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Who's aiding who? And why does might make right? An intense look at today's global empires, questioning the legitimacy of corrupt foreign policies and the altruism of foreign aid. Who are the real forces steering the wheels of the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN, and is might make right?.

The global landscape has become increasingly interconnected in recent years. However, at the same time, divergent forces counteract this interconnection as disparities between nation-states continue to increase. Globalization, it seems, allows nation-states to be connected, but in an intensely rigid and hierarchical manner.

Distances may well seem less expansive in the realm of travel and communications, but we are simultaneously reminded of a fissure between the “first” and “third” world. How much of this is constructed? And more importantly, how is this disparity sustained? 

The history of colonialism cannot be separated from the processes of globalization and global economic relations today. We observe similar patterns of domination and exploitation along economic and cultural lines within a different setting. The legacy of colonialism and empire has shaped the power relations of the contemporary world allowing certain practices and policies to spread. Not everything is globalized; global norms have been developed and spread from the Western world in a clear one-way flow rather than a two-way relationship.

Within this one-way flow of information, knowledge is hierarchized as the cultural hegemony of modernity is preached.. Globalization allows the diffusion of “modernity,” rationality, and the scientific, while other forms of knowledge, such as the indigenous, become subjugated and labelled as inferior. Under this light, one can understand globalization as a deterministic process of maintaining uneven global power relations and extending a particular kind of cultural hegemony. 

The West’s engagement with so-called “Third World” countries has historically been described and approached through difference. Whether this has been through geographical notions of the North vs. the South, the West vs. the Orient or through hierarchical descriptions of the First vs. the Third World, there is a trend of separating, distancing and ordering the globe.

Set up in opposition to each other, the degree of separation and difference between the “worlds” provide a framework in which  “civilization” processes or contemporary “development” interventions can be legitimized. In both cases, a discourse of morality has been employed within a strategy to control. 

Since decolonization, foreign aid and loans have increasingly been an important source of income for “developing” countries. However, as Mauss wrote in 1923, the gift is never free: instead gifts create relationships where an inherent obligation towards the donor is established and sustained.

Given that foreign aid is for the most part conditional, donors have historically attempted to influence the economic and political policies of receiving countries. From IMF loans to sanctions in Iran, we see countries rewarded and punished through the global political economy under pressure to conform. In this way, aid and sanctions are simply mechanisms of control employed to shape the development and political economy of other countries.

Development agencies play the role of the new missionaries with ex-pat workers living in gated communities, physically separating themselves from their “subjects.” Teaching and preaching to local communities, they replicate the work of missionaries through “doing good” in foreign and exotic lands, with their “superior” knowledge. Within this circus performance, celebrities are the new “experts” with the likes of Bob Geldof or Angelina Jolie reporting on the severity of famine.

With all power clearly in the hands of a few key states, these players can determine the direction, level and outcome of the aid business. For example, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is dependent on funding for its survival. States fund UNHCR, with the big international players contributing 98% of the budget, of which around 80% is normally earmarked. In turn, this leads to the unsurprising trend of politics overriding humanitarianism. For example, in 1999, UNHCR’s budget per capita for refugees fleeing Kosovo was $207, compared with the dismal figure of $16 for Sierra Leonean refugees. Apparently, an African life is worth less than a European one.

Since the 1990s, we have also witnessed a trend towards “humanitarian intervention” using military means. Today, this is justified under a moral discourse, in the name of human rights. However, interventions are selective and timely, often with strategic or political aims concealed.

The 1999, NATO intervention in Kosovo was presented as a “just war,” a “humanitarian war,” in the name of human rights and humanity. Tony Blair declared the war to be in the name of “values, not interests,” denying any political motivations. Instead, it can be seen as an exercise of power, driven by Western political interest and a determination to expel Milosovic, concealed through a discourse of “morality.”

Through hiding behind illusions of humanitarianism and ethics, political aims can be cloaked and “humanitarian wars” justified. A key tactic employed has been the continued manipulation of language and terms such as democracy, human rights, good governance, or freedom. However, Iraq has exposed to the world the elasticity of language and the ugly face of military globalism. An illegal, unjustified, and cruel intervention, tactics now involve an overt display of divide and rule, physically manifested through the recent building of a three-mile wall in Baghdad.

The global political economy and military globalism can be seen as entrenching and enhancing relations of power and dominance over the other. One of the most detrimental aspects of globalisation is arguably the loss of independence in policy-making. As the direction and desires are taken out of the hands of nation-states by force, economic pressure, or through propping up puppet leaders, the leadership capacity of nation-states is rendered inferior. Once again, the ugly face of Empire returns, in an attempt to strangulate weaker countries and colonize minds within the façade of a moralistic discourse.

1st May 2007
Globalisation, Aid, and the Ugly Face of Empire
By Natasha Tsangarides