The documentary Disaster Capitalism opens with the earthquake in Haiti, 2010. Through the ghostly fog of CCTV video, we see the ground furiously shake buildings into dust. Fronted by Australian journalist and writer Antony Loewenstein and shot over six years, in collaboration with director Thor Neureiter, Director of Video at Columbia University, the film visits and revisits three countries — Haiti, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea — riven by various crises and trapped in a cycle of dependence on Western aid. This cycle, Loewenstein tells Crikey, is no accident.
“I thought it was important to look at how these countries are connected politically and financially, in other words, how certain conditions are designed to keep poor countries poor,” he said.
Filming began in 2011, when Loewenstein was working on a book of the same name.
“The aim wasn’t to spend six years making the film,” Loewenstein said. “But there is something to be said for seeing how these countries evolve over six years. All that’s really changed is that PMs or presidents have come and gone, but they remain economically broken and I thought it was important to look at why.”
Cycle of dependency
A key factor in the Disaster Capitalism is that these countries are not, and never have been, without the resources to pay their own way. Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan in particular are rich in minerals. Loewenstein says this is part of the problem.
“Trump has been very keen to really harness and expand the mining industry if Afghanistan, and they’re tying aid to that … So aid is being used to not help people, but to enrich foreign businesses. Look at PNG, it has huge resources, and after several decades of those being exploited, it hasn’t helped the locals one bit.”
Aid not only enriches Australian business interests, Loewenstein says, but backs up political aims.
“Aid to PNG has been increased, in my view, to provide a bribe to the PNG government to house the refugees we don’t want,” he said. “Obviously not all of the aid money is related to the pacific solution, but aid has gone up since it was revitalised under Labor.”
And the oversight ensuring that aid isn’t misspent or funnelled towards corruption, he says, is weak.
“People in government will tell you there’s lots of oversight and reporting with aid. But I think the problem is that there’s almost no political cost to [Western politicians] if Afghanistan’s aid doesn’t do its job — no one is going to lose their seat over that.”
Part of this stems from those bodies tasked with aid oversight — such as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — who expose the misuse of aid, have their findings ignored.
“[SIGAR] do amazing work and deliver important reports, and what happens? They’re largely ignored … Obama promised to make the system more transparent and open, and did nothing in his eight years. So I think there has to be more of a political cost when aid money isn’t just ineffective, but governments know that it’s actively going to corruption.”
This oversight is even weaker in Australia, where there is currently no equivalent to SIGAR.
“There are senate committees and politicians who ask these questions, so oversight exists, but it’s weak, doesn’t get much of a voice, and get’s almost no media attention.”
Loewenstein says that many of the worst elements effecting aid may, paradoxically, lead to improving the debate.
“The debate Trump has started, ironically enough, asks the question: is more aid automatically a good thing? The argument from the left has traditionally been that we need more money and support for the poor of the world, and what I’m saying is, after 30, 40, 50 years, these countries are not improving. You have to ask why.”
Further, Loewenstein hopes the current sexual assault scandal afflicting Oxfam — in which aid workers were found to be exploiting vulnerable women — may help illustrate one of the fundamental problems with the current international aid system.
“A lot of other orgnisations are doing the same thing, and hopefully this makes people more aware of what happens when the relationship between aid giver and aid recipients is really unhealthy,” he said.
“So what I hope comes out of this, and it’s so obvious, but far too often aid is administered without asking the people on the ground what they want. You’d be amazed how rarely that happens.”
Broadcast rights for Disaster Capitalism have been sold to several European territories and screenings can be organised through Demand Films.
Last week in Sydney was the first public screening of my film, Disaster Capitalism. Director Thor Neureiter was in New York but co-producers Media Stockade were there along with a solid audience. There will be many more public screenings in Australia, the US and beyond soon. After the film, we held a Q&A around aid and development plus journalism in conflict zones. It was recorded by Sky News TV and broadcast last weekend. Here’s how they described the event:
The Walkley Foundation has held its first Walkley Talk for the year at the State Library of NSW. The event featured a screening of independent documentary film Disaster Capitalism by journalist Antony Loewenstein. The screening was followed by a robust discussion on aid in conflict zones, revealing how the supply of aid to those in need isn’t always as transparent and ethical as it seems. The panel included the filmmaker himself, along with head of journalism at Macleay College and former foreign correspondent Monica Attard, and journalists Hugh Riminton and Yaara Bou Melhem.
The conversation touched on the role of journalists in delivering accurate public interest news from war zones, and holding NGOs and aid organisations accountable when bringing the reporters on the ground in the first place. It explored the corruption and conflict rampant in countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, and Lebanon, and implications for the media and global community, who may all too often be switching off the television to avoid distressing news. The discussion also offered an insight into the world of freelancing and war reporting, while challenging the concepts of international assistance and development through the perspectives of investigative journalists.
My article in the Guardian:
Foreign aid has the power to save lives but also to corrupt nations. It’s regularly used as a political football as some argue for more financial support to the world’s most vulnerable people while others believe more money should be spent at home. It’s a false distinction, however, because the key issue is whether western aid is well targeted and empowering people to make their own choices on how to improve their lives, allowing them to eventually become more self-sufficient.
The aid industry is currently under the spotlight, Oxfam’s past behaviour is rightly challenged, although the problems uncovered affect the entire industry. But what’s required is hearing from aid recipients themselves.
The US administration is slashing foreign aid to nations it views as unfriendly or voting against its interests at the United Nations. Nonetheless, the answer isn’t simply more aid. In 2017, Afghanistan was the highest recipient of US aid, US$4.7 billion, but much of the more than US$120 billion given by the US to the country since October 2001 has been wasted, disappeared, stolen through corruption or simply cannot be accounted for by Washington.
Australia has also invested heavily in Afghanistan and seen few positive results. Canberra stumbled into the war with little understanding of what it was trying to achieve (apart from blindly following president George W. Bush). It’s now the longest war in US history with no end in sight and a cost of over US$1 trillion.
Rethinking how aid is delivered should be a key question for western nations but it rarely makes the headlines. For the last six years, with New York-based director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, I’ve been making the documentary, Disaster Capitalism, to investigate where aid money is going. Focusing on Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea (PNG), talking to people trying to live decent lives amid economic chaos and conflict, a constant refrain is how little local voices are listened to.
Too often, western governments and aid groups parachute into a crisis and dictate terms to a disoriented population. In Haiti the American Red Cross pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild devastated houses after the 2010 earthquake but today have achieved very little. As Haitian workers’ union leader Yannick Etienne told us, her country became a “republic of NGOs”. Outside governments and NGOs often gave contracts to foreign companies who employed individuals unable to speak French or Creole.
The results were inevitable; Haiti’s position as a US-client state producing cheap clothing for Walmart and Target was unchanged because there was no interest in improving the country’s economic situation beyond handouts.
US aid critic and insider Timothy Schwartz, who appears in the film, powerfully explains the unhealthy dynamics in his new book, The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle, after living there for decades. While acknowledging that not all aid was squandered, he shows in detail how in the first year after the earthquake, the Haitian government got one percent of it. Schwartz condemns the “truth-twisting” – humanitarian groups’ misrepresenting and exaggerating the already bad situation to “get donors to give” – and the many journalists willing to spread these distortions despite the inability of NGOs to get the job done.
In PNG, Australia’s role since its 1975 independence is revealing. Canberra views its close neighbour as a client state, dumping its unwanted asylum seekers, enriching Australian resource companies and overlooking corruption. Canberra gives over $500 million per year to PNG and yet its citizens suffer from appalling levels of poverty and domestic violence.
The province of Bougainville once had the world’s biggest copper mine, run by Rio Tinto, but its existence sparked a separatist revolution. Outraged by its pollution and lack of financial support, locals rose up in the late 1980s. They eventually won against a PNG army backed by Australia but at a steep cost; up to 20,000 died out of a population of 200,000. The mine remains closed today but Australia, PNG and foreign companies insist that an independence vote, scheduled for 2019, is contingent on re-opening big-scale mining, claiming only this could sustain a sovereign nation.
Aid is used as a weapon with the potential for it to be withdrawn if local leaders don’t comply with Canberra’s wishes. Many locals oppose this, angry that compensation was never paid after the battle against Rio Tinto. They push for alternative plans such as tourism, agriculture and fishing.
In Afghanistan, the country’s largely untapped resources are potentially worth up to US$4 trillion. Despite a brutal civil war, the Trump administration, following Bush and Obama, is determined to support a mining industry that enriches foreign companies. Sources in Kabul tell me that Trump officials are already visiting to assess the viability of backing a resource boom, and associates of military contractor Blackwater founder Erik Prince are recruiting locals to secure areas where rare metals are under the ground. It’s a recipe for continued chaos.
What ties Afghanistan, Haiti and PNG together are the ways in which they’re deliberately kept dependent on foreign aid by western governments and some NGOs. There could be another way if locals were asked what they need and want.
Aid that doesn’t principally enrich multinationals and bloated NGOs must be the goal.
• Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe” and writer/co-producer of the documentary, Disaster Capitalism
Public screenings of the film with Loewenstein and journalists, organised by the Walkley Foundation, are 22 February in Sydney and 1 March in Melbourne. See the film’s website for future screenings in Australia and globally.
My film Disaster Capitalism, with director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, is screening publicly soon.
Last weekend I was interviewed by Hugh Riminton on Australia’s ABC Radio National Sunday Extra program about it:
When war or disaster strikes, we assume our aid contributions are life-saving, or at the very least will help rebuild countries and shattered communities. But some say trade works better than aid. Antony Loewenstein spent six years examining nations that have been pulled apart by conflict and disaster, and he’s produced ‘Disaster Capitalism’, a documentary currently being shown on limited release.
My film, Disaster Capitalism, with director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, is starting to screen this month (initially in Sydney and Melbourne with many more locations in Australia and globally to come).
I was interviewed today about the film on ABC Radio Australia’s Pacific Mornings program, broadcast across the entire Pacific region:
After 6+ years in the making, my film, Disaster Capitalism, is finished. Working with director Thor Neureiter, co-producers Media Stockade and co-editor Leah Donovan, it’s been the most challenging creative project of my life. But here we are with a fine film.
Disaster Capitalism is a compelling documentary that goes inside Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea to reveal the dark side of moneymakers and aid exploiters unafraid to make a killing from the misfortune of others.
In 2018, the film will be screened around the world, at film festivals, public screenings and TV broadcast (our French/US distributor has already secured a sale with a European TV broadcaster).
Thanks to the countless people in multiple nations for giving us so much encouragement and support over the last years.
We look forward to showing you this timely film next year.
Here’s the trailer:
During my 2012 visit to Afghanistan, researching the book and film, Disaster Capitalism, I spent time with the country’s reportedly last remaining Jew, Zablon Simintov, and filmed an interview with him. Living in the centre of Kabul, his house was a tiny apartment with a Christmas tree in the corner. Remarkably, he had remained safe during the civil war, Taliban years and post-US invasion period. He was a grumpy man. He managed a synagogue near his home, attended by Jewish, Western diplomats and aid workers based in the country. He said that these people brought him Jewish food such as matzoh on Passover. He lived a simple and poor life. This video shows Simintov praying in his small, one room apartment:
I lived in Juba, South Sudan during 2015 and witnessed the world’s newest nation descend into chaos. Near the beginning of the year, I accompanied the then top UN humanitarian official Valerie Amos with Hollywood actor and activist Forest Whitaker to the remote town of Wai in Jonglei state (here’s my Guardian report about it). I shot this short film to show how the local community welcomed us.
For the last five years I’ve been working on the documentary, Disaster Capitalism, partly inspired by my book of the same name released last year. I’m working with film-maker Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade. It’s a truly international team; I’m based in East Jerusalem, Thor is in New York and Media Stockade are in Sydney, Australia.
Today we are launching a fund-raising campaign to generate money to complete a rough cut of the feature documentary (editing is well underway and we aim to finish soon). We’re excited to share a new video, details about our recent successful pitch at the prestigious Hot Docs film festival in Toronto and facts about how to donate money (tax deductible in the US and Australia). We are aiming to raise US$80,000 in the next month.
Here’s the video:
Please support us now and share online with your friends and family. Independent film-making is a challenging business and it needs your support.
Disaster Capitalism is about people and corporations making money from misery in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. It’s topical, controversial and deeply relevant to our world today. We have big ambitions to show the film around the globe.
We need your financial support to complete the rough cut and show the film to over 30 distributors, sales agents and broadcasters from around the world who expressed huge interest in the project at Hot Docs.
Our website has all the required information, details how to donate money, our social media accounts and all relevant news.
Please donate generously to our film today and share the information far and wide.
The following article appears today in the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age and is written by Garry Maddox. The headline is, “Australia’s foreign aid is largely wasted because of corruption, says documentary maker Antony Loewenstein”:
Australian feature films have largely avoided hot political subjects lately – though that may change with Matthew Saville’s planned film on the Tampa crisis – but documentary makers have been far from reluctant.
Well-known journalist Antony Loewenstein has written and appears in Disaster Capitalism, about the “the dark side of moneymakers and aid exploiters” in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea, which has been selected for North America’s largest documentary festival, Toronto’s Hot Docs, which starts later this month.
And after four years working on the film with director Thor Neureiter, Loewenstein concludes that the amount of Australia’s foreign aid that is wasted is “huge”.
“The vast majority of aid that Australia has given to PNG in the last years, especially in Bougainville, has gone to waste,” he says.
“That’s not to say there’s not been valuable projects. I’ve seen with my own eyes in Bougainville certain medical facilities and support networks that have helped people.
“But so much of the aid in PNG has gone into corruption … too often Australian aid is tied to pushing corporate mining interests.”
Although the country’s involvement with Haiti has been limited, Loewenstein says the vast majority of aid to Afghanistan “was funnelled through the corrupt Afghan government and also warlords that the Australian government partner with.” He sees that as “a huge problem”.
Disaster Capitalism, which is “90 per cent shot”, will feature in Hot Docs Forum, which gives the filmmakers 15 minutes to pitch to financiers, producers, distributors, sales agents and broadcasters from around the world.
Speaking from East Jerusalem, Loewenstein tells Short Cuts the aim of the film is to make viewers more aware of where their aid money is going.
“It’s not a call to stop aid,” he says. “It’s to make it smarter aid, more targeted and more engaged aid with locals on the ground.
“As we’ve seen in Haiti, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea, aid is not actually helping the people it claims to be helping.”
Loewenstein says Disaster Capitalism has been a tough film to shoot.
“In all three countries logistics are tough,” he says. “Security, particularly Afghanistan, is incredibly shady.”