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.

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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From New Orleans to Puerto Rico, vulture companies run rampant

Too often after natural disasters, corporations are looking to make a profit.

I was interviewed by the US magazine Ark Republic about this issue in a story written by Jesse Shramenko. Extracts below:

Antony Loewenstein, a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist, writer and documentarian made the film, Disaster Capitalism, to address the direction of development in Haiti, Afghanistan and Papau New Guinea. For him, similar predatory choices in New Orleans after Katrina materialized in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

“After the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017, there were moves to privatise the water, land and school system,” Loewenstein said. “The country was already financially on its knee, long troubled by a colonial relationship with Washington, but the natural disaster worsened these trends.”

Continues Loewenstein. “Charter schools are now being pushed on the nation without public consultation, akin to how authorities reacted after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In the US, the worst-off children were not helped by this policy.”

The Center for Research On Education Outcomes, revealed data in 2013 showing disparities between traditional public schools and charter schools New Orleans.

Out of 658,720 students, only 37,043 were enrolled in charter schools, 81% of whom were living in poverty. Across the board, Black charter school student and other Black charters had a total of 428 less days to learn math than Black students of traditional public schools who had 156 less days to learn math.

Charter schools, like other businesses that pop up after natural and social catastrophes bank on the misfortune of others, to simply make money, hence the term disaster capitalism. While private enterprise profits from natural disasters, the public ultimately suffers. In other words, death and destruction are big business.

Whereas privatizing government housing after Katrina was implemented, privatizing electricity is the agenda in Puerto Rico.

“Policy makers have clear choices when addressing the aftermath of a natural disaster; rebuild public services back better and more resilient to future disasters or abandon public works and solely engage the private sector. The effect of the latter is clear, making many services inaccessible for residents who can’t afford it,” Loewenstein said.

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US network The Real News interview on UAE using mercenaries in Yemen

My interview on US network The Real News about the United Arab Emirates using private, military contractors in the horrific war in Yemen and the involvement of Australia and the US:

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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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Public statement in support of justice for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

The following public statement was published today after I was asked by John Pilger to write a comment in support of Julian Assange:

Antony Loewenstein, a prominent independent Australian journalist, author and documentary filmmaker, issued the following endorsement of demonstrations and vigils demanding freedom for Julian AssangeThe Socialist Equality Party has called a rally in defense of Assange on June 17 at Sydney Town Hall Square. On June 19, vigils are being held in London and in cities around the world.

Loewenstein interviewed Assange in 2008 on the efforts that were already underway to silence WikiLeaks due to its publication of information that whistleblowers wanted known to the world. Since 2010, he has been prominent in defending Assangeagainst the persecution he has faced for publishing leaks that exposed US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the anti-democratic intrigues of governments around the world. Loewenstein’s articles on WikiLeaks are available on his website.

This year, Loewenstein released a documentary, “Disaster Capitalism,” which is a critical exposure of the global aid and investment industry. See here for information and screening locations.

***

After six years in detention, rightly fearing US retribution for daring to expose the dark reality of US empire, Julian Assange deserves a just resolution of his case and his voice restored. It’s shameful how many governments and journalists have not just abandoned Assange to his fate, but failed to recognise his important role in releasing millions of documents that reveal how the world really works.

I support heavy pressure being placed on the Australian, British and US governments to bring him freedom and justice, along with the many other whistleblowers and reporters languishing in prisons around the world.

Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist, author and film-maker, June 5, 2018

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The Wire interview on Gaza death toll and US role in the Middle East

I was interviewed by The Wire news radio program yesterday:

The already fragile stability in the Middle East has been further affected in recent weeks, with the US Embassy move to Jerusalem and President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

Overnight 55 Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. This is the highest protest casualty rate in the region since 2014, and has some experts feeling that the US’s increased backing of Israel will lead to a more aggressive stance on neighbours such as Palestine and Syria.

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ABC Australia radio interview on US embassy move to Jerusalem

With the Trump administration officially moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, opening shortly, tensions in the Middle East are moving from high to extreme.

I was interviewed about it all on ABC Radio Australia’s The Signal news show. The segment starts at 6:03:

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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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Disaster Capitalism film premieres in the US at Columbia University

My film Disaster Capitalism is currently screening across the world.

It showed for the first time in the US in late March at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. After the film, there was a Q&A and it later broadcast on the great Disaster Politics podcast (where I appeared last year):

Take a listen to the live panel discussion after the US Premiere of Disaster Capitalism (@DisasterCapFilm) in New York City on March 27, 2018 at the Columbia Journalism School (@ColumbiaJourn). The panel includes the film’s director Thor Neureiter (@ThorNeureiter) and disaster experts Chernor Bah (@Cee_Bah), Jeff Schlegelmilch (@JeffSchlegel), Sarah Baker from Healthcare Ready (@HC_Ready), and is moderated by Jonathan Sury (@JonathanSury) from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute (@Columbia_NCDP).

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Think: Digital Futures interview on disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico

Think: Digital Futures is a great program on Sydney’s 2SER radio. I contributed to its latest episode:

When you think about Puerto Rico—decimated by Hurricane Maria, a debt crisis and the longest power blackout in US history—most people see destruction. To a small group of cryptocurrency millionaires, it’s a chance to build a new type of society from scratch. A society built on blockchain technologies.

We chat to Dr Pip Ryan (University of Technology Sydney) and Nathan Waters (founder of Peerism) about what a blockchain based society might look like. Then we speak to journalist Antony Loewenstein about whether this is just a case of disaster capitalism in disguise.

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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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What Duterte’s brutal drug war looks like in the Philippines

My investigation in Foreign Policy:

MANILA, Philippines — The murdered man lay in a pool of his own blood. At around 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 22, two men on motorcycles shot Manny “Buddy” Wagan outside his small shop selling junk metal just outside Manila. He was killed instantly with two bullets to the head. A witness recalls seeing the killers get off their bikes, approach Wagan, and shoot him at point-blank range — a common method of execution in the Philippines. Police called the case a “death under investigation.”

It has become a familiar sight in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in June 2016 and launched his war on drugs. As Wagan’s corpse was photographed, examined, and eventually removed by police, young children stood speechless with their parents. A relative of the deceased began weeping loudly. Onlookers shot video and photos with their smartphones. Once Wagan’s body was taken to the morgue, a man lit a solitary candle on the ground beside a puddle of congealed blood. It was just another bloody evening in Manila, a city that has seen a massive spike in drug war-related violence.

It is impossible to say with complete certainty that Wagan was killed because of his drug use or connection to the narcotics trade. But over the past 18 months, many victims of Duterte’s war on drugs have been innocent, only tangentially involved in the drug world, or simply users of crystal meth. And as with thousands of other deaths, the police investigation into Wagan’s killing is unlikely to be properly conducted.

Wagan will end up a mere statistic in a brutal war that has received support from U.S. President Donald Trump, fierce opposition from the global human rights community, and largethough diminishing backing from the Filipino people, especially those in communities most affected by the government’s extrajudicial killings. Duterte has created an effective social media army, with the help of Facebook, to bully enemies and rally his followers. And the country’s war against the Islamic State has brought international backing for the Duterte government.

The exact number of people who have died in Duterte’s war is unclear. The police suggested in October 2017 that only one person had been killed extrajudicially since July 1, 2016, a claim ridiculed by both local and foreign rights groups. The real figure could be as high as 20,000. In January, Human Rights Watch saidmore than 12,000 drug suspects had been killed, mostly the poor in urban areas from either police operations or vigilante-style killings — sometimes by plainclothes police.

The Philippine government has repeatedly violated international law because it does not hold fair trials, or any trials, before executing its citizens. After a brief lull in deaths in late 2017, the last months have seen a sharp upturn in drug war killings.

Duterte has created a culture of impunity, learned from his years as mayor of Davao City on Mindanao Island, where the so-called Davao Death Squad committed multiple rights abuses (with echoes of vigilante violence from the U.S.-backed, anti-communist purges many decades ago). In February, the president told soldiers to shoot female rebels in their genitals.

The government claims that its drug war has drastically reduced crime across the country, alleging that fewer than 4,000 suspects have been killed. The crime reduction narrative was confirmed anecdotally when traveling around Manila; many citizens told me that they felt safer walking the streets at night and less afraid of gang violence. But this apparent reduction in unrest in some areas has come at a tremendous cost, especially for the country’s poorest citizens. When I visited Binondo in Manila, one of the bloodiest areas during the drug war, the first thing I noticed was not violence but extreme poverty. Residents lived in tin sheds and defecated in the nearby Pasig River. Meth, known as “shabu” in the Philippines, was still sold in the area. A printed sign asked residents to call a police hotline to report drug activity.

Unlike other global drug war hot spots — such as Honduras, where vast sections of the country are unsafe, and Guinea-Bissau, where narcotraffickers control parts of the state apparatus — the Philippine drug war has targeted society’s most disadvantaged groups. Other parts of Manila, sprinkled with Starbucks and high-rise office buildings, do not witness state-sanctioned murders on the street.

Not many local groups have challenged Duterte’s murderous policy, but there are a few human rights lawyers attempting to bring justice to the aggrieved victims. The Center for International Law (CenterLaw) in Manila has bravely taken on five cases related to the drug war. Gil Anthony Aquino, one of the center’s attorneys, told me that 99 percent of such cases would never go to court. He acknowledged that he and his colleagues have taken precautions to protect their personal safety, as the government has become increasingly brazen in its attacks on opponents, including trying to shut down critical media by force if necessary. During the Duterte era, at least five journalistshave been murdered while working, mostly in Mindanao. According to the International Federation of Journalists, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters.

The lawyers have therefore been strategic in their work against the president. “We don’t personally attack Duterte,” Aquino said. “We don’t call for his ouster. We skirt around the issues. We try to get accountability from the police.” Aquino’s colleague, Gilbert Andres, explained how Duterte’s drug war was inspiring other nations, including Indonesia, to implement similarly harsh policies against drug suspects. Andres said Duterte had created a dangerous atmosphere in his country. “If you’re a drug suspect, you don’t deserve rights,” he said of Duterte’s mindset. “If you’re an advocate for human rights, you’re an enemy of the state.”

Duterte’s presidential spokesman, Harry Roque, dismissed Human Rights Watch’s concerns in the Philippines because, he said, financier George Soros supported HRW and was a “lobby” against the country’s drug war. Duterte made the same argument in 2016. Roque was simply following the playbook against Soros perfected by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, using anti-Semitic imagery to conjure a global Jewish conspiracy run by the billionaire.

Andres is not oblivious to the dangers of narcotics; he has seen the tragic cost of drugs. “I lost my father, who was killed by a drug addict in Manila in 1989, so this is personal for me,” he said. But the lesson he took from that incident was that “human rights and crime busting can operate together.”

Both he and Aquino are critical of some local and international human rights groups that only document drug war killings and don’t invest in local lawyers to defend victims’ families, prosecute trigger-happy police, and litigate the thousands of crimes that have occurred in the last 18 months. “At the end of the day,” Andres argued, “INGOs [international nongovernmental organizations] should put their hands where their mouths are by helping local lawyers in whatever way. In the end, it is us local lawyers who will risk life and limb for human rights.”

One of the five drug-related cases taken on by CenterLaw involves the police murder of Emiliano Blanco (and others) on Nov. 30, 2016, in highly suspicious circumstances. Residents of the area where he was killed filed a writ of amparo in 2017 — a legal concept originating in Mexico to safeguard individual rights — to protect their community from any further police-led violence and intimidation. The action was partially led by Blanco’s brother, Francisco Blanco Jr., who is now the primary guardian for his brother’s 7-year-old son.

Francisco Blanco was defiant but scared. At times, he was on the verge of tears when describing his brother’s death and tough life. He acknowledged that his brother was a drug user but said he had surrendered to police months before his death. Since the drug war began, police and district heads have collated “watch lists” of suspected drug users, a dangerous and secretive practice that has led to thousands of killings.

He now faces constant police harassment and threats to his life, a common problem for family members of victims. “If I was there on the night of the murder, I would have been killed for sure,” he said. Police visited him a few months later, gesturing to suggest they’d slit his throat and asking him, “Do you want the same fate as your brother?”

Until there is a legal remedy for the Duterte government’s gross human rights abuses, including police being held accountable for their violent crimes, citizens will remain in a precarious position. With few viable options available to victims, and the threat of retribution if they launch legal challenges, it’s not surprising that so few cases are being pursued. Those that have been filed are a crucial check on government abuses.

Blanco’s case is now winding through the courts, and CenterLaw hopes to get resolution this year. The government’s solicitor general, Jose Calida, has condemned the attempt to use a writ of amparo, claiming it would set a “dangerous precedent” and could be used as a “tool by drug personalities in order to ‘fish’ for evidence in the guise of protecting their human rights.” Calida is a defender of Duterte and argues that law enforcement would be impeded in their drug war investigations and the legal move would allow “groundless” accusations against police.

For all the country’s flaws, the Philippine courts are one of the few relatively independent institutions left in the Duterte era, so Blanco’s case still has a chance. Others do, too. Local human rights lawyers desperately need more international backing for such litigation. Without it, they won’t be able to continue their dangerous but necessary work.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and filmmaker. He is the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out Of Catastrophe, and is currently writing a book on the global war on drugs.

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