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.

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.

Nothing to celebrate on South Sudan’s 4th independence anniversary

My piece in Al Jazeera English today:

It’s hard to think of a better example of the UN Human Rights Council’s failure. In early July, it decided to send monitors to South Sudan “to report on the situation of human rights and to undertake a comprehensive assessment of alleged violations and abuses of human rights, with a view to ensuring accountability”.

African nations watered down a resolution pushed by the US and UK, they wanted to establish a permanent UN expert on the country, and simply called for more fact-finding in the war-torn land. The facts are already clear, as Human Rights Watch states:

“The Human Rights Council may not be able to stop the violence in South Sudan. But it can make a contribution to protecting civilians by at least putting leaders responsible for grave human rights violations on notice that there will be no impunity for their crimes.”

US representative Keith Harper, who presented the resolution to the UN Security Council, saw the situation in South Sudan as “one of the most grave situations we face […] in the world”.

South Sudan marks the fourth anniversary of its independence on July 9. Back in 2011 the international community, especially the US, praised the country’s official split from Sudan. It was framed as a Christian, democratic victory against a despotic, Muslim north.

The South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to decide their own destiny, a people who had been abused by their northern neighbour for decades, and yet only four years later the country is struggling to cope with an overwhelming humanitarian crisis. The New York Times editorialised in June that, “South Sudan must rank among the most astounding failures in Africa”. The economy is in free-fall.

The facts are stark. Nearly eight people out of a population of around 11 million are facing severe hunger. Malnutrition and deadly cholera are ravaging parts of the state. Children are abducted to fight.

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) recently released a report outlining shocking testimony from local civilians alleging government atrocities including the burning alive of women and girls and extreme sexual violence. UNICEF has accused armed government groups of castrating young boys, raping girls and then slitting their throats.

South Sudan’s civil war was sparked in December 2013 with a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar. Retaliatory killings ran along ethnic lines, the main groups are Dinka and Nuer, and the conflict has killed at least tens of thousands of people.

Nobody knows the exact figure because the ability (or interest, for many parties) in bringing accountability for the atrocities is low. Media access is poor due to few roads and major logistical challenges getting to remote areas where the fighting takes place.

This is a war being waged with impunity at a time when the “international community” – a term, Noam Chomsky says, “regularly used in a technical sense to describe the United States joined by some allies and clients – is distracted by its bumbling response to the ISIL threat. South Sudan now faces some toothless, UN-imposed sanctions and little else.

This outcome was not pre-ordained. It is a man-made disaster with little incentive for the warring parties to cease killing each other. There is a grim calculation, made by the government and rebel forces, that they can win and beat their opponents into submission or death.

Many of the political and military leaders have never known democracy, and all that it entails, but rather years of conflict against Sudanese forces. Now, when peace was achieved for a fleeting moment, it was squandered in a desperate attempt for complete victory.

Equally complicit are the Western powers believing, despite all evidence to the contrary including a lack of sustainable or functioning institutions in 2011, that the new state would somehow function without the required homework on nation-building. Recent history is filled with such examples – think East Timor after its independence vote in 1999, the subsequent violence from Indonesian militias followed by years of internal political squabbles – when outsiders pledge support only to find themselves embroiled in situations over which they have little understanding or patience.

The viability of South Sudan as a sovereign entity is in doubt. One local journalist told me in the capital Juba that it is hard to call yourself an independent nation when the UN and NGOs are trying to help 75 percent of your population avoid starvation.

The African Union will protect its own – see its recent backing of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in South Africa against moves to extradite him to the International Criminal Court – highlighting the challenges of expecting African help for South Sudanese troubles.

Human rights groups along with influential parties should be pressing the warring sides harder to negotiate a peace settlement with teeth and accountability, without which the world’s newest nation will continue its descent into chaos.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan and best-selling author of many books, including the upcoming Disaster Capitalism (Verso).

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The important logic of BDS against Israeli occupation

There is increasing global pressure on Israel over its brutal treatment of the Palestinians. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign is thriving due to daily abuses and racism against Arabs in Israel proper and the occupied, Palestinian territories. The Israeli government is scared (see here and here) and even Hillary Clinton, in a transparent move to secure money for her Presidential campaign, pledges to fight BDS.

I’ve been writing about this issue for over a decade and always Zionists and Israel defenders simply believe that better PR will address their legitimacy problems; very few seriously believe that ending a nearly half-century occupation is even part of the equation. That’s why they’re losing so badly.

I’ve been interviewed for a feature in The Jerusalem Report (part of the right-wing Jerusalem Post). The PDF is here: Taking on BDS

Read and judge for yourself but a few points (apart from getting my surname wrong). It barely mentions the occupation, dishonestly – and seriously, this is the best pro-Israel types can do? – links BDS to anti-Semitism and interviews two Australian academics whose book on BDS has a weird obsession with me, shows stunning ignorance in the reality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and asks the world to hug Israelis instead of boycotting them; no wonder “liberal Zionists” are flailing about for relevance as Israeli racism soars.

If this is part of the anti-BDS push, the movement has a long and proud period ahead.

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Failing states in the modern world

My essay in literary journal Meanjin:

“In Europe there are shelves of books dedicated to every war, archives full of documents, special rooms in museums. Nothing of the kind exists in Africa. Here, even the longest and greatest war is forgotten, falls into oblivion. Its traces vanish by the day after: the dead must be buried immediately, new huts created on the site of burned ones … History in these parts appears suddenly, descends like a deus ex machina, reaps its bloody harvest, seizes its prey, and disappears.”

 Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, 1998

Wai is a tiny speck on the map in South Sudan’s Jonglei State. I was travelling with the departing UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and American actor Forest Whitaker. We arrived in an old Russian helicopter in an area that was sheltering 25,000 men, women and children who had fled nearby fighting. This wasn’t a typical refugee camp, there weren’t rows of tents or permanent structures but a mass of people living on whatever ground they could find, mostly in the open under trees or the occasional mud hut. Women sat with malnourished babies, waiting to receive UN-provided porridge-style food for their children.

The UN’s response in Wai was a remarkably fast operation; a few months before we landed there was literally nothing there apart from cracked dirt. The huge cost of running the humanitarian program countrywide ran to billions of dollars every year, making it one of the most acute internal disasters in the world.

During the hastily arranged community forum in a shady field, Amos told the assembled crowd that she appreciated many of them ‘walking for so many days to get here’. Men and women were dressed in their Sunday best and despite the searing heat, around 45° Celsius, they looked immaculate in ill-fitting and slightly oversized suits. This was rebel territory, the South Sudanese government wasn’t welcome, and the military governor, dressed in a green and white long-sleeve shirt and wide-brimmed hat, politely but firmly told the delegation that his people were suffering from a lack of reliable water, food and shelter. ‘Our children are traumatised,’ he said through a megaphone. ‘They need schools.’

Similar problems existed in rebel-held Ganyiel in Unity State. During a visit organised by the World Food Program (WFP), I saw tens of thousands of men, women and children lining up for not enough rations that had been dropped by C130 planes. Because the area was cursed with swamps and constant flooding, the WFP had to deliver supplies in the few months of the dry season. One local woman, Angela, who had been living in the area for more than a year with five children, gave me a message for her country’s leaders: ‘I’m telling [President] Salva Kiir and [rebel leader] Riek Machar to fight each other with their own hands and stop killing our kids.’

The ongoing troubles were upsetting US Secretary of State John Kerry. After yet another failed round of peace talks in March this year between the South Sudanese warring parties, he chastised leaders who were enjoying luxurious accommodation in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and not feeling obliged to settle their differences. ‘We are well past the point where enough is enough,’ he said. ‘Leaders must put the interests of their people above their own. The violence must end.’

It was a futile call for reconciliation. Although Kerry had announced in 2012 that Washington had helped ‘midwife the birth of this new nation’, America’s desperation for a foreign policy success in Africa had failed shortly after it launched. The world’s newest nation emerged in 2011 with great fanfare, President Barack Obama’s blessing, a huge aid budget and virtually no infrastructure. It was also to be a stinging response to China’s twenty-first-century colonisation of the continent.

After the decades of war between Sudan and southern rebels that killed millions of people, little thought had been given to how a new state would function. In December 2013 conflict exploded between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, causing the death of tens of thousands and unleashing intense fighting between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. America’s leverage over the crisis was limited despite presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama publicly pledging support for South Sudanese independence. A 2015 investigation published in Foreign Policy magazine found Washington curiously uninterested after violence surged in 2013, unwilling to pressure its friends to stop the killing.

I’ve seen the reality of this dysfunction and its devastating effect on civilians. Since moving to South Sudan in early 2015 (my partner is working here with an international aid organisation), I’ve witnessed snapshots of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The figures are startling. More than 2.5 million civilians are at risk of food insecurity, a figure that could rise to 4 million by the end of 2015. The population is around 11 million. At least 12,000 children were taken and forced to be soldiers in the last twelve months. The UN Special Envoy on Sexual Violence, Zainab Bangura, said in 2014 that the number of rapes in the country were the most shocking she had ever seen. On this year’s International Women’s Day, Oxfam head Winnie Byanyima wrote that ‘violence against women has worsened because of mass displacement, and the presence of more men with guns and the impunity under which they are left free to act’.

The facts seem overwhelming, obscuring the human toll of a war that barely registers on the international news agenda. Perhaps it’s too easily framed as just another African catastrophe with no easily recognisable goodies and baddies. The world’s coverage of Ebola was a stark reminder that black lives only mattered when they started affecting the security of white lives in the West. In a time of ISIS, extremism in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and beyond, South Sudan struggles to rise above the daily dose of beheadings, airstrikes and Islamic militancy. But if there is one thing I’ve discovered after years reporting in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran and other places easily dismissed as failing states, it’s that personal tales of resistance reveal far more about humanity than the predictable greed and ignorance of leaders and their political and media courtiers.

South Sudan’s needs are great. Literacy has been stubbornly low for years; around 70 per cent of the population is illiterate, with endemic teacher shortages and poor training of those educating the youth. The Yei Teaching Training College, in the country’s south, is the leading institution preparing the next generation of educators, but the challenge is immense: only one-third of the state’s 28,000 teachers are qualified.

In Wai and Ganyiel the failure of leaders to provide their own people with a viable future was clear. Perhaps it was unsurprising considering the quality of politicians empowered to lead the nation. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an expert on Sudan, explained in 2014 that the new state

obtained independence as a kleptocracy—a militarised, corrupt, neo-patrimonial system of governance. By the time of independence, the South Sudanese ‘political marketplace’ was so expensive that the country’s comparatively copious revenue [principally from oil] was consumed by the military-political patronage system, with nothing left for public services, development or institution building.

This reality hits me daily. There are few paved roads or street lights, although China recently provided sixty-three solar-powered traffic lights across the capital, Juba. We live in a secure compound. Opportunistic day- and night-time criminal attacks are on the rise. Oil revenues have dived due to the conflict but Erik Prince, former head of private security agency Blackwater, with his new company Frontier Services Group, was hired by South Sudan in late 2014 to help boost output. The government announced in 2015 a wider examination of extracting minerals, guaranteeing exploitation by foreign firms. There’s no accountability for war crimes committed by either side in the conflict since December 2013. Small arms are ubiquitous, with millions of weapons in the hands of civilians and the military.

Although I meet countless locals who long for a peaceful future, disillusioned with corrupt leaders who fail to deliver, I’ve heard nobody question the sense of declaring independence in 2011. I’m sure a similarly high majority would praise East Timor’s 1999 break from a brutal Indonesian occupation. But serious questions should be asked about the ways in which Washington, the UN, the West, African neighbours and global aid groups are today de facto managers of a broken South Sudanese nation. 

What do we call a country that exists more on paper and in the mind than reality? Ninety-nine per cent of South Sudanese voted for independence in 2011 and yet its long-term viability is far from assured. It’s one of the ‘fake states’ of the twenty-first century, entities that only survive on life support because of extensive international aid. This is not to deny the rights of people for self-determination and freedom from oppression—the South Sudanese were treated like second-class citizens by their Sudanese neighbours for decades—but to ask legitimate questions about the forces that were marshalled to create it.

The list of backers was long. From actor George Clooney and former Clinton official John Prendergast to American evangelicals and State Department officials. The events of 11 September 2001 spurred on the campaign to back a sovereign and Christian South Sudan; Muslim Sudan had sheltered Osama Bin Laden and was framed as a terrorist-supporting state. Beijing spent the decade cleverly making friends across Africa and mining its resources, investing in infrastructure and arming various conflicts, while the United States was distracted fighting futile wars in the Middle East. President Obama aimed to correct this by hosting an African Leaders Summit in 2014 that claimed to be about improving governance across the continent. US weapons dealers licked their chops at the prospect of new opportunities, seeing business in Nigeria, South Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and elsewhere.

Washington still sees Africa through the prism of its ‘war on terror’, training, arming and assisting local militaries with hideous human rights records. These inconvenient truths haven’t stopped the Pentagon spending billions of dollars on establishing a network of unofficial bases from Burkina-Faso to Kenya and Uganda to Djibouti. American journalist Nick Turse has found evidence of US military involvement in forty-nine out of fifty-four countries in Africa through its AFRICOM network (based in Stuttgart, Germany, because no African nation would host it). That’s imperialism in anyone’s language.

South Sudan is a small piece of this largely unreported puzzle. Washington had high hopes for this African friend, imagining a new state that would be a beacon of energy independence and democracy in the heart of the continent. But this exclusive relationship turned to dust with China’s economic domina-tion of the region, including massive investment in the oil sector. South Sudan is just one nation in a long list of African countries that will, in time, be a market for China’s manufacturing products. More than a million Chinese nationals have called Africa home since 2001, moving there to build new lives and businesses. Chinese colonialism is happening but so far with a (mostly) calmer and kinder face than the US variety.

The rise of ‘fake states’ in the modern age is a symptom of the NGO-isation of whole countries. Take Palestine. Countless billions have flowed into an artificial entity that doesn’t exist in a way that other states do. A corrupt and bloated Palestinian Authority (PA) shows how the occupied have willingly serviced the belligerent occupiers. After decades of ‘negotiations’ between Israel and the PA, all the Palestinians have to show for it are more than 600,000 settlers on occupied territory. This arrangement is the perfect way to avoid serious negotiations towards statehood because the Americans, Europeans and Australians continue to pump money into a system that everybody knows keeps the surrounded population barely above water. Which is exactly the point. Israel destroys Gaza every few years, ‘mowing the lawn’ in local lingo, knowing that naive international NGOs and other countries will rebuild what’s been lost. Meanwhile Palestinians are further away than ever from independence with an extreme Israeli government in place.

This is not to condemn all NGOs, many of which provide vital humanitarian assistance. But have international agencies inadvertently (or deliberately?) created a system in which areas are deemed ready for sovereignty—Palestine, Iraq or South Sudan—but then live at the whim of aid donors and international monetary funds? One journalist in Juba tells me that many aid workers and some reporters are secular missionaries with a belief that they can improve people’s lives through their work.

I’m not solely blaming the West for South Sudan or Palestine’s failures—the people of both countries have influence and agency—but does the creation of ‘fake states’ contribute to the disempowerment of locals and inhibit their ability to positively affect their own countries? Many South Sudanese tell me they routinely feel powerless to shape the direction of their new nation, cut out of decision-making processes by an opaque system that rewards cronyism. It’s hard to imagine a secure future when warring factions and entrenched interests continue to fight over the spoils of war. President Salva Kiir has not stood for election since  independence in 2011 and in March 2015 his parliament granted him a further three-year term.

It’s the civilian populations who suffer most. The excitement of South Sudanese sovereignty brought a marvellous moment that should be cherished. Palestine will one day be free. Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will eventually break away from occupation. But who will pick up the pieces and how long will they stick around? I’ve seen the effects of a corrupt and bloated UN bureaucracy in Haiti that refuses to take legal responsibility for introducing deadly cholera to a nation that hadn’t known the disease for a century. The people there were already suffering from a devastating 2010 earthquake. State-building is a slow and painful business that can’t be left in the hands of the UN or private contractors. After centuries of brutal colonisation the West is hardly best placed to lecture others on good governance without acknowledging its own bloody legacy.

The resilience of people living in the most abject poverty should give us pause to reflect on populations who barely flicker in our consciousness. Donating to an aid group when a catastrophe hits isn’t enough to absolve us of responsibility for the work being done in the name of humanitarianism. South Sudan, Palestine, Iraq and Syria aren’t nations to be patronised or colonised. Their citizens deserve health, sustainability and peace with real and lasting independence.

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Papua New Guinea must be more than mines to Australia

My weekly Guardian column:

After years of uncertainty, the once-profitable copper mine on Bougainville, an autonomous province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), could well be reopened.

The chairman of Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), Peter Taylor, told the Australian recently that “the Bougainville government seems to want the mine reopened, but we have to sit down … and see what’s doable.”

BCL’s Panguna mine opened in 1972, three years before PNG was granted independence from Australia. Bougainvilleans barely benefited from the operation, a deal that smacked of colonial arrogance and resulted in pollution.

In response, locals launched a rebellion in the 1980s against the mine, BCL, and the PNG and Australian governments. The resistance won the ensuing civil war but at a steep human cost: up to 20,000 killed and infrastructure broken.

Today Bougainville is beset by poverty and economic stagnation. I witnessed this myself during two visits in recent years.

The polls opened last week to elect a new government in the lead-up to an independence referendum scheduled before 2020. The local government, along with BCL and Canberra, is pushing for the mine to be Bougainville’s financial saviour first.

But according to a Jubilee Australia report last year, the vast majority on the island oppose BCL’s return. This tallies with what I heard in towns and villages.

The potential reopening of the mine is one piece of an Australian strategy to open up South Pacific nations to foreign interests. As Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said in 2014: Australia should “stimulate the [PNG] private sector through growth”.

The situation in Bougainville perfectly encapsulates the parlous state of affairs in PNG as it approaches the 40-year anniversary of its break with Australia.

On 16 September 1975 a ceremony was held in the PNG capital Port Moresby, at which Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, Prince Charles and PNG’s first prime minister, Michael Somare, declared PNG a constitutional monarchy with membership of the Commonwealth.

The country was was granted independence but its path has been torturous ever since. Canberra never allowed its northern neighbour to fully leave a relationship of dependency, and today provides $577m annually in aid that primarily benefits Australian companies making money there.

The PNG exposed blog – an independent and reliable news and analysis website – has criticised Australia’s attempts to teach PNG leaders how to avoid corruption.

According to the blog, Canberra turns a blind eye to billions of dollars of “PNG taxpayers money [siphoned] through Australian banks and into real estate schemes in Brisbane and Cairns, posh Australian public schools, its glitzy casinos and expensive private hospitals”.

Forty years after breaking free from Australia, PNG suffers shockingly high levels of HIV infection, maternal health issues, domestic violence, aggression against women and illiteracy. Even the PNG government itself admits that “PNG’s adult literacy situation is in dire straits”.

This isn’t solely Australia’s fault; endemic corruption has blighted PNG for decades (US State Department cables released by Wikileaks confirm this). Yet Western donors and resource companies are principally to blame for engaging in neo-colonialism, treating the country as nothing more than a source of wealth for outsiders.

Some of the mining projects currently in operation may be familiar: Ok Tedi, Porgera, Lihir, Ramu. They’re all environmentally destructive and offer little benefit to local communities. At the Porgera gold mine, cases of “extreme sexual violence” by security guards against tribal women and girls resulted in offers of compensation.

It’s unsurprising that most Papua New Guineans I met were sceptical about foreign investment in their country, knowing they would never feel or see any benefit from it.

Others are more hopeful, like US Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. During her time as US Secretary of State, she was open in admitting that the huge energy resources in PNG, especially the Exxon-Mobil LNG gas pipeline that opened in 2014 and is already struggling due to collapsing global commodity prices, was part of a regional contest with China. She chastised China for “wining and dining” Asia-Pacific politicians.

“If anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, that is a mistaken notion,” she said.

The people of PNG have only been impoverished by so-called leadership from Washington and Canberra. Meanwhile, corruption is rife; PNG’s anti-corruption agency, Taskforce Sweep, was starved of funds earlier this year following allegations they made against prime minister Peter O’Neill.

Perhaps the clearest indication of how Australia views PNG is the Manus Island asylum seeker deal. Slammed by a leading PNG provincial governor as “neo-colonialist”, locals receive little benefit and are really helping the Australian Liberal and Labor parties solve a domestic political problem.

Journalist Jo Chandler, writing recently in the Monthly, shows in great detail the way “Australia is primarily concerned with building the infrastructure to service their interests and comforts.” This is also an accurate summary of the dynamic between Port Moresby and Canberra since 1975.

There’s huge potential in PNG to be a nation that isn’t known internationally for mining and witch burning. Grassroots groups, such as the Madang-based Bismarck Ramu Group, aim to protect local communities and inform them of viable alternatives to resource extraction – such as agriculture.

Yet this year’s 40th anniversary of independence should be a sombre occasion to reflect on four decades of failed Australian interference in PNG. Canberra views Port Moresby as overseeing a massive quarry Australian firms have the right to plunder. We dump asylum seekers on PNG territory while still claiming to be a victim of unscrupulous people smugglers. And our aid money? It’s is an insurance policy against a failed state on Australia’s northern border.


Why Western leaders love dictatorships

My weekly Guardian column:

Western-friendly dictators can die in peace, knowing they’ll be lauded as soon as they stop breathing. So it was for Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who recently passed away at the age of 91. Tributes poured in from across the globe. Barack Obama called him “visionary” while Australian prime minister Tony Abbott mourned a “friend”.

Neither man mentioned that Lee presided over an authoritarian state where dissent was barely tolerated, where even his commemoration was marked by the authorities shutting down events at Speaker’s Corner, the only place in the country where protest is permitted.

Singapore may have become a global business hub in a matter of decades, a remarkable economic feat, but growing numbers of its young citizens no longer believe or accept that silence in the face of repression is acceptable. Clean sidewalks may not be enough anymore to satisfy a public yearning for more.

After Lee’s death, Singapore arrested a local teenager for daring to post a video slamming the deceased leader’s record. Greater freedom of speech and rights is on the agenda for its globally connected youth.

This is the problem with dictators admired in elite western circles for being able to dismiss the will of the people even more successfully than elected politicians; the population eventually wants change.

In the eyes of the west, Singaporean autocracy was less important than the building of a stable Asian nation that enriched western and Asian businesses. Lee Kwan Yew didn’t need to push this message too hard to convince anybody. After all, the west is more than happy to deal with China, another success story with a deplorable human rights record and worsening attacks on civil society.

The tradeoff – stability and prosperity for authoritarianism – is global. When Saudi King Abdullah died in January this year, Australian government buildings lowered their flags to mark the death. Obama flew to the funeral to pay respects to the royal family.

Alongside a massive entourage, including the CIA director and a host of Democrat and Republican figures, Obama’s goal was to confirm the primacy of the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and America and reassure the unelected sheikhs that he wasn’t intending to leave them isolated against an ascendant Iran, which has increasing control over four regional capitals – Sana’a, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut – as a result of Washington’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that unleashed a chain-reaction of shifting alliances.

Saudi Arabia beheads its own people, its legal system is opaque, it refuses women basic rights, like permission to drive, and tolerates no criticism of its rule. Its abundant oil is used ruthlessly to keep heads of state in line; Obama, Abbott and other western heads of state are unwilling to challenge a country that is known to export terror.

The response to another autocrat’s death, Indonesia’s Suharto, in 2008, was also enthusiastic. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating damned critics who dared condemn the dictator as “a cruel and intolerant repressor” when in fact he had “saved Indonesia from destruction”. Left unsaid were the million Indonesians killed after Suharto’s bloody ascension to the presidency in the 1960s and the occupation of East Timor.

The New York Times obituary noted his rule as “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century”. This didn’t bother Keating, who saluted Soeharto for bringing “stability” on Australia’s doorstep.

How dictators are revered in their death wholly depends on their usefulness to western interests. When US-backed Iraqi-forces executed Saddam Hussein in 2006, few mourned his bloody rule. Yet for decades, Hussein was a close American ally, during a time when he was at his most murderous against internal dissent.

Washington even provided the location of Iranian troops to Saddam’s Iraq in 1988, to assist in a chemical weapons attack. It was only when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 that America designated him an official enemy.

But is the west’s insistence on stability helping reduce violence? Aligning with the darkest forces on the planet for the sake of oil, access or apparent geo-strategic positioning is guaranteed to achieve the opposite. Western leaders inevitably end up preparing grandiose and intrusive plans to control the monsters they’ve unleashed. Dirty alliances, escalation and invasions with unpredictable outcomes; this seems like all our leaders know. Afterwards come the glowing eulogies.

Many leaders are happy to play the Washington game and are feted accordingly. Criticism of abuses in Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Israel are muted because military, strategic or economic benefits to both sides are integral to these relationships. Deaths of their rulers would bring salutatory statements from Britain and America. Conversely, Russia is deemed a national security threat because it refuses to be bought by economic threats from the US.

When you dance with the devil, you’ll be bitten on the behind. Democratic security and moral integrity is weakened when western friends commit abuses and they’re ignored or rationalised. You can tell an awful lot about so-called western values when leaders fawn at the feet of autocrats when they die.

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Opposing Washington’s violence against Venezuela

I’m happy to have recently signed this statement on Washington’s unprovoked aggression against Venezuela (via Telesur):

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has added his name to a growing list of Australian journalists, academics, politicians, trade unionists and solidarity activists calling on U.S. president Barack Obama to revoke his executive order against Venezuelan .

On March 9, Obama issued the order which imposed sanctions on a number of Venezuelan state officials and deemed Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

In response, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (Melbourne), with the support of the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network, initiated an open letter to Obama.

The letter has over 70 signatories, including Assange, renowned journalists John Pilger and Antony Loewenstein, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, two socialist local councillors, officials from four different trade unions, academics from ten universities, and representatives from a range of political parties and solidarity organisations.

The letter urges the U.S. president to revoke the executive order and “stop interfering in Venezuela’s domestic affairs and cease making reckless public statements regarding Venezuela’s democratic processes.”

It also encourages Obama to “demonstrate to Latin America that the U.S. is capable of establishing relations based on the principles of peace and with respect for their sovereignty.”

Obama’s recent actions have seen relations continue to sour between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas. At the recent Summit of the Americas, held in Panama April 10-11, numerous regional heads of states expressed their support for Venezuela and called on Obama to revoke the executive order.

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South Sudan burns while its people suffer

My following essay appears in Al Jazeera America:

On a blazing hot March day in the town of Ganyiel in South Sudan’s Unity state, 19-year-old Elizabeth cautiously smiled. Born in Yei, a southwestern town near the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the young woman was unafraid to criticize her country’s leaders.

“Stop killing,” she said referring to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his main rival, rebel leader Riek Machar. “We need peace.”

Elizabeth completed school — one of the few South Sudanese citizens who have done so — and speaks basic English. “Only WFP gives us food. We can’t find it anywhere else,” she said pointing at the World Food Program workers handing out aid in an open field of cracked brown dirt. “There’s not enough in the market. And there’s too much water in the land to cultivate crops.” For Elizabeth, living in Ganyiel with her young son and mother and with her husband in Ethiopia looking for work, the future was bleak.

Civil war has raged across Africa’s newest nation since December 2013. Tens of thousands have died amid horrific allegations of mass rape, recruitment of child soldiers and war crimes. Peace talks between Kiir and Machar have broken down numerous times. A recently leaked report from the African Union (AU) suggested that it temporarily take over the country and exclude Machar and Kiir from the transitional government. In South Sudan, nobody believes the AU is up to the task. In fact, many argue that it’s a ploy to steal the country’s oil and other natural resources. The AU denies making these recommendations.

Ganyiel, a relatively peaceful area, has attracted more than 100,000 civilians displaced by the civil war. But it suffers constant flooding, raising concerns about worsening living conditions. The United Nations says 2.5 million people in South Sudan are facing severe food insecurity. This number could reach 4 million by the end of the year, in a country with a population of 11 million. Meanwhile, South Sudanese leaders — almost all of them men — stay in luxury hotels and endlessly negotiate an elite power-sharing deal in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

“If the men got out of the way,” said the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, “women would probably just run the country much better.”

I visited Ganyiel last month with the WFP, which was delivering tons of sorghum and cooking oil, using 10 planes to air-drop the supplies. “We constantly have to make decisions where to drop and deliver food,” one of the aid workers said, noting the huge demand and lack of resources. In other words, some needy families will miss out on the meager food handouts and have to fend for themselves under inhospitable circumstances. Temperatures can soar to 115 degrees in the summer months.

It’s easy to write off the humanitarian disaster in South Sudan as just another local conflict, a bloody African civil war with no resonance beyond its borders — a confusing mix of tribal groups fighting over land and power, disconnected from the modern world or even regional players. This would be incorrect, not least because the fingerprints of the United States, the European Union and major African powers are everywhere.

The U.N. and international nongovernmental organizations admit that they’re unable to provide more than Band-Aid solutions. South Sudan joins a growing list of quasi-nation-states, including Palestine, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which exist more on paper than in reality.

This is not to deny the South Sudanese people’s hard-won freedom from oppressive Sudan, where they were often treated as little more than chattel. In his book “The Shadow of the Sun,” the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski recalls visiting what was then southern Sudan in 1960 and witnessing the viciousness of a war between north and south that the West essentially ignored. Millions died in the following decades.

“We are in a world in which man, crawling on the earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day,” he wrote. Little has changed in the decades since his trip.

Except, of course, South Sudan is now an independent country, with huge Chinese and American contributions. The U.S. invested heavily in South Sudan’s independence, hoping to find a reliable strategic ally that would help counter the predominantly Muslim Sudan, buy U.S. weapons and challenge Beijing’s growing influence on the continent. China was far cleverer in its strategic aims, funding infrastructure and oil resources with an eye on the long game. Washington now appears distracted in other theaters of war. But Beijing continues to court Sudanese leaders. The United States still provides huge amounts of foreign aid, underscoring the kind of dependent relationship it hopes to engender.

But Kiir isn’t necessarily playing along with Washington’s cajoling. In a speech at a rally in the capital, Juba, recently, he appeared uncompromising toward his local opponents and foreign pressure. This did not stop a South Sudanese student from calling for Kiir to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being a “revolutionary icon and peacemaker.”

Millions of South Sudanese desperately need food, water and hygiene assistance. But that is not enough. The elite’s powermongering and apathy for peace have dispossessed millions of people, from Bor to Wai and Ganyiel to Juba. It continues to polarize citizens and erode the country’s social relations. The U.N. Security Council is considering targeted sanctions, and critics are calling for travel bans, asset freezes and denying the children of elites access to Western education. These levers of pressure may already be too late.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan and a best-selling author of many books, including the upcoming “Disaster Capitalism.” He’s working on a documentary with the same name. 

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What aid dependence does to South Sudan

My following essay appears in Al Jazeera English:

The book launch was held in a large restaurant last weekend in the middle of the South Sudanese capital, Juba. Veteran journalist and editor of The Citizen, Victor Keri Wani, was being celebrated for his 40 years in the media business, an eternity in a country that had successfully split from its northern neighbour in 2011 to become the world’s newest nation.

After extensive introductions, the only male speakers spoke warmly about Wani’s broad career. Mentioned by nearly all of them were the absence of South Sudanese history written by locals. Let’s not wait for foreigners to do it for us, they agreed.

The lack of a local publisher made it impossible for the innumerable manuscripts by academics and intellectuals to find a home. Wani concurred and thanked the enthusiastic crowd, dressed in their Sunday best clothing, and hoped that the country wouldn’t be solely defined through its ongoing war and ethnic strife.


This will be a challenge. Since fighting broke out in December 2013, killing tens of thousands of people in the months ahead, the nation has been torn apart by brutal conflict, the recruitment of children to fight and evidence of horrific mass rape.

Over 100,000 people continue living in protection of civilian camps in five states, some fearing for their safety. Displacement of civilians has been extensive, something I’ve witnessed in Wai in Jonglei state and Ganyiel in Unity state.

I heard from countless men, women and children who expressed anger at the inability or unwillingness of the warring factions to make peace. These relatively brazen views are growing in strength, posing a threat to the ability of the state to remain even moderately secure and contiguous.

In both Wai and Ganyiel, the United Nations and various NGOs are providing food, water and medical care. The UN says 2.5 million people are food insecure nationwide and this figure could increase to four million by the end of the year.

Peace talks have collapsed and a leaked African Union report detailed cases of war crimes committed by forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar. Last week the South Sudanese parliament extended Kiir’s term for another three years and delayed elections.

In Wai, 25,000 civilians are living mostly in the open air, fleeing areas where fighting is a daily reality. In Ganyiel, situated near swampy ground, the region is relatively peaceful but beset by threats of flooding as the rainy season approaches. Over 100,000 civilians are given food aid air-dropped by the World Food Program (WFP). It’s a miserable existence.

But it’s a mistake to presume this is all just another African war with barely discernable details.

Bulwark against China

At its birth, South Sudan was given a US stamp of approval, destined to be a reliable bulwark against China, a superpower that had spent the decade post 9/11 massively expanding its footprint on the continent.

What Washington either ignored or dismissed, according to a recent Foreign Policy feature, were vital details about reliable infrastructure and oil production, trained doctors and teachers, forces to contain corruption and sustainable agriculture.

It all collapsed so quickly that left to pick up the pieces was various UN agencies and NGOs.

Today, according to South Sudan’s UN humanitarian co-ordinator Toby Lanzer, 400,000 children are out of school and for every 100 kids who start primary school only one will finish secondary education. That’s at least one lost generation and counting.

South Sudan has become an aid-dependent entity, bringing necessary questions about the sustainability of this arrangement. The ability for states to survive principally from the support of governments, donors or corporations looking to turn a profit is doubtful.

Sustainability of aid dependence 

From the Pacific to Africa, the fate of nations is too often decided in the boardrooms of London or New York. The last years in Australia and Britain have seen a growing trend to tie aid to the profit motive, helping Australian and British businesses with possibly a few scraps coming the way of locals in developing nations.

Aid is never benign and is always tied to a richer nation hoping to gain some advantage in a poorer one, whether it’s political influence, business gain or poll position when a resource industry emerges. Like clockwork, South Sudan recentlyannounced it was open for mining business.

The need for indefinite aid in South Sudan is unquestioned and this year alone the UN needs $1.8 billion in assistance. I’ve met nobody in South Sudan who questions the necessity of gaining sovereignty in 2011 – a position echoed in South Sudanese communities from London to Sydney.

And yet with a faltering economy, a government printing more money and bundles of cash being flown into Juba in the middle of the night, 21st century independence in the heart of east Africa is faltering.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan and best-selling author of many books, including the upcoming Disaster Capitalism (Verso).

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In Ganyiel, South Sudanese face food and life challenges

My following story appears in today’s Guardian:

Angela has been living in the remote town of Ganyiel, in South Sudan’s Unity state, for 18 months. Trying to feed her five children has been hard.

Angela is angry with the country’s warring parties. “I pray for peace,” she says. “But if they won’t stop the conflict, I’m telling [president] Salva Kiir and [rebel leader] Riek Machar to fight each other with their own hands and stop killing our kids.”

Many internally displaced people in the area share Angela’s frustration. Their views were heard by Ertharin Cousin, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), and the deputy special representative of the UN secretary general in the UN mission in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, when they toured Ganyiel last weekend.

“It’s important the world recognises the crisis here,” Cousin said. “People here are victims, and without us they have nothing.” She said the WFP had a shortfall of $250m (£168m) to operate its programmes for the next six months.

Although in a rebel-held area, Ganyiel is a relatively safe village, away from the fighting that started in December 2013 after Kiir accused his vice-president, Machar, of plotting a coup. The war has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and displaced almost 2 million people. Ganyiel’s isolation is worsened by constant flooding. An estimated 110,000 people are seeking refuge in the region, tens of thousands more than a year ago. With roads barely functioning, the best way to deliver aid is by air.

According to the WFP’s head of nutrition, Darlene Raphael, 32% of children in the region are malnourished; rates above 15% are considered critical. Raphael assists locals in teaching others how to prepare food four times a day and wash their hands with soap and water.

More funding alone won’t solve the food shortages. “We have logistical limitations such as not having anywhere to land and park more planes. Furthermore, donors have limits to how much more they will fund,” said a WFP representative.

The organisation has airdropped food around Ganyiel since March 2014. This year, 10 planes are regularly delivering cooking oil, sorghum cereal and yellow split peas. Almost 70% of South Sudan is inaccessible during the rainy season and WFP is using the current dry period to prepare for the coming downpour.

According to WFP figures released in March, nationwide food distribution reached 377,000 beneficiaries in February. The UN says that 2.5 million people across the nation are food insecure, and that number could easily rise to 4 million by the end of the year.

In Ganyiel, things have improved greatly since the start of the war. One year ago the market was almost empty; today, it is filled with basic goods. There is a feeling of semi-permanence among the population. But everybody complains of regularly going hungry, despite the aid. The local commissioner, John Tap Puot, said government intimidation against journalists and civilians was ongoing and there weren’t enough medicines, doctors and water available. In 2014 the floods killed many cattle and destroyed crops, forcing locals to become dependent on the WFP and NGOs for food.

The political and economic crisis in the country is growing. A recently leaked African Union report recommended that both Kiir and Machar be barred from any future government and – more controversially – that the AU take control of the country.

Lanzer says the government is printing money to avoid financial collapse, risking hyperinflation. Officials deny they are increasing the money supply. With a 60% drop in oil production due to the war and a falling global oil price, the country recently announced it would vigorously pursue mining. But a lack of proper regulation risks profiteers exploiting untapped resources. Washington, which had hoped South Sudan would be a reliable, African success story, appears uninterested in further, serious engagement.

During a public rally for Kiir in the capital, Juba, last week, attendance was low – roughly 4,000 people turned out – and few solutions were offered to the crisis. The threat of sanctions hangs over the nation.

The latest UN figures show that 112,590 people are living in refugee camps across five states. In Ganyiel, people know about the recently collapsed peace talks. “I want the international community to force Kiir and Machar to sign a peace deal,” said Angela.

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How US evangelicals influence South Sudan and Africa

My following feature appears in the Guardian US:

In the small town of Yei, in southern South Sudan, missionary reverend Shelvis Smith-Mather closed his eyes and prayed. On a searing hot February day, wearing a yellow tie and dusty black shoes, the 35-year-old man from Atlanta, Georgia, was opening a community forum dedicated to reconciliation in a country torn by war. “We are flesh and blood,” he said. “We have flaws. But with God’s work, we can work well for peace.”

The meeting, held at the Reconcile Peace Institute near the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, gathered a group of male and female adult students. Later, they were asked to imagine the community they wanted by 2030; they listed an end to tribalism and skin markings, better education and human rights, God-fearing citizens and freedom of speech.

These are ambitious targets in a country engulfed by a civil war that has killed tens of thousands, where children are being abducted to fight, and where rape is endemic. Millions also currently face severe hunger. This wasn’t the dream in 2011 when South Sudan became independent, gaining the title of the world’s newest nation. President George W Bush liked the idea of a Christian nation adjacent to Islamic Sudan after September 11, and President Barack Obama continued to uphold this vision, though with less enthusiasm.

Reconcile, which has trained hundreds of people in conflict analysis and leadership, was established in 2003 by indigenous church groups to push a faith-based vision for South Sudan, which has a population of approximately 11m people – 60% of whom are Christians, 32% holding traditional beliefs such as animism, and roughly 6% are Muslims.

Smith-Mather is Reconcile’s principal; he moved to Yei from Kenya with his wife Nancy in 2011. They live in a simple brick house with their two young children and intend to stay for another three years as employees of the Presbyterian Church USA and Reformed Church in America. Their organisation calls them “mission co-workers”, not missionaries, in an effort to show they’re collaborating with, not directing, local partners. Yei also has a leading maternity and children’s hospital run by medical missionaries from Harvesters Reaching the Nations.

Both Shelvis and Nancy are deeply aware of the historical baggage associated with missionary work. Nancy recalled being in South Sudan’s Jonglei state, where she met a black woman who told her that her white skin was more beautiful than her own. “Maybe that message came from a missionary,” she told me. “Maybe it was just from colonialism, or from the common belief that what comes from outside is somehow better than what exists here.”

She hoped that her time in Africa would allow her to break down those destructive perceptions. Shelvis agreed. “I’m often asked why in the world would you go to South Sudan and live there when there’s war and challenges?” Nancy said. “Because of my faith my response is, ‘how could I not?’ God calls us into the places of suffering.”

I asked Shelvis and Nancy about US pastors and missionary churches funding and supporting anti-gay legislation in Uganda. “It’s counter to the message of love I understand coming from faith,” Nancy argued. Shelvis, for his part, said that “many religious leaders in South Sudan would say homosexuality does not exist in the country” and “there’s a certain deference that I need to have for conversations being had here, and be respectful of those.”

However, Shelvis stressed, “regardless of an individual’s particular viewpoint on homosexuality, as Christians living in a broken world, we have to be careful to match our zeal for our faith with the same standard of compassion, love and mercy that Christ offered to those whom opposed his views.”

Hunter Farrell, World Mission director for the Presbyterian Church USA, tells me that the church pays seven missionaries in Sudan and South Sudan. It spent around $1m there in 2014 and currently prioritises the South Sudan education and peace building programme, which aims to raise $2.3m to improve education for tens of thousands of children. World Mission’s 2014 budget was $28m, and it operates around the world, from El Salvador to Sri Lanka.

But not all missionaries in Africa are as understanding as Shelvis and Nancy – something made clear when considering how belief and homosexuality collide across the continent.

Africa is by and large conservative, and many poor countries are susceptible to charity with a socially conservative agenda. It’s within this context that many US evangelical churches go to Africa to win the battles that are being lost at home. Many of them subscribe to the dominionist movement, which supports turning secular governments into Christian theocracies. They pressure NGOs not to accept Christians in same-sex marriages. Missionaries have traversed the length and breadth of Africa for centuries, so this 21st century American campaign is just the latest in a long line of foreign influence.

From gay marriage to abortion rights and birth control, the last decades have seen huge strides in the west towards minimising discrimination and encouraging equality. Hatred still exists, but public opinion has experienced a sea change towards accepting difference.

The Rev Jackson George Gabriel, the curate of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, tells me that he welcomes outside encouragement, confirming that the American branch of his church “are telling us to stand firm against homosexuality”. In a country where President Salva Kiir has said that homosexuality will “always be condemned by everybody”, and where the public shaming of gay South Sudanese by local tabloid media is growing, his stance enjoys a lot of support.

Gabriel fears western influence is fundamentally changing African societies for the worse. “Western society is trying to destroy us,” he says. “Behaviours such as fornication, spirit of independence, gay rights, no respect for elders, abortion and birth control are being imported. African leaders must maintain our culture.” He says the archbishop of the local Episcopal church is currently directing his ministries to investigate if they receive any funds from foreign churches that back homosexual rights. “If so, they must cut all ties,” Gabriel says.

These attitudes mirror the social agenda of many US evangelicals organisations which have both charitable and ideological agendas.

Samaritan’s Purse, run by Franklin Graham, son of the Christian evangelist Billy Graham, has a large presence in Africa and been active in Sudan since 1993. Along with providing food, fishing kits, water, shelter, training, hygiene and medical supplies, the group proselytises, screens the evangelical Jesus Film to thousands of people and rebuilds churches (“People are open to the Gospel here,” says country director Brock Kreitzburg). As a global enterprise, it has also been accused of blurring the line between church and state during its emergency relief work in developing countries.

Graham is a powerful figure, having met Kiir and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir many times to advocate for the country’s Christians. He visited South Sudan in March, prayed with Kiir and the rebel leader Riek Machar, and inaugurated an airport hangar in Kenya. Graham is also anti-gay, backing Russia’s draconian laws against sexual minorities. He told delegates at a recent Oklahoma State Evangelism Conference to “get involved in politics. [The] gays and lesbians are in politics [and] all the anti-God people are.”

Despite repeated requests, the group refused to provide details on the amount of money it currently spends in South Sudan, though its 2013 financial report said that in 2012 it had more than $2m of expenses in the nation and raised more than $376m worldwide.

Part of the agenda of US evangelical churches is explored in a 2014 report by the Rev Kapya Kaoma called American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism, which is endorsed by Desmond Tutu. Kaoma is an Anglican priest from Zambia now living and working in the US with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts due to threats against his life. His work paints a picture of the myriad of US groups and their African allies who, he says, are “seeking to impose their intolerant – and even theocratic – interpretations of Christianity on the rest of the world”.

This includes the American Centre for Law and Justice (ACLJ), whose founders are televangelist Pat Robertson and lawyer Jay Sekulow. The organisation has visited South Sudan’s leadership with aims to influence its political agenda. The organisation has pushed for the criminalising of abortion and homosexuality across Africa and operates in Russia, Israel and Europe. The Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush recently appointed Sekulow’s son, Jordan, to be his “liaison” with religious conservatives.

Human Life International, a far-right American Catholic group working in Nigeria and Tanzania, opposes abortion and contraception. Stephen Phelan, its director of mission communications, tells me that the problem lies with secular aid groups, not evangelicals. He condemns “wealthy governments and enormous NGOs spending billions each year to impose their culture on Africa, including values that are literally foreign to African families … At times these funds actually go to aid Africans who live in less developed parts of the continent, but a great deal more is spent on population control than on wells, roads and medicine combined.”

In Uganda, American evangelicals have partnered, and sometimes trained, local pastors and church leaders to push extreme, anti-gay legislation. Leading newspapers outed people as “top homosexuals”, such as Frank Mugisha, and gay men and women face discrimination and violence.

The documentary God Loves Uganda documents this political evolution by focusing on the American missionary organisation International House of Prayer(IHOP) and its work in Uganda. Spokesman Jono Hall, who appears in the film, tells me that the group does “not have any organisational presence in Uganda or any other part of east Africa, and we do not have any intention to”.

The film’s director Roger Ross Williams explains to the Guardian that the “only response from IHOP has been denial, denial, denial … I screened in Kansas City a number of times, and IHOP folks came and someone even stood up and said they were ashamed of their church. We also flew IHOP leaders to New York to screen the film and had a three-hour conversation with them afterwards. They said it made them think about how they spread the word. But then they continued to spread hate and even invited anti-gay pastors from Africa to Kansas City.” Williams warns that growing numbers of American churches are operating in Rwanda, Ghana, Cameroon and Malawi.

In Uganda, a key supporter of the movement to stigmatise gay citizens is the US lawyer and activist Scott Lively (who recently wrote that Obama “orchestrated a coup” in Ukraine to support the LGBT agenda). During multiple visits to Uganda since 2002, Lively has spoken of Africans resisting the “disease” of homosexuality.

Lively justifies his opinions in a way similar to Phelan. When I probed him on this, he explained that he doesn’t “want Africans to experience the same collapse of their family-centred Christian infrastructure that is still unfolding in America and Europe. I went to Uganda to warn Africans of the goals and tactics of the homosexual political movement.”

He tells me that his mission in Uganda was “to focus on prevention and rehabilitation of homosexuality. The western media know this but deliberately portray me falsely as an architect of the overly harsh and punitive law the Ugandan government eventually passed.” Lively says he currently has no plans to return to Africa but still supports a Bible school in Kenya. He believes evidence shows that Obama is gay.

His advocacy in Uganda was challenged by a lawsuit brought by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda; they argued that Lively’s ministries constituted persecution. CCR’s lead counsel on the case, Pamela Spees, tells me that although proceedings remain in the discovery phase and the next major court date will likely be 2016, the “campaign to export discriminatory, anti-gay policies into Uganda and Africa more broadly has been remarkably successful”.

However, Spees says that the significance of the court case “cannot be overstated. For Ugandans who have been able to come to the United States for court hearings and meet activists in Massachusetts, who are also working to raise awareness about Lively’s efforts abroad, it’s an example of forging human connections, solidarity and of bringing awareness – and in some ways is its own form of accountability.”

Despite the huge challenges and growing homophobic campaigns across Africa, Kaoma is optimistic. “I can prayerfully say every tear and drop of blood of African sexual minorities is the step towards total liberation,” he says. He cites a resolution tabled in Angola in 2014 by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights that condemned “acts of violence, discrimination and other human rights violations” against sexual minorities.

Bishop Senyonjo of Uganda, a rare voice in his country advocating for LGBT rights, also hopes that churches will change their ways. “Evangelicals, wherever they come from the US and elsewhere, should bring good news of inclusion and love of God rather than sowing seeds of discrimination and hate,” he tells me before adding: “The Gospel is supposed to be liberating to marginalised people.”


ABC Radio Adelaide on disaster capitalism

This week I’ve been in Adelaide for its literary festival. The events, outdoors and free, have been huge, drawing well over 1200 people per session.

I was interviewed by ABC Adelaide about my work, including my recent book Profits of Doom:

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How and why the “war on drugs” kills millions

My following book review appeared in the Weekend Australian on 28 February:

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

By Johann Hari

Bloomsbury, 390pp, $29.99

The numbers are staggering. More than two million American citizens are in prison, about 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population. Many are African-American and Hispanic, in jail for drug offences. Race and the selective application of justice is a key theme of Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, a stunning examination of the “war on drugs”.

Hari, a British journalist, takes a trip down memory lane, to the US of a century ago when it was possible to “go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine”. But a key instigator of the war on drugs, Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger, soon found his enemy.

Singer Billie Holiday, a drug addict, was one of the most public victims of Anslinger’s zeal against black individuals who dared to question their second-class status. Holiday was a crusading woman who had been beaten, raped and abused for most of her life but her strength, and threat to the then social order, was to resist the suffocating, low expectation of her skin ­colour.

Anslinger warned the US House of Representatives’ committee on appropriations that Mexican immigrants and African-Americans were undermining social cohesion by excessively smoking marijuana. He had been informed of “coloured students at the University of Minnesota partying with female students (white) and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result? Pregnancy.”

This sounds comical today but Anslinger’s vision remains alive. Hari argues “the main reason given for banning drugs — the reason obsessing the men who launched this war — was the blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people”. In the 21st century, it’s black Americans and Latinos who disproportionately feel the full weight of the law for often relatively minor drug offences.

The Obama administration still spends billions every year fighting a war that it knows can’t be won. Addiction is seen as a moral evil instead of a condition that should be treated compassionately.

Former policewoman Leigh Maddox, who spent years arresting and imprisoning drug offenders, tells Hari she eventually realised that “nobody ever trained me on the collateral consequences of marijuana arrests. I had no idea … It’s not something they’re made aware of. It’s go out and get numbers [arrests]. Do your job.” Today she runs a legal clinic in Baltimore, working with students to remove the arrest records of drug offenders. It’s one way to assuage her guilt for sending so many young people into a broken justice system.

Hari is an acclaimed writer who was caught plagiarising a few years ago, but this book is a redemption, and already a New York Times bestseller. It skilfully constructs a narrative around compelling, personal stories, the usually ignored or forgotten individuals who are selling or using various substances; living, avoiding or dying in the “war on drugs”.

Rosalio Reta was an American man who had killed for a Mexican drug cartel but eventually tired of his life and confessed to American officials. Hari visits the border town of Juarez, where he witnesses resistance to a US-led drug war that enriches politicians and police and causes intense suffering among a local population that is forced to flee, kill or remain silent.

He examines Portugal, a nation that ended the persecution of addicts and users in 2001. The numbers speak for themselves, a revolution in method and treatment. Drug use has dropped. “In the United States,” Hari writes, “90 per cent of the money spent on drug policy goes to policing and punishment, with 10 per cent going to treatment and prevention. In Portugal, the ratio is the exact opposite.”

Hari’s sympathies are never hidden: he’s opposed to the war on drugs. Chasing the Scream presents a persuasive argument that prohibition has not reduced drug consumption or abuse, but pushed generations into lives of misery, crime and imprisonment.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of the forthcoming book Disaster Capitalism.

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