Hayter’s Gonna Hate – Aid as Imperialism

Aid as Imperialism – Teresa Hayter (Pelican, 1970).

Teresa Hayter’s Aid as Imperialism is an intriguing if inconsistent study of a subject which has fascinated me for a couple of years now. Before I start though, I am going to introduce something called “the Pelican test” (for reasons that will become clear later in the review).

Way back when I started this blog, I explained the purpose of Pelicans – namely to provide information on complicated subjects for the general reader. I don’t think that Aid as Imperialism does that very well. It is good on some aspects of the topic, such as explaining the major aid agencies it deals with, but not good at others, such as essential terms/concepts of economic policy. I felt that the book could have benefited from either a short section dealing with this early on, or a glossary of terms. I subsequently found a glossary of some terms at the back, but felt it was both too short and too late to have any impact. Consequently, in some important ways, the book fails the Pelican test (which you should bear in mind whilst reading my review, because if you do know about economic policy I will probably sound harsh).

The premise of the book is quite straightforward and, given my background understanding/world view, was not hard to grasp. In short, Hayter illustrates that “aid” as given out by major international organisations like the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), comes with strings attached. In order to supply developing countries with financial support, the WB/IMF, expected countries to pursue certain economic policies. These economic policies, inspired by those of the Western European and North American economies which set up and continued to dominate the organisations, are not necessarily useful or even relevant within the context of developing economies (in this case specifically the developing economies of Latin America).

The use of finance to influence domestic policies in the interest of another country (in this case the United States, in its role of global capitalist leader) can be considered a form of imperialism, hence “Aid as Imperialism”. To me, a lifelong student of different types of imperialism of which financial pressure is one, that all makes sense. I am not sure what the lay reader would make of it, particularly given that Hayter doesn’t really explain what imperialism is or how it is relevant in this context beyond the idea of the exercise of control.

And that is, in short, the thesis of the book. Hayter also has the benefit of having been ‘inside’ the aid loop when writing the book, and apparently had access to a lot of people both in the organisations she studies (WB, IMF and the United States Agency for International Development which has the excellent acronym USAID, or simply AID in this book). This gives her a battery of sources with which to flesh out aforementioned argument, and she does so with gusto. Unfortunately this leads to what I like to call ‘death by footnotes’. These footnotes, which are either incredibly comprehensive or the rather repetitive ‘see p.3, chapter 2’, would have been better at the end of the work as they frequently distract from its flow. For example, page 75 has five lines of body text and thirty-three of footnote, and that is carried over from the previous page. In the part of chapter two that deals with the history and aims/objectives of the World Bank, a report by Andrew Kamarck is repeatedly quoted so extensively, and one might say intrusively, that it might as well have been reproduced in abridged form in an appendix.

Chapter Three moves from the agencies themselves to consider the application of agency policies in four Latin American countries – Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Peru – in 1967, as explored by the author in her research for the book (which was originally intended to be a report for the Overseas Development Institute – itself a body associated with the World Bank, of which more later). Swathes of this chapter, replete with economics lingo, were relatively incomprehensible for me, whereas other parts were more straightforward to understand. For instance in Brazil Heyter notes that the WB, IMF, and AID all provided financial support to the military government of Brazil between 1964-1967 in spite of its political repression of its citizens (because it pursued economic policies that were acceptable to the organisations). Again, this was understandable enough to me. After all, I am aware of US dodgy dealings in the region during the course of the Cold War – the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile and subsequent support for murderous dictator General Pinochet being just one example.

What is more Hayter has a good grasp of the problems of overtly technical thinkers who impose grand plans from afar without considering the consequences of them. If I haven’t already recommended James Scott’s Seeing Like a State to you on this subject, I do so now. Hayter illustrates how WB/IMF/AID obsessions with economic stability tended to obscure the human cost of austerity policies, with arguments that remain relevant today after the global financial crash:

There was much agreement among Brazilian officials that the international agencies, to varying degrees, made the mistake of believing that financial problems could be solved in isolation and also that they had an excessively narrow and quantitative view of reality.

Reading this actually evoked memories of my first Pelican, Chris Bickerton’s The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide, in which he illustrated the great deal of resentment caused in Eastern Europe by harsh fallout from the EU’s economic policy requirements for new member states. Far from having gone away in the almost half-century since this book was published, these issues continue to resonate today.

In the final chapter, ‘Comments and Conclusions’, Hayter comes out swinging at the aid agencies, arguing that they have their priorities all wrong:

It is sometimes maintained that the international agencies confine themselves to recommendations of a technical nature, and avoid ideological issues. Their concentration on fiscal and monetary matters has on occasion been justified on these grounds. But… such concentration not only implies neglect of other problems, but frequently conflicts with their solution. No issues are purely technical. The agencies’ policies, when they are adopted, have profound implications for the nature and priorities of society, and are based on values and assumptions in a way which is the more insidious for not always being made explicit. In the agencies’ reports, and even less in their demands, little attempt is made to discuss the implications of different policy measures or to suggest alternative methods, still less alternative ends. The claims of objectivity and of having ‘no axe to grind’, made especially by the World Bank, are misleading, in so far as they are believed.

Hayter is, naturally, coming from her own ideological standpoint, a Marxist one, which is diametrically opposed to the international capital networks in which the agencies operate. On the one hand this is good, because it allows her to (correctly) demonstrate that agencies are not, despite their claims, without some kind of agenda. On the other hand, it lends her some significant blinkers when it comes to comparative work. The final chapter includes a short, and very rose-tinted, view of what had happened in Cuba since Fidel Castro’s revolution. She argues that revolutionary policy might in fact bring about the change that would benefit a wider share of the local population than international aid or reformist policies led by invariably vested interests. In some senses this may be true. But you can’t claim the US dishes out aid with an ideological agenda and then mention Soviet aid without making the same caveat (because it was the Cold War – and both were doing the same thing). Also, the huge numbers of people willing to emigrate from Cuba to the US suggests it wasn’t all sunshine and roses on Fidel’s island.

Hayter’s ultimate conclusion is rather flaccid, contending that it is unlikely that aid agencies could work any differently in the current global economic system. She ends on a bum note, claiming: “Under socialism, and with the principles of international solidarity operating in full vigour,things will be different.” This is hardly the persuasive argument for socialism one would hope, and to a degree expect, to hear in light of the depressing subject matter that comes before.

Things really begin to pick up in the Appendix, which details the author’s battles with the World Bank to get the research published. The organisation for which she worked, the Overseas Development Institute, apparently bowed to World Bank pressure not to publish. For its part the WB was concerned about the author’s ideological bent (though at first masked this with technical objections to the text) and the potential damage to its reputation from the revelation of its policy of using aid as leverage to help influence economic policy. This part of the book, well furnished with passive-aggressive letters and memoranda, was intriguing and perhaps helps explain some of the work’s flaws (but I can only review what is in front of me).

In conclusion Aid as Imperialism has an important story to tell, but it doesn’t always tell it as clearly as it should. The subject matter is a worthy one, and the author goes a long way to displacing what I would say were still commonly-held views about the purpose of international aid. It shows that aid agencies, despite what they might claim, do have agendas which inform what they finance and where they finance it; this was particularly salient during the Cold War but remains so today. However, the overtly technical language interrupts the flow and clarity of the text, the chapter showing the application of aid policies is far less informative than the one about aid agencies that precedes it, and the failure to clearly explain key concepts weakens the overall argument to a lay reader. Consequently, I will unconditionally give it three cents ¢¢¢ worth of no-strings-attached review aid.

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