similarly, public housing in New Orleans remain a mess, with the state increasing rents for residents in areas that many say lack a cohesive community spirit. There is a long waiting list for subsidized housing.
To be clear, poor quality structures were blights on the city even before Katrina. But the United States’ slow economic recovery has emboldened officials in Louisiana and elsewhere who argue that privatized services are far preferable to a well-financed public system. The flood of corporate donations to politicians augments these arguments.
Disaster capitalism is a readily exportable commodity. New Orleans still pulses to a resilient rhythm, but those pushing for more private housing, schools and infrastructure are rarely held to account. Without accountability for the abuses of corporate-backed privatization policies, its advocates will simply move on to another city or country to maximize their profits at the expense of poor and marginalized citizens.
Countless companies are already cashing in as the climate crisis takes hold across the United States. For example, many New Yorkers fear that hurricane precautions are excluding the city’s poorest residents while protecting the richest homeowners. The billion-dollar disaster rescue industry, allowing wealthy customers to pay companies to, say, rescue them from a flood or fight fires during a wildfire, is thriving; this is the privatization of humanitarian aid. Corrupt politicians are making a fortune from rebuilding New Orleans and New York after hurricanes.
The most vulnerable in our society deserve to be treated as human beings and not as an experiment in social engineering. Disaster capitalism distorts democracy by elevating the voices of a few wealthy people above the desires of the majority. Even 10 years after Katrina, McQueary can still write blindly about radical change through privatization while ignoring the great determinant of public access in the United States: race.
Yesterday I appeared on the Al Jazeera English program, The Stream (thankfully the poor internet here in South Sudan came through):
Deadly floodwaters caused one of the biggest evacuations in US history when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, Louisiana. Ten years on, the city still hasn’t fully recovered. New economic, educational and housing models are in play, but critics say they’re hurting the longtime residents who need help most. On Tuesday at 19:30 GMT, The Stream asks New Orleans residents how “disaster capitalism” has affected them, and explores how the city’s growing pains are similar to disaster zones around the world.
In this episode of The Stream, we speak with:
Antony Loewenstein @antloewenstein
Journalist and author (forthcoming) ‘Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe‘
Raynard Sanders @NOLAEQUITY
Erika McConduit-Diggs @ulgno
President & CEO of Urban League greater New Orleans
Terri Coleman @TFSColeman
New Orleans resident
My comments appear at 15:13, 23:30, 25:22, 35:02, 40:30: