MANAGUA shuddered violently at midnight. The first tremors moved the Nicaraguan capital from side to side — and terrified people rushed out of their houses. The second and third tremors lifted and dropped the fragile city, condensing the ramshackle buildings into dusty piles of rubble.
From his solidly-built embassy residence the US Ambassador flashed news of the earthquake home, and soon President Richard Nixon himself was on the line to his old friend President Anastasio Somoza. ‘He expressed condolences for the people of Nicaragua through me,’ said Somoza. ‘He asked how my family was. He offered aid.’
The aid was not slow in coming — both for immediate relief and for reconstruction. In the first six months after the earthquake some $16 millions in aid came from the United States. Of this, roughly half then disappeared from the books of Nicaragua’s national treasury. When he finally left the country Somoza estimated that he had $100 millions invested abroad.
The centre of Managua hasn’t changed all that much since then. Weeds grow over cleared patches of waste land or poke out from the reinforced concrete skeletons of buildings that kept their shape but shed their walls.
The earthquake shook the people as well but they proved rather more resilient than the buildings. After all, they had stood up to years of battering from Somoza and the National Guard and were used to seeing international aid sucked into the pockets of a man who ran the country like his own personal corporation. But they could certainly have used that aid. Life expectancy in Nicaragua then was no more than 53 years and around two-thirds of the population were illiterate.
But now things have changed dramatically; the Sandinista victory in 1979 has had a more comprehensive impact than the earthquake. Somoza has gone, there have been massive literacy and health campaigns, welfare is actually reaching the poor and the infant mortality rate is down by a third. But the Sandinista behaviour is at least socialist and possibly marxist, and therefore unfit to receive the Western help that Somoza found it so easy to acquire. In the circumstances President Reagan has felt it wise to withdraw American aid.
Aid as a blunt instrument of foreign policy is being more clumsily wielded in Central America than anywhere in the world. But the case is hardly unique. Egypt for example, a country of scarcely 40 million people, receives rather more in aid than India which has 700 million. But then Egypt is in the front-line of US policy in the Middle East, just as Nicaragua’s neighbour Honduras is in Central America — and these are friends to be helped.
Where does Real Aid fit into all this? Hardly at all, Aid aimed primarily at supporting the government of a country stands very little chance of helping the poorest of its people — particularly when most of such assistance gets translated into military hardware. Must Real Aid therefore be somehow non-political — above the political debate? That scarcely seems realistic either. Any government aid programme, poverty-focussed or otherwise, must pass through the hands of local politicians who will shape and direct it, as much as they can, according to their own philosophy, be they the marxists of South Yemen or the fascists of Chile.
The politics of Real Aid must somehow be disentangled from the politics of diplomacy. The making and breaking of alliances has always been the basis of international relations and propping up your weaker allies with dollars is a justifiable tactic. President Reagan’s support of Honduras is understandable, given his view of the problem.
But helping the citizens of a poor country is an entirely different matter from helping their government. And experience has shown that the giving of Real Aid deserves a distinctive set of tactics of its own. If President Reagan also wishes to help poor campesino farmers in Honduras, then handing over yet more money to General Alvarez will simply not achieve this.
Aid donors must first accept that the giving of Real Aid is essentially an egalitarian enterprise — sometimes even a socialist one. This need not come as much of a shock. There are socialist measures enacted every day of the week by the governments of the most raucously capitalist countries. Mrs Thatcher is handing out billions of pounds a year in unemployment pay and President Reagan has little option but to maintain the distribution of food stamps to the poorest Americans.
In neither case is there much of a role here for the private sector. General Foods or the Cocoa-Cola Corporation are hardly the most suitable channels for food stamps, and distribution of welfare payments in general is seen as the preserve of government.
At the international level the same principles apply. To give Real Aid you have to choose the channels most capable of delivering it. This again excludes most multinational corporations as well as the local equivalent of the Mafia — be it Jean Claude Duvalier in Haiti or President Marcos in the Philippines. If you have a socialist intention then it is more efficient to use a socialist agent even if that means Samora Machel in Mozambique or Fidel Castro in Cuba.
But none ‘of this need involve surrendering capitalist principles. West Germany can fervently believe that free enterprise is the only way truly to create wealth yet still accept that adding a dash of socialism to the mixture is the best way to distribute it. The experience of the last 25 years of development in the Third World has demonstrated that wealth, however created, does not of its own accord trickle down to the poor.
Reaching the poor is extremely difficult. The aid bureaucrat landing in New Delhi will find it easy enough to meet beggars in the streets around Connaught Circus. But to help the broad mass of the people in any more constructive way he will have to pass through the national government, the State governments, various special agencies and then on down through regional and local layers of politics and bureaucracy that will see that his help is effectively reduced to a trickle by the time it reaches the villages those beggars come from
In a socialist country the passage of the money should theoretically be more complete, if no quicker. And those countries which profess socialism usually have some of the means of carrying it out. The poor are easier to reach in Democratic Yemen than they are in India.
By now you may be incredulous that I should suggest that Western nations should give their aid only to socialist countries. Rationally there is no reason why they should not take such a decision; governments like Sweden have indeed concentrated their aid in countries like Tanzania.
But such a policy, taken literally, would be harsh. The poor may be harder to reach in India but they are among those in greatest need and should hardly be penalised for being poor in the wrong place. The most productive approach is one which takes into account the local political realities and changes the type of aid accordingly.
You can divide official aid programmes —somewhat arbitrarily — into two types. The first you might call development aid — the building of roads or dams, say. The second could be best classified as welfare — mother and child nutrition schemes or vaccination programmes.
Development aid is the more ambitious and dangerous of the two. A dam with linked irrigation might raise the level of agricultural production for a whole area — or it might merely throw the small farmers off their land in order to provide cheap power for the cities. Which effect it has will depend not on the skill of the dam builders but on the prevailing local power structure. To guarantee that the poor would be helped, the dam would need to be built in a country where they could be protected — and that is a lot more likely in China than Indonesia. Development aid of this kind is best confined to countries where it will help the poor.
Welfare programmes on the other hand are a good deal safer. A child who gets a jab in the arm against polio cannot, even in Haiti, have it taken away from him. Where the benefits of a project are directly consumed by the recipients they are a good deal easier to control. That’s not to say that some of the investment might not be highjacked along the way by the local bigwigs who can fit themselves out with a project’s vehicles. But at least in this case the project’s failure does not mean that it works against the interests of the poor, as so often happens with development projects.
Targetting aid in this way, limiting development aid to governments that can cope with it and restricting other governments to simpler welfare programmes, would be an enormous disruption. But if aid is specifically to help the poor, there is little point in using up scarce funds on over-ambitious schemes in countries where they stand almost no chance of reducing poverty.
The vacant centre of Managua is a fitting monument to the death of the old approach to aid. A rebuilt Nicaragua would be an even more fitting monument to a new one.