Harvard study confirms United States’ abuse of aid to bribe allies

According to detailed new research by American economists [1] based on 50 years of data, the US uses its aid budget to bribe countries that are on the security council to secure their votes in its favour. The cash on offer increases by almost 60 percent when recipients of US bounty become members of the council. Ten of the 15 seats on the security council are filled for two years at a time, by rotation and without extension. The research reveals that, in years when they have a seat, countries get an average of £8 million sterling extra in foreign aid from the US. The amount increases enormously when there is an international crisis and the issue being voted on is important to Washington: it can surge by as much as 170 percent, bringing in a typical windfall of £23 million.

As the authors of the research explain, “some countries serve on the security council during relatively calm years, whereas others, by chance, are fortunate enough to serve during a year in which a key resolution is debated and their vote becomes more valuable.” Some of the resolutions the authors cite include those relating to the Korean war, the Suez canal crisis, the Falklands islands conflict, and Kosova. The even more controversial resolutions relating to the war in Iraq (for instance) were adopted after the research had been completed, and are therefore not covered by these authors’ research.

The economists who have carried out the research are Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker of Harvard University; [1] their findings are not seen as being prejudiced against the US, and are being treated with respect–” though they have not been reported as widely as they should have been. As one of the few media reports on the subject put it, their findings “provide the clearest evidence yet that money is used by the council’s richest member to grease the wheels of diplomacy.” How far those wheels have been greased is shown by the authors’ detailed figures, which demonstrate that it is not only the US that pays bribes for votes in the council but also the UN itself, albeit somewhat indirectly.

Countries with a security council seat also receive an average of £500 million from the UN. These moneys are channelled through UNICEF, the UN’s children’s fund. The US is known to have effective control over UNICEF, to the extent that it can be reasonably concluded that Washington decides who receives bribes through the organisation. How effective Washington’s control over UNICEF is was demonstrated recently when president George W. Bush appointed a close political ally to be its head. The appointment of former US agricultural secretary Ann Veneman provoked controversy at the time, but no effective challenge.

The fact that the US has strong control over the UN is widely recognised. Even Kofi Annan, the departing UN secretary general, deplored this control during his farewell speech. But the fact that he had previously avoided any reference to this issue shows how firm that control is. The incoming secretary general, who is from South Korea (a firm US ally), is even more likely to remain silent. However, the findings of the Harvard economists are certain to open public debate on the issue, despite the fact that the international media have not given it the wide publicity it deserves. However, aid and anti-poverty campaigners and charities have reacted widely and angrily to the findings.

One of the charities that has expressed outrage is Oxfam. Speaking on its behalf, Duncan Green has said: “Aid should go to the people who need it, not as a political sweetener. In recent years most rich countries have been making progress on this, but showering bribes on developing countries just because they sit on the UN security council is clearly a step backwards.” But despite their anger, charities which have often charged the US with using its aid as a “political tool” must be delighted that the Harvard economists have provided them with solid evidence that backs their charges against the US. The authors call the US’s practice “vote-buying”.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) appears to have accepted the findings as solid evidence of Washington’s vote-buying. David Woodward of the NEF has even said that they provide the basis for an urgent reformation of the UN and other international bodies, such as the IMF and World Bank. “As long as one country wields such influence, it will always have a degree of control over what goes on, and they will be likely to abuse that,” he said.

But aid money is not only being diverted by the US government to buy votes in the security council. It is also being switched to finance president Bush’s war on Islam (conveniently called the ‘war on terrorism’), and his dodgy project for the ostensible promotion of democracy –” in the Middle East, for instance. The US government is not merely transferring those funds to finance dubious schemes, but is also planning to cut them by one third, as its budget request for this year shows. This sinister and highly dangerous game has not escaped the attention of the American media, as has the government’s vote-buying in the security council. For example the New York Times, in a highly critical editorial on December 3, took the US government to task for its “unwise revision” of foreign aid. “In a worrisome sign, money for programs to address childhood disease and maternal mortality is down by one-third in this year’s budget request,” the editorial said. “The administration is also cutting anti-poverty spending in Latin America and Africa to pay for programs in Islamic countries, [which are] considered to be frontline states in the war against terror.”

Questioning the wisdom of the programme’s aid-mone being diverted to finance, and asserting that “there is little indication that America knows how to build democracy,” the editorial also said that if the government “fails to restore a sensible balance to foreign aid”, the new congress should.

This editorial was timely and admirably sharp, but why did the American media –” including the New York Times –” almost all ignore the vote-buying revealed by the Harvard economists only two weeks later? Why were there no similar editorials taking the US government to task for its sharp practice? Only days later the security council provided them with another opportunity to address the issue when it passed the resolution establishing economic sanctions against Iran. It is true that the event was widely discussed in the international media, but no questions were asked in respect of vote-buying. How much money, for instance, did Washington pay to the ten non-permanent member-states to secure their votes in favour of sanctions? And what concessions did it make to the other permanent members (China, France, Russia and Britain) for the same purpose? Alas, corrupt practices are endemic in almost all countries of the world and in most sectors of life, so it is difficult for the media to get excited about vote-buying and similar scandals, especially when it is Western governments and other organisations that are involved or implicated.


[1]. “How Much Is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations”
by Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker, Harvard University