DECEMBER 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 12
E D I T O R I A L
It is time for progressives to think about catching up with right-wing presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan--at least on the issue of foreign aid. Despite Buchanan's twisted world view, his call for ending all U.S. foreign aid merits serious consideration.
The United States spends $15 billion on bilateral aid each year, with approximately one-third of that sum going for military aid. Neither the military nor the economic components of the aid budget serve humanitarian purposes; rather, the U.S. government has used aid to crush Third World popular movements seeking to develop autonomous, self-reliant economies and to foster Third World dependency on the United States.
U.S. military aid has had devastating consequences all over the globe. U.S. military aid goes to support armies, from Indonesia to El Salvador, that have directed U.S.-supplied weapons at civilian populations and popular insurgencies threatening those countries' power structures.
Economic assistance programs have been no less destructive than military aid.
In the last decade, the Reagan and Bush administrations have increasingly used economic aid as part of sweeping campaigns--carried out under the military doctrine of low-intensity conflict--to thwart popular efforts to make fundamental change. In this context, economic aid is really a component of a far-reaching military strategy.
But even when used for "purer" development purposes, economic aid has disastrous effects on the Third World. U.S. aid projects encourage Third World countries to produce food and manufacture goods for export and to open their doors to foreign investment. These policies, which lead to increased economic dependence and greater disparities within recipient countries, serve the interests of multinational corporations and domestic elites, but they harm Third World majorities.
A foreign aid program genuinely committed to helping the poor would recognize, as analysts at the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) and elsewhere argue, that hunger and underdevelopment are not caused by shortages of food or technology. Countries and communities almost always have the resources to provide for the needs of their population. The issue is how these resources are distributed.
Without challenging the distribution of power, seemingly unequivocally benign projects can actually increase poverty. Food First points to the example of a water pump installed to provide irrigation for a cooperative of small farmers in a Bangladesh village. Quickly usurped by the village's richest landlord, it served to increase his power and wealth, putting him in a better position to push his neighbors off their land.
It is possible to imagine an aid program which would avoid these pitfalls and challenge social and economic inequalities. By most accounts, for example, Oxfam engages in such projects.
But it is not realistic to imagine the U.S. government pursuing similar policies. Calls for the United States to redefine its national interests and confront the root causes of poverty have fallen on deaf ears in Washington, and almost definitely will continue to do so, given the corporate influence over policymaking.
In fact, the U.S. Congress is now promoting the concept of "tied aid," which requires foreign aid to be spent on U.S. goods and services, and which overtly fosters dependence rather than self-reliance.
It is realistic, however, to imagine an end to the U.S. foreign aid program. Emergency food assistance and other disaster relief should, of course, continue. To the extent that other aid, such as for family planning programs, is desirable, it should be provided through multilateral institutions, primarily the United Nations.
The record of U.S. foreign aid is so dismal and the prospects for positive reform so slight that a tactical alliance between progressives and the right-wing to cancel the program might well make sense.