Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015 and in paperback in January 2017.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Strong review of the documentary, Disaster Capitalism

My film Disaster Capitalism, with director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, has screened around the world this year (with more to come including an invitation to a major human rights film festival in the US in early 2019). 

After one of the recent screenings in Sydney, this review by Jim Mcllroy appeared in Green Left Weekly:

Disaster Capitalism is a groundbreaking documentary film about Bougainville, Haiti and Afghanistan, revealing the dark underbelly of the global aid and investment industry. The film offers important insights into a secret multi-billion dollar world by investigating how aid money is actually spent — or misspent.

Prominent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein joins award-winning filmmaker Thor Neureiter on a four-year journey through the world of shady mining companies, corrupt and failing governments and resilient local communities.

Narrated by Loewenstein, the film takes us to war-torn Afghanistan to interview leading community figures struggling to defend local village residents against the depredations of overseas mining companies. He reveals the startling fact that the US has spent more on so-called “development aid” in Afghanistan over the past 15 years than it did on the entire post-World War II Marshall Plan to reconstruct a devastated Europe.

Despite this huge sum, Afghanistan remains a failed, corrupt state, riven by an endless war with the reactionary Taliban. The great majority of its people live in dire poverty and insecurity.

Speaking at a showing of the film at the Edmund Rice Centre on November 14, refugee rights activist Phil Glendenning noted the Afghan government still spends half of its national budget on defence and security. Yet the ongoing violence still leaves people desperate for peace.

In Haiti, the film shows the terrible aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and the failure of UN and other foreign aid to significantly improve the conditions for the poor majority. Thousands died because of dysentery introduced to the country by UN personnel.

Instead of using aid to re-develop destroyed public infrastructure, the US and other rich countries focused on setting up free-trade zones to further exploit local workers with encouragement from corrupt Haitian politicians.

Loewenstein also visits Bougainville, currently a province of Papua New Guinea, which was ravaged by a long civil war in which a reported 20,000 people were killed. The war was launched by the PNG government, with the full backing of Australia, when local people rose up against the destruction of their island by mining giant Rio Tinto in the 1980s.

We hear the voices of independence leaders and local women villagers, who express a desire to control their own affairs as a precondition to any new resource projects being initiated.

The film is partly based on Loewenstein’s 2015 book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. For the book, Loewenstein travels across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the US, Britain, Greece and Australia to witness the reality of rampant capitalism. He discovers how companies cash in on organised misery in the hidden world of privatised detention centres, militarised private security, aid profiteering and destructive mining.

Loewenstein concludes the film by stating: “In the end, the solution lies with the people and communities.”

Disaster Capitalism starkly exposes the reality of big business and its agents in utilising natural and human-made calamities for greed and profit. It ends on a hopeful note that communities which suffer this exploitation are beginning to rise up and demand their right to democracy and real development in the future.

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Blackwater founder Erik Prince directly asked about my reporting on his moves in Afghanistan

I recently published a major investigation into Blackwater founder Erik Prince and his aims to exploit resources and minerals in Afghanistan. It was published by the global broadcaster TRT World and created waves.

Yesterday Prince himself was interviewed on the TRT World program, Nexus, and directly asked about my reporting that he travelled to Afghanistan as “Trump’s advisor” and met with senior members of the Afghan Ministry of Mines. He didn’t refute or deny anything and instead seemed to basically confirm it.

The whole interview with Prince is superb, grilling him about his past work and future plans, but the relevant section about Afghan resources, his plans and my reporting begins at 13:27:

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TRT World interview on Erik Prince aiming to exploit Afghan minerals

Interview on TRT World’s The Newsmakers program, the global news network’s flagship current affairs show on a channel that reaches 260 million people in 190 countries, about my recent investigation into Blackwater founder Erik Prince and his attempts to exploit Afghan resources:

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Exclusive investigation on Blackwater founder Erik Prince wanting to exploit Afghan resources

My year-long investigation in TRT World, the global news network that reaches 260 million people in 190 countries, about Blackwater founder Erik Prince and his attempts to exploit Afghan minerals (plus here’s background to the making of this story that continues to reverberate around the world):

The founder of the notorious, and now defunct, Blackwater, has been making headlines for trying to privatise the Afghan war. What has gone unreported are his plans as “Trump’s advisor” to extract the country’s immensely rich mineral wealth.

Erik Prince, the founder of the private military company Blackwater, now known as Academi, has trained his sights on mining natural resources in war-torn Afghanistan, according to multiple sources and Afghan officials.

Details from Afghan officials and conversations with two sources knowledgeable about Prince’s movements in Kabul say he is looking into opportunities to mine Afghan minerals and visited the country in early 2018 and September to explore these possibilities.

Prince, who is the chairman of logistics firm Frontier Services Group, had pitched a plan to privatise the Afghan war and mine the country’s minerals to the White House last year.

His proposal included finding rare earth minerals in some of Afghanistan’s most volatile regions, allowing the United States to source valuable lithium for batteries, along with other deposits, and provide jobs to Afghans.

Prince and his associates met key figures in the Afghan mining ministry in January 2018, an Afghan government official with knowledge of Prince’s schedule told TRT World.

Team4RMC—an Afghan security company that was assisting Prince—requested a meeting for him with Afghan Mining Minister Nargis Nehan to discuss his plans to invest in the country, and described him as a “current advisor” to President Trump.

Prince and his associates, including Frontier Services Group head in Afghanistan, Shahin Mayan, met officials at the Afghan Ministry of Mines on 13 January.

Mining Minister Nargis Nehan was out of the country, so they met a deputy minister and other officials.

Team4RMC claimed Prince was also meeting President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and other high-level officials.

In late 2017, according to a Kabul-based source and Afghan mining expert, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of safety and losing his jobofficials from the Department of Commerce and United States Geological Survey working with the United States embassy in Kabul, visited the country to investigate ways in which minerals could be found and mined.

The Afghan mining expert tells TRT World that the Trump administration officials sought access to the resources map archive, researched by Soviet geologists in the late 1970s and 1980s and by American geologists after 2001, to determine the quality of the minerals and see samples of them.

The Soviet mineral data charts are far more extensive than the US efforts, according to an Afghan mining expert who has been researching the issue for over a decade and has documented the various local and foreign attempts to exploit the country’s resources.

This, the expert says, could be because the Soviets progressed further with their mining plans; they extracted uranium samples from Khwaja Rawash mountain in Kabul, exploited oil and gas from the country’s north in Amu Darya and coal in Baghlan province.

Building trust 

There’s no evidence that Prince met Ghani or Abdullah, but if he did it would be significant: the New York Times reported in March that Ghani was angry with Prince for meeting his rival Atta Mohammad Nur in Dubai in December 2017.

When I contacted Prince in June, his spokesman said that he “currently had no mining interest in Afghanistan” and denied having any company presence in Kabul.

However, the Kabul-based mining expert—with direct knowledge of the company’s operations— confirms that Frontier Services Group had established an office in the Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul, with Mayan leading the company in Afghanistan.

According to TRT World’s source in Kabul, Prince has so far adopted a three-pronged strategy to build trust with Afghans and convince them to work with him.

First, he is attempting to work with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and his political party.

Second, he is trying to collaborate and gain the trust of tribal elders and political leaders including Atta Mohammad Nur, and make connections with ethnic groups and influential Pashtun leaders, as well as supporting political candidates in the 2019 presidential election.

Finally, he wants to introduce himself to the Afghan people through the Afghan media including a major TV interview with Kabul-based, Tolo News, in September.

Hot water

Prince’s private security record shows that he thrives financially in places of insecurity.

In Afghanistan, his ability to extract resources will depend on paying off the right warlords and government officials as well as building the most brutal militias to wrestle control of minerals from insurgent groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State (Daesh) which make huge amounts of money from illicit mining.

The US State Department, when asked for a statement on Prince’s involvement in Afghanistan, declined to comment directly about it, saying that, “Afghan mineral rights are an Afghan issue,” and suggested I speak to the Afghan Ministry of Mines with any questions.

An Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum spokesperson, Abdul Qadeer Mutfi, tells TRT World, “We are currently in the process of amending our minerals law and will be open to receiving proposals that meet our needs and fit the legal framework.” He also says the Afghan government is committed to keeping an “open and accountable extractives sector”.

Another spokesperson, Bhavana Mahajan, told me that the Afghan government hadn’t yet “received anything official” from Prince about his mining plans though the Ghani government was “open to doing business and exploring partnerships.”

The Pentagon has expressed opposition to Prince’s plan to privatise the Afghan war but has made no official comment about his desire to exploit its resources.

A United States Geological Survey study in 2010 estimated that untapped Afghan minerals—including copper, iron ore, rare earth elements, aluminium, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium—are worth between $1 trillion and $3 trillion. Prince’s priorities according to mining experts are lithium, gas and gold.

It is a tantalising but dangerous prospect that could ease Afghanistan’s over-reliance on foreign aid provided Afghans get to reap the benefits.

In February 2018, USAID hosted 80 private business interests in Kabul to explore Afghan resources but USAID refused to disclose who attended the event despite my repeated requests.

President Donald Trump had expressed interest in exploiting Afghanistan’s vast, largely untapped mineral wealth to offset the expenses of the long war, the longest in US history, which has cost the United States over one trillion dollars.

Trump’s interest in Afghan mining and potential economic gains increased after separate meetings last year with Ghani and Michael Silver, the CEO of American Elements, an advanced metals and chemicals production company.

Trump and Ghani agreed in September 2017 to allow US companies access to Afghanistan’s rare earth minerals. Three senior aides of Trump met Stephen A. Feinberg, the billionaire owner of the mega military contractor DynCorp International, last July to explore mining options, the New York Times reported.

Trump is now pushing for direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government while encouraging US-backed, Afghan troops to withdraw from vast parts of the country.

Afghans are suspicious of any foreign companies aiming to exploit theirresources. The arrival of Prince on the scene could further raise tempers in Afghanistan.

Prince is infamous in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world because of Blackwater’s atrocious record in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. His contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007 and Prince has been involved in building a mercenary army for the UAE.

Strong networks, weak alliances

Trump’s White House reportedly considered in 2017 establishing a global network of privatised spies organised by Prince and the Blackwater founder is working with the Chinese government to secure its resources in African and Asian nations.

Prince and his family have a long connection to the Republican Party, they’ve been big donors for years, and he considered a US Senate run in 2017, while his sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s Education Secretary.

Prince is under scrutiny for meeting a senior Russian fund manager allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Seychelles in January 2016 and is accused of lying to Congress about it.

President Trump rejected Prince’s plan to privatise the Afghan war, but he has continued advocating this year for the privatisation of the Afghan conflict.

The Taliban announced that they also opposed Prince’s plans, as has the Ghani government.

The New York Times recently reported that Prince visited Kabul in September to discuss his plans to privatise the war and exploit the nation’s minerals. The story stated that Ghani had repeatedly refused to meet Prince despite repeated requests to do so. Prince was said to be building political alliances with Ghani’s opponents to secure access in Afghanistan.

Prince has urged Washington to appoint an American “viceroy” to run the war and argued that “until those plans are enacted there will not be any economic improvements for the people of Afghanistan.”

Will Afghans benefit?

The Afghan mining industry has remained relatively small for decades due to ongoing violence, insecurity and corruption. The Taliban earns large amounts of money from illicit mining, along with the drug trade, but it benefits very few civilians.

The Kabul mining source says that the mining industry is currently valued at $1 billion annually with 25-30 commodities being extracted. Countless more commodities are in the country but exploration and extraction are minimal.

Prince and his associates are attempting to enter the Afghan resources market at a time of intense insecurity in the country. The Afghan Ministry of Mines is a notoriously corrupt government body where there is no transparency around its decisions to appoint contracts to favoured bidders.

Prince’s company is unwilling to reveal its plans publicly because mining resources in a war zone is controversial, always occurs without community consent, and inevitably worsens violence in the areas targeted for exploitation.

The Ghani government recently signed large contracts with Afghan and foreign companies in a veil of secrecy to exploit resources in some areas controlled by insurgents.

Opponents of privatising Afghanistan’s resources, such as Integrity Watch Afghanistan and international NGO Global Witness, have expressed concern that without major governance changes these contracts will only worsen violence and entrench the power of warlords.

In a joint opinion piece by the two groups in January, they wrote that the Trump administration and Ghani government risked echoing a colonial past.

“For Afghans, whose ancestors fought against imperialism just as Americans did, that is a recipe for outrage,” they said.

During my two trips to the country to investigate the resources industry, in 2012 and 2015, it was nearly impossible to find any civilians in Kabul or in the countryside who supported its growth. They all feared worsening violence if anything was extracted because of corruption, looting and the formation of militias around the mines. Ordinary Afghans are rarely consulted about mining plans in their areas and mining contracts are never transparent.

An hour from Kabul, the people living near the Aynak mine – one of the largest copper deposits in the world, which has been leased to a Chinese company – have poor education and little access to water.

During a 2015 visit, the residents of Davo village near the mine told me that they had been promised primary and high schools, new roads, electricity, and a large mosque.

“Our expectations went up, but in the end, nothing was delivered,” Mullah Mirjan, a community leader told me at the time. 

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What does disaster capitalism really look like in the 21st century?

In the last 7+ years, I’ve been investigating and reporting on disaster capitalism around the world. This culminated in my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, and the documentary, Disaster Capitalism.

There’s a great, long essay in the US magazine Public Books about disaster capitalism in the modern age, written by US academic Tom Winterbottom, and he assesses the various ways that three writers view the issue: Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and me. Below are some extracts from the essay:

That there are many cases of disaster capitalism is a point made by journalist Antony Loewenstein in his book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe (2015), and in the 2018 documentary Disaster Capitalism. In these comprehensive and unsettling works, he covers war (in Afghanistan), aid (in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake), and environmental exploitation (in Papua New Guinea). He also cites many other examples of exploitative economic practices—those that aim to make money for corporations or purposefully impoverish citizens—in Greece, the UK, the US, and Australia.

Early on in the book, Loewenstein makes an important terminological point: “Whether we call this disaster capitalism,” he writes, “or just a product of the unavoidable excesses and inequalities of capitalism itself, the end result is still a world ruled by unaccountable markets.” Although Loewenstein neglects to flesh this out, it is a crucial observation: what he sees in disparate locations and contexts is not necessarily produced or predicated by a disaster or extraordinary event. The crisis that Loewenstein documents pervades capitalist societies and lies in actors systematically embracing exploitative and damaging practices in the unfolding of the neoliberal story.

Be it detention centers in the US, relief aid in Haiti, military contractors in Afghanistan, economic sanctions on Greece, complicit corporate-sponsored NGOs in the developing world, or prison systems across much of the Western world, “predatory behavior” does vary “from country to country, but the strategy is the same: exaggerate a threat, man-made or natural, and let loose unaccountable private-sector contractors to exploit it.” Loewenstein frequently uses the term “disaster” seemingly interchangeably with terms like “exploitative,” “crisis,” and “predatory” as descriptors of capitalism. That he settles on no single word is not a weakness, but rather an intriguing diagnosis: capitalism in its current expression and at its worst is all of those things and more.

Once you pry open the terminology a little bit, as Loewenstein implies, one finds that the leverage of “disaster capitalism” now stretches far beyond that which Klein identified. In Loewenstein’s reckoning, there are still the more “traditional” disasters and economic shock therapy “solutions,” and perhaps it is those more obvious shocks that generate the conditions that allow for a particularly nefarious and obvious expression of largely harmful neoliberal capitalism, as is beginning to unfold in Puerto Rico.

In the background, however, a more unsettling picture also emerges, in which those exploitative machinations continue to take hold, progressively and aggressively, even without a disaster or shock. Indeed, after reading Loewenstein’s book, one is left wondering what isn’t impacted by the nefarious tendrils of “disaster” capitalism—education, the aid system, non-profit organizations, the democratic electoral system, privacy, healthcare, big tech, big data, underemployment. Nothing is safe from the imperial reach of a commodified system of capital. Disaster or not, it now seems that capitalism seeks to get into unexplored cracks and expand whether or not we like or even recognize it. A disaster often serves to foreground these ever-present traits. As such, “disaster” may no longer refer to specific shocks or changes in the economic system but rather to the system itself. “Disaster” can serve as a modifier concerning the very nature of capitalism and its development within a broad framework of neoliberalism. That is, it is inherently disastrous and in crisis, not exceptionally.

Klein, Monbiot, and Loewenstein chime with the positive possibility of resolution and change, often by citing cases in which the greedy reach of capitalism has been at least limited: the ongoing fight for Puerto Rico is testament to that. The three authors also ultimately demand—somewhat hopefully, or perhaps hopelessly—a need for modern societies “to view humans as more than just consumers.” Monbiot goes further, pushing for a “regime change,” in which the system is replaced rather than reformed.5 As such, their objective seems not to be “benevolent capitalism” or “sustainable capitalism” but rather “not capitalism.”

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US network The Real News Network interview on Erik Prince in Afghanistan

My interview on US news program The Real News Network on Blackwater founder Erik Prince and his vocal desire to privatise the war in Afghanistan:

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The ingredients of timely investigative journalism

Richard Keeble is one of Britain’s leading journalism academics and he’s taught at the University of Lincoln for many years. Author of seminal books on reporting, his latest, just released work is co-edited with John Mair and it’s called, “Investigative Journalism Today: Speaking Truth to Power“. It features a range of writers exploring the importance of investigative work from the English and non-English speaking world:

Rumours of the death of investigative journalism have been greatly exaggerated. This book is proof enough of that. Examples from the corporate and alternative media across the globe highlight the many imaginative and courageous ways that reporters are still “kicking at the right targets”.

I’m honoured that Keeble’s chapter positively interrogates my work, especially around disaster capitalism, and he’s allowed me to post it here: keebleloewensteinchapter

From the introduction:

Antony Loewenstein is an Australian investigative reporter, freelance author, photographer, blogger and campaigner. He has written for a wide range of publications – both mainstream and alternative –such as the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Green Left Weekly, New Matilda and Counterpunch. His books include My Israel Question (2006) and The Blogging Revolution (2008 and 2011). His 2010 ABC Radio National feature documentary, A Different Kind of Jew, was a finalist in the UN Media Peace Awards. And his book, Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism Swallowing the World (2013) has been followed up with a documentary film, Disaster Capitalism, about aid, development and politics in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea.

Profits of Doom also serves as a useful case study to examine Loewenstein’s investigative strategy in more detail. As this chapter will argue, Loewenstein draws creatively from a wide range of genres –peace journalism, investigative reporting, literary, long-form journalism, counter journalism and activist reporting – making his reportage both important and original. In particular, the study will focus on his investigative techniques, his ideological/political attitude – and his distinctive investigative writing style.

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New Zealand outlet positively reviews Disaster Capitalism film

My film Disaster Capitalism with director Thor Neureiter continues to spread around the world. Thor was recently in Melbourne for the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival and the film is screening soon in Australia, the UK and elsewhere.

New Zealand outlet Foreign Control Watchdog has published a review of the film written by Jeremy Agar:

Afghanistan

The years roll by but the news from Afghanistan scarcely changes. From the dry hills in landlocked Asia we glimpse mad mullahs shooting their rifles into the air. We see Humvees straining up a mountain pass and wait for the ambush. Underneath the banner news rolls through: a suicide truck has blown up a dozen pedestrians in Kabul.  

Few of the many disasters that our information screens send our way are as wearying as the scenes from this war, the one that 30 years ago was dubbed “the forgotten war” because sometimes, back then, it wasn’t getting much air time. These days we’re all too likely to hear the inevitable soothing words that follow from the President, but whoever he is this time, no-one is listening.

On comes an American general. Just a few more troops, he assures us, and all will be well. Just a few more years and we’ll deliver you a shiny new democracy. Be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day.But despite the assurances of the nation builders, peace in Afghanistan hasn’t been built in centuries. The waste, the futility of it all has a cartoonish quality: the US Army as Homer Simpson; the jihadi as … Jihadi. Boring. We flick the channel to the newest cooking show.

It’s the lack of any of this tedium that makes Antony Loewenstein’s analysis so welcome. By steering clear from cliché we’re allowed to see Afghanistan as the sort of place – an open plain, not some dizzying crag – that is not all that different from some parts of Loewenstein’s native Australia, perhaps, or America. He gets driven just an hour from the capital and talks to some quite normal locals. They were promised decent jobs and social development from a mine. It becomes clear that the foreign corporation never intended to make good on the deal, and that the Government’s undertaking to hold the company to account was similarly fraudulent.

Back in Kabul Loewenstein seeks answers from the bureaucrats who oversee the mining industry, No, Mr X is unavailable; Mr Y is busy. Mr Z? No, it is not possible. Leave the building. In other words, standard obstruction, standard corruption. Afghanistan’s misery is not primarily religious or tribalist. It’s the lack of trust that spawns those reactions. Fanaticism and tribalism are the poisoned fruit that grow from the seed of betrayal.

Loewenstein is showing us that, far from being uniquely messed up, Afghanistan is a template for a more general failure. That the mining company happens to be Chinese is an additional advantage in that the offender is not wearing the usual black hat. Villainy is not the monopoly of swaggering Uncle Sam. Take unaccountable big money and a corrupt State and moral failure is universal.

A modernist Afghan is interviewed, putting the case for the US to remain. If the troops go, he suggests, the warlords will swarm into the vacuum and there will be chaos and killings for an indefinite period. But what’s the alternative? The Vietnam gambit was often “to destroy a village in order to save it” – that’s a quote from the 1960s, not a mischievous paraphrase – and killing in Afghanistan will beget only more killing. Maybe everyone else just needs to leave them to it.

Loewenstein tells us that the amount the US military has cost in Afghanistan is more than what it invested in Europe after World War 2. As his topic of disaster capitalism is to do with how the world’s bullies go about “making money from misery”, that might be a reason his treatment ignores all the fundamentalist mayhem.

The huge spend has been about resisting the Taliban and now ISIS – and before that, let’s not forget, the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known as the Soviet Union). As such, while the post-World War 2 Marshall Plan set the US up for global dominance and hastened Europe’s recovery, the misadventures in Afghanistan have been unproductive to a point that future observers might regard as inexplicable (even Establishment types are now saying that about the domino theories that launched the Vietnam follies).

Just as it’s more than a truism – more a platitude – that wars never turn out how the belligerents intended, so too are the conventional wisdoms that inform life at home a poor guide for how Johnny Foreigner will react to being invaded. He won’t like it. So, it is that while the wise men in Washington are accustomed to thinking in terms of spending money in order to achieve results, in Afghanistan the opposite occurs. More money and more soldiers equal more chances for cock-ups and corruption.

As a frequent US visitor puts it here: “The more I go, the less I see”. More money being poured into the sinkhole makes matters ever worse. As he notes, saving money takes too much time. We’re in a hole. Keep digging and we’ll find a way out. Duh (the joke is that sometimes you win even when you lose. Vietnam now is much as US warmongers would have hoped it would have turned out to be had they won the war).

Haiti & Bougainville

Loewenstein’s other visits were to Haiti and Bougainville. In the former, US cash was meant to aid recovery from a devastating 2010 earthquake. This was very much a Clintonian intervention. We see Bill and Hillary in all their smarmy complacency rabbiting on about an investment zone where their corporate mates provide factory work for locals at five dollars a day. But the enterprises are not where the quakes struck. There, nothing has changed.

The final stop is closer to Loewenstein’s Aussie home, where another mining giant, Rio Tinto, has left a ruined landscape and a shattered society. Villagers faced a basic dilemma, one that confronts all such ravaged places: Do they want the mine to reopen so that they have a job, or do they want it to remain closed so that they can somehow, sometime, recover a stolen identity? It’s a fitting place to end this skillfully constructed doco.There is one final deft detail, tying the themes. Just as we’re given Afghanistan minus the hackneyed images, we see the usually ubiquitous Donald Trump only to conclude matters. He has spent one trillion dollars on mining ventures.

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Capitalising on disaster in the Trump era

My latest book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, remains continually relevant especially in the Trump era (just a few examples in the news recently include Blackwater founder Erik Prince still obsessed with privatising the Afghan war and a CIA-linked military contractor making money from housing refugees in the US).

UK publisher Taylor and Francis, working with Routledge, recently launched a collection of essays around the issue of disaster capitalism across the world. My essay is adapted from the introduction to my book and updated to include the ongoing threats to making money from misery in the age of Trump.

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Challenging those self-serving media narratives since 9/11

My book review in yesterday’s Weekend Australian newspaper: 

In The Operators, a great book on the war in Afghanistan, the American journalist Michael Hastings is scathing of reporters who spend their lives praising generals and socialising with them. Hastings exposed the arrogance and childish antics of the then head of US operations in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, and his team. Barack Obama fired the general, who today runs a management consultancy firm.

After Hastings’s scoop, many mainstream journalists went after him, instead of questioning McChrystal’s credentials. Hastings was attacked for breaking the “gentlemen’s agreement” that existed between reporters and the military. Journalists would receive scoops and access if they played this cosy game.

The New York Times published articles praising McChrystal and urged the president to keep him in his role. Largely ignored was the fact that his aggressive counter-terrorism policies were a key factor in surging violence against civilians and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hastings, who died in a car crash in Los Angeles in 2013, was contemptuous of uncritical, embedded journalism that cared little about the lives of Afghans and Iraqis.

Australian war correspondent John Martinkus shares much with Hastings’s worldview. His new book, Lost Copy, is a damning indictment of what we don’t see and hear about the never-ending “war on terror”.

A veteran of conflicts in East Timor and Aceh, Martinkus spent years reporting for SBS’s Dateline. In an introduction, he argues that the positive stories told by journalists about Afghanistan, and Australia’s presence in Helmand and Oruzgan, are fantasy.

“The truth of the situation that governments, militaries and some sections of the press that unquestioningly supported them spent so many years trying to deny has been revealed,” he writes. “But very few are telling that story now.”

Today the Taliban controls more territory than at any time since 2001. This is the reason Donald Trump gives for occupying the country indefinitely, but Martinkus cites historical examples to show how greater use of US drones and CIA covert actions will only inflame the situation. Indefinite war, benefiting arms dealers and private contractors, is the result.

Lost Copy is a lesson in the ugly alliances forged by Washington in its futile attempts to control Afghanistan. Perhaps there’s no better example than Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, backed by the CIA in May 1979. Martinkus calls him a “religious fanatic and heroin trafficker” who, “despite his outspoken and virulent anti-American views, received between a third and a half of all American aid to the [anti-Soviet] rebels, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars”.

In 1992, Hekmatyar’s rebels “laid waste to large parts of Kabul, with rocket attacks being one of his favourite tactics”. A former ally of al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, Hekmatyar is now rebuilding his political career in Kabul.

Martinkus directly links the American indulgence and patronage of individuals such as Hekmatyar to the country’s ongoing chaos. Travelling independ­ently gives him unrivalled access to hidden secrets. He documents cases of American and foreign forces denigrating, destroying, burning or cursing Muslim bodies.

“Somewhere in the US military, people were identifying Islamic, Afghan and Iraqi customs and recommending ways to violate them, with a frequency that was only slowly becoming apparent as occasionally an incident was caught on film or witnessed or photographed.”

Martinkus claims many of these stories never saw the light of day: “Countless more were dismissed on the ground by sceptical and partisan reporters as the complaining of those with an agenda. Others were blocked at an editorial level by a press, in the US, the UK and Australia, that by and large supported both wars [Iraq and Afghanistan].”

The risk of “taking sides” in war reporting is expertly dissected by Martinkus. When he was kidnapped in Baghdad in 2004, across the road from the Australian embassy, he was condemned by then foreign minister Alexander Downer and also by right-wing bloggers. Some even claimed he had faked his ordeal. On his release, Martinkus said he did not support the US occupation of Iraq, which made him a prime target for attack. “To even broach the topic of what was motivating the Iraqi insurgents,’’ he writes, “was enough to bring down a wave of condemnation for being seemingly sympathetic with terrorists.”

Lost Copy is a fine example of war reportage, sceptical of official claims and committed to honest journalism. Martinkus provides inspir­ation to the next generation of reporters who want to move past the military PR to document the endless wars consuming the Middle East and Africa.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist. He will be at the Sydney Writers Festival, April 30 to May 6. swf.org.au

Lost Copy: The Endless Wars: Iraq and Afghanistan

By John Martinkus
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 272pp, $39.95

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How true democracy and self-determination can prevail

A key aim of my Disaster Capitalism film with director Thor Neureiter is to highlight the darker sides of aid (without arguing that aid should stop). There are currently many screenings of the film around the world from Australia to the US and UK (with many more to follow).

Aid Watch is a wonderful group that challenges the often wasteful and opaque nature of aid – they’re sponsoring a film screening in May alongside Jubilee Australia – and they’ve written an insightful overview of the movie:

Ever wondered why some societies seem to exist in a permanent disaster? Some would have us believe it’s their fault. This film lays blame squarely at what it calls ‘disaster capitalism’ – an aid-industrial complex that solidifies vulture capital, aid agencies, ‘donor’ governments and local cronies. The bloc is shored-up by the military but mainly works at the level of policy. Its genius is in converting disaster into opportunity, exploiting vulnerabilities to force a permanent ‘transformation’.

The idea is not new. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the World Bank saw its opportunity for ‘shock therapy’, as WB official Jeffrey Sachs called it. Naomi Klein named the concept back in 2007, most graphically focusing on the aftermath of the 2005 New Orleans flood. In 2015 Antony Loewenstein extended the concept, with a focus on profit and securitisation, and now his film takes the concept further, into the murky world of ‘development assistance’.

Best-selling journalist and author Antony Loewenstein joins award-winning filmmaker Thor Neureiter, along with co-producers Media Stockade, on a six-year investigation into this world and the ramifications of disaster capitalism in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea.

The film takes us along today’s global frontiers of ‘disaster capitalism’, from Afghanistan, to Haiti to Papua New Guinea (PNG).

In Afghanistan we encounter the disaster of the US ‘hearts and minds’ reconstruction effort, larger than the Marshall Plan. The film exposes new US efforts to control the country’s corrupted and coercive mining sector, ironically to compensate for US beneficence as occupier. In Haiti, aid inflows seal deals between the government and post-disaster carpet-bagging investors. The film shows how local people are compulsorily shunted from shanties to industrial estates, to capture their labour for world factories, at knock-down wages. And finally, the film takes us to PNG, the largest recipient of Australia’s aid largess. Mining again is the key, with a focus on Bougainville, and Australia’s role in fuelling the war over the Panguna copper mine, and subsequently in trying to reopen it. Again, aid offers renewed disaster.

Across these countries and very different situations the focus is on how aid is used – not on how it could be used. Yet it remains agnostic – the situation is bleak, yet the possibilities remain. One of the films great strengths is in the way it portrays the people and organisations it engages with – a mining campaign group in Afghanistan, shanty-dwellers in Haiti, community landholders in Bougainville. Their strength is an inspiration and an indication of how true democracy and self-determination can prevail, against corrupted elites, hooked on disaster capitalism. The film advances this cause, exposing this increasingly familiar mode of domination, and how people contest it.

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How aid can be used to keep nations deliberately poor

I was interviewed last week in Australian media outlet Crikey by Charlie Lewis about my Disaster Capitalism film:

The documentary Disaster Capitalism opens with the earthquake in Haiti, 2010. Through the ghostly fog of CCTV video, we see the ground furiously shake buildings into dust. Fronted by Australian journalist and writer Antony Loewenstein and shot over six years, in collaboration with director Thor Neureiter, Director of Video at Columbia University, the film visits and revisits three countries — Haiti, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea —  riven by various crises and trapped in a cycle of dependence on Western aid. This cycle, Loewenstein tells Crikey, is no accident.

“I thought it was important to look at how these countries are connected politically and financially, in other words, how certain conditions are designed to keep poor countries poor,” he said.

Filming began in 2011, when Loewenstein was working on a book of the same name.

“The aim wasn’t to spend six years making the film,” Loewenstein said. “But there is something to be said for seeing how these countries evolve over six years. All that’s really changed is that PMs or presidents have come and gone, but they remain economically broken and I thought it was important to look at why.”

Cycle of dependency

A key factor in the Disaster Capitalism  is that these countries are not, and never have been, without the resources to pay their own way. Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan in particular are rich in minerals. Loewenstein says this is part of the problem.

“Trump has been very keen to really  harness and expand the mining industry if Afghanistan, and they’re tying aid to that … So aid is being used to not help people, but to enrich foreign businesses. Look at PNG, it has huge resources, and after several decades of those being exploited, it hasn’t helped the locals one bit.”

Aid not only enriches Australian business interests, Loewenstein says, but backs up political aims.

“Aid to PNG has been increased, in my view, to provide a bribe to the PNG government to house the refugees we don’t want,” he said.  “Obviously not all of the aid money is related to the pacific solution, but aid has gone up since it was revitalised under Labor.”

And the oversight ensuring that aid isn’t misspent or funnelled towards corruption, he says, is weak.

Missing Oversight

“People in government will tell you there’s lots of oversight and reporting with aid. But I think the problem is that there’s almost no political cost to [Western politicians] if Afghanistan’s aid doesn’t do its job — no one is going to lose their seat over that.”

Part of this stems from those bodies tasked with aid oversight — such as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — who expose the misuse of aid, have their findings ignored.

“[SIGAR] do amazing work and deliver important reports, and what happens? They’re largely ignored … Obama promised to make the system more transparent and open, and did nothing in his eight years. So I think there has to be more of a political cost when aid money isn’t just ineffective, but governments know that it’s actively going to corruption.”

This oversight is even weaker in Australia, where there is currently no equivalent to SIGAR.

“There are senate committees and politicians who ask these questions, so oversight exists, but it’s weak, doesn’t get much of a voice, and get’s almost no media attention.”

What’s next?

Loewenstein says that many of the worst elements effecting aid may, paradoxically, lead to improving the debate.

“The debate Trump has started, ironically enough, asks the question: is more aid automatically a good thing? The argument from the left has traditionally been that we need more money and support for the poor of the world, and what I’m saying is, after 30, 40, 50 years, these countries are not improving. You have to ask why.”

Further, Loewenstein hopes the current sexual assault scandal afflicting Oxfam — in which aid workers were found to be exploiting vulnerable women — may help illustrate one of the fundamental problems with the current international aid system.

“A lot of other orgnisations are doing the same thing, and hopefully this makes people more aware of what happens when the relationship between aid giver and aid recipients is really unhealthy,” he said.

“So what I hope comes out of this, and it’s so obvious, but far too often aid is administered without asking the people on the ground what they want. You’d be amazed how rarely that happens.”

Broadcast rights for Disaster Capitalism have been sold to several European territories and screenings can be organised through Demand Films.

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