Swans Commentary » swans.com May 3, 2010  



Human Rights Watch Brings Neoliberalism To Africa


by Michael Barker





"Regrettably the doctrinal human rights community has largely closed its eyes and ears to the many ways in which its discourse has been politically and economically sullied. In not undertaking the task of constructing a political economy, or an ecology, of human rights, the doctrinal mainstream has allowed the discourse to be all-too-frequently harnessed to the service of contemporary imperialism and rapacious global capitalism. The hard political questions are deftly side-stepped."
—Nick Rose, 2008. (1)


(Swans - May 3, 2010)   Doctrinal human rights groups, while attracting the attention and support of many well meaning citizens, are in fact -- in a perverse testimony to the logic of capitalism -- protectors of corporate rights not human rights. As such organizations fail to challenge the primary driver of human rights abuses... an exploitative political and economic system, they ultimately promote the type of legalistic band-aids that legitimize capitalism's systemic violence as occurring as a result of some sort of unfortunate aberration. "[T]he great paradox of human rights is that mirroring the story of an ever-expanding corpus of international law ratified by ever-greater numbers of states, hundreds of millions of people have been dispossessed of their land and livelihoods and thrown into abject poverty." Indeed, as activist-researcher Nick Rose concludes: "The pretense that human rights are above politics and economics has long outlived whatever doubtful utility it may once have had, and must be abandoned forthwith." (2) This, however, is unlikely to happen in the case of groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) whose very founding was tightly connected to capitalist development priorities (see "Hijacking Human Rights"); consequently, in such cases it is perhaps more appropriate to abandon the group rather than seek to reform such a vibrant expression of capitalist "humanitarianism."

The liberal and thoroughly capitalist discourse of "human rights" adopted by reforming elites like HRW came of age in the late 1970s and is now deeply integrated into the US foreign policymaking establishment. In part this rhetorical shift in imperial discourses was made in response to what was referred to as a "crisis of democracy" -- that is, a crisis for the elite governed status quo -- and can be seen as a pragmatic attempt to co-opt radical demands for a new (just) world order. Intent on bringing the entire globe under their profitable remit, more enlightened members of the ruling class recognized that while strategic support for dictators and authoritarian regimes had proven useful to their ambitions, in the long-term such tactics did not engender sustainable levels of exploitation ("development"). This "humanitarian" shift in foreign policy priorities is highly evident when one views the history of elite interventions in South Africa's political affairs, which were able to successfully undermine efforts to promote radical social change by facilitating a highly structured transition from apartheid to neoliberalism. Here, new humanitarians provided the tools to facilitate the usurpation of popular democracy, a dynamic that will be outlined by reviewing the backgrounds of a handful of the current members of HRW's African advisory board.

HRW adviser Claude Welch Jr. provides an excellent example of a scholar committed to humanitarian imperialism, and his research has long been concerned with ways of promoting militarism while minimizing public opposition. One of Welch's early books was Civilian Control of the Military: Theory and Cases from Developing Countries (SUNY Press, 1976), and since 1980, he has worked closely with the journal Armed Forces and Society (serving as their editor from 1988 until 1992). From 1990 onwards this journal was printed by the conservative outfit Transaction Publishers, a group that was headed by Irving Horowitz and owed its origins in the 1960s to the largesse of the Ford Foundation. Moreover, leading democracy-manipulating theorist Seymour Martin Lipset is a notable former shareholder in this publishing enterprise. It should be no surprise then that a common theme in Welch's work has involved his documenting the activities of popular movements in Africa so that capital can penetrate and dominate them more effectively. For example, the titles of books published by Welch include Anatomy of Rebellion (1980), Human Rights and Development in Africa (1984), and Protecting Human Rights in Africa: Roles and Strategies of Non-Governmental Organizations (1995).

It is no coincidence that Welch is a fellow of the African Studies Association, a US-based organization that was formed in 1957 to "bring together people with a scholarly and professional interest in Africa," and that has always worked closely with leading liberal elites. For example, their recent president, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (2008-9), is currently "working on a global project on African diasporas in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, funded by a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation." (3) Also of relevance to this article, a founding fellow of the African Studies Association, Alan Pifer, went on to serve as the president of the Carnegie Corporation (from 1965 until 1979), and later, while at Carnegie, served as a member of the management committee for the United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program and as a trustee of the Africa-America Institute (for more on these groups read on).

As this background suggests, the history of the African Studies Association is rife with controversy, and their founding president, Melville Herskovits, has been described as a critical "gatekeeper for Africanist research." According to a recent biography...

... Herskovits blocked from the means of production (publications and research funding) those not indebted to him or not supporting his positions (and position of primacy) during the era when area studies was heavily funded by the U.S. government and foundations (particularly the Ford Foundation). (4)

Another influential former president of the African Studies Association was William Brown (1959-60), who had previously served as the founding director of Boston University's African Studies Center -- a center that began work in 1953, and soon after "received its first five-year Ford Foundation Area Studies grant" with an "original foci... to train State Department officers." Initial teaching staff at this Center included Carl Rosberg, who served as a president of the African Studies Association from 1972 until 1973, and later joined the ranks of the elite think tank the Council on Foreign Relations. Furthermore, one of the first graduates from Brown's African Studies Center was a student named Ray Smyke who went on to become Rosberg's research assistant and lifelong friend, and later (during the 1960s) with the aid of Brown joined the Africa-America Institute (after it had been publicly disclosed that it had operated as a conduit for CIA monies), (5) and was recruited by Helen Kitchen to lead a new African department at the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession.

William Brown's predecessor at the head of the African Studies Association, Gwendolen Carter, went on to head his Program of African Studies (from 1964 until 1974) while also acting on the advisory council of African Bureau of the US Department of State (1962-67), and as a trustee of the Africa-America Institute (in 1964). With liberal foundation support, Carter had already initiated her prolific publishing career before joining the Program of African Studies, and as a result of research undertaken during the 1950s she had written "a study of the Afrikaner power establishment" in her book The Politics of Inequality: South Africa Since 1948 (Praeger, 1958). In later years she worked on the multi-volume series that was published by the conservative Hoover Institution as From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa 1882-1964 (1972-1977). On this latter project Carter collaborated with various historians including current HRW Africa adviser and Council on Foreign Relations member, Gail Gerhart -- a researcher whose husband worked in Africa for the Ford Foundation from 1970 right through until 1999, most recently as the Foundation's representative for Southern Africa. (6) Both Carter and Gerhart also worked alongside Thomas Karis, "formerly an employee of the U.S. State Department, stationed in the U.S. Embassy in South Africa in the 1950s," and who, until recently, was a HRW Africa adviser and Ford Foundation grantee.

For more on the historical modus operandi of liberal foundations in Africa, Robert Molteno in his 1979 article, "Hidden Sources of Subversion," suggests that...

... the Ford Foundation in the 1950s gave major financial assistance to the South African Institute of Race Relations which was, and is, the leading fact-gathering institution in South Africa. What is notable is that the Foundation discontinued its assistance to the Institute, but a few years later used its funds to finance academic penetration of the liberation movements [as evidenced by the research of the Carter group]. This presumably, was on the assumption that radical change in South Africa could only come via the liberation movement, which the South Africa Institute of Race Relations had become very poor at reporting on since the movement had been made illegal in 1960.

On this evolution of thought within liberal elites, one might add that former Ford Foundation officer Waldemar Nielsen, while serving as the president of the Africa-America Institute, published The Great Powers in Africa (Praeger, 1969) for the Council on Foreign Relations; a book in which he argued that on top of military aid, funding should be distributed to local liberation movements to facilitate the end South Africa's apartheid regime. The Council on Foreign Relations has always worked closely with HRW, and the aforementioned US State Department Africa specialist, Helen Kitchen, was rewarded with membership to the Council on Foreign Relations before going on to head the United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program (USSALEP).

Founded in 1958, USSALEP fulfilled a critical role in "managing" the formal end of apartheid, and the resume of their former chair, J. Wayne Fredericks -- who, while chairing this program, was the Carnegie Corporation's counselor-in-residence -- more than illustrates the neoliberal intent of the philanthropists that guided USSALEP's work. This is because prior to his service at USSALEP Fredericks had served as the first deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs (1961-67), which was followed by a stint heading the Ford Foundation's Middle East and Africa programs (1967-74). During the 1980s, Fredericks had then been employed as a vice president for international affairs at Chase Manhattan Bank, and went on to act as the counselor-in-residence for Africa at the Institute for International Education -- for details about this last groups manipulative work, see "Buying Freedom for Africa."

In 1982, Steven McDonald replaced Helen Kitchen as the executive director of USSALEP, having spent the 1970s "promoting democracy" within US embassies throughout Africa. During McDonald's residency at the exchange program he served with current HRW Africa adviser, John Marcum, who also happens to be a former president of the African Studies Association (1975-76). After spending three years at the head of USSALEP, McDonald then became a consultant for the US government's newly formed National Endowment for Democracy -- an endowment that was created to overtly undertake the foreign interventions that were previously undertaken covertly by the CIA. During this time McDonald simultaneously worked as the director of the Southern Africa policy forum for the Aspen Institute, supervising a "project that brought members of Congress together with Southern Africa leaders from 1988-1992 to become more engaged and informed about the South Africa transition to democracy [neoliberalism]." (7) And thereafter, he fittingly went to work for the CIA pass-through of yesteryears, the Africa-America Institute. The type of "aid" provided such institutions and liberal foundations has been referred to by the Ford Foundation as "intervention without undue influence," consequently:

The power of the [Ford] Foundation is not that of dictating what will be studied. Its power consists in defining professional and intellectual parameters, in determining who will receive support to study what subjects in what settings. And the Foundation's power resides in suggesting certain types of activities it favors and is willing to support. As [Harold] Laski noted: "The foundations do not control, simply because, in the direct and simple sense of the word, there is no need for them to do so. They have only to indicate the immediate direction of their minds for the whole university world to discover that it always meant to gravitate swiftly to that angle of the intellectual compass." (8)

HRW board member and Africa adviser William Carmichael has played an important role in promoting such elite educational priorities as he first represented the Ford Foundation in Brazil (in 1968), and went on to head their Middle East and Africa office (1977-81). When Carmichael left Ford in 1989, after acting as the vice president of their Developing Country Programs (1981-89), he became the executive director of the (former) Soviet Union and Eastern European programs of the Institute of International Education. Remaining on the topic of education, Roberta Cohen, another of HRW's Africa advisers, serves on the advisory board of the neoconservative stronghold, the Iraqi Women's Educational Institute, sitting alongside the head of the National Endowment for Democracy's Center on International Media Assistance, Marguerite Sullivan. Cohen, like her colleagues, is well acquainted with the discourse of doctrinal human rights, and she resides on the editorial board of the newly formed imperialism-lite journal, Global Responsibility to Protect. (9)

Finally, although not all members of HRW's Africa advisory board have been mentioned in this article, some of the others with exceptional "democratic" backgrounds include Nadine Hack, who formerly served as the vice-chair of the Africa-America Institute; Jonathan Fanton, who served as the president of the MacArthur Foundation from 1999 until 2009; Dan Martin, who during the 1980s acted as the founding director of the MacArthur Foundation's world environment and resources program, and is presently the senior managing director at the corporate front-group, Conservation International; and Canadian businesswomen, Kim Samuel Johnson, who serves on the chairman's council of Conservation International.

By way of a summary, many severe problems have been generated by the capitalist discourse of human rights that is uncritically promoted by doctrinal groups like Human Rights Watch. In fact, as this article has illustrated, it is more than apparent that "humanitarian" groups actually helped ensure that neoliberalism and not humanism flourished in wake of apartheid. One can only hope that future activists, intent on eradicating capitalism, will act in ways commensurate with the manipulative foresight shown by their elite foes, and generate movements that are capable of resisting capitalisms primary source of power... money!


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1.  Nick Rose, "The Need for a Politicized Understanding of Human Rights," (pdf) Refereed paper presented to Activating Human Rights and Peace: Universal Responsibility, Byron Bay, Australia, July 1-4, 2008, p.306. Rose continues: "For example, in 1977 Amnesty International received the Nobel Peace Prize for its report documenting the egregious physical integrity violations committed by the military junta in Argentina. Yet, as Naomi Klein notes, Amnesty carefully avoided any recognition that such repression was intimately linked to the coercive imposition of the fundamentalist free market ideology developed over the previous twenty years at the Chicago University School of Economics by Milton Friedman and his colleagues."(p.206)  (back)

2.  Nick Rose, "The Need for a Politicized Understanding of Human Rights,"p.307, p.309.  (back)

3.  Moroccan business women Suzanne Baazet presently serves as the acting executive director of the African Studies Association, and she simultaneously acts as the co-vice president of the High Atlas Foundation which promotes elite networking between former Peace Corps staffers and Moroccan people, for the latter's benefit -- the Foundation's advisory board includes three former U.S. Ambassadors to Morocco.  (back)

4.  Jerry Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge (University of Nebraska Press, 2004), p.xii. "During the 1930s and 1940s, as an adviser to the Social Science Research council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Rockefeller Foundation, Herskovits's strict advocacy of detached scholarship served to sidetrack important efforts to help African American scholars surmount racial discrimination in academia. ... Although Herskovits often supported the work of black scholars, like Ralph Bunche and Johnnetta B. Cole, he criticized certain activist black scholars -- most notably Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois -- who he considered propagandists rather than scientists because of their social-reform orientations." (pp.9-10)

In 1948, with the financial backing of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Herskovits founded the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University, the "first and foremost center of its kind" in the United States, and "where a number of grants from foundations such as the SSRC, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and the Fulbright program enabled him to send graduate students to West Africa." The current head of this Program, Richard Joseph, is a former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (2002-3), and serves on their editorial board of their Journal of Democracy.  (back)

5.  "Shortly after these disclosures, representatives of the foundations gathered and decided that deliberate action was necessary to place the funding of the institute on a more respectable footing. Without undue delay, consequently, officers of the three foundations -- joined by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, whose president also served as chairman of AAI's board of trustees agreed to underwrite the budget of the institute. Part of this effort to legitimate the institute's standing involved the recruitment of a new president. Ford Foundation officer Waldemar Nielsen agreed to accept the position, with the proviso that CIA funding cease. Nielsen and institute trustee Harold Hochschild met with McGeorge Bundy, then President Kennedy's special assistant for national security affairs and subsequently Ford Foundation president, who assured them that the CIA funds would be replaced by comparable funding from the Agency for International Development. After this meeting, the level of Ford Foundation grants to the institute rose significantly. Edward Berman, "The Extension of Ideology: Foundation Support for Intermediate Organizations and Forums," Comparative Education Review, 26 (1), 1982, p.52.  (back)

6.  Gail Gerhart is the author of the Ford Foundation supported book Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology (University of California Press, 1978), and the co-author of the seven volume series From Protest to Challenge: a Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1990 (Indiana University Press and University of South Africa Press). She formerly acted as the representative of the CIA-connected International Rescue Committee in Kenya (1977-79).  (back)

7.  Current HRW Africa adviser and Council on Foreign Relations member Alice Henkin is the director of the Aspen Institute's Justice and Society Program, a program she has been affiliated with since 1977. Alice's husband, Louis Henkin, is a former president of the American Society of International Law, and was a charter member (now board member) of the controversial Human Rights First.  (back)

8.  Robert Arnove, "The Ford Foundation and the Transfer of Knowledge: Convergence and Divergence in the World-System," Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 13 (1), 1983, p.18.  (back)

9.  Roberta Cohen is the former executive director of the controversial International League for Human Rights, a group whose current African specialist is the former head of George Soros's Open Society Initiative for West Africa. (For a review of George Soros's work in South Africa, see Michael Barker, "George Soros and South Africa's Elite Transition," Swans Commentary, Forthcoming.)  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 3, 2010