Are you being helped? The truth about international aid


On June 14, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd complimented his predecessor, John Howard, for providing “$1 billion” in aid to Indonesia after the December 2004 tsunami. SBS News, covering Rudd’s trip to Aceh, repeated the same lie that most of the corporate media peddled in 2004-05 – that the Australian government had provided $1 billion in aid to help the tsunami-devastated region of northern Sumatra.

In reality, as Joe Leitman, the manager of the World Bank trust fund for Aceh, later explained: “It’d be good to look at the Australian contribution, and maybe ask where it’s going, because the initial public impression was, ‘Oh it’s a billion dollars for Aceh’. When you dissect that, half of it is soft loans that the [Indonesian] government may or may not take up, but they certainly don’t need for Aceh, and then the $500 million in grants – only less than a quarter of that will go to Aceh, and the remainder will go to pursue broader strategic interests of the Indonesian and Australian governments, throughout Indonesia.” After these various deductions, said Leitman, “it’s really maybe an eighth of the initial pledge that will actually go to the people of Aceh”.

Furthermore, as for the $125 million that actually made it to Aceh, there was no guarantee of how much was received by the people who needed it. While most charities and aid agencies are quick to point out that over 80% of their funding is spent on their aid programs, this figure is often misleading because “programs” can include salaries and promotional “educational” materials.

Take the Aceh aid package. Simon Kearney pointed out in the December 25, 2005 Australian that the government’s AusAID agency paid Bill Nicol “$346,000 for six months’ work to November advising the Indonesian Government authority overseeing reconstruction in Aceh and Andrew Whillas $307,000 for giv[ing] ‘technical advice’ to the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development”.

Tim Costello, chief executive of the charity World Vision Australia, refused to comment on the aid workers’ salaries but told Kearney that “Nicol was doing a ‘tough job’ very well”. Costello himself is on a $120,000 a year salary. His and similar executive salaries are justified in the charity’s annual report with the argument that 90% of executives in “organisations” (meaning corporations and the government bureaucracy) of similar size, scope and “complexity” pay their executives more.

AusAID defended the salaries, arguing that the “Australian consultants were paid market rates and given hardship loadings because they had to live in Banda Aceh, which is still being rebuilt after the disaster.” Presumably the hardship of living on more than $50,000 a month helped the two Australians to understand the hardships faced by the Acehnese, many of them had to survive on incomes of less than $2 a day.

Boomerang aid

Stephanie Lusby, co-director of Jubilee Australia, and Kate Wheen, co-director of Aid Watch Australia, wrote on the blog of the Lowy Institute: “Throughout the history of the aid program, Australia has consistently used the mantle of ODA [Official Development Assistance] to protect, bolster and line the pockets of domestic corporations and to maintain our country’s commercial presence in the region, with the bulk of project tenders going to big businesses that have diversified their operations to accommodate overseas development in order to get in on the lucrative aid deals.” This sort of aid is nicknamed “boomerang aid” because the real benefit returns to the donor rather than going to the people in need of help.

Further, aid often comes with a political price. USAID, the US government’s aid agency, refuses to fund any project or non-government organisation (NGO) that either provides or advocates abortion, even if the money for this medical procedure comes from elsewhere. This has forced health clinics in poor countries to turn away women who need abortions in order not to lose their USAID funding. Even medical training is affected. At a USAID in Uganda, 100 trainers and 65 healthcare providers were told they had to stop counselling about abortion to continue receiving funding.

The political aims of aid are quite clear when US aid to Israel and to Palestine are compared. Israel, a wealthy developed country, is given approximately US$3 billion a year (more like $5 billion when you factor in the “loans” that Israel is never expected to repay). But for the Palestinian National Authority, only $150 million was allocated in 2006. That was prior to the Palestinian Legislative Council election won by Hamas candidates.

In the lead up to the election, USAID rushed $200 million to Fatah-led short-term projects in an effort to influence the voters. After this bribe failed to persuade Palestinian voters to reject Hamas, USAID refused to work with the popularly elected Hamas government. At any meeting – whether about education, health care or water provision – any USAID worker present was required to ask if a Hamas member was present. At the time, a USAID worker told me, “If there was a Hamas member, then the aid worker would have to ask them to leave, and if they refused, the aid worker would leave”.

Often, what the US government calls “aid” is only thinly disguised funding for Washington’s attempts to undermine governments the US capitalist elite doesn’t like. The USAID website describes its Cuba program as “promoting Cuba’s transition to a democratic, market-oriented society” – despite the great majority of Cuban citizens’ support for the country’s socialist-oriented people’s power democracy, rather than the corporate money-controlled pseudo-democracy that the US rulers want to have restored in Cuba.

Serving business

Official Australian aid is also politicised and directed to serving Australian big business. A July 2007 Aid Watch report on Iraq notes: “Aid-funded officials were particularly important in the Ministry of Agriculture, which was co-headed by Australia. By funding CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] officials, especially in agriculture, Australia had direct responsibility for the removal of Iraq’s agricultural subsidies and protections, and for seeking commercial advantage for Australian wheat growers in Iraq.” Another example is Papua New Guinea, where Canberra provides $800 million in “aid”, $734 million of which is earmarked for funding to maintain Australian police there.

An April 2007 Aid Watch report on a survey it had conducted concluded that “71% of [Australian] parliamentarians agree with having ‘the national interest’ in the broader aid objective. This compares with only 14% of community respondents. Furthermore, 64% of parliamentarians agree that Australia should promote its domestic industry through the aid program. Only 11% of community respondents agree.”

Those figures reveal a great deal. While most people want to be generous to those who need help, the MPs (and the big-business interests they serve) want to look after themselves. Much the same point is made by the fact that the left in Australia has a long history of providing aid to people in Third World countries, such as the money raised through Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific for victims of earthquakes in Pakistan and Indonesia.

However, individual working-class people sending their money to Third World peoples is not a sustainable solution. Even if we sent everything we have, it wouldn’t make up for what Australian and other imperialist businesses take from them. That is the reason for the well-known words of Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint – but when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”.

Cuba and Venezuela

A real contrast to the self-interested and manipulative aid programs of the US and Australian governments is the aid provided by Venezuela and Cuba. While both are poor countries, they are extremely generous. Revolutionary Cuba provided more doctors than the World Health Organisation to newly independent East Timor. After the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, 73% of the sick and injured who received medical care were treated by Cuban doctors. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, Washington continued to fund the Israeli war machine, but Venezuela’s revolutionary government sent a Boeing 707 full of aid to Lebanon.

And Cuban and Venezuelan assistance comes without any political price tag. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Cuba offered unconditional aid including 1600 doctors, field hospitals and 83 tonnes of medical supplies, despite Washington’s unremitting 50-year economic war against the Caribbean island-state. The aid was refused by the US authorities, which preferred to let working people die rather than have them be helped by Cuban doctors.

Venezuela managed to have the millions of dollars in aid it promised get through to the people of New Orleans, but instead of saying “Thank you”, the US government questioned the motives of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. A US assistant secretary of state said, “I think it’s in part a public relations effort on his [Chavez’s] part”. In their humanitarian assistance around the world, Cuban doctors are instructed not to discuss politics with their patients. This is to make sure that they can work in countries that do not share or are antagonistic to Cuba’s socialist agenda. The August 21, 2006 South China Morning Post reported from Sumatra: “Cuba’s major contribution to saving lives – it says it currently deploys 29,000 health workers in 68 countries across three continents – has been almost totally ignored by the Western media.

Many victims say they have received no aid from government agencies, and the aid from Cuba, a country with less wealth than mineral-rich Indonesia, is greatly appreciated by health authorities. ‘We were surprised that doctors from a poor country, a country so far away that we knew little about, would come here,’ regional health co-ordinator Dr Ronny Rockito said. ‘We can learn from the Cuban health system. People not affected by the earthquake are coming from Jogyakarta to get free treatment because they are too poor to pay. The people are glad it’s free.’”

The Post also reported: “In the wake of last year’s earthquake in Pakistan, the US embassy in Pakistan reportedly pressured President Pervez Musharraf’s government to decline humanitarian aid from Havana. According to official data from Islamabad, 73 per cent of all patients were treated by Cuban doctors in 44 places. The Pakistan magazine Dawn reported that ‘in many cases Cuban medical teams have been monitored by dozens of intelligence operatives fearing they might incite a revolution’.”

Because Cuba’s selfless aid provides such a contrast with their own, both the US and Australian governments have pressured other countries not to accept Cuban assistance. In July 2007, Australian-born PNG health minister Peter Barter revealed that a year earlier Australia’s then-foreign minister, Alexander Downer, had written to him asking that PNG not accept Cuban doctors’ help to overcome a doctor shortage, because it would “destabilise security in the Pacific”. Barter told reporters that he felt Downer’s letter was “totally out of place”.

Cuba and Venezuela both keep a clear distinction between aid and trade. While aid is given without regard for ideological differences, trade policies can sometimes be used in a good cause. Thus on June 24 President Chavez announced that his government would stop selling oil to European Union countries that implement a new racist EU policy under which “illegal” immigrants can be detained for up to 18 months.

The selfless assistance provided by Cuba and Venezuela demonstrates that it is not impossible to provide real aid to people who need it around the world. Worldwide human solidarity is a meaningless phrase for capitalist governments, but will become more real the more others follow the revolutionary examples of Cuba and Venezuela.

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