Beware of aid agencies bearing gifts

There is no such thing as a free lunch as states that are recipients of Western aid understand only too well. The naive may believe that foreign aid is a tool to help developing countries; sceptics are convinced it’s a quid pro quo enabling wealthy powers to exercise geopolitical policy objectives.

In a documentary, filmmaker John Pilger made the case that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are “The New Rulers of the World” on behalf of their largest donor countries—the US, the UK, Germany, France and Japan. But some less powerful nations are alleging that one agency—the US Agency for International Development (USAID)—is acting as a front for the CIA.

When the Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled and shutdown USAID in his country last year for alleged attempts to undermine his leftist government, he wasn’t being paranoid after all. As a recent expose by the Associated Press shows USAID’s so-called “democracy promotion programmes” are designed to foment dissent against governments unfriendly to Washington.

“In a number of countries, including Venezuela and Bolivia, USAID is acting more as an agency involved in covert action, like the CIA, than as an aid or development agency,” asserted Mark Weisbrot, an economist with a Washington-based think tank, the Centre for Economic and Policy Research.

In the late ‘70s, under the headline “Police programme is called CIA cover,” the New York Times revealed that the USAID police training initiative facilitated the CIA to “plant men with local police in sensitive places around the world” as well as recruit “prime candidates for enrolment as CIA employees.”

Dirty tricks outfit

USAID has coated its core mission, which is actually to further US foreign policy strategies, with such altruistic aims as alleviating extreme poverty; but that benign exterior crumbled last week when some damning facts were revealed casting the agency as a political dirty tricks outfit in Cuba where it created a social media “Twitter-type” site dubbed Zun-Zuneo used to collect personal data as a preliminary to whipping users’ emotions against the Castro regime.

At least American spooks didn’t try the exploding cigar ruse on this occasion like their predecessors who unsuccessfully attempted to blow-up Fidel Castro. But unfortunately for the present-day plotters, they were caught out, the ‘Cuban Spring’ didn’t manifest—and Congress is full of flustered red faces whether from embarrassment or fury at such a hack-handed plan, which Democratic lawmaker Senator Patrick Leahy characterised as “dumb, dumb, dumb” because not only did the scheme fail, the orchestrators were stupid enough to be found-out. USAID administrator Rajiv Shah received a dressing-down from a government committee headed by Leahy but he was unrepentant insisting that the project was legal and was not meant to be covert, which would have necessitated a presidential green light.

Senator Leahy shot from the hip at the briefing. “What they were trying to do here makes me think of people I somehow think are still at the State Department and writing memos that they were writing back to President Eisenhower. You know, ‘If we just stay tough, those Castro brothers will be out of there any day now.’ They’ve been saying that for 60 years. This—made no sense at all. I was not briefed. I know of nobody who was briefed on this. I think most people would say ‘Are you out of your mind?’”

Director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, Peter Kornbluh, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, “USAID is clearly in the job of trying to bring about regime change in Cuba. It financed a programme sending private contractors into Cuba secretly several years ago to set up satellite communications networks . . . It has secret bank accounts, shell companies, multinational platforms in terms of various countries being used—Nicaragua, Spain, Ireland, London—and, in the background, a murky office in USAID called the Office of Transition Initiative, OTI, that clearly is, you know, competing with the Central Intelligence Agency for creative regime change programmes in Cuba.”

White House Press Spokesman Jay Carney has defended the programme as being legal under US law and has been given appropriate oversight. Kornbluh accuses Carney of “misleading the American public.” The Obama administration has “deceptively misrepresented these USAID programmes,” he says—and all this has a whiff of Iran-Contra kind of elements.”

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin cottoned-on to USAID’s nefarious activities in 2012, when it was told to quit operating on Russian soil. Putin learned that the agency had supported the “Blue Bucket” uprising in his country two years earlier and among the Russian-based NGOs USAID funded were those with links to terrorists in Chechnya and Dagestan. Russian media accuses USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy’ and ‘groups meant to bring peace’ of running the scams that ‘start war’ in Ukraine. Nations where USAID is established would be wise to assess the agency on a cost-benefit basis. How much does it give with the one hand; how much does it take with the other?

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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