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The history of foreign aid is steeped in imperialism

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Right wingers are using revelations about Oxfam in Haiti for their own ends. Tomáš Tengely-Evans looks at what socialists should say about foreign aid
Issue 2592
Haitians unloading relief supplies in 2008
Haitians unloading relief supplies in 2008 (Pic: Marion Doss/Flickr)

Tory politicians and the press want to use people’s horror at sexual abuse by Oxfam workers in Haiti to undermine foreign aid.

The Daily Express newspaper is running a “crusade” against “foreign aid madness” headed up by the bigot Jacob Rees-Mogg.

But the British foreign aid budget of £12 billion is minuscule compared to the £40 billion that goes to the military. And this doesn’t include the £120 billion going towards renewing Trident nuclear weapons.

It’s little wonder that the biggest recipient of foreign aid in the world is Afghanistan, which has been destroyed by Western occupation.

Yet by far the biggest concentration of recipients is in Africa. The whole continent was underdeveloped by European imperialist powers in the 19th century—and still suffers from that legacy.

Around 12 million Africans were shipped from West Africa to North America and the Caribbean between 1600 and 1850.

As well as causing immense suffering, this brutal process turned the clock back on African society. The population of West and Central Africa in 1850 was 25 million—around half of what it would have been without the slave trade.

After colonies won independence, the West kept them locked into a cycle of debt dependency.

Oxfam scandal—another Western crime against Haiti
Oxfam scandal—another Western crime against Haiti
  Read More

The French made Haiti agree to pay 90 million gold francs over 122 years in compensation after a slave rebellion kicked out the colonisers in 1804. It’s a key reason why the Caribbean island remains poverty-stricken and reliant on foreign aid.

Some right wingers resent giving money to those who suffer because of imperialism.

But others in the ruling class support foreign aid because it can help further their imperialist interests.

That’s why former prime minister David Cameron committed the Tories to the UN’s target of spending target of 0.7 percent of national income.

The West attaches strings to foreign aid such as privatising the schools or hospitals that foreign aid funded, or helping Western military forces in warzones. And one of the most explicit forms of exploitation is “tied aid”, which forces developing countries to buy products from donor countries.

We have to stand against the racist campaign of the Express, but our response can’t just be to say increase foreign aid. It has to be transformed.

Western imperialism should be made to pay for its plunder of the Global South.

Banks and multinationals should be stopped from taking profits out of Africa and all debt should be cancelled.

This requires the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor on a world scale. And it will take a fight by workers and the oppressed in the Global South and developed countries against imperialism.

Private contracts are no bridge to decent education

The collapse of outsourcing giant Carillion exposed the scam of private finance initiatives.

The great PFI swindle
The great PFI swindle
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But that hasn’t stopped the West exporting this disastrous model in the form of public private partnerships (PPP).

PPP projects see private firms build major infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals or roads in the Global South.

The West stumps up some money to support the projects, but the local governments are then left with large bills to pay off in the future.

Over 150 international organisations published a global campaign manifesto highlighting the scandal last autumn.

The examples it uses show how Britain and other Western states have used foreign aid, often in former colonies, to push bosses’ interests.

A World Bank-backed PPP hospital in Lesotho “costs three times more than the public hospital it replaced—$67 million a year”.

And it ended up “eating up more than half the public health budget” of the country.


One of the biggest winners of aid in Africa is Bridge International Academies (BIA).

Headquartered in London, BIA is backed by the British government, the World Bank, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft boss Bill Gates.

Western-backed private schools are becoming a huge market in Africa with one in four pupils expected to be in private education by 2021.

BIA founders say they set it up to “create a high-performing school that would immediately change their children’s lives and prepare them to succeed in life”.

Whatever they set out to do, they disgracefully made a lot of money at the expense of ordinary Africans.

In Liberia “the PPP contract with Bridge International Academies costs 13 to 21 times more than government schools”.

And “students were expelled en masse from their original schools” to facilitate it.

The Nigerian High Court ordered the closure of 63 BIA schools because they were using unqualified teachers and had unsanitary learning conditions.

It’s not the only time African governments have ordered the closure of BIA schools.

Widespread opposition to BIA saw the company take Kenyan teaching unions to court in 2016 in a bid to silence them.

Hypocritical Tory criticism

The scandal of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights is bigger than Priti Patel
Priti Patel and the Golan Heights scandal
  Read More

Sacked international development secretary Priti Patel is making headlines about how she wouldn’t give Oxfam money.

But she was happy to hold secret meetings with top Israeli officials about giving the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) foreign aid money.

There’s no outcry from right wingers if foreign aid goes to the West’s allies rather than to people in need.

It’s only a problem when aid is going to Palestinians suffering at the hands of IDF occupation forces.

The West relies on charities

The West sees the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that give it out as an auxiliary force in conflicts.

At the height of the “war on terror” US defence secretary Colin Powell said that “NGOs are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team”.

Clauses in Afghan contracts say NGOs “should support military efforts in communities by helping to ‘hold’ areas after they are cleared” or “direct support of ongoing and planned counterinsurgency efforts”.

Consultants in on the action

Consultancy Adam Smith International is an offshoot of think tank Adam Smith Institute which lobbies against “government interference” in the market.

That didn’t stop it trousering £450 million in government aid funding since 2011.

Four top executives at Adam Smith International were forced to resign last April after the Department for International Development froze its funding.

It tried to get a leg up over rival consultants by using leaked government documents.

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