The World

Mar 2, 2018

The truth of how, and why, our aid system keeps poor countries poor

Crikey speaks with filmmaker and author Antony Loewenstein about how international aid has been failing countries in crisis for decades -- often intentionally.

Charlie Lewis — Journalist

Charlie Lewis


The documentary Disaster Capitalism opens with the earthquake in Haiti, 2010. Through the ghostly fog of CCTV video, we see the ground furiously shake buildings into dust. Fronted by Australian journalist and writer Antony Loewenstein and shot over six years, in collaboration with director Thor Neureiter, Director of Video at Columbia University, the film visits and revisits three countries -- Haiti, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea --  riven by various crises and trapped in a cycle of dependence on Western aid. This cycle, Loewenstein tells Crikey, is no accident.

"I thought it was important to look at how these countries are connected politically and financially, in other words, how certain conditions are designed to keep poor countries poor," he said. 

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9 thoughts on “The truth of how, and why, our aid system keeps poor countries poor

  1. graybul

    One part of this problem . . . too many Aid Charities on the government teat or successful enough to have built an effective marketing business plan; have abandoned or never accommodated, fundamental humanitarian beliefs, values, intrinsic to, essential for, catering to human needs.

  2. nino

    Many of us on the left have known for years how aid keeps countries subservient to western interests. It is only charities that bang on about it all the time. Charities have no interest in ending poverty, why would they? Those at the top have cushy well paid jobs. Foreign aid is only a fraction of the trillions of dollars every year that is stolen through shell companies, transfer pricing, and bribery and corruption.

  3. klewso

    I hope you’re not including the Howard government’s bugging of East Timor’s cabinet rooms, during those negotiations, as another negative example of the way we Mal-treat our little brown neighbours?
    Imagine what all that extra money could have done to their poor country too?

  4. Charlie Chaplin

    Damn Charlie! I wish you’d run this story last month so I had the chance to see the film in Sydney. Victorian readers are out of luck, too, because there was only one Melbourne screening and it was yesterday. Everyone else in the country is shit out of luck because it isn’t being screened anywhere else unless you’re in a position to organise a screening yourself.

    1. Charlie Chaplin

      Oh well. Looks like I need to take a trip to Newcastle University and ask them if they’ll host a screening.

  5. AR

    “Foreign aid is a gift from the poor in rich countries to the rich in poor countries”.
    The widow’s mite is the basis of most charity.

  6. Reg Boyle

    Thank you Charlie Lewis.

    Paternalism has always been a problem for me. Can or should I tell my children how to spend the money they obviously need due to that accursed under-employment? I can see they need advice but most, I have six, take it reluctantly or even angerally while spend most of it on fuel to get from where they are to where they’d rather be. My Tamil child whom I have never met but assist through World Vision, is quite a different case. At least, I suppose he is, I have no idea but send him his $48 a month knowing that World Vision will take what it needs and pass the rest on to his mum. I assume the pressure of the need concentrates the local mind in how best to spend what is a pittance here but a windfall there. Waste (or misdirection) is unavoidable and as my partner sighs out regularly, “but what can yur do?” A frustratingly rhetorical question. You can offer advice and skill but always with the expectation that it will be rejected if it is seen as paternalism.

  7. Woopwoop

    “get’s” ?
    Please Crikey, employ a sub-editor with minimal literacy.
    On another topic, asking people what they want doesn’t always mean they can see their own long-term best interest.
    A social worker I know had a meeting with outer-suburb mums and asked them what local facility they’d most like to see. “A TAB” was the answer.

  8. kyle Hargraves

    Heddings containing the phrases : “the truth of how” or the “true story” or the “real truth” …. generally causes me to turn the page. However, this topic has “done the rounds” but by way of a summary Helen Zille, the white former leader of South Africa’s main opposition party – viz., the Democratic Alliance pointed out that (British – or Dutch or any) colonialism was no bad thing (for various reasons). The Pavlovian response, world-wide, from the untutored in history or economics was duly anticipated. YET there is not ONE instance of “improvement” (e.g. a significant increase in GDP or the HDI) in respect of a country having obtained independence from a western power with the exception of Singapore.

    The university system in South Africa has declined (qua F.W. de Klerk) from excellent to mediocre at best (but generally below) and many would not go that far. Smith received no assistance from Britain (quite the contrary) yet Zimbabwe, by contrast, noted for its land invasions, theft of real property, state repression, and erratic rule by its former dictator Robert Mugabe received visitations from the Archbishop of Canterbury (inter alia) no less.

    Anyone can (or ought) to be able to research the effects of Foreign Direct Investment (mostly bad although some [a few] good), the effects of the regulations of the WTO, grants (IMF etc.) and the effects of globalisation generally on third-world countries.

    There is also the matter of birth rate in third world countries. Currently, by way of a typical example, consider the “Democratic” Republic of the Congo and Italy; they have roughly the same population (sixty odd million; DRC a tad more).
    The DRC has diamonds, gold, copper, zinc and any number of other natural resources. It also has about a 4% birth rate which is utterly out of control even for a country with such resources. Then add tribalism (which is rife and extremely destructive. Let’s not mention the government. The comparison of the two countries is interesting because Italy (industrial north and [more or less] rural south) has its own problems too but its population will increase by a few million, only, over the next 30 years whereas the DRC could touch 200 million.

    Criticisms of just how aid is acquitted in third world countries is beginning to be reported and its not “nice” reading. However, the macro view is, as André Gunder Frank, put it 50 years ago, “a third world country IS in its most developed state” – allowing for relativities; my emphasis. The 21st century colonialism that is being undertaken by China has yet to yield results but the main question is : “are the countries that have received independence from their colonial masters (circa sixty years ago – almost two generations) up to the task (even with aid)? Apparently not : but they could create their own trading bloc and follow Singapore.

    Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia are ceasing to be the basket-cases they once were and a similar remark could be made for some countries comprising South America. Let’s review it in a decade.

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