Replacing International Oppression with International Aid

President John F. Kennedy urging University of Michigan students to support and join the Peace Corp in 1960.

The outpouring of humanitarian aid from numerous nations for the suffering people of Haiti is truly extraordinary — particularly when set against the shabby record of the past.

After all, in previous centuries the French government invaded Haiti, enslaved its people and, when the Haitians arose and drove out the French, subsequently crippled its economy by foisting a huge reparations burden upon the nation. The American government was not much more generous, for it refused to establish diplomatic relations with Haiti for nearly six decades, imposed a trade embargo upon it, occupied it militarily from 1915 to 1934, backed ruthless dictators, and helped oust democratically-elected governments. Other nations have unclean hands, as well.

Even so, there is something about vast human suffering that sparks generosity in people, that appeals to their better instincts — even, at times, the humane instincts of normally callous, power-wielding government officials.

So why should humanitarian aid be extraordinary? Why not make it routine? Long before the earthquake, Haitians were the poorest people in the hemisphere, suffering from widespread hunger, disease, and illiteracy. Could not the United States — the richest nation in the world with a public whose major anxieties (to judge from the vast attention given to weight loss) seem to result from over-eating — manage to share a bit of its affluence by regularly providing food aid to starving Haitians? And what about building hospitals to provide health care and schools to promote literacy? Such programs would surely be good for Haiti and for numerous other poverty-stricken nations.

Critics of this idea point to overseas aid programs of past decades and ask: Hasn’t this project already been tried? To some degree, it has. But these aid programs usually were tied to America’s Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, and were turned on or off when the competitors found it useful. In this fashion, aid programs were shaped to win support from governments or to secure other objectives on the chessboard of world politics. Such was the fate of the Alliance for Progress. Furthermore, the aid was predominantly military aid, which did little more than encourage Third World military coups or keep tyrants in power. Comparatively little aid went to nutrition, health care, and education.

There were exceptions, of course. The Peace Corps dispatched tens of thousands of American volunteers to economically underdeveloped nations, where they worked ably at a variety of ameliorative projects, usually in education. George McGovern’s Food for Peace program, initiated in the early 1960s, rescued millions of people from starvation. At one point, 20 percent of Indian schoolchildren were fed by it.

In the post-Cold War years, however, major humanitarian aid programs were replaced by loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But these loans, ostensibly designed to foster economic development, were often directed toward integrating recipient nations into trade relationships with multinational corporations, and all too often left such countries impoverished and debt-ridden.

For the most part, U.N. agencies and many private aid organizations (like the American Friends Service Committee, Doctors Without Borders, and the International Red Cross) have taken up the slack in providing food, health care, and education to people in poverty-stricken nations. And despite their very limited resources, they have done a remarkable job of it.

But suppose that the wealthy nations pumped billions of dollars a year into programs for the world’s hungry, sick, and illiterate. And suppose that they did this not on an ad hoc, crisis basis, but as a long-term, routine matter through the United Nations.

Isn’t this the ethical thing, the moral thing to do? And wouldn’t they also be creating a reservoir of goodwill that would soften the grievances of the downtrodden, the bitter, and the desperate — indeed, might be more effective in undermining terrorism than the endless, trillion dollar wars that are now being waged?

Perhaps, as Eleanor Roosevelt once urged, it’s time to begin substituting food, health care, and education for warfare and other oppressive programs.

Lawrence S. Wittner

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

Republished with permission from the History News Network.

LA Progressive

Comments

  1. Blake says

    Prof. Wittner asks

    “So why should humanitarian aid be extraordinary? Why not make it routine? Long before the earthquake, Haitians were the poorest people in the hemisphere, suffering from widespread hunger, disease, and illiteracy. Could not the United States — the richest nation in the world with a public whose major anxieties (to judge from the vast attention given to weight loss) seem to result from over-eating — manage to share a bit of its affluence by regularly providing food aid to starving Haitians? And what about building hospitals to provide health care and schools to promote literacy? Such programs would surely be good for Haiti and for numerous other poverty-stricken nations.”

    The answer to his questions is that it can’t work. It leads to nothing beyond endless dependency (and ever-increasing populations in the same sorry situations! Haiti is clearly vastly overpopulated …).

    Two reasons. The less important one is the unerring ability of the receiving societies’ elites (or strongest thugs — probably the same thing!) to divert the gifted resources to their own accounts.

    More important, a society that’s the recipient of all this largess won’t ever develop the folkways and institutions it needs to finally become something other than a basket case. YOU CAN’T DO OTHER PEOPLE’S DEVELOPMENT FOR THEM.

    The books of Lawrence E. Harrison (The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself; Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind; Who Prospers: How Cultural Values Shape Economic And Political Success; Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress) are on this subject. Harrison is a political science professor at Tufts and a former manager for USAID in Latin America.

  2. says

    Our nation uses its wealth to reach out and dominate markets and resources, not to support poor populations because there is “no money in that”. We don’t even do much of a job of taking care of the poor and distressed in the US using means tests to make sure that no one lives “too good” on public welfare. Hungary and hurting people, but not starving and disabled, make good workers. Too, helping in cases like Haiti makes people “feel good” around their religious beliefs and reaches down to the altruistic and cooperative traits that helped our species develop societies and move away from, though capitalists would like us not to believe it, brute selfishness and competition as the main motivators of civilizations. If we operated on the basis of our altruistic inheritance the world would be a different place. When the communists using the base of the Soviet Union tried to move out into the world with development instead of warfare we responded with “good works” and warfare until the USSR was brought down and then we reverted to imperial domination with almost totally military aid (One could argue that Israel is the exception that proves the point although even there we probably give more military aid than civilian aid.). If one goes back to the Alliance for Progress, JFK’s plan to help Latin America, and you get beyond the rhetoric of development and democracy and look at what was provided it was military, police, torture training, anti-communist propaganda and money to buy the affection, read subservience, of the elites that controlled the Latin American nations. Many social democratic countries, which are very interesting, practice foreign aid and development much different than we do and their experience proves that it is not necessary to always attempt to dominate, extort, and plunder.

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