Monthly Archives: March 2011

What’s aid got to do with it?

Sub-Saharan Africa has received more official development (ODA) assistance than any other region in the world. What has that meant for its development? Not all that much, it seems.

The first figure below shows that ODA to Sub-Saharan Africa has been significantly higher than the regions of South and East Asia.

Per capita ODA received (current US$)

The following figure compares (crudely) change in living standards in the three regions since 1980.

GDP per capita, PPP (current international US$)

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The figures are from the World Bank: Figure 1, Figure 2.

WordPress wouldn’t let me embed the graphs into this post, so I had to use images.


Dogmatic systematic world control

Whatchu think happens to the money from yo’ taxes?
Shit, the government’s a addict
With a billion dollar a week kill brown people habit
– Brother Ali, Uncle Sam Goddamn

As the colonial era came to an end, rich countries didn’t all of a sudden decide to play nice. They’ve just adjusted the ways in which they assert influence over the South for their own benefit. It’s important to keep in mind that this is the context within which development assistance is given.

Noam Chomsky explains that “states are not moral agents; they are vehicles of power, which oper­ate in the interests of the particular internal power structures of their soci­eties.”[1] Nationalist slogans and empty rhetoric about alleviating poverty and delivering democracy seek to distract us from this reality.

Below I summarize a few examples of imperial treachery in recent times. I mainly look at the actions of the US and Canada, but our friends across the Atlantic behave in much the same way. Although I use words like “we” and “our” in reference to imperialist actions and interests, I don’t mean to imply that the we, the people who live in the West, are the ones shaping policy, and whose interests are being forwarded; the empire and the people and not the same. Having said that, the people are incriminated to the extent that we allow our governments to carry out murderous campaigns in our name and by using our tax money.

Our raw materials

In a March 1950 meeting with US ambassadors of South American countries, diplomat George Kennan declared the “protection of our raw materials” to be a major concern of US policy in the region.[2] A believer in dealing “in straight power concepts”, a declassified document from 1948 has him arguing that the US can’t “afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction” and that it should “cease to talk about vague and… unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization.”

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you[3]

After Ghana gained independence from Britain in 1957, the leftist Kwame Nkrumah came to lead the country. Today he’s considered a controversial figure. He earnestly worked to improve the lot of the Ghanaian and African people, but also remembered is his increasingly authoritarian inclinations as fears of insurrectionist plots began to worry him. The populism he espoused didn’t make him too many friends amongst the wealthy nations. And the Western-manufactured murder of his Congolese comrade Patrice Lumumba in 1961 was one clear hint, of many, that he should watch his back.

After years of enduring efforts to destabilize his government, in 1966 Nkrumah was ousted from power in a CIA-backed coup. Canada also had a role to play. Beginning in 1961 Canada helped to train Ghana’s military, which would eventually overthrow Nkrumah. To be fair, Yves Engler notes that “Direct ties between Canadian military trainers and those responsible for Nkrumah’s ouster have yet to be documented”. What is undeniable, however, is Canada’s enthusiastic support of the new regime:

Just after Nkrumah was overthrown Canada sent $1.82 million worth of flour to Ghana and offered the military regime a hundred CUSO [Canadian University Service Overseas] volunteers. Despite severing financial assistance to Nkrumah’s government, immediately after the coup the IMF restructured Ghana’s debt (Canada’s contribution was an outright gift). From 1966 to 1969 The National Liberation Council, the military regime, received as much aid as during Nkrumah’s entire time in office. Ottawa gave $22 million in grants and loans, the fourth major donor after the U.S., U.K. and U.N.[4]

The good war

These days media coverage of the War in Afghanistan tends to include sombre premonitions of its likely outcome. Apparently NATO is not winning the war. We have to fight it better.

There isn’t any questioning of the legitimacy of the War in Afghanistan, like there is of Iraq. Iraq was a mistake (and even unlawful) to begin with, but we’re made to believe that Afghanistan is a good war. In actual fact, the War in Afghanistan is just as illegitimate as the War in Iraq. The attacks of September 11, 2011 were terrorist acts. Police action is the right course to take in bringing those who perpetrate terrorism to justice, war against a nation is not a legal response.

It goes without saying that the reasons given for starting the war are lies. We’re not there to stop terrorism, spread democracy, free women, and all the rest. It’s all just about empire.

Afghanistan is the largest recipient of Canadian development assistance. One of the things that our aid money has gone to is the electoral process; the very same electoral process that has been widely reported to be a complete sham, a mockery, a farce. Our tax money helped the current government be “elected”; the very same government who’s closely associated with the biggest drug-barons in the country. Our tax money is helping to spread heroin all over the world.

Afghanistan is by far the largest producer of opium in the world. It’s been this way for a while except, as the following graph from Wikipedia shows, there was a break in 2001:

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan (hectares)

The drastic fall in opium production in 2001 occurred because the Taliban teamed up with the UN to try to eradicate cultivation of the drug. Since the invasion of the country by NATO production is now higher than it ever was. Obviously the Taliban aren’t anyone’s dream come true, but it looks like there drug-fighting record is leaps and bounds ahead of NATO’s.

Setting a bad example

Haiti is the second largest recipient of Canadian aid. Interestingly enough, while we were out spreading democracy in Afghanistan, for some reason we were doing the opposite in Haiti. Word has gotten out about a conference that the Canadian government hosted in early 2003 called the Ottawa Initiative on Haiti. Canadian, US, French, and Latin American officials met to discuss Haiti’s future; no Haitian officials were present. A year later the democratically elected populist President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown and forced into exile with the support of the US, Canada and France.

Since his ouster, Aristide’s party, Fanmi Lavalas, has been outlawed from taking part in Haitian elections. Fanmi Lavalas is easily the most popular political party in the country, so having elections without it is not really having elections.

Apparently building schools and raising the minimum wage are not good things to be doing. Aristide and his party are obviously a danger to the Haitian people. Not to mention the fact that they were setting a bad example for neighbouring countries to follow.

It seems that Haiti has been a bad example all throughout its independent history. The Haitian Revolution — the only successful slave revolt in modern history — kicked the French out of Haiti in 1804. Since then imperial powers have intervened in the country’s affairs on a regular basis.

Racism has added to Haiti’s suffering. The island of Hispaniola is host to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Both countries were invaded by the US during Woodrow Wilson’s time in office. Both suffered greatly as a result, but Haiti’s experience was quite a bit worse. Chomsky grimly explains that the difference in treatment was due to the attitude that “the Dominicans have some European blood so they’re not quite so bad. But the Haitians are pure nigger.”

Racism, at least in the structural sense, continues with regards to Haiti even to this day. Much of Canada’s aid to the country has been earmarked to train the police force and build prisons. Such “aid” is resulting in further marginalization of the poor black majority to the benefit of the mulatto elite.

Now let’s rescue democracy from the Egyptians

On Wednesday the CBC reported that “Canada is giving almost $11 million to Egypt to help foster democracy in the North African country.” Given our record, it should be clear exactly what kind of democracy Canada seeks to foster in Egypt.

US policy towards Egypt at present, Chomsky writes, is concerned mainly with “reasserting control.” We support the dictators and “The dictators support us. Their subjects can be ignored – unless they break their chains, and then policy must be adjusted.” Canada is positioning itself in its traditional role as junior partner in crime.

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This post’s title is from a song called Afrikan Stop Africom by Kan Kick.

1. Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power (The New York Press, 2002), p. 163

2. Walter LaFeber, Inevitable revolutions: the United States in Central America (W. W. Norton & Company, 1993), p. 109

3. Catch-22 (film)

4. Yves Engler, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (Fernwood Publishing, 2009), p. 192


On human nature

It’s commonly asserted that humans are inherently selfish beings. Thus, a system that harnesses our selfishness while providing benefit to society at large (as the current arrangement of society purports to do) is the only correct way to organize the world. Any other way is doomed to fail because it would go against human nature. The profit-motive based on competition is it. There is no alternative.

“It’s human nature to be greedy.”

Yeah… I’m always perplexed when I hear statements like that. I’ve often argued that human nature allows us to be just as selfless as selfish. And I might just be crazy but it seems apparent that the existing arrangement isn’t working so well. So instead of using greed as the foundation of things, maybe relying on an opposite trait – say, compassion – would be a better way to go about it.

It turns out that the debate over human nature may actually be much more on the side of compassion, rather than being a tie with greed. In A People’s History of the World Chris Harman argues that for more than 90 percent of our existence, humans have lived in classless societies whose survival required anything but greed. It was cooperation between individuals, not selfishness, which allowed bands to continue to exist. So if anything, it’s “collective values” that made their way into human nature. Harman quotes anthropologist Richard Lee as saying the following:

It is the long experience of egalitarian sharing that has moulded our past. Despite our seeming adaptation to life in hierarchical societies, and despite the rather dismal track record of human rights in many parts of the world, there are signs that humankind retains a deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep-rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity, a deep-rooted…sense of community.

That’s all.

Hopefully this post comes off as a bit uplifting, in contrast to the last few I’ve written.


A great deal of very bloody business

In a November 2010 article titled Reinventing the Wheel economist William Easterly put forward a simple reason for differences in development around the world: access to technology dating back several centuries. Nations which had access to technologies such as written language, the wheel, and iron tools three millennia ago; and technologies such as oceangoing ships, firearms, and the printing press 500 years ago are much more likely to be rich today than those that didn’t.

If asked to give advice to a poor country’s finance minister, Easterly quips that he would state the following: “Make sure your country was well caught up on technology — 500 years ago.”

He does go on to say, however, that his assertions don’t necessarily “imply a fatal determinism”. There are examples of countries, including Finland, which have defied the trend he describes. In today’s globalized world developing countries can catch up by borrowing technologies from rich countries. Reflecting on the fact that access to technology and innovation lead to economic growth, he prescribes a bottom-up approach to development, rather than the traditional top-down model. If Africa’s “plague of poor governments” stopped getting in the way of innovation, the continent would have a much easier time getting on the path to development.

Okay. I have a few issues with all this.

In the words of historian Mike Davis, such a “view of history deletes a great deal of very bloody business.”

Davis writes:

Whatever the internal brakes on rapid economic growth in Asia, Latin America or Africa, it is indisputable that from about 1780 or 1800 onward, every serious attempt by a non-Western society to move over into a fast lane of development or to regulate its terms of trade was met by a military as well as an economic response from London or a competing imperial capital.[1]

Now, Easterly doesn’t deny the above. (Although, he remarks that North America was “nearly empty” when the settlers came. That’s a really nice myth. In reality, there were an estimated 12 to 15 million Natives living north of modern-day Mexico when Columbus first arrived, and by the time the US had expanded all the way to the Pacific, there were only about 200,000 left thanks to infectious disease and lots and lots of genocide.) For the most part his article just discusses research which compares access to technology over history and the level of development today. I presume readers are supposed to fill in the “bloody business” for themselves. And that would be fine if leaving it out wouldn’t have an influence on the conclusions he arrives at and the recommendations he offers, but the fact is, it would.

Taking the “bloody business” into account, let’s try postulating another simple argument for the unequal levels of development around the world: those who were able to resist Western domination are likely much richer today than those who weren’t able to do so.

Noam Chomsky takes a similar stance:

… the countries that have developed economically are those which were not colonized by the West; every country that was colonized by the West is a total wreck… Japan was the one country that managed to resist European colonization, and it’s the one part of the traditional Third World that developed.[2]

Comparing Japan to the Ashanti kingdom, which existed in modern-day Ghana, Chomsky goes on to say the following:

… if you look at Japan when it began its industrialization process [in the 1870s], it was at about the same development level as the Asante [sic] kingdom in West Africa in terms of resources available, level of state formation, degree of technological development, and so on. Well, just compare those two areas today. It’s true there were a number of differences between them historically, but the crucial one is that Japan wasn’t conquered by the West and the Asante kingdom was, by the British—so now West Africa is West Africa economically, and Japan is Japan.[3]

Having resisted Western domination Japan was able to obtain technologies from outside and industrialize rapidly. This would likely have taken place elsewhere if more nations had been able to successfully resist the European onslaught, even given the technology gap between them and Europe at the time.

If being “well caught up in technology — 500 years ago” is a prerequisite in being developed today, it is only so to the extent that it could have helped in fighting off colonization. It isn’t important just for the sake of having a small gap, and hence having less to catch up on, to begin with.

In exploring the development of countries since the ending of official colonization, we find that the story is much the same. Countries that have developed have done so by defying Western dictates while those who’ve followed the advice of Western countries and the international financial institutions, often through coercion, have not done so well.

While poor countries have been hounded into liberalizing their economies – lowering tariffs, privatizing government-owned industries, etc. – those that have developed have done so, Chomsky writes, by “radically violating free market doctrine.”[4]

State intervention was a vital component in contributing to the development of Europe and the East Asian tigers, just as it is for China’s development today. Conventional wisdom holds that instituting “free trade” policies helps countries to develop. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton set the record straight:

The economic literature has been successful in demonstrating the importance of some variables for economic development, including education, institutions, health, and geography. However, the relationship between trade liberalization and growth is much more controversial.[5]

Citing penicillin as an example, Easterly contends that “development is not about what you dictate, but what you discover.” However, if it wasn’t for public funding of pharmaceutical research, we wouldn’t be discovering very many things in that field. The state’s role in facilitating innovation is undeniable.

Having a mixed economy seems to go a long way in helping countries to develop. Rich countries consistently intervene in the market while telling poor countries not to do the same. Economist Michael Hudson writes that “any nation pursuing free trade principles, in a world where governments of other countries [are] financing, subsidizing or otherwise regulating their commerce, [makes] its foreign trade a derivative function of foreign regulation.”[6] Stiglitz and Charlton explain that “trade liberalization may make countries more vulnerable to external shocks, and for countries in which trade looms large in GDP, the result may be greater macro-economic volatility.”[7] Just as with resisting domination in the days of colonialism, poor countries seeking to develop today must head down a sovereign path in order to develop.

Easterly puts a good amount of blame on the “plague of poor governments” for hindering Africa’s development. When ascribing fault for the failure of poor countries to develop, we should make sure to include an agent much more deserving of blame: Chomsky refers to it as the “plague of European civilization”.[8]

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1. Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (Verso, 2002), p. 295

2. Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power (New Press, 2002), p. 65

3. Ibid.

4. Noam Chomsky, Old Wine in New Bottles: A Bitter Taste

5. Joseph Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton, Fair Trade for All (Oxford University Press, 2007), p.33

6. Michael Hudson, Global Fracture (Pluto Press, 2005), p. 135

7. Ibid. 5, p. 172

8. Ibid. 2, p. 136