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.
“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.”
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.
Last week in Sydney was the first public screening of my film, Disaster Capitalism. Director Thor Neureiter was in New York but co-producers Media Stockade were there along with a solid audience. There will be many more public screenings in Australia, the US and beyond soon. After the film, we held a Q&A around aid and development plus journalism in conflict zones. It was recorded by Sky News TV and broadcast last weekend. Here’s how they described the event:
The Walkley Foundation has held its first Walkley Talk for the year at the State Library of NSW. The event featured a screening of independent documentary film Disaster Capitalism by journalist Antony Loewenstein. The screening was followed by a robust discussion on aid in conflict zones, revealing how the supply of aid to those in need isn’t always as transparent and ethical as it seems. The panel included the filmmaker himself, along with head of journalism at Macleay College and former foreign correspondent Monica Attard, and journalists Hugh Riminton and Yaara Bou Melhem.
The conversation touched on the role of journalists in delivering accurate public interest news from war zones, and holding NGOs and aid organisations accountable when bringing the reporters on the ground in the first place. It explored the corruption and conflict rampant in countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, and Lebanon, and implications for the media and global community, who may all too often be switching off the television to avoid distressing news. The discussion also offered an insight into the world of freelancing and war reporting, while challenging the concepts of international assistance and development through the perspectives of investigative journalists.
My article in the Guardian:
Foreign aid has the power to save lives but also to corrupt nations. It’s regularly used as a political football as some argue for more financial support to the world’s most vulnerable people while others believe more money should be spent at home. It’s a false distinction, however, because the key issue is whether western aid is well targeted and empowering people to make their own choices on how to improve their lives, allowing them to eventually become more self-sufficient.
The aid industry is currently under the spotlight, Oxfam’s past behaviour is rightly challenged, although the problems uncovered affect the entire industry. But what’s required is hearing from aid recipients themselves.
The US administration is slashing foreign aid to nations it views as unfriendly or voting against its interests at the United Nations. Nonetheless, the answer isn’t simply more aid. In 2017, Afghanistan was the highest recipient of US aid, US$4.7 billion, but much of the more than US$120 billion given by the US to the country since October 2001 has been wasted, disappeared, stolen through corruption or simply cannot be accounted for by Washington.
Australia has also invested heavily in Afghanistan and seen few positive results. Canberra stumbled into the war with little understanding of what it was trying to achieve (apart from blindly following president George W. Bush). It’s now the longest war in US history with no end in sight and a cost of over US$1 trillion.
Rethinking how aid is delivered should be a key question for western nations but it rarely makes the headlines. For the last six years, with New York-based director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, I’ve been making the documentary, Disaster Capitalism, to investigate where aid money is going. Focusing on Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea (PNG), talking to people trying to live decent lives amid economic chaos and conflict, a constant refrain is how little local voices are listened to.
Too often, western governments and aid groups parachute into a crisis and dictate terms to a disoriented population. In Haiti the American Red Cross pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild devastated houses after the 2010 earthquake but today have achieved very little. As Haitian workers’ union leader Yannick Etienne told us, her country became a “republic of NGOs”. Outside governments and NGOs often gave contracts to foreign companies who employed individuals unable to speak French or Creole.
The results were inevitable; Haiti’s position as a US-client state producing cheap clothing for Walmart and Target was unchanged because there was no interest in improving the country’s economic situation beyond handouts.
US aid critic and insider Timothy Schwartz, who appears in the film, powerfully explains the unhealthy dynamics in his new book, The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle, after living there for decades. While acknowledging that not all aid was squandered, he shows in detail how in the first year after the earthquake, the Haitian government got one percent of it. Schwartz condemns the “truth-twisting” – humanitarian groups’ misrepresenting and exaggerating the already bad situation to “get donors to give” – and the many journalists willing to spread these distortions despite the inability of NGOs to get the job done.
In PNG, Australia’s role since its 1975 independence is revealing. Canberra views its close neighbour as a client state, dumping its unwanted asylum seekers, enriching Australian resource companies and overlooking corruption. Canberra gives over $500 million per year to PNG and yet its citizens suffer from appalling levels of poverty and domestic violence.
The province of Bougainville once had the world’s biggest copper mine, run by Rio Tinto, but its existence sparked a separatist revolution. Outraged by its pollution and lack of financial support, locals rose up in the late 1980s. They eventually won against a PNG army backed by Australia but at a steep cost; up to 20,000 died out of a population of 200,000. The mine remains closed today but Australia, PNG and foreign companies insist that an independence vote, scheduled for 2019, is contingent on re-opening big-scale mining, claiming only this could sustain a sovereign nation.
Aid is used as a weapon with the potential for it to be withdrawn if local leaders don’t comply with Canberra’s wishes. Many locals oppose this, angry that compensation was never paid after the battle against Rio Tinto. They push for alternative plans such as tourism, agriculture and fishing.
In Afghanistan, the country’s largely untapped resources are potentially worth up to US$4 trillion. Despite a brutal civil war, the Trump administration, following Bush and Obama, is determined to support a mining industry that enriches foreign companies. Sources in Kabul tell me that Trump officials are already visiting to assess the viability of backing a resource boom, and associates of military contractor Blackwater founder Erik Prince are recruiting locals to secure areas where rare metals are under the ground. It’s a recipe for continued chaos.
What ties Afghanistan, Haiti and PNG together are the ways in which they’re deliberately kept dependent on foreign aid by western governments and some NGOs. There could be another way if locals were asked what they need and want.
Aid that doesn’t principally enrich multinationals and bloated NGOs must be the goal.
• Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe” and writer/co-producer of the documentary, Disaster Capitalism
Public screenings of the film with Loewenstein and journalists, organised by the Walkley Foundation, are 22 February in Sydney and 1 March in Melbourne. See the film’s website for future screenings in Australia and globally.
My film Disaster Capitalism, with director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, is screening publicly soon.
Last weekend I was interviewed by Hugh Riminton on Australia’s ABC Radio National Sunday Extra program about it:
When war or disaster strikes, we assume our aid contributions are life-saving, or at the very least will help rebuild countries and shattered communities. But some say trade works better than aid. Antony Loewenstein spent six years examining nations that have been pulled apart by conflict and disaster, and he’s produced ‘Disaster Capitalism’, a documentary currently being shown on limited release.
My film, Disaster Capitalism, with director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, is starting to screen this month (initially in Sydney and Melbourne with many more locations in Australia and globally to come).
I was interviewed today about the film on ABC Radio Australia’s Pacific Mornings program, broadcast across the entire Pacific region:
After 6+ years in the making, my film, Disaster Capitalism, is finished. Working with director Thor Neureiter, co-producers Media Stockade and co-editor Leah Donovan, it’s been the most challenging creative project of my life. But here we are with a fine film.
Disaster Capitalism is a compelling documentary that goes inside Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea to reveal the dark side of moneymakers and aid exploiters unafraid to make a killing from the misfortune of others.
In 2018, the film will be screened around the world, at film festivals, public screenings and TV broadcast (our French/US distributor has already secured a sale with a European TV broadcaster).
Thanks to the countless people in multiple nations for giving us so much encouragement and support over the last years.
We look forward to showing you this timely film next year.
Here’s the trailer:
During my 2012 visit to Afghanistan, researching the book and film, Disaster Capitalism, I spent time with the country’s reportedly last remaining Jew, Zablon Simintov, and filmed an interview with him. Living in the centre of Kabul, his house was a tiny apartment with a Christmas tree in the corner. Remarkably, he had remained safe during the civil war, Taliban years and post-US invasion period. He was a grumpy man. He managed a synagogue near his home, attended by Jewish, Western diplomats and aid workers based in the country. He said that these people brought him Jewish food such as matzoh on Passover. He lived a simple and poor life. This video shows Simintov praying in his small, one room apartment:
My latest book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, tackles issues related to privatisation, the war in Afghanistan, crisis in Haiti and the private prison industry. Here’s my interview, via my UK/US publisher Verso, conducted a few months ago in Brooklyn, New York and just posted now:
My book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, examines companies and individuals making money from misery.
I was recently interviewed by the great US podcast, Disaster Politics, hosted by Jeff Schlegelmilch, Deputy Director of Columbia University’s National Centre for Disaster Preparedness.
My interview begins at 35:13.
I recently reported from Gaza for the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age. The piece was spread widely online around the world.
Unsurprisingly, it upset the Israel lobby because I hadn’t simply republished Israeli government talking points. Furthermore, humanising Palestinians is always a problem for people and groups that loathe empathetic Arabs.
A major, Zionist lobby in Australia, AIJAC, condemned the piece:
Then on April 9, the Age ran a full-page feature from extreme anti-Israel writer Antony Loewenstein on Gaza that was all about the Palestinians as victims and their utter lack of culpability.
Falsely calling the blockade a “siege”, the piece quoted IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Gadi Eisenkot out of context making him sound like he admitted Israel uses disproportionate force when responding to Hamas terror. It also gave the benefit of the doubt to Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ new leader in Gaza who “reportedly opposes reconciliation with Israel” before quoting another expert who said Hamas doesn’t hate Jews, only Israel.
The nadir was reached when Loewenstein quoted a Gaza expert blaming a string of social problems, including domestic violence in Gaza, on Israeli occupation. The occupation ended in 2005!
And then in another, massive attempt at criticism (as usual with AIJAC, the Israeli government could have written all of its articles), the organisation spends a huge amount of time trying to challenge my reporting by comically quoting any number of Israeli-aligned journalists, commentators and think-tanks. By the way, thank you, AIJAC, for picking a photo of me taken in Afghanistan, another country that induces fear and hatred against Muslims amongst many in the pro-Israel rabble.
There are so many factual inaccuracies in these screeds, it’s hard to know where to begin. Suffice to say, since I’ve been writing about Israel/Palestine from 2003, and publishing books and investigations about the issue (with a lot more to come), Israel-aligned lobbyists have constantly attacked my work (a few examples here and here from over a decade ago and there are so many more). Throughout this time, public opinion has massively shifted on Israel and there’s far more public sympathy for Palestinians and against Israeli occupation than ever before. This must infuriate Israel propagandists who spend their days ranting about the supposed evils of Palestinians.
Keep it up, please, you’re hugely helping the Palestinians cause.
US outlet Truthout has picked my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, as an important title. Here’s my Q&A:
The following is a Truthout interview with Antony Loewenstein, the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
Mark Karlin: Naomi Klein praises your book effusively. How were you galvanized by her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism?
Antony Loewenstein: I’ve long been interested in the intersection between politics, money and conflict. My early years as a professional journalist in Australia from 2003 were spent focusing principally on Israel/Palestine, immigration and the Iraq war. In every case, this revealed dark forces making money from misery.
I was inspired by a book, such as Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation by Pratap Chatterjee, on private contractors in Iraq. I investigated the private companies and nations making huge profits from warehousing mostly Muslim refugees in remote Australia (and also in the Pacific). Increasingly, Israel was successfully selling its occupation of Palestinians to other nations keen to behave similarly toward their own minorities (something that has become even more overt in the last years across Palestine). My first book in 2006, My Israel Question, traversed some of these latter questions.
When I read Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, and Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, it helped join the dots — especially the ways in which they explained how US imperialism, a term too rarely used in the 21st century, was central to exploitation in the far corners of the world. I began working on Disaster Capitalism from around 2010, along with the documentary of the same name (still a work in progress but hopefully, finished this year). My aim was to expand Klein’s thesis, especially around immigration, and show readers how the most vulnerable people on the planet were being turned into dollar signs on a scale never seen before in history.
To what degree do corporations exceed the power of many states today?
The corporation has become more powerful than the state because the state has allowed it to happen. Over decades, by both Democrats and Republicans, unaccountability has become normalised, barely opposed by politicians or the media class. In Disaster Capitalism, I investigate the role of Western and indigenous private contractors in Afghanistan since 2001. They have left a trail of destruction and killed countless civilians. Barely anybody has been held to account, fuelling the insurgency still engulfing the country. President Trump may widen the war there but his chances of success are negligible.
Successive Afghan administrations have done little to prosecute contractor crimes and Washington has pressured Kabul to protect US contractors from legal trouble. Meanwhile, Afghan civilians are killed and maimed and anger grows.
Perhaps the most obvious, contemporary example of unhealthily powerful corporations, allowed and encouraged by Western governments, are tech firms, such as Apple, Microsoft and Google, often paying little or no tax in various jurisdictions. This is justified as allowing enterprise to thrive and employment to be created but these multinational corporations get away with murder because there’s little domestic political pressure or global accountability architecture to change it.
You traveled far and wide to write the book. Is there anything that flat-out surprised you?
I was often shocked by what I saw and heard — from the devastated island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea where a Rio Tinto copper mine ruined the environment and caused one of the Pacific’s most brutal wars of the last 40 years, to refugees living in squalor in Britain while waiting for their asylum claims to be assessed.
What kept me from losing all hope was seeing people resisting seemingly overwhelming political and economic odds. I remember meeting refugees in Greece who were being abused and chased by the far-right, neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn (currently the third biggest party in the Greek parliament). They were fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Iraq. My guide into the secretive world of isolated, Greek detention centres was a blind, Iranian man, Chaman. He was kind, full of stories and optimistic. We have maintained contact and he’s now a recognised refugee in a European country, working, travelling and building his life.
How does Haiti, for example, represent a nation that the developed West tried to make it appear it was helping, but really was just offering, in large part, corporate opportunities without structural improvements?
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere and for most of the 20th century was ruled by US-backed dictatorships. Today, after failed elections, natural disasters and constant US meddling, the nation is occupied by both a UN “stabilisation mission” and international NGOs. After the devastating 2010 earthquake, killing around 200,000 people, an influx of foreigners, contractors, US evangelical Christians and charlatans descended on the nation. It wasn’t ready — with little regulation or control over who was doing what and where. The Clinton Foundation pledged the world to the people of Haiti but Hillary, Bill and Chelsea have left a trail of disappointment and lies.
The US Red Cross raised half a billion dollars after the earthquake and only built a handful of homes. It was the kind of failure that should have led to prosecutions but little has changed.
In my book, I investigate why this happens and why it’s so hard to change. It’s principally because very few seem to care about Haiti in the US: It’s a poor state with virtually no political power in Washington, and too few journalists visit there. In short, Western contractors can exploit a beautiful country without overly worrying about training locals or leaving a legacy after they leave because nobody is telling them they have to. Haiti is still waiting on financial compensation after the UN brought deadly cholera to the country after the 2010 earthquake.
Talk a little about the Middle Eastern wars since 9/11 costing more than four trillion dollars and how much of that money went to contractors.
The cost of America’s post 9/11 wars is so huge that they’re literally impossible to calculate. It’s the price Washington is willing to pay for endless war. The logic behind the Bush, Obama and now Trump administrations all relying on contractors is because they’re able to operate in the shadows, often conducting illegal or violent activities beyond the law, and without official oversight. Attacks on civilians are common, undermining local laws and customs, and being overly trigger-happy leads to unstable nations. In 2014, the Pentagon spent US$285 billion on federal contracts. War is good for business.
While the Bush and Obama eras were remarkably profitable years, the Trump administration is already filling Pentagon and Homeland Security positions with defense contractors. Disaster capitalism is a bipartisan approach.
Although some NGOs do good, discuss how many of them work hand-in-glove with the corporatization of disaster capitalism.
This is an issue I’ve spent many years considering, especially when visiting nations that rely so heavily on NGOs. In 2015 I was living in South Sudan, the world’s newest country. It’s now collapsed due to extreme violence, corruption, unaccountability, an almost nonexistent functioning oil industry and too little international interest. NGOs and the UN are providing essential services, food and water, without which the population would likely face even greater problems. Yet, nobody elected these people to essentially rule the country because the Juba-based government is incapable and unwilling to do so.
I’m not arguing that NGOs are in South Sudan just to make money, but the humanitarian community needs to ask itself serious questions about whether they’re helping resolve conflicts or perpetuating them. It’s a key issue in my film, Disaster Capitalism, shot over five years in Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Haiti.