Beware such care

Does AmeriCare? I ask, because President George W Bush was meant to visit four African countries this past week, including South Africa, but suddenly his diary became chocked-up with far more pressing matters than our distant, poor continent.

This is not to say the Bushes, as a clan, are not keen on helping out. In fact, their favourite aid organisation is called, grandiloquently, AmeriCares. Barbara Bush, the United States president’s mother, was the charity’s “ambassador-at-large”, while his brother Prescott is on the board. Critics say the charity works closely with the CIA.

AmeriCares’s founder Robert Macauley, a multimillionaire businessman, was at kindergarten and Yale with former president George Bush Snr (a past head of the CIA), who remains, with his wife Barbara, the most prominent cheerleader for AmeriCares.

The charity describes itself as “the humanitarian arm of corporate America”. Among grandees currently on its advisory panel is US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In The Road to Hell, an exposé of international relief and aid ventures, former aid worker and author Michael Maren lists some of AmeriCares’s finest humanitarian efforts: two million Mars chocolate bars to St Petersburg, Russia, 17 tons of Pop Tarts to Bosnia, and 12 000 Maidenform bras to victims of the 1990 earthquake in Japan.

He quotes a leaked report of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, warning that AmeriCares has shown itself, “an irresponsible, publicity hungry organisation capable of making grandiose generalised offers of assistance and providing plane-loads of highly questionable ‘relief supplies’.”

Defending itself in the Wall Street Journal, AmeriCares explained its philosophy: “By donating … products to AmeriCares, our companies save massive destruction costs, ware-housing expenses and headaches … while they gain tax benefits, good public relations and brand-name recognition in emerging markets.”

Well, you couldn’t spell it out clearer than that. Except there’s also the politics.

“The AmeriCares website shows that its shipments seem to find their way to wherever the CIA is most active,” writes US journalist Sara Flounders, while the New York weekly The Village Voice, after an investigation, concluded: “AmeriCares resembles a private foreign-policy operation of the US government.”

In South America the charity has frequently been linked to right-wing military forces. In Guatemala, from 1982 to 1984, AmeriCares sent $3,4-million in medical aid, most of which was distributed by the armed forces for its “model village” resettlement programme, aimed at “pacifying” Guatemalans displaced during counter-insurgency operations. It was accused of delivering supplies to Contra terrorists based in Honduras, and the charity’s tax returns revealed a cash donation to the brother of Contra leader Adolfo Calero.

In Nicaragua, the Sandanista government accused AmeriCares of being a CIA front. In 1980, after elections that ousted the Sandanistas, aid from the charity was stepped-up and Marvin Bush, brother of the US president, accompanied the second AmeriCares shipment. AmeriCares has also been accused in the past of targeting “humanitarian supplies” to reactionary groups in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the charity has made only one shipment (“strictly humanitarian”) to Iraq. In 1998, eight years after sanctions were imposed, Washington raised all restrictions and legal threats on US citizens breaking sanctions, and permission was given for a direct flight to Baghdad. This was a one-off event, widely covered on prime-time American TV.

Critics claim it was nothing but a cheap, cynical publicity stunt — more to do with deflecting mounting criticism of the US-led sanctions policy than compassion or concern.

This, then, is the Bush family’s favoured charity. So does AmeriCare?

The favourable view is expressed by US business magazine Forbes: “AmeriCares is a splendid example of what a free-enterprise approach can accomplish in charity.” Maren concluded: “AmeriCares is one of those charities whose prime purpose seems to be to provide an outlet for corporations looking for tax write-offs.”

A more jaundiced view is that AmeriCares is principally a political organisation that “supports right-wing military operations while posing as a humanitarian agency”.

AmeriCares has been present in several recent Southern African crises. This kind of philanthropy is not new to Africa: first the missionaries, then the guns, then the suits.

Now we’re told that Bush may visit Africa later this year.

Oh, beware such care.

Bryan Rostron is South African correspondent for the New Statesman

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