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The politics of charity

Aid is not designed to bring the wretched of the earth out of poverty but to pacify unrest in the donor country’s domestic sphere

Sreeram Chaulia | The Asian Age

Feb 22, 2012

Foreign aid is both a sop to the liberal conscience of the donor state’s domestic society as well as an instrument of indirect control over recipient states. The motivations and effects of aid are frequently ulterior and detrimental, notwithstanding the altruistic rhetoric. These ugly realities were reified recently by two prominent cases, one in post-revolutionary Egypt and the other in economically growing India.

Egypt’s military-dominated interim regime is prosecuting 19 American citizens working for “pro-democracy” NGOs linked to the two main US political parties. They are facing charges for taking unauthorised foreign aid and undermining Egyptian sovereignty by funding street protests, which have become ubiquitous since Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011.

The three American NGOs in the line of fire — the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House — have a reputation of channelling partisan US government aid to alter internal political processes of countries that receive aid. Since they are organisations serving American strategic interests in the name of advancing human rights and civil liberties, the Egyptian authorities have a valid reason in investigating their activities.

But what’s interesting here are the shrill cries that emanated from the US Congress in response to Egypt’s filing of legal suits against the NGO employees. Last week, there was an uproar on Capitol Hill exhorting the Barack Obama administration to deny vital military and development aid to Egypt, which is the fifth-largest recipient of American largesse. At stake is $1.6 billion of aid that Washington annually gifts to Cairo and which is now the lifeline for the transitional Egyptian state.

Egyptian civilians, who are disillusioned with the revolution and fear falling under a fourth successive military dictator since the 1950s, know that the US has leverage over Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s ruling military council, and his officer ranks owing to their dependence on Washington’s aid. As the anti-military sentiment has risen into a mass fervour on the streets, the fact that the US was not using the aid card to force the Army to hand over power to civilians had, despite the charade, been frustrating activists. But sadly for their cause, not even the NGO arrests have pushed the US executive away from pampering the Egyptian military.

In the last few days, US Senators and representatives who had earlier demanded an end to the harassment of American NGO staffers have toned down their stridency on retaliation for the arrests. The key to this turnaround has to do with Israel’s fears that shutting off the aid tap will push the Egyptian military to abandon its three-decade-old peace treaty with Tel Aviv.

Foreign aid from Washington to successive Egyptian regimes since the days of Anwar Sadat is actually a bribe to perpetuate their entente cordiale with Israel — anger on the streets in Egypt against a sell-out on the Palestinian cause had to be salved through this form of payment from the US to the Egyptian military. Sensing Israel’s fear and the US’ vulnerability, the Muslim Brotherhood, which currently dominates the Egyptian Parliament, has threatened to “review” relations with Israel if the aid stops flowing from Washington. The Brotherhood and Tantawi’s officer corps know that in an election year, Mr Obama would not dare to weaken Israel geopolitically.

The outcome of this sordid game over aid is that the people of Egypt who are desperately striving for civilian supremacy and de-politicisation of the Army, are being cheated by the strategic aid policy of the US, which is nothing but a guarantee for Israel’s security. The NGOs who claim to be helping to democratise Egypt are playing their parts as cogs in this structural vicious circle.

The India-UK row over foreign aid is equally convoluted. Some British MPs, angered by New Delhi’s award of a major fighter jet contract to a French defence manufacturer, pressured the David Cameron government to cancel the £280 million worth of annual development assistance to India. If development aid does not buy lucrative contracts to Britain’s military industrial complex, they argued, Britain should stop its charity pretentions and suspend aid deliveries to India.

Following this muscle-flexing, it emerged from leaked memos that India was anyway not clamouring for British development aid. India’s then foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, is said to have recommended that Delhi stop accepting British aid due to the “negative publicity of Indian poverty” promoted by UK’s DFID (Department for International Development). India’s finance minister Pranab Mukherjee bluntly remarked in 2011 that Britain’s aid was “peanuts” and was not welcome.

Yet, as in the case of the US and Egypt, the British government has not withdrawn its unsolicited aid to India owing to domestic compulsions. The justification for this puzzling act of unwarranted benevolence is that British ministers had painstakingly sold the policy of foreign aid to their electorates and that pulling the plug now on India would cause “grave political embarrassment”.

In other words, the myth that Britain is still a liberal saviour of suffering people of the world has to be kept up for a domestic audience that is suffering under the weight of a prolonged economic downturn. Aid is, thus, not designed to bring the wretched of the earth out of poverty but to pacify unrest in the donor country’s domestic sphere. This has echoes from colonial times, when workers at home were kept under leash by means of the civilising mission and the “white man’s burden” overseas — the propaganda in Victorian England about the supposed uplifting nature of British colonialism was couched in humanitarian aid terms and was a means to cover up the Dickensian gloom of factory labour exploitation.

Last year, China surpassed the World Bank as the world’s biggest development lender. Apart from the political leverage, market penetration and energy security that Beijing gets in return from Africa and Latin America, Chinese aid investments also serve domestic purposes. Beijing’s “chequebook diplomacy” keeps internal dissent under check by peddling the vision of a benevolent state whose foreign policy is empowering the world’s underdogs.

Charity indeed begins at home, but in a rather murky way. Aid has never pitchforked receiving societies out of poverty, although donor states and their allies routinely benefit from developmental loans and grants thrust upon the wary. Egypt and India would fare better if liberated from foreign aid and its entwining strings.

The writer is vice-dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs and the author of the recent book, International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones

http://www.asianage.com/columnists/politics-charity-832