Charity, NoW

Patrick Bond pbond at
Mon Aug 14 15:05:42 PDT 2000

Jim, this is kind of contentious of you, in two kinds of ways:

> From: Jim heartfield <jim at>
> ... Despite the outrage
> expressed by the British government, the growing hostility between so-
> called humanitarian organisations and the people that they claim to be
> helping is growing. Last year both the South African government and the
> Palestine National Authority protested at the extent to which foreign
> aid organisations were subverting the authority of elected officials.
> ... Amy Biehl a 26-year old Fulbright
> scholar was running a voter education project in Cape Town's Guguletu
> township when she was hacked to death by four black youths chanting 'one
> settler, one bullet' in August 1993.
> ... Sadly, even with the best
> intentions, aid workers abroad are subverting the ordinary course of
> events according to principles derived from their own Western
> perceptions. Such principles often clash with those of indigenous
> peoples, leading to conflict. As long as there is inequality between the
> South and the wealthy North, humanitarian intervention will always tend
> to suit northern imperatives.

My spin's different--less systematically cynical, though not without my own confusions, you'll see.

The Biehl case was a stupid tragedy. She was a good comrade cooperante, according to all I've heard, and was dropping off some (black) friends in Gugs township when some local youth with vaguely Pan Africanist Congress political leanings went crazy, and stoned and killed her. This is not the example from which to generalise any kinds of lessons about the aid industry, and it's an insult to serious politics in SA to make these connections so glibly. Youngsters do stupid things, and in violent societies, they do stupid, violent things. I hope comrades Peter v or Russell G can chime in if they disagree, but you've chosen a tragic outlier case, in a context when the aid industry is begging for a far more structural critique.

As for the SA government's implied integrity in relation to the agendas of foreign aid agencies, I am not sure of the scene you refer to "last year" but the most important incident of complaint was in 1997, when Nelson Mandela claimed -- on the basis of a US Republican Party report -- that a liberal human-rights thinktank had an anti-government agenda. It was a seminal moment in paranoid nationalism (which we have recently had on world-class display in relation to Mbeki's AIDS posturing). It meant nothing, save a bit of momentary intimidation of cheeky NGOism, which came and went.

I'd be the first to admit that hazy politically-correct blahblah from Claire Short (DFID) and Brian Atwood (US AID) has dulled our understandings of the imperialist project. Human rights, "governance," and likeminded shrink-the-state "development" covers for fairly thorough-going manipulation and distortion of local politics. And I like your last sentence. But what's missing is a crucial link: comprador nationalism as the key mediating force in these bad, neoliberal politics and economics. Actually, on this topic, I'm now digging a wee bit into Fanon's work on the formation of the post-colonial state bourgeoisie, so as to figure out how to counteract Mbeki's extraordinary speech related to this topic, given last Friday to an EPI-style thinktank I used to labour for:

Anyhow, it's worth a bit more thinking, I hope you agree, comrade Jim.


(These next bytes are from a forthcoming article I did for a little lefty academic journal: a section that describes, journalistically, some of the terrain of aid dependency...)

Foreign Aid and Development Debates

in Post-Apartheid South Africa ... The incentives associated with donors aid are diverse. David Sogge argues that the economic agenda behind much aid has included access to markets, commercial rivalry and acquisition of local primary products. Beneficiaries include

agribusinesses; purveyors of arms, aircraft,

vehicles, pharmaceuticals and engineering

services; and universities, which accepted

African bursary holders... Consultants and

other bearers of technical assistance for SSA

have accounted for about one-third of all aid

flows... [As a result,] public sector

management is weakened, due to national

policies being segmented into discreet

projects designed by and for the aid system;

internal brain-drain to agencies from the

public service; and aid agencies developing

"kingdoms" in specified provinces, cities or

"development corridors," thus distorting

internal relationships and blocking coherent

national policy development... The aid system

has shifted accountability toward foreign

funders and away from voters and taxpayers,

undermining citizen-state reciprocity.*

Concerns over dependency and increasing donor leverage remain widespread. Less than a year after South Africa's first democratic election, the then president of the National Union of Mineworkers, James Motlatsi, pronounced, "South Africa must be independent of foreign aid... Then we will be able to get on with our independence without having to look continually over our shoulders in case we are being destabilised."*

The degree to which aid influences policy in South Africa is hotly debated. The influential policy advisory role of the World Bank, often through "donor coordination" projects, has tended to reinforce the perception that aid is tightly bound up with the broader neoliberal agenda of shrinking the state. Although virtually no loans were requested by South Africa, there have been many other means of World Bank policy persuasion, including "just-in-time policy availability," training sessions and strategic visits by South Africans to Bank headquarters. Bank teams have successfully introduced neoliberal policy advice in areas such as macroeconomic policy, the basic housing and infrastructure programme, land reform, national water pricing, welfare programme cuts, and the like. In even a policy matter as obscure (yet as vital) as bulk water pricing, the Bank describes its advisory role as "instrumental."*

Yet while there is usually some motivation by donors to induce policy changes, this is not always successful. Foreign aid "has had no net effect on the recipients' growth rate or the quality of their economic policies," according to World Bank aid researchers David Dollar and Craig Burnside in a seminal study of post-1970 donations which attempts to shift blame for ineffectual neoliberalism to aid recipients. "We got into thinking we could induce countries to reform. But it turns out this was wrong."* The occasional unreliability of foreign aid as policy leverage is reflected in the case of Taiwanese donations to South Africa. In 1994, these were apparently aimed initially at currying political favour with the ANC--a donation of $10 mn to the party prior to the first election was cited as one basis for retaining SA official recognition of Taiwan instead of the People's Republic of China*--and later at development. Thus when in 1996, South Africa reversed position by recognising the PRC, the furious Taiwanese foreign minister (John Chang) suspended grants to South Africa worth $80 mn and loans worth $50 mn.

Debate has also raged over the European Union's South Africa interests, particularly in relation to the March 1999 EU-SA free trade agreement, to which continued grant aid is integrally tied. The 12-year deal allows South Africa slightly more time than EU firms for adaptation to declining import protection. But extremely severe competition from European imports is anticipated in sectors as diverse as clothing and automobiles. The free trade agreement was controversial in part because at the last moment, in April 1999, Germany and Holland requested a brand new (seemingly unrelated) repatriation clause for illegal aliens from South Africa, and because southern European countries demanded greater agricultural protection, particularly against SA use of traditional namebrands of alcohol.*

Tied service contracts represent a highly visible way in which foreign aid supports donor constituencies. These are not unlike the tied commodity import programmes that are popular amongst aid agencies so as to assure (donor-country) sales of farm and related equipment to aid recipients. Even conservative commentator Simon Barber of Business Day newspaper alleged that Clinton's $600 mn South Africa aid package for 1994-96 was a "sleight of hand" because $72 mn were for US export promotion and at least $75 mn were not in grants but rather loan guarantees on housing loans.* US donor programmes came under further suspicion as Republican Party pressure emerged in 1995 to cut the US government aid budget, for defenders argued that they benefitted Americans as much as South Africans.

As former US representative to the United Nations Andrew Young noted when organising his "Constituency for Africa" (against the 1995 Republican Party threat to cut aid), "We get a five to one return on investment in Africa, through our trade, investment, finance and aid. Don't you see, we're not aiding Africa by sending them aid, Africa's aiding us." At the same Constituency for Africa meeting, Washington-based aid consultant Joseph Szlavik warned African aid recipients to "pay more attention to their voting in the United Nations, trying to meet the US position more often than they currently do. By moving forward, African countries will be able to `win friends and influence people' as the saying goes."*

Most evidently, this was the case when in early 1997 President Clinton threatened to withdraw aid shortly after SA Cabinet approval (in December 1996) of arms sales to Syria, which the US considers a terrorist state. According to one press report, "In the toughest public warning it has ever issued to President Nelson Mandela's government, the Clinton administration said yesterday it was `deeply concerned' by cabinet's provisional approval of a R3bn arms sale (aim-enhancing gear for Soviet-made tanks) to Syria, and might be obliged under US law to suspend aid to SA."* Although Mandela replied in March 1997 that it was immoral to abandon countries that had supported the ANC in the anti-apartheid fight "on the advice of countries that were friends of the apartheid regime" (i.e., the US), defence minister Joe Modise confirmed that a marketing permit was issued for the arms but that, in the wake of the US warning, "We did not tender, as no documentation was received from Syria."*

Later, South Africa's 1997 Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act (especially section 15c) raised a major controversy because it threatened the interests of US (and to some extent European) pharmaceutical companies by promoting cheaper generic drug imports.* In response, the companies used congressional allies to (unsuccessfully) pressure the US government in 1998 to "prohibit aid to the SA government until Congress receives a report containing the plan of action `to negotiate the repeal, suspension or termination of section 15c.'"* Only political pressure from grassroots South African and US activists was sufficient to reverse the US strategy in late 1999.

What sometimes appears as overt US involvement in South African politics is also widely condemned. At the 50th conference of the ANC in December 1997, Mandela harshly criticised USAID policies for having a political agenda, especially in support of NGO opposition groups.* As Business Day interpreted, "When government first voiced its concern about NGOs receiving foreign donor support, fears were heightened that Pretoria wanted to undermine the independence of NGOs--a crucial feature of these organisations." On the other hand, noted a Business Day editorialist,

SA needs to be careful of unnecessarily

alienating foreign donors. Aid agencies

should not be confused with charities.

Whether one likes it or not, they are

instruments of foreign policy, designed to

further their governments' political and

commercial interests.*

A confidential 1998 internal US government report more explicitly accused USAID officials of "extreme and unqualified meddling" in SA policy-making.* Key Mbeki advisor Rev Frank Chikane commented at the time that donors must "loosen aid strings, including the use of foreign nationals," who should be "a last resort in development projects. If the necessary expertise is not available in SA, it will be sourced from anywhere in the world, not necessarily from the donor nation as is now currently the practice."*

(Full article available offlist at pbond at

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