21 November 2009

In the disaster business, you can wear a bow-tie

KABUL, Afghanistan—The board of trustees of the university where I work listened to the new wag from the U.S. Agency for International Development earlier this week as he giddily described its new “Afghanization” policy, an innocuous euphemism for trying jump over the top few layers of scoundrels and crooks (aka “contractors”) to help American tax dollars get to the Afghan people for whom it was intended.

USAID, by the way, is also the sole funder for the university, so in the spirit of not biting (or ignoring) the hand that feeds you, the board had to listen to him. Waiting to brief the board on a project, I had to wait my turn to speak. Whew, I was impressed to hear that it only took these sharpies at US AID eight years to figure out that eliminating some war profiteering might improve the delivery and effectiveness of services intended for the victims of three decades of violence.

“We’ve been telling them that for five years,” mumbled one of Afghan board members. But Dapper Dan, the board member in the bright yellow bow-tie, was all smiles. Curiously enough, ol’ Dan, stout in stature and broad in smile, is a principal in one of the contracting firms, mostly construction, which has grown the fattest feeding at the public trough.

In Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein tracks the development if disaster capitalism, which seizes on disasters, man-made or natural, anywhere on the planet as profit-making opportunities. So, for example, in the burgeoning security business, the mercenaries formerly known as Blackwater (and re-branded as Xe) can provide muscle for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or law and order for New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Wars, however, can be prolonged easier than floods or plagues of locusts and wars require roads, bridges, airfields, trucks, warehouse, living quarters, offices, storage, “detention centers,” food service, laundry, janitorial services, mechanics, engineers, grounds and facility maintenance, and a raft of other chances for private enterprise to profit from what used to be state responsibilities. The logic of “privatization” is that the private sector can do anything cheaper and more efficiently because of the pressure of competition. But many of these contractors work on no-bid, cost-plus agreements, each of which is a virtual geyser of public money. There is no competition, only a slew of premeditated monopolies. Many of the contacts were distributed on the basis of political loyalty; there is inadequate oversight, and few performance reviews. If these predatory capitalists profit from human misery, should we be surprised when they cultivate or encourage, perhaps even promote, the kinds of policies and conditions likely to yield the tragedies that are good for their businesses?

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