The aid-industrial complex

May 6, 2014

An aid worker describes the limitations of non-governmental organizations and U.S. economic aid in posing a challenge to global inequality.

THOSE OF us who work for foreign aid non-governmental organizations are sincere in our desire to alleviate suffering, but the deck is stacked against us by global capitalism and American imperialism.

The New York Times recently published an article on the current climate at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. government's aid agency. USAID has recently drawn attention to itself by allegedly trying to undermine the Cuban government by covertly setting up a fake Cuban twitter feed and planting anti-government tweets to foment demonstrations.

In fact, the actions weren't covert, they were "discreet"--to use USAID's word--a low publicity protocol used in multiple countries where anti-American sentiment is high. According to USAID, the tweets were by someone not on USAID's payroll, and the demonstration fomenting was a reference to "smart mobs"--not associated with the "Cuban twitter" program.

Correctly describing the fake Cuban twitter feed as a bit of a sideshow that distracts from the bigger story, New York Times journalist Ron Nixon painted the following picture: Over the years since its founding, USAID has outsourced a greater and greater portion of its work to a highly professionalized cadre of both for-profit and not-for-profit external corporations expressly focused on aid.

Workers in Indonesia unload relief supplies from USAID following a 2009 earthquake
Workers in Indonesia unload relief supplies from USAID following a 2009 earthquake

Under the current young, ambitious administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, recruited from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID has begun to shift more of its funding to major U.S. companies, like General Electric, and directly to smaller, local organizations in the recipient countries. Nixon represented this shift as a risky one, away from experienced professionals to an untried methodology that cannot hold local groups accountable and relies on major U.S. businesses to operate outside their field of expertise, skeptically quoting Sen. James Inhofe as saying, "I love [Dr. Shah] because he is willing to take on these contractors." [italics mine]

FAR FROM representing two radically different approaches in aiding the world's poor, these two sets of USAID "partners" represent two warring factions within a single "aid-industrial complex."

The aid professionals are indeed highly experienced and contribute a wealth of experience and evidence to implementing health and development projects well. I know because I am one, having worked for 15 years in global health through a few different non-profit aid organizations, exclusively on funding from either USAID or professional foundations started with (excessive) profits from major U.S. business interests and still run by the business leaders themselves.

The aid professionals are also a business, with departments dedicated to sales and marketing ("external relations"), business development ("fundraising"), and research and development ("technical advisors," which is what I am), just like any other kind of business.

USAID's stated mission is to promote U.S. foreign policy abroad. It is specifically and sophisticatedly phrased as partnering to "end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing our own security and prosperity." Professional foundations--most notably Gates, but also Buffet, Ford, Hewlett Packard and so on--coordinate with USAID closely, often explicitly and strategically.

So let us not fool ourselves. The aid-industrial complex will always prioritize the best interests of the U.S. government and economy. Whether the money comes directly from USAID or a corporate foundation, whether it goes through a professional aid organization or directly to a local group or through a U.S. company, the goal of the money is to promote the economic and geopolitical interests of the U.S. government.

At the same time, let us not minimize the positive consequences of aid among some of the most oppressed people in the world. I have been personally a part of helping thousands of mothers getting help breastfeeding their babies (where formula is neither safe--because of contaminated water--nor financially within reach); tens of thousands of women getting contraceptives which could save their lives and those of their babies (because of the risk of death to mothers and their newborns when they have babies too soon or have many deliveries); hundreds of thousands of children getting vaccinations, preventing sickness and death, and contributing to wiping out the crippling disease of polio forever--all with money from USAID and their foundation fellow donors.

But those accomplishments, while worthy, do not equal social change. They represent a bare minimum of ethical response to suffering caused be the gross inequity of wealth across the globe.

I STRUGGLED when I first entered this profession. I had sought out this work because I wanted to change the world and "empower" the world's poor to become fully participatory citizens demanding justice.

I discovered that no one can "empower" someone else, and that all money comes with strings attached. I realized that donor money on any major scale is always a tool wielded by powerful economic actors--nation-states, but also global corporations, which now wield more influence globally than most poor nation-states--to further their own interests in the global political economy.

I continue to do this work because it does alleviate suffering and increases the portion of the world's poorest people who achieve a bare minimum standard of health and well-being. But I know now that if I want to contribute to social change, I must do that through authentic social movements in my own country.

This is not to say that movements for economic and social justice must be narrowly focused on domestic issues. On the contrary, U.S. fast food workers have common cause with Bangladeshi garment factory workers. But the Walton Foundation (Walmart) will never support the two groups working together to negotiate and even strike for better working conditions. In fact, Walmart does donate to at least one major international aid non-governmental organization to work with Bangladeshi garment factories and their workers to improve conditions--precisely to improve worker retention and, explicitly, to decrease the likelihood of strikes.

So if you want to alleviate suffering, which I do, you can give to CARE or Doctors Without Borders or Save the Children or similar organizations, and you can be proud that some (very small) portion of your tax dollars go to support that work through USAID.

But if you want to change the economic conditions that create the suffering, which I do as well, join the Fight for 15 and support the Bangladeshi garment workers themselves, and the maquiladora workers just over the U.S.-Mexico border, and the poor farmers who chop bananas and pick coffee worldwide, and all the low-wage workers who subsidize our global economic regime.

Don't "give them a fish or teach them how to fish." Learn, with them, how to strike and demonstrate and appropriate social media for a truly revolutionary use of technology.

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