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Making Money from Misery? Disaster Capitalism from the Migrant Crisis to Afghanistan and Haiti

StoryOctober 09, 2015
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Guests
Antony Loewenstein

Australian independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe.

When disaster strikes, who profits? That’s the question asked by journalist Antony Loewenstein in his new book, “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe.” Traveling across the globe, Loewenstein examines how companies such as G4S, Serco and Halliburton are cashing in on calamity, and describes how they are deploying for-profit private contractors to war zones and building for-profit private detention facilities to warehouse refugees, prisoners and asylum seekers. Recently, Loewenstein teamed up with filmmaker Thor Neureiter for a documentary by the same name that chronicles how international aid and investment has impacted communities in Haiti, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and beyond.


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. When disaster strikes, who profits? That’s the question asked by journalist Antony Loewenstein in his new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Traveling across the globe, Antony examines how companies, such as G4S, Serco, Halliburton, are cashing in on calamity. He describes how they’re deploying for-profit private contractors to war zones and building for-profit private detention facilities to warehouse refugees, prisoners, asylum seekers. Now Loewenstein has teamed up with filmmaker Thor Neureiter for an upcoming documentary by the same name that chronicles how international aid and investment has impacted communities from Haiti to Afghanistan to Papua New Guinea and beyond. This is the trailer.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: For three years, I’ve investigated what happens after the spotlight fades from disasters in developing countries. What comes when the money and goodwill ends?

UNIDENTIFIED: This country is like a republic of NGOs. And these people, as employees, they are getting paid very fat salaries.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Often these natural and man-made disasters create an atmosphere reliant on foreign money.

UNIDENTIFIED: They say first we should bring security, then investment. I say first we should invest, then security will come.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: When aid runs out and most NGOs move on to the next disaster, pro-business policies are created in the name of recovery. This investigation has taken me to the streets of Haiti, the mountains of Afghanistan and the lush forests of Papua New Guinea, where I’ve met the people caught up in a struggle between recovery and the policies that cater to foreign interests.

UNIDENTIFIED: When you talk about disaster capitalism and the capitalists coming in and sweeping up and taking over, they don’t need a conspiracy, because those are the interests that prevail, and they’re going to get their way.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the forthcoming documentary based on Antony Loewenstein’s new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Well, journalist and author Antony Loewenstein joins us now in studio, also a columnist for The Guardian.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Antony. So, explain disaster capitalism.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: People who make money from misery. So, one of the reasons—I was inspired by Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, and she coined the term "disaster capitalism" in 2007. For me, it was really about deepening and widening that definition. So I focus particularly on Afghanistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, U.S., U.K., Greece and Australia. Immigration is a key part of that. So, the fact that—as you said in your introduction, there are key companies—G4S, Transfield, Serco and others—who are very happy about the massive influx of refugees. Warehousing refugees is huge profit-making business. So I was focusing on that, going to these places and actually seeing the effects of that on both immigrants and also those who work in those centers; looking at, say, in Haiti, the issue of aid and development after the earthquake in 2010, which was a key reason why the U.S. government, as WikiLeaks documents showed, were keen for U.S. contractors to make a fortune; in Papua New Guinea, a country near my own country, Australia, a situation where you have massive mining interests—Rio Tinto and others—again, making a fortune from mining and misery. So, for me, it was about making the connections between various different countries and corporations, and saying—I’m not arguing that Afghanistan is the same as Greece, of course they’re different, but ultimately often the same corporations are at play, and the fact that the corporation has become more powerful than the state, which, to me, is a problem.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about a place some call the Guantánamo Bay of the Pacific. The Manus Island detention center is paid for by the Australian government and run by an Australian contractor, Transfield Services, but located offshore on Papua New Guinea’s soil. The prisoners are not accused of any crimes; they’re asylum seekers from war-ravaged countries who are waiting indefinitely for their refugee status determination. Earlier this year, Democracy Now! spoke to Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson about Manus Island.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I’ve been to PNG, and I’ve spent times in West Papuan refugee settlement camps, so I can speak with first-hand experience that PNG is not a state that is capable of accepting our asylum seekers and refugees. Ninety percent of these people who come by boat to Australia have been determined to be refugees in the past. The conditions in PNG are terrible. Australia is—it is unlawful for Australia to be continuing to send asylum seekers to conditions the U.N. has found to amount to inhuman, degrading treatment. We are in breach of our international obligations.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson. Antony Loewenstein?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: It’s a problem. I mean, one of the things also we should also say is there’s Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, but also Nauru, which is a Pacific island. So, Australia for the last years has been sending thousands of refugees to essentially prison camps in these islands, as you rightly say. They run for profit. It was G4S, it’s now Transfield. In a recent Australian Senate report, it was found, clear evidence, that often refugees are being raped and tortured. This is not an allegation, this is a fact. There was one allegation by a guard that he saw evidence of waterboarding. So, ultimately we have a situation where the Australian government, which increasingly, I might add, is being used by the European Union as inspiration in potentially how to deal with their refugee crisis—the key point about the offshore detention camps, and indeed onshore in Australia, is that they’re privately run. And the key problem—it wouldn’t make a difference if it was publicly run. I mean, it shouldn’t be there in the first place. But Australia wants an unaccountable system. Journalists can’t get there, as Jennifer rightly said. You essentially have a—it’s a black site. The journalists can’t get in there, human rights workers can’t get in there. You can visit Manus Island as a tourist, but you can’t get into the center. Nauru charges $8,000 to apply for a visa. And if you don’t get the visa, which you wouldn’t, you don’t get that money back. So, essentially, many Australians—and sadly, I would argue, only a minority of Australians are outraged by this. But the truth is, like in Europe and like in the U.S., after decades in my country have privatized detention camps, sadly, a lot of people regard those people as a threat who need to be essentially seen as silenced and as a number, that’s all. It’s a massive problem, and I write about that in the book.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the larger issue of for-profit prisons. Last month, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate—

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —introduced new legislation aimed at banning government contracts with private prisons. Sanders said banning for-profit incarceration is the first step to ending the system of mass incarceration.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: As a first step, we need to start treating prisoners like human beings. Private companies, private corporations should not be profiteering from their incarceration.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, also a senator.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So he’s introduced legislation.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: So encouraging. I mean, one of the things that is less talked about in the U.S., Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio have taken massive amounts of money from the private prison industry. I’m not saying that their policies are solely based around that, but it’s an important part. In the book, I visit some private detention camps in Georgia, particularly run by CCA, which is the largest American privatized corporation running prisons and detention camps. In these centers, human rights are awful. Healthcare is bad. Food is bad. Mental health is bad. And ultimately, like we see in Australia and the U.K. and elsewhere—

AMY GOODMAN: And CCA is Corrections Corporation of America.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Indeed, indeed. And ultimately, I think one of the things is, these corporations have no incentive to provide decent care. I mean, that’s the bottom line. Profit, of course, is the most important. So putting aside the rights of refugees and immigrants themselves, what I find also in the book is that the guards who are working in those centers, without proper training, they’re almost by definition going to abuse refugees. That’s part of the problem. I think Bernie Sanders’ call was an important one, but sadly, no other major candidate has come out and agreed. And I think one of the interesting things in the U.S., as we move forward with your presidential campaign, someone like a Donald Trump, who talks, as we know, about potentially getting rid of 11 million undocumented migrants, the private prison industry is very excited about his presidency, and they’re scared of any serious reform in the U.S. One of the things that CCA and GEO Group, the two major companies, talk about in their annual reports are that serious reform—in other words, less people locked up—is bad for business. And they’ve spent over the last 20 years at least $30 million to $40 million. One of the things that comes out in my book, in my investigations, is that this is legalized corruption, that it’s nothing—it’s not illegal for CCA to assist a congressman or woman in their campaign. That’s legal. But the problem is that the result, in state—in state after state in the U.S., is a mass incarceration culture. And sadly, even under President Obama, there’s been no serious look at removing that incentive. I mean, there’s a Congress-approved quota that every single night there are 34,000 refugees locked up in the U.S.—every night.

AMY GOODMAN: "Richard Sullivan"—this is from The Intercept, I believe—"of the lobbying [group] Capitol Counsel, is a bundler for the Clinton campaign, bringing in $44,859 in contributions in a few short months. Sullivan is also a registered lobbyist for the GEO Group, a company that operates a number of jails, including immigrant detention centers, for profit."

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: That’s the nexus, Amy, that I’m talking about in the book, that is—again, this sort of thing is not illegal. It is legal. But the problem is that almost by definition that means that major candidates—Hillary Clinton has said, Jeb Bush, particularly Marco Rubio in his state, as well, has taken massive contributions. And the fact is, without those contributions, the policies would be different, obviously.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Afghanistan. Wednesday marked the 14th anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which began on October 7, 2001. President Obama declared an official end to the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan last year; however, the U.S. has around 9,800 troops there. And according to Foreign Policy magazine, there are three times as many for-profit private contractors in Afghanistan than U.S. troops, not including the contractors supporting the CIA, State Department, USAID or other government agencies. You have traveled to Afghanistan, Antony Loewenstein, and spoke to some of these contractors. What did they tell you?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: They are worried about the war winding down. For them, they are scared about—I was there in 2012 and also this year in May, in 2015. And one of the things that many of them were saying, both in 2012 and in 2015, is that they realize that the U.S. is winding down its war, but ultimately, as you say, Obama has declared the war finished. It’s been rebranded. The occupation continues. There is now talk about possibly raising troops. The Afghan security forces, which, I might add, were trained by private companies—DynCorp trained the Iraqi security forces and the Afghan security forces, massive failures on both fronts, which has had no impact on DynCorp getting more contracts, I might add. So, ultimately, one of the things in Afghanistan—and the attack on the Kunduz medical center, MSF medical center, goes to the heart of that—there’s a reduction in space for humanitarian actors.

I mean, I was there this year with my film partner, Thor Neureiter. We were looking at what Afghanistan’s likely to look like in the next five or 10 years. And the resource industry is what the Afghan government and the U.S. government talks about. Briefly, there are apparently $4 trillion of resources under the ground in Afghanistan, mostly untapped, including copper. And one of the things we do in our film is go to an area called—in Logar province about an hour from Kabul, which has the largest copper deposit in the world, run by a Chinese company. They are desperate to start mining those resources. And the problem is, in the last years, the U.S. has given hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to support a resource industry there. So the nexus between private security and mining industry in that country is devastating for the local people.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to testimony just yesterday in the House. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, is pushing to keep more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than under President Obama’s scheduled drawdown, following the Taliban seizure of Kunduz last week. California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez pressed General Campbell during his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee Thursday.

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: So, within your own current testimony, let alone the testimony that Mr. Jones brought before you from before, you basically are saying, "I don’t know that there’s a long-term viability for these security forces." We’re paying the majority of that. How much is the majority? How much money does that mean, to have a force that you don’t believe has a long-term viability?

GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL: Ma’am, if I could—

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: How much? How much? That’s the question. How much?

GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL: Yes, ma’am. Today, for calendar year ’15, the United States put $4.1 billion to build the Afghan security forces.

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: $4.1 billion.

GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL: For ’16, $3.86 billion.

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: Thank you. $4.1 billion.

GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL: Every year we continue to reduce that by gaining efficiencies. We’re not providing infrastructure that—

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: General, I’ve heard this. I’ve heard this for 14 years.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Doctors Without Borders says 24 of its staff members are still missing, following the U.S. airstrike on its hospital in Kunduz Saturday. That’s in addition to at least 22 people who died in the strike, including 12 medical workers, 10 patients, including three children. Antony Loewenstein?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: I mean, what that testimony shows is that the U.S. has spent over $100 billion since 2001. As you say, it’s the 14-year anniversary now. And even the U.S. government itself, SIGAR, which is the sort of the government arm to investigate where money has gone, has found that the vast majority of that has gone to corruption. It’s disappeared. It’s gone to helping a failing mining industry. It’s gone to pay private security. Afghanistan is one of the great disgraces, in some ways, of our time, because, in many ways, the fact that private companies—U.S. companies, Australian companies, British companies—have been used as a replacement for government. One of the things that’s so often ignored, and I talk about this in the book, is that the U.S. routinely was paying, to transport goods from A to B, Afghan security, private security or foreign security to basically give money to pay off insurgents to not hit them, to not attack them. So, really, the U.S. taxpayer is weirdly either comfortable or doesn’t know about the fact that America is fighting a war against insurgents that they’re also paying off to not attack them. It’s a crazy situation, but that’s what’s been happening for years.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Haiti. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake that killed, oh, 300,000 people and left more than one-and-a-half million Haitians homeless in what was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In tent camps housing the displaced, Haitian residents said international donors have left them behind.

CLAUTAIRE FENEL: [translated] My message to the international donors is that the money they gave to help the people in Haiti is being put to use for the interest of other people instead. It is used to buy luxury cars, pay for hotels and go to high-priced restaurants paid in U.S. dollars.

EUNICE ELIASSAINT: [translated] I don’t see a future here. I can’t hide anything from you. There is no tomorrow. Last night, the children went to bed without anything to eat.

AMY GOODMAN: Lay out what’s happened in Haiti, Antony.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Soon after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the U.S. ambassador at the time—WikiLeaks documents showed this—wrote a cable essentially saying that a gold rush is on, a gold rush meaning for U.S. corporations and others. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars there, mostly for U.S. contractors. Most of the money the U.S. has spent there since the earthquake has remained in America. Haitians are not really being trained. Haitians are not really being supported. The solution that the Obama administration gave for Haiti, pushed by Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, their daughter, were industrial parks—essentially, places that Haitians can get underpaid and not trained to make cheap clothing for Gap and Wal-Mart that you and I maybe, hopefully, won’t buy in the U.S. That’s the solution that the U.S. sees for Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: You know—

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: And many Haitians—sorry—actually also argue that they feel occupied by foreign interests, the U.N. and the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! went down to Haiti a number of times before and after the earthquake. And I remember one of those times, President Clinton, he was down in Haiti giving a speech, saying there’s two things he cares about in the world. One is his daughter’s wedding. She was just—Chelsea Clinton was about to get married. And the other is restoring Haiti.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, the legacy of the Clinton Foundation—and I examine this deeply in the book—is utterly appalling. There are example after example of the Clinton Foundation funding a number of centers that have been infected by chemicals, which also, I might add, the Clinton Foundation were investing in failed things after Hurricane Katrina, as well, here in the U.S. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and others—I mean, they’re one example—their solution has primarily been industrial parks. And one of the things that comes out very clearly, the suggestions—and we talk about this in our film, as well—that the solution for Haiti is not to build massive industrial parks to make clothing that you and I can buy in the U.S. The solution is empowering locals. It’s about speaking to locals and saying, "We actually have a solution that empowers you and trains you." And one of the things that comes out also clearly is that so many Haitians feel pretty pissed off with the fact that so often there’s actually little or no encouragement of them. And ultimately, Haiti really has never been an independent country, Amy. I mean, the U.S. has had involvement there for a hundred years. And many Haitians ultimately feel that they actually really need to separate themselves from the U.S., but America doesn’t actually view that as a viable option. And the book goes into detail about why that is the case. Haiti is seen as too economically viable for America to let it go.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, where do you see the hope in this dark history of multinational corporations and the plunder of the most vulnerable?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: The hope are hearing local stories. And one of the things I talk about in the book, and we do in the film, is actually say that so many in the media—and I’m obviously part of that, and you are, as well—I know Democracy Now! is an exception to this—but too often don’t report local stories, don’t actually hear local people saying what they want. So when disaster strikes in Haiti, don’t just focus on celebrities like Sean Penn, focus on other people actually there who are doing good work, empower them, pay them, train them. It’s not rocket science how to change this. Ultimately, Haiti’s economic structure, as one example, needs to change, but it’s not going to change with U.S. contractors doing the job.

AMY GOODMAN: Antony Loewenstein’s new book is Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the new U.S. poet laureate. Stay with us.

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