My article in the Guardian:
Foreign aid has the power to save lives but also to corrupt nations. It’s regularly used as a political football as some argue for more financial support to the world’s most vulnerable people while others believe more money should be spent at home. It’s a false distinction, however, because the key issue is whether western aid is well targeted and empowering people to make their own choices on how to improve their lives, allowing them to eventually become more self-sufficient.
The aid industry is currently under the spotlight, Oxfam’s past behaviour is rightly challenged, although the problems uncovered affect the entire industry. But what’s required is hearing from aid recipients themselves.
The US administration is slashing foreign aid to nations it views as unfriendly or voting against its interests at the United Nations. Nonetheless, the answer isn’t simply more aid. In 2017, Afghanistan was the highest recipient of US aid, US$4.7 billion, but much of the more than US$120 billion given by the US to the country since October 2001 has been wasted, disappeared, stolen through corruption or simply cannot be accounted for by Washington.
Australia has also invested heavily in Afghanistan and seen few positive results. Canberra stumbled into the war with little understanding of what it was trying to achieve (apart from blindly following president George W. Bush). It’s now the longest war in US history with no end in sight and a cost of over US$1 trillion.
Rethinking how aid is delivered should be a key question for western nations but it rarely makes the headlines. For the last six years, with New York-based director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, I’ve been making the documentary, Disaster Capitalism, to investigate where aid money is going. Focusing on Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea (PNG), talking to people trying to live decent lives amid economic chaos and conflict, a constant refrain is how little local voices are listened to.
Too often, western governments and aid groups parachute into a crisis and dictate terms to a disoriented population. In Haiti the American Red Cross pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild devastated houses after the 2010 earthquake but today have achieved very little. As Haitian workers’ union leader Yannick Etienne told us, her country became a “republic of NGOs”. Outside governments and NGOs often gave contracts to foreign companies who employed individuals unable to speak French or Creole.
The results were inevitable; Haiti’s position as a US-client state producing cheap clothing for Walmart and Target was unchanged because there was no interest in improving the country’s economic situation beyond handouts.
US aid critic and insider Timothy Schwartz, who appears in the film, powerfully explains the unhealthy dynamics in his new book, The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle, after living there for decades. While acknowledging that not all aid was squandered, he shows in detail how in the first year after the earthquake, the Haitian government got one percent of it. Schwartz condemns the “truth-twisting” – humanitarian groups’ misrepresenting and exaggerating the already bad situation to “get donors to give” – and the many journalists willing to spread these distortions despite the inability of NGOs to get the job done.
In PNG, Australia’s role since its 1975 independence is revealing. Canberra views its close neighbour as a client state, dumping its unwanted asylum seekers, enriching Australian resource companies and overlooking corruption. Canberra gives over $500 million per year to PNG and yet its citizens suffer from appalling levels of poverty and domestic violence.
The province of Bougainville once had the world’s biggest copper mine, run by Rio Tinto, but its existence sparked a separatist revolution. Outraged by its pollution and lack of financial support, locals rose up in the late 1980s. They eventually won against a PNG army backed by Australia but at a steep cost; up to 20,000 died out of a population of 200,000. The mine remains closed today but Australia, PNG and foreign companies insist that an independence vote, scheduled for 2019, is contingent on re-opening big-scale mining, claiming only this could sustain a sovereign nation.
Aid is used as a weapon with the potential for it to be withdrawn if local leaders don’t comply with Canberra’s wishes. Many locals oppose this, angry that compensation was never paid after the battle against Rio Tinto. They push for alternative plans such as tourism, agriculture and fishing.
In Afghanistan, the country’s largely untapped resources are potentially worth up to US$4 trillion. Despite a brutal civil war, the Trump administration, following Bush and Obama, is determined to support a mining industry that enriches foreign companies. Sources in Kabul tell me that Trump officials are already visiting to assess the viability of backing a resource boom, and associates of military contractor Blackwater founder Erik Prince are recruiting locals to secure areas where rare metals are under the ground. It’s a recipe for continued chaos.
What ties Afghanistan, Haiti and PNG together are the ways in which they’re deliberately kept dependent on foreign aid by western governments and some NGOs. There could be another way if locals were asked what they need and want.
Aid that doesn’t principally enrich multinationals and bloated NGOs must be the goal.
• Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe” and writer/co-producer of the documentary, Disaster Capitalism
Public screenings of the film with Loewenstein and journalists, organised by the Walkley Foundation, are 22 February in Sydney and 1 March in Melbourne. See the film’s website for future screenings in Australia and globally.