Revolution #108, November 11, 2007

From A World to WinNewsService

Starvation, Aid Agencies and the Benevolence of the Imperialists

October 1,  2007. A World to Win News Service. There are aid agencies all over the world whose mission, they say, is “to help the poor in the poorest countries.” Public budgets and private donors in the world’s most powerful countries allocate billions of dollars to these “benevolent operations.”

There is rarely a year when some oppressed countries, especially in Africa, are not faced with a food crisis due to a natural disaster or war. Globally, between 800 million and a billion people are chronically hungry. Some 25,000 people die every day due to hunger and related causes.

When a new disaster or famine comes about, once again people in the West are bombarded by appeals, and of course good-hearted people show their kindness in order to save the hungry. This is as far as it can go in Western mainstream advertising. There is no mention of the root cause, nor of who is responsible—and still less of how people can free themselves from chronic hunger and repeated natural disasters. In fact, the situation is presented as if there were no solution and nothing for the hungry to hope for but charity from the rich countries. But how legitimate is the foreign aid given to the oppressed countries? What are the goals and results of this aid?

The Reality That CARE Could No Longer Hide

In mid-August of this year, one of the biggest and best-known American charity organizations, CARE, announced that it was turning down $45 million a year in aid from the U.S. government. The charity’s reason for this was that the way that U.S. aid is structured causes rather than reduces hunger in the countries where it is directed

The CARE announcement prompted much argument about the forms and objectives of the aid given by the U.S. and other big powers to third world countries and the role that most charity organizations are playing.

The background reasoning for this policy change was spelled out in CARE’s “White Paper on Food Aid Policy” ( written in 2006. As the White Paper points out, U.S. and in fact almost all foreign food aid in today’s world is “tied”—in other words, the money donated must be used to purchase food in the home country. This means that food aid is driven by “the export and surplus disposal objectives of the exporting country” and not the needs of the people. Further, when this food is distributed for free in the target country, it can wipe out local farmers. In this sense, the White Paper concludes, food “aid” often works to the detriment of developing local food production.

In addition, CARE focuses its criticism on the policy known as “monetizing.” Under this system, the U.S. government buys surplus products from American agribusinesses that have already been heavily subsidized. Then these products are given to aid agencies to be sold in African or other countries to raise money for charitable projects. By law, the products must be carried by ships registered in the U.S., generating transport costs that eat up much of the $2 billion annual food aid provided by the U.S. government. As the press reported, the CARE announcement “caused a huge upset in the American charitable sectors.” That has made it difficult for other charity organizations to further ignore or hide the harm their work causes to the people and farmers in those countries. CARE previously objected to this practice in 2005, and its recent announcement came at the time when the U.S. Congress was considering a new farm bill.

“Neither the Bush administration nor members of Congress are looking to undo the practice, which has gone on for more than a decade. The farm bloc is powerful, but when you add these benevolent organizations, the totality of that has blocked change in the system,” former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said about this situation. (International Herald Tribune, August 14, 2007)

The fact that this monetizing system is a way of subsidizing American agriculture may be why it has come under criticism from European countries, which have been under pressure from the U.S. to reduce their subsidies to their own agriculture sector. As BBC reported January 16, 2006, “The EU has criticized the U.S. food aid policy, accusing the U.S. of using this way in order to evade the rules that limit agriculture subsidies.”

But the problem goes far deeper than what CARE and many other critics admit. CARE certainly knew about the destructive outcome of this policy long before they objected, and long after they did, they still went along with it. Even now, they have announced that they will not abandon it before September 2009. This charity organization says that its goal in abandoning monetization is to increase the amount of cash they can spend and make their aid more efficient. They point out that now they have to carry the expenses of handling and selling the crops, while most of the aid money is lost to the maritime companies. But more importantly, the results of this policy have been so obviously destructive that charities have lost more and more of their credibility. This has raised questions in the minds of their own workers and staff, many of whom are working voluntarily or have chosen this job out of a genuine desire to help the people. These charities are increasingly seen as an organ of imperialist functioning in the oppressed countries. For example, during a youth rebellion against the U.S. army in Kabul, Afghanistan last year, an angry crowd attacked the CARE office.

Given this situation, the charity would rather receive its share of U.S. aid in cash instead of crops. But as the White Paper admits, using aid money to buy food locally could have a variety of very different results, depending on how it is done and what overall policies this practice is part of. It could, in fact, still do more harm than good.

Whatever shape or form this aid might take, its goals and results are likely to stay mainly the same—to serve the overall economic, political and strategic goals that the U.S. and other imperialist powers are pursuing in third world countries. Even in cases of real food emergencies and famine, aid policies are not independent of these aims. Whether or not the aid programs are meant to harm the farmers, the masses and the economy of the countries they target, certainly some people have been aware of the negative effects for a long time, so it is more than reasonable to doubt their good faith. But far more importantly, the point is that the logic of capitalism and the economic, political and social interests of the imperialist powers are in contradiction to those of the masses in the oppressed countries—as they are to the interests of most of humanity. Ultimately they can only work against the people’s interests no matter what intentions lay behind them. These programs are simply an extension of other imperialist policies in the sphere of aid.

The Politics of Aid

The results of these programs are brutally obvious and widely noticed. This policy “undermines African farmers’ ability to produce food, making the most vulnerable countries of the world even more dependent on aid to avert famine.” (The Independent, August 17, 2007)

Some people might think that even if some farmers are driven out of business or off the land by such programs, at least their countries are saved from starvation. But the consequences are even more far-reaching. By wiping out farmers or holding back the development of agriculture, such aid programs become part of the process by which the countries grow more dependent on the imperialists in every sphere, politically as well as economically. The result can be more hunger, at least for some people, as their countries are tied ever more tightly to the world market.

It is not enough to criticize this policy for not being “efficient” or because it puts the interests of U.S. companies first. It actually misses the main point to conclude that the problem is the way American agribusiness and shipping companies benefit from these aid programs and use their lobbies in Congress to promote this policy and block change. There is certainly truth to this, but the more fundamental aims of such policies are rooted in something far more crucial than the interests of a few companies. Strategic goals are at stake. The fact that the U.S. ruling class and other imperialists have allocated a fairly large budget for their “benevolent” operations indicates that they see the input in aid as a long-term investment in line with their overall goals in the oppressed countries.

In a letter to the G8 leaders referring to the effect of cheap imports, former Ghana president Jerry Rawlings wrote: “In Ghana, for example, textile factories are closing down, the poultry industry is in crisis, and our farmers cannot compete with cheap imports. Thousands are losing productive jobs.” (The Guardian, July 14, 2005)

Whether these imports are in the form of aid or are just normal business doesn’t make much difference, because the results are the same: ever-tightening relations of dependency tying the economic structures of the oppressed countries to the imperialist-dominated world economy and often the interests of a specific imperialist country.

Aid and Politics

It is not hard to see that providing so-called humanitarian aid is a political act. This seems to be a widely accepted fact among many politicians, journalists and intellectuals, even though they don’t often say it very loudly. As Joan Macrae from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI-UK) put it, “Humanitarian action has always been highly political… The issue is not whether humanitarian aid is politicized, but how.” (“Politics vs aid: is coherence the answer?” Insights, January 2002, ID21 website. ID21 is “enabled” by the UK Government Department for International Development.) Another article in the same issue of this publication says, “Aid and politics have always been connected. During the Cold War, for example, investment flows, development efforts and humanitarian assistance tended to reflect the changing pattern of superpower alliance and competition. Aid agencies were caught up in the dynamics of this situation.”

The politics of aid is much too broad a topic to be thoroughly addressed here, but to summarize, they cover a wide range of short-term and long-term economic, political and social interests that differ from case to case. In other words, humanitarian aid to different countries can have different motivations. In some cases short-term political interests are primary, while in others long-term economic interests predominate. In general, during the Cold War era, the conflict between the East and West imperialist blocs (and specifically the anti-Soviet goals of the U.S.) played a big role in the orientation of aid policies.

To give an example: The American government’s foreign aid agency USAID “paid the University of Nebraska U.S. $51 million from 1984 to 1994 to develop and design these textbooks, which were mostly printed in Pakistan. Over 13 million were distributed at Afghan refugee camps and Pakistani madrasas [religious schools] ‘where students learnt basic math by counting dead Russians and Kalashnikov rifles.’... The following example shows a math textbook for 4th grade children that asks the following question:

“‘The speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3,200 meters from a mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian’s head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead.’” (From “The Politicization of Development Aid to Education after September 11,” Mario Novelli and Susan Robertson, in Schooling and the Politics of Disaster, edited by K. Saltman, published by Taylor and Francis. Available at the Bristol University Web site: uk. Internal quotes from Pakistan, Madrasas, Extremism and the Military, Islamabad/Brussels: International Crisis Group-Asia, 2002.)

It is worth mentioning that the U.S. is now targeting these same madrasas as promoters of Islamic violence!

After the Cold War, there was a shift or at least a prioritization of aid policy by the Western countries towards the promotion of economic neo-liberalism and privatization—in other words, away from the short-term political goals of defeating the rival Soviet bloc and more towards pushing “aided” countries to become more deeply integrated into the globalized capitalist economy that became possible once the rival imperialist bloc fell.

The conditions that are attached to aid, including loans granted by the imperialist powers or through their brokers such as the World Bank or the IMF, were and still are damaging and destructive to the economy of oppressed countries. The big powers press for the privatization of state companies, for budget “discipline” and reducing or eliminating subsidies for consumer goods, especially those meeting basic needs such as food, for open borders, trade liberalization, free trade and the suspension of fixed exchange rate. All of these are in the interests of the imperialist powers and go directly against the interests of the masses in the “target” countries. Sometimes the immediate result is more hunger.

In any case, these policies and the inevitable working of global capitalism itself bring more dependency. For example, the continuation of this form of aid to Mali has resulted in the privatization of its cotton production, its main economic sector, while now a quarter of its national budget is directly dependent on foreign aid. The economic strings that come attached to this aid are not the only ones. There is also social and ideological blackmail, such as the restrictions on abortion and birth control that come with U.S. aid.

In recent years “humanitarian” aid has been merged with military invasion following the model of the so-called U.S.-European “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo and Bosnia.

The signboard of “humanitarian intervention” has served as a justification that enabled the imperialist powers to fool people who should have known better, including among intellectual circles, into supporting the invasion of Afghanistan. This was even more formalized as policy after September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it in a speech January 18, 2006, “In this world it is impossible to draw neat, clear lines between our security interests, our development efforts and our democratic ideals. American diplomacy must integrate and advance all of these goals together.” (Cited in “Playing Politics with Aid: The Unholy Trinity of Defense, Diplomacy and Development in the War on Terrorism,” Anuradha Mittal, February 27, 2006,


Aid from the imperialist countries, whether in the case of emergency needs or for development programs, whether in the form of monetizing, cash, loans or “humanitarian intervention” or whatever else, fits into the overall policies of the donor country meant to serve its political, economic and strategic interests. As a journalist put it, “Democrats and Republicans have increasingly viewed foreign aid as a ‘soft power’ tool that can improve America’s image.” (Newsweek, September 17, 2007) However, “interests” would be a more correct term than “image.”

The aid agencies, which are mainly financed by the governments of the imperialist powers, have very limited independence. Inevitably they are directly or indirectly under the governmental chain of command. Whether they like it or not, they serve their government’s aims. While many aid workers sacrifice and risk their lives, the intentions of those who organize and finance these agencies should be sharply questioned and exposed. “Humanitarian” aid and the role that the aid agencies are playing is losing credibility. The practice of the last few decades shows its ineffectiveness and, even more than that, the harm that it is inflicting on the people of the regions in need. So it is not surprising that today there is great concern “that aid workers and relief organizations [are beginning] to be seen as mere adjuncts to the broader military and security concerns of the most powerful nations.” (Novelli and Robertson)

What the people of Africa and other oppressed nations need is not the conditioned help of imperialists that further chains the people, but a New Democratic and then socialist revolution to liberate the nation from any sort of imperialist domination and to revolutionize the relations of production, including giving land to the tiller and freeing the farmers and peasants to work the land. An Africa that not long ago “was more than self-sufficient in food…is now a massive food importer. And in less than 40 years went from being a net exporter of basic food staples to relying on imports and food aid.” (BBC Web site, January 26, 2006) This shows that Africa has enough resources and hard-working people to feed itself and fight natural and man-made disasters and advance toward a better future. But the people need first to free themselves from imperialist domination and smash the old economic, political and social relations that make imperialist domination possible. Otherwise the games of politics with aid will continue and the worsening cycle of hunger, famine and disaster will never end.  

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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