Please don’t feed the beast

If you’re a subscriber (and you should be), don’t miss yesterday’s Crikey editorial on Egypt. It makes a point about the recent carnage that’s been much too often neglected, namely the sustenance given to the Egyptian military over the years by western (particularly American) aid:

This aid plays no role in building democracy in Egypt. It is calculated to boost Egypt’s military strength while helping American arms producers (the aid is largely delivered through in-kind donations of military hardware). …

But it has also strengthened and provided tacit endorsement to an institution that sees itself as above democracy, which ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president and last week murdered his supporters.

The moral is a more general one. Foreign aid, which we think of in a touchy-feely sort of way as helping the poor and oppressed, not just often fails to do that but is often doing the exact opposite. It props up the very institutions that do the most harm in poor countries, including most prominently the military.

American conservatives used to avow a strategy of “starving the beast” – cut taxes in the hope that cuts in government spending would follow (they didn’t; the government just ran deficits instead). But where the military is concerned, the opposite strategy has been pursued. We’ve been feeding the beast.

In developed countries, the institutions of democracy are sufficiently strong that the beast does not usually devour them. But it still does damage. Overspending on the military, the security services and private security contractors isn’t just waste; it undermines civil society by reinforcing structures that have a fundamentally illiberal, anti-democratic spirit. By implication it promotes obedience and hierarchy rather than accountability and equality.

The United States has gone the furthest down this track, but Australia has no cause for complacency. Despite our peaceful neighborhood and secure place in the world economy, our military budget is one of the highest in the world. Among democracies, only the US, Israel and Norway spend more per head than Australia.

It’s in the less developed world, however, that this approach has been truly disastrous. Countries that are crying out for resources to spend on human services instead pour money into armaments; countries that desperately need entrepreneurship instead send their young people into the military to have initiative beaten out of them; and countries that are trying against the odds to nurture a spirit of democracy and openness find that instead they are fostering closed and authoritarian institutions.

Egypt is the latest example of where this can lead, but it will certainly not be the last. Although my initial report on last month’s coup has turned out to be too optimistic, my warning on the military’s role holds up:

… generals who get a taste for politics often find it hard to give it up. History is littered with cases of military interventions that seemed justified at first but quickly turned into a worse dictatorship than anything that had gone before.



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