Poverty in a time of empire: Why foreign aid can't "Make Poverty History"

Caleb Stewart Rossiter

Iraq invader Tony Blair and invasion opponents Kofi Annan and his economic advisor Jeffrey Sachs, super-capitalist Bill Gates and the quasi-socialist relief groups Oxfam and Save the Children, World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz and singer Paul "Bono" Hewson, actress Angelina Jolie and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson. These strange bedfellows are calling for a quadrupling of foreign aid to "make poverty history." Like Dickens' Mrs. Jellyby, satirized in Bleak House for her fervor to help a Nigerian village, the aidists hope to soften the effects of empire without abandoning it. They will find this just as difficult under King George as it was under Queen Victoria.

Wide-spread poverty will remain part of the world economy until the United States and other rich nations stop propping up cooperative regimes who spur civil wars and stop blocking countries' transition from producing raw materials to refining and retailing. Even then, as shown by the persistence of poverty in the booming economies of countries like China, India, and South Africa who escaped the North's military and economic halter, "making poverty history" will depend on governments' choices about sharing opportunity with the poor during the painful shift from a traditional to a modern economy. To talk of reducing poverty is fine, but to talk of ending it before there are changes in power relations between and within countries is silly.

If aid projects are massively "scaled up" as the aidists demand, they will disrupt local economies, doing at least as much harm as good, as aid did during the last mania for "saving" Africa. In the 1980's, the IMF/World Bank "structural adjustment" of tight budgets and open markets collapsed because of foreign-fueled civil wars and the inability of weak economies to generate enough profits and personnel to maintain projects, and the Live Aid/We Are the World campaign for famine relief in Ethiopia strengthened the dictator who created the famine through civil war and forced relocations, helping to keep him in power for five more years.

The aidists applaud President Bush for doubling foreign aid, but the fact that the increase comes from occupying Iraq and Afghanistan should have reminded them that the primary motivation for the $2 trillion in today's dollars the North provided over the past 40 years in goods and services (not, as often thought, in unrestricted cash) has been to cement its dominance. Why should another $2 trillion over the next seven years, the quadrupling of aid to the famed one percent of the North's income, be any more likely to end poverty? The aidists say that poor countries need debt relief from low-interest loans for previous projects, and then call for more projects that will also fail to perform, since they take place in the same environment.

In one of Hewson's previous excellent African adventures, he traveled in 2002 with the U.S. treasury secretary to a village where there was no well for clean water. They immediately proposed that wells be dug in every African village. Standing with them, shaking his head, was the then-World Bank president, who had seen many such wells dug, and then abandoned because the villagers, and the country, lacked the bureaucracy and spare parts to maintain them. Kenyan health specialist Macharia Waruingi summed up the foreign aid conundrum this way in a debate with the UN's Sachs: "Jeff is making a fundamental error here by shifting the burden of rural development to himself or the international development community...Foreign prescriptions, and imported fertilizers, only serve to disrupt the ecosystem. It is still not clear whom he is lifting out of poverty: the fertilizer manufacturer in Europe who sells fertilizer to him, or the local biomass entrepreneur who is trying to make a living on biomass."

Buying into President Bush's self-serving fantasy that Islamist attackers "hate us because of our freedoms," when in fact they hate us because we enthrone cooperative dictators from Algeria to Pakistan, the aidists argue that their projects will reduce anti-northern sentiments by providing social services and employment. This trivializes the thousand-year struggle for control of the Middle East, which started with the first Crusade, into a push for better jobs. The Islamists are no more likely to trade the jihad for economic progress than Ho Chi Minh was to trade South Vietnam for the Mekong Valley Authority that Lyndon Johnson offered in 1965.

When Wolfowitz came to the World Bank from the Pentagon, where he promoted the disastrous invasion of Iraq, he pledged to change Africa "from a continent of despair to a continent of hope." However, most Africans live in modest but functional fashion, and much of what despair does exist can be traced to Wolfowitz's past and current employers. The northern-controlled World Bank traps Africa in its low-growth role as exporter of raw materials, and the worst poverty is found in refugee camps created by civil wars in Angola, Congo, Liberia, and Somalia against thugs who were armed in return for cooperation with U.S. military and covert operations. Today's U.S. arms and training for regimes that cooperate with the "war on terrorism" plants the seeds for future wars.

If they want to reduce poverty, the aidists should focus on ending their own governments' predatory policies. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, with the United States well in the lead, dominate trade in arms and training, draining funds from development and fomenting civil wars. Instead of singing, "we are the world," aidists should be asking, "why do we arm the world?" They should campaign to bring home the troops, fleets, air forces and covert operators of the United States, France, and Britain, so there would be no reason to support the undemocratic and corrupt regimes who provide military cooperation. A call for demilitarization will certainly be criticized, as anti-imperialism was in Victorian Britain, for violating the realpolitik imperative of protecting the northern economies, in today's case by maintaining access to cheap fuel and open investment. Like the anti-imperialists of old, opponents of today's northern domination must make the moral case that no country has the right to extract resources from another by force. Until Americans in particular affirm that as a principle of international relations, the North will keep on making poverty faster than the Mrs. Jellybys can make it history.

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