Humanitarian aid - an instrument of imperialism

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When the Asian tsunami struck, the media concentrated considerable attention on the aid that would be donated by the population and governments of the rich Western countries. They presented this as an expression of ‘humanitarian concern’ on the part of both the population and the governments. In the case of the giving from the general population, that did, of course, express solidarity with the victims of the disaster. In the case of the governments matters are different.

As we said in our article on the tsunami (see the ICC website):

As for the financial aid initially promised by governments around the world, and notably by the most developed countries, it was so miserly that the UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland even described the ‘international community’ as skinflints.

Faced with the extent of the disaster, the various capitalist states have behaved like real vultures, bidding up their aid with the sole objective of appearing more ‘generous’ than their rivals. The USA has proposed $350 million, instead of the initial announcement of $35 million (while they are spending $1 billion a week on the war in Iraq, and $1 billion a month in Afghanistan!), Japan has offered $500 million, and the European Union $436 million. France, which spends 1 billion a year on its military interventions, even thought it could take the lead among donor countries with its $50 million; then it was the turn of Australia, Britain, Germany, etc.”

We also explained in this article that the sums delivered by the bourgeoisie end up a great deal less than what is offered in the headlines:

This verbal upping the stakes is all the more disgusting, in that it is a pure sham, since the promised aid is seldom followed by payment. We should remember that the ‘international community’ of imperialist gangsters promised $100 million after the earthquake in Iran (December 2003), of which only $17 million has been paid. The same thing happened in Liberia: $1 billion promised, $70 million paid.”

But there is more to uncover behind the appearance of aid than the fact that it is frequently just an empty promise.

The grand schemes of aid and the reality of the economic crisis

The bourgeoisie has made much ado about the idea of a debt moratorium for the poorest countries. It came up as one of the ways to offer aid in response to the tsunami disaster:

As for the proposed moratorium on debt repayments for the countries hit by the disaster, this is a bubble that will soon burst, since it is merely proposed to put off payment of interest on the debt, not to wipe it out completely. Moreover, among the countries most affected by the tidal wave, five will have to pay $32 billion dollars of debt next year; in other words ten times more than they have been promised in ‘humanitarian aid’ (and which is probably far more than they will actually receive).”

Some countries that have been offered this kind of debt relief are thinking of turning it down - such aid can be an even more potent disaster than the tsunami itself: “Thank heavens the debtor nations can see sense even if many in the west remain blinded by the simplistic policies of the debt forgiveness lobby. Your article … correctly pointed out that many of the tsunami-hit debtor nations are reluctant to accept debt forgiveness from the Paris Club because of the negative impact this will have on their credit standing in the private market.” (Letter to the Financial Times, January 7, 2005).

There is also the question of where all the indebtedness of the poorest countries came from in the first place. Essentially, this is the effect of aid provided previously, which they are still trying to pay off. Aid primarily takes the form of loans at relatively low interest from a more industrialised country. This is often tied to the purchase of its goods, and these are very often armaments, since armaments are a primary export of the industrialised countries.

It is this kind of debt that it is proposed to write off. Why do the bourgeoisie want to write off this kind of debt? To answer this one needs to know what the bourgeoisie in the donor countries will get out of the arrangement..

We can look at the role of the British bourgeoisie in this issue of debt forgiveness. They are always to the fore in proposing this line of action,

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown proposed ‘a new Marshall Plan’ for the poorer countries that would involve full debt relief, a rewriting of global trade rules and an international aid fund worth half a trillion dollars over the next decade. This is something of a poisoned chalice. Such aid can buy influence within a government, fund sales from the donor, or, rarely, be rejected. Either way, it is a disaster for the population. Aid is given, when it is actually given, to support the imperialist and economic interests of the metropolitan countries – why else would they offer aid?

At the most basic economic level capitalism functions to accumulate, to make a profit – this is its fundamental law. The notion of giving for giving’s sake is alien to this logic - above all at a time when the capitalist crisis is raging through the world and the struggle to make a profit becomes more and more cut-throat. France has 10 per cent unemployment, Germany has over 5 million unemployed, Japan is, even by the strict terms of the bourgeoisie, in recession. The British bourgeoisie claim that the British economy is booming, but they cannot hide the fact that their booming economy cannot provide either housing or pensions for the younger generation. And it is these tottering metropolitan countries that are supposed to find the resources to lift the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, or the regions devastated by the tsunami, out of the desperate straits that even the bourgeoisie admit they are in!

If the so-called developing countries really were developing their economies, i.e. producing more and getting richer, why would they need aid? The fact is that they are not developing, but being ruined. The intervention of more powerful countries – by trade, aid or armed intervention - has not aided their development, but pushed the effects of the capitalist crisis onto the poorest regions.

Aid and imperialism

The crisis not only sharpens economic rivalries; it also accentuates imperialist competition. Despite all the humanitarian propaganda, aid for the stricken region was clearly divided along imperialist lines: “The same diverging interests that were present in Afghanistan and Iraq are clashing around the Indian Ocean. France has sent its Foreign Minister to accompany a first plane-load of medicines, and French President Chirac, supported by Germany, has proposed the creation of a ‘humanitarian rapid reaction force’, controlled by the European states but at the service of the United Nations.

The US response was not long in coming: the United States not only sent its ships, helicopters and aircraft to the region, it announced the creation of an international humanitarian coalition (with Australia, India, and Japan) to ‘coordinate their assistance’.

And the reasons for this division were quite clear: “The discord among the great powers, each state trying to gain an advantage over the others, are eloquent testimony to the humanitarian ‘concerns’ of these capitalist vultures. As one US official pointed out: ‘This is a tragedy, but also an opportunity. Rapid and generous help from the United States could improve our relations with the Asian countries.

Given Indonesia’s strategic importance in the Indian Ocean, it is obvious that the United States will try to profit from the disaster to gain a military footing in the region (something that the Indonesian armed forces rejected, accusing the USA of interfering in Indonesian affairs when Washington suspended its military aid to Jakarta in 1999, on the grounds of the massacres committed by the Indonesian army in East Timor). US ‘humanitarian relief’ in Sri Lanka has taken the form of a ‘peaceful’ landing by amphibious tanks (unarmed according to one officer), whose mission is ‘not to destroy but to help the population’.

The European states would also like to establish a military and diplomatic presence in the region. China is trying to assert itself as a regional power, and in doing so is coming up against opposition from Japan. And if India has refused all foreign aid, even if this means leaving the victims of the disaster to die, it is solely because it wants to assert its own presence as a regional power to be reckoned with” (ICC statement).

Aid is a direct expression of the historical crisis of capitalism, of a system plunging into economic disaster and imperialist war. To call this ‘humanitarian relief’ is the vilest hypocrisy. Hardin, 4.3.05