"Progress" and "development" and "improvement" never are, particularly in the long run.
Over 15 years ago, I took a decision to steer my professional life away from the forces that characterized the commercial world of advertising, radio, television and film I had so passionately been working for until then.
I didn't like the personal and intellectual price that needed to be paid in exchange for very large amounts of money.
Photo credit: Natural History Museum in Washington DC - Gregory John Zamets
The intensity and the rush was all about doing something for someone else, while stomping on principles of design, efficiency and communication to please and serve opportunity and whims greater than one could ever control.
And so, one day, I decided to change and to give my talent out to those organizations and institutions that worked for a greater good. Education, research, development, public awareness, aid.
Though this was a much less glamorous and cutting-edge work than the one I had been doing for commercial firms, it felt great, in my mind, to contribute in some form or other to the well-being and improvement of my fellow brothers on this planet.
And so I did, from 1989 until today. I have helped, designed and coordinated a few challening communication projects for organizations like the UN, the World Bank Institute, FAO, IFAD, The World Food Programme, and several other ones.
It has been good work, I must say.
But only until I kept being an obedient newspaper reader and TV news watcher.
Once I stopped taking things coming from mainstream media and news agencies as "the truth", I started to see things I had not ever considered before and begun to understand that to do good and to enable change, you have to go out and do it yourself in some way or another.
The larger the organization, and the more centralized, the easier to loose focus, efficiency and the ability to have a real communication exchange with those who are supposedly being helped.
Too many layers involved, too few people having to decide where and how large amounts of money are being spent, too much distance with the reality purposedly being served.
And so I slowly awakened. I realized that even the largest and most philanthropic organizations may not always be there to do good to our brothers and sisters. Some of them are there to promote an agenda of investment interests, some others are there to exploit secondary opportunities while providing ineffective help in other areas, many waste large amounts without needing to remain accountable to the people of the world who are financially supporting such crazy spending, some just don't care. They have a budget and they spend it.
Nonetheless, if you ask most people, working with foreign aid and "development" organizations, as they more often referred to, does come with a great "feel-good" factor.
You do feel that you are contributing to the economic well-being of the poorest people around the world. To the betterment of something larger than your own reality. And even if only a small percentage of your money could go out to help those poor people out there, you'd feel good that you did something to help this world be a better place.
Or would you?
Zambian writer Evans Munyemesha does not think so.
He charges that development aid, "has financed the creation of monstrous projects that, at vast expense, have devastated the environment and ruined lives". Rather than getting down to "the hard task of wealth creation", Munyemesha says, "easy handouts" have been substituted "for the rigors of self-help", leaving the receiving countries economically crippled and their people worse off than before. If we look at results, African 'aid' has been an unmitigated disaster:
"[Africa] has lost self-sufficiency in food production that it enjoyed before development assistance was invented, and during the past few decades, has become instead a continent-sized beggar hopelessly dependent on the largesse of outsiders---per-capita food production has fallen in every year since the 1960s. Seven out of every ten Africans, are now reckoned to be destitute or on the verge of extreme poverty, with the result that the continent has the highest infant mortality rates in the world, the lowest average life-expectancies in the world, the lowest literacy rates, the fewest doctors per head of population, and the fewest children in school."
And the situation in other parts of the world does not seem much better.
You might say, that with all the money we're paying, there must be something wrong with the receivers of our aid. The temptation is to cast around for logical reasons why our good intentions don't bear fruit. Corruption ... laziness ... hold it for a moment. Apart from the on-the-ground view of our Zambian observer (you can see the whole article further down) we have another witness - John Perkins, a highly paid economist formerly working for an international development consultancy. In his book titled Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Perkins describes how as a highly paid professional, he helped the U.S. cheat poor countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars by lending them more money than they could possibly repay and then take over their economies.
"Basically what we were trained to do and what our job is to do is to build up the American empire.
To bring -- to create situations where as many resources as possible flow into this country, to our corporations, and our government, and in fact we've been very successful. We've built the largest empire in the history of the world.
It's been done over the last 50 years since World War II with very little military might, actually. It's only in rare instances like Iraq where the military comes in as a last resort.
This empire, unlike any other in the history of the world, has been built primarily through economic manipulation, through cheating, through fraud, through seducing people into our way of life..."
said John Perkins when he was interviewed by Amy Godman.
You can find a transcription and the audio recording right here (thanks to Democracynow.org). Much of the responsibility for the disaster, says Perkins, is the World Bank's and the International Monetary Fund's, but he is also optimistic that the situation can be changed, saying "I believe the World Bank and other institutions can be turned around and do what they were originally intended to do, which is help reconstruct devastated parts of the world. Help -- genuinely help poor people."
Well, we certainly would have to find ways to make the 'aid' actually arrive at the people, and to help them become self-sufficient, not lead them into further dependency.
Neal has been working on the ground in Africa and elsewhere, to make communities self-sufficient through environmental restoration.
Here's the article, first published in The Zambian, which does go quite a way in shaking our feel-good factor on foreign aid or, as it's also mistakenly called, "development aid"...
by Evans Munyemesha
With international ‘aid’ to soon reach $100 billion a year (from $60 billion), it will be the final kick in the teeth of the poor, crippling further their Third World economies. Indeed, (as I have found out after researching through reports and what-not), it’s often profoundly dangerous to the poor and inimical to their interests to have ‘aid’ imposed upon them: It has financed the creation of monstrous projects that, at vast expense, have devastated the environment and ruined lives; it has facilitated the emergence of fantastical and devious bureaucracies staffed by legions of self-serving hypocrites; it has sapped the initiative, and creativity and enterprise of ordinary people and substituted the superficial and irrelevant showiness of imported advice; it has sucked potential entrepreneurs and intellectuals in the developing countries everywhere into non-productive administrative activities; it has created a ‘moral tone’ in international affairs that denies the hard task of wealth creation and that substitutes easy handouts for the rigors of self-help; in addition, throughout the Third World, it has allowed the dead grip of imposed officialdom to suppress popular choice and individual freedom. Call it what you will---but I will call it for what it is: Noble Colonialism! Ain’t that a ‘female dog’?
‘Aid’ [they call it] has its defenders, not least the highly paid public-relations men and women who spend millions of dollars justifying the continued existence of the agencies that employ them. Such professional communicators must reject out of hand the obvious conclusions symbolized by the white elephants of international ‘aid’ agencies: that ‘aid’ is a waste of money and time, that its results are fundamentally bad, and that ---far from being increased--- it should be stopped forthwith before more damage is done.
Whenever such suggestions are made the lobbyists throw up their hands in horror and consternation. Despite some regrettable failures, they protest, ‘aid’ is justified by its successes; despite some glitches and problems, it’s essentially something that works; most important of all ---the emotional touch, the appeal to the heartstrings ---they argue with passion that ‘aid’ must not be stopped because the poor could not survive without it. Such wealthy lunacy! The Brandt Commission provided a classic example of this thought as it loudly screamed and I quote: ‘For the poorest countries ‘aid’ is essential to survival.’
Such statements, however, patronize and undervalue the people of the poor countries concerned. They are, in addition, logically indefensible when uttered by those who also want us to believe that ‘aid’ works. Throughout history and pre-history all countries everywhere got by perfectly all right without any ‘aid’ at all. Furthermore, in the 1950s they got by with much less ‘aid’ than they did, for example, in the 1970s--- and were apparently none the worse for the experience. Now, suddenly, at the tail end of almost sixty years of development assistance, we are told that large numbers of the same countries have lost the ability to survive a moment longer unless they continue to receive ever-larger amounts of ‘aid’. If this is indeed the case ---and if the only measurable impact of all these decades of development has been to turn resolute and tenacious survivors into helpless dependents ---then it seems to me to be beyond dispute that ‘aid’ does not work.
Despite the rich, flowing, and seductive language of the Brandt Commission reports, there is a stark lack of concession that prudent management of resources, a willingness to share responsibility and power among nations to fulfill common needs, ensure the right of personal livelihood, improve living standards, and guarantee the well-being of each and every individual in our global village are simply missing in the international ‘aid’ agendas.
Irredeemably out of touch with the poor, and the tedious day-to-day realities of their lives, it’s little wonder that the dignified gangsters in the fraudulent scheme of foreign ‘aid’ for Third World development so unfailingly come up with bizarre and extraneous projects like donating huge supplies of slimming products and frostbite medicine to starving Somalis in the 80s---projects that are worthless, even harmful, to those they are intended to benefit. All that these projects do is meet the bureaucratic needs of the agencies themselves, the career needs of their staff, and the commercial needs of suppliers from whom equipment and services are procured.
It’s not outside our grasp to note that the ‘well-intentioned’ efforts of our ‘well-wishing’ guests in the business of international ‘aid’ have been a sinking ship; a red-faced failure: This is clearly evidenced by the continued existence of the ‘aid’ agencies. If they were doing a good job of promoting development among the poor [which is what they actually tell us], then, presumably, they should have put themselves out of business by now. Over fifty years they should have dealt systematically with the problems that they were established to solve, closed up shop and stopped spending public funds from developed countries. But, no, they want to discuss malnutrition in Uganda while having steak dinners flown in from London; they want to discuss irrigation in Kenya while scuba-diving along the Kenyan beaches; they want to eradicate tsetse flies in Mpongwe, Zambia while sipping Scotch-over-rocks imported duty-free from Wales.
In fact they have firmly planted their roots among the poor despite the rapid changes that have taken place over time. Most of them have grown from year to year with ever bigger budgets, ever more projects to administer (and then abandon) and ever more staff on their ever-expanding payrolls---all this in the name of helping the poor!
They never cease to seize a moment to plaster their faces in front of any visiting camera in sight while blabbing about the great mission they have embarked on in the interests of the lowly and deprived. The poor would be less poor if their foreign benefactors would not waste generously donated funds by good folks on over-priced Swiss shades, English biscuits, French vacations, Italian shoes, Japanese gizmos and German silk undies.
Still yet, if the statement that ‘aid works’ is true, then presumably the poor should be in much better shape than they were before they first began to receive it more than half a century ago. If so, then ‘aid’sjob should by now be nearly over and it ought to be possible to begin gradual withdrawal without hurting anyone. Right?
Of course, the truth and ugly reality of it all is that most poor people in the most poor countries most of the time never receive or even make contact with ‘aid’ in any tangible shape or form: whether it’s present or absent, increased or decreased, are thus issues that are simply irrelevant to the ways in which they conduct their daily lives.
After the multi-billion-dollar ‘financial flows’ involved have been shaken through the sieve of over-priced and irrelevant goods that must be bought in the donor countries, filtered again in then hundreds of thousands of foreign ‘experts’, ‘professionals’ (and whatever else cute foreign title you may call them by!) and ‘aid’ agency staff, skimmed off by dishonest commission agents, and stolen by glossy-bellied corrupt Ministers and Presidents, there is really very little left to go around. This little, furthermore, is then used thoughtlessly, or maliciously, or irresponsibly by those in power---who have no mandate from the poor, who do not consult with them and who are utterly indifferent to their plight.
Small wonder, then, the effects of ‘aid’ are so often vicious and destructive for the most vulnerable members of the human society.
All this notwithstanding, what is to be said about ‘aid’s much-vaunted ‘successes’?
Of the Third World, Africa contains many lessons for the fraud of ‘aid’. It has lost self-sufficiency in food production that it enjoyed before development assistance was invented, and during the past few decades, has become instead a continent-sized beggar hopelessly dependent on the largesse of outsiders---per-capita food production has fallen in every year since the 1960s. Seven out of every ten Africans, are furthermore, now reckoned to be destitute or on the verge of extreme poverty, with the result that the continent has the highest infant mortality rates in the world, the lowest average life-expectancies in the world, the lowest literacy rates, the fewest doctors per head of population, and the fewest children in school. Tellingly, after Africa became the most ‘aided’ continent in the solar system in the last decade, its Gross Domestic Product per capita shrunk by an average of 3.4 per cent per annum. Sob, sob sob!!!
In the other Third World countries (like Bangladesh, Mexico, etc.), the story is the same: Grim and pathetic! Thanks to ‘aid’. Debts have consistently increased, and economic growth consistently decreased. All this spurred on by the one-size-fits-all foreign ‘aid’ policy. This sick and loathsome policy presumes not only that the ‘aid’ donors have a fairly good idea what growth-promoting policies are, but that these policies are the same everywhere. Excuse me, but this is a bunch of dung! What ‘aid’? With deepening poverty in almost every Third World country where ‘aid’ had (and still has) its hand fittingly wrapped around the necks of the poor, it would seem official that it [development ‘aid’] is neither necessary nor sufficient for ‘development’: the poor thrive without it in some countries; in others, where it is plentifully available, they suffer the most deplorable miseries. Such suffering furthermore occurs not in spite of ‘aid’ but because of it.
To continue with the trick of ‘aid’ seems to me to be generously absurd. Garnered and justified in the name of the destitute and the vulnerable, ‘aid’s main function in the past half-century has been to create and then entrench a powerful new breed of wealthy, privileged and accountable-to-one gang of foreign parasites. In this camp of screw-the-poor-out-of-existence made up of the World Bank, IMF, United Nations and other worthless behemoths of international mediocrity, ‘aid’---and nothing else---has provided ‘jobs for the boys’ and has permitted record-breaking self-serving behavior, arrogance, paternalism, and fearless cowardice. At the same time, in the Third World, ‘aid’ has perpetuated the rule of incompetent ‘important’ fools whose leadership would be more appropriate at raising monkeys at the zoo; it has allowed governments characterized by momentous ignorance and irresponsibility to thrive; last but not least, it has condoned---and in some cases facilitated ---the most consistent and grievous abuses of human rights that have occurred anywhere in the world since the dinosaurs lived.
In these days of enlightened minds, the time is nigh for the ‘Masters of Disasters’ to depart. Their ouster is achievable only if and when the poor people are willing to rediscover ways to assist one another directly according to the their needs and aspirations as they themselves define them, in line with priorities that they themselves have set, and guided by their own agendas.
Forget ‘Aid’! Give them an equal opportunity!
"Progress" and "development" and "improvement" never are, particularly in the long run.
John Perkins's case reflects exactly how the British Empire was formed. Traders, freebooters and entrepreneurs travelling around the world and gaining concessions here and there. Suddenly there's a need to protect one's interests, so armies are formed or shipped in. Costs rise, so some form of governance is needed to manage the enterprise. Result? Before you know it, you've got full scale colonialism. I'm sure the US's horror of empire is sincere. What they may not realize is that it can creep up on you unannounced. When will the President declare himself Emperor, I wonder? :-)