Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Who Benefits from Aid? (1971)

Book Review from the December 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rich Against Poor, by C. R. Hensman. (Allen Lane. The Penguin Press. £2.95.)

The Postwar world has seen a shift in policies to the Third World. As imperialism left the scene, "aid" came into fashion.

This book emphasises how the aid process conceals a process of exploitation as great as the earlier imperialism. While Western governments pride themselves on their charity to the starving millions, the truth is that their role is no more one of benevolent altruism than was that of the old-style pawnbroker.

Like the pawnbroker, they take a fair whack in interest charges: Ghana is still paying off Nkruman's debts at a crippling rate (medium-term loans alone take 20 per cent of her entire budget). Aid-giving governments would prefer to see their customers come again than to set them properly on their feet financially.

So the developing countries will never become "developed" while seven-eights of the aid they receive is directed at supporting the military and political rulers of these countries. Only one-eight of aid given by America is actually of a purely economic nature, and even then, it is not directed at alleviating poverty, but has what Hensman calls an "anti-development" role.

As a former Brazilian Minister of Economic Planning wrote:
This development of which we are so proud has brought about no change at all in the living conditions of three-fourths of the country's population. Its main feature has been a growing concentration of income, both socially and geographically . . . The majority of the Brazilian population has reaped no benefit  . . . Because of the anachronistic structure of Brazilian agriculture, it has led in many regions to a relative increase in the rent from land, thus rewarding parasite groups. Similarly . . . a variety of subsidies—in the name of development—have very often put a premium on investments which . . . favoured a still greater concentration of income in the hands of privileged groups.
Aid, then, plays its part in helping the rich get richer and forcing the poor into ever deeper poverty. 

This is on the whole a useful book, covering a lot of the ground. Hensman is especially thorough in discussing the Indian sub-continent, Latin America and America's history and contemporary scene. But there are many notable gaps: Africa and the Middle East are barely mentioned, and the Green Revolution not at all.

While unsympathetic to Russia, he is typical of the unscientific leftist in viewing China through ludicrously rose-coloured glasses. Lyrically, but without supporting evidence, he tells us that in China the poor are free.

Again typical of a woolly sheep of the left is his style. He uses many undefined terms loosely—terms such as rich and poor, development and anti-development, proletarian democracy and the war on poverty—and when he starts to argue the case for the "abolition of anti-development", it is far from clear what he is proposing.

His conclusions, after assembling a mass of interesting information on sordid international capitalism, are astonishingly naive and jejune. He exhorts his readers to boycott products made by "exploited" or "sweated" labour; to make contact with their fellow-poor (possibly by infiltrating aid agencies?) and finally to overthrow the bosses and establish "proletarian democracy". Only then can the developed nations "stand beside the poor in sympathy and solidarity".

In no way does Hensman examine what is meant by exploited labour or the nature of an exploiting class. He does not explain how a closer acquaintance with the bourgeois classes of Karachi and Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay—a cannibal breed who exploit their own kith and kin as viciously as any colonial power—could improve international working class solidarity. As for his revolution—presumably along Maoist lines—Socialists see no merit in a society still dependent on the labours of a wage slave class, with mankind still divided by barriers of nationality and a continuance of today's divisions between the haves and have-nots.

The book has other faults: Hensman has provided a grotesquely inadequate Index (e.g. no mention of Russia/Soviet Union, and although he refers to Swift's "modest proposal"—about Irish depopulation—one finds no reference in the Index, either to Swift or to Ireland). A book of this sort should also have a bibliography—especially at this price. 
Charmian Skelton

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