Foreign Folly


Aid as Obstacle, by Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins, and David Kinley, San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1980, 189 pp., $4.95.

Surprise! The quite liberal authors of this book have come to the reluctant conclusion that foreign aid, of which the US government disbursed over $8 billion in 1980, "fails to help the poor because it is of necessity based on one fundamental fallacy: that aid can reach the powerless even though channeled through the powerful.…In fact, the influx of such outside resources into those countries where economic control is concentrated in the hands of a few bolsters the local, national and international elites whose stranglehold over land and other productive resources generates poverty and hunger in the first place. Instead of helping, we hurt the dispossessed majority."

Could even Murray Rothbard have put that better? But the idea of foreign aid is a fiction that most Americans are reluctant to give up.

The poverty of nations is not a cosmic joke; it is rooted in some cause. Often, that cause is a combination of national character, foreign domination and distortion, and a ghoulish politico-economic system. So the countries with the worst of these qualities are often the poorest, and the poorest countries are those most eligible for foreign aid—like Egypt, the Philippines, Mexico, Greece, and Pakistan. Isn't it ironic that the top-ten list of nations receiving US aid contains some of the world's most militaristic and socialistic governments? It makes one wonder about the sanity of US policymakers, who pay lip service to free enterprise and democracy while handing out dollars to bureaucrats contemptuous of such quaint notions in their homelands.

One's heart does ache to see pictures of starving children. But giving money to such dictators as Marcos of the Philippines will not allow those kids to eat better. What it will do is solidify his position of power. It's not fair; it angers one; but burying centuries-old problems in layers of greenbacks will not magically erase them, particularly when many of those problems were caused in the first place by invaders placing selected groups into positions of power.

There is also the moral question of whether it is right for government leaders to mortgage their citizens' future earnings to pay back aid loans. Take, for instance, the plight of some 10,000 Kalinga farmers (a Philippine mountain tribe in northern Luzon), who are being "persuaded" to leave their fields so that a World Bank-funded hydropower project can be raised. Persuasion is taking the form of the 60th Philippine Constabulary Battalion. What chance do the farmers have against such forces? And by 1990, the authors contend, the debt service of underdeveloped countries will consume 90 percent of the loans received.

Another alarming aspect of foreign aid is that its administrators are obviously no fans of Adam Smith. The International Monetary Fund, the authors report, does not approve loans to overextended governments unless they agree to, among other things, introduce wage controls and raise interest rates. Another aid agency, the Export-Import Bank, makes loans to less-developed countries to buy US products. The US Treasury then guarantees the loans benefiting such multinationals as Boeing, General Electric, and Chrysler.

The book itself is cleverly designed as a series of lengthy answers to what the authors perceive to be the 20 most likely questions about foreign aid. They respond to potential criticism of their stance, too. Some of the questions are:

Doesn't US aid have a moderating influence on repressive foreign governments? What happens to our food aid when it reaches a country where the majority of people are hungry? Aren't you arguing a chancy and cruel proposition that even though an aid cut-off might hurt some people today it is necessary so that structural changes can, in the longer run, eradicate hunger?

Particularly useful is a list at the back of the book of all the major aid establishments; reading that section first helps with the rest.

Interestingly, question 19"Is nongovernmental private aid the solution?"points up the advantages and disadvantages of nongovernmental aid; or rather, it points out the potential advantages that most nongovernmental agencies, alas, ignore. Nongovernmental agencies have the option of working directly with the needy, without government; "Nonetheless, the majority of voluntary agencies, especially the largest, seem to opt to collaborate directly with foreign governments." Nongovernmental agencies need not reflect the official US government policies; "Unfortunately, many…have become heavily dependent on US government monies, making them increasingly indistinguishable from agents of the US government." One option that seems alive and well is that the smaller private agencies are less enchanted with bureaucracy and are therefore willing to work on small-budget projects, which seem to be the more successful type of aid.

Question 20"What…is the appropriate response of those who want to help the hungry overseas?"is more disturbing. The one irritating aspect of this book is that its authors hold that view of human society that Jane Fonda once summed up in an interview: "If you alter social institutions and social priorities, you begin to change people's basic natures." Thus, the authors blame today's "market" system for the state of the world. They recommend instead that "the majority of people…participate in deciding how the society's resources are to be used and for whose gain."

Having said that, I should also point out that one most refreshing aspect of this work is that the authors allow their indignation, their concern, and their intense activism to shine through the cut-and-dried facts and figures. They have a vision of a hungerless world, and whatever the merits of that position, they are able to make the reader angry about the status quo, angry at the way governments play with the lives of individuals.

Christine M. Dorffi is a free-lance writer. She spent the first 22 years of her life in the Philippines.