'Disaster Capitalism' Author on Why the European Plan for Syrian Refugees Is Doomed to Fail

Journalist Antony Loewenstein on how Western capitalism hurts, not helps, disaster-stricken nations

Refugees wait to be processed at the increasingly overwhelmed Moria camp on the island of Lesbos in Mytilene, Greece. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty

Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein recently made the 30-hour trip from South Sudan to New York City after spending the better part of a year in the world's newest nation, which he calls both "broken" and "a pretty fascinating place."

"It's easily dismissed as just another African civil war, and there's elements of truth in that," he says of the situation in that country, which has been embroiled in ongoing armed struggles since 2013, after winning independence from Sudan in 2011. "But there's also a lot of complicity in how the world, especially the U.S., helped the country get born four years ago, and it's all fallen apart."

The way wealthy nations and their private interests influence and profit from poorer nations is the subject of a new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe, which Loewenstein published this fall. But South Sudan, despite its devastation, didn't even make it as a main subject in the book. "I could have chosen South Sudan, where resource exploitation is rampant," he says. "I could have chosen Mongolia, where in the last year it's had the fastest growing economy in the world because of resources, and the vast majority of people are simply not benefitting."

Instead, he singled out a few specific countries – Australia, the U.K. and the United States on one side; Afghanistan and Pakistan, Greece, Haiti and Papua New Guinea on the other – to detail just how many entities profit from natural and man-made crises across the globe. "The reason I started this book five years ago was my belief that there was too little discussion in the Western press of corporations behaving badly, not in just developing countries, but our own countries," he says. From for-profit prisons, to bloated NGOs, to economic development projects designed to benefit multinational corporations, he argues that a handful in the West are thriving off the pain of the global poor.

The problem, he says, is that we've accepted this as the global norm. The Bush Administration wasn't necessarily motivated by potential profit when it invaded Afghanistan and Iraq – but the administration happily helped private companies like Halliburton reap the rewards when the contracts came up. Loewenstein says that President Obama has continued down the same path: "Only a few years ago, you had the same politicians and intellectuals arguing for a so-called humanitarian intervention in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi. Virtually as soon as that happened, the country descended into chaos." Now, he says, the same people are supporting the same sort of military solutions in Syria. "This, to me, is deeply problematic. If you don't look at the last 10 years and wonder if that's the case, then you have rocks in your head."

The effects of Western policy decisions have been playing out on a large scale in the recent Syrian refugee crisis, a problem that Loewenstein believes Europe is handling with the same misguided methods that have been employed for the past decade. In the U.K., for example, some of the privatized detention centers that have been criticized by watchdog groups for their treatment of asylum seekers still hold contracts to house incoming refugees, and Loewenstein sees the plans being rolled out across Europe as efforts "to warehouse refugees rather than addressing the root causes of the problem…taking only a tiny percentage of refugees, attempting to send many back to their war-torn nations and spending billions of dollars on surveillance instead of resettlement. It's a drop in the ocean, and the reason is that there is no serious acknowledgement of the reasons why these people are fleeing" – i.e., wars that have been "fundamentally fueled by Western foreign policy."

In addition to the book, Loewenstein is working with documentarian Thor Neureiter to make a Disaster Capitalism film, which he hopes to have finished within a year. "The idea behind the film is to use three examples" – Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Haiti – to show "how the use of U.S. and foreign aid has not helped those countries, but in fact hindered them," he says, noting how poorly NGOs tracked the flood of money into Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. "The argument is that exploitation either through resources or aid is the way to bring prosperity to the people," he says. "But the facts on the ground simply do not bear that out. In fact, the opposite happens and there is massive corruption, insecurity, and violence. And that in turn brings profound resentment."