Even before being devastated by a killer cyclone on May 2, Burma was one of the world’s poorest countries.  Renamed Myanmar by a military junta, Burma is also one of the most oppressed countries.  In terms of brutality, cruelty, and venality, her government is in a league with North Korea.  It comes as no surprise, then, that sending foreign aid to Burma has the potential of doing more harm than good.

Over the last 60 years, trillions of dollars have been transferred from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries in the name of promoting development.  Through much of that period, many aid recipients actually lost ground economically.  However, assorted presidents, cabinet ministers, managers, and other apparatchiks grew rich.  Africa, for instance, gained a distinct new class: the Wabenzi, or men of the Mercedes-Benz.

Over the years, even the U.S. Agency for International Development, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other aid agencies have been forced to admit that the vast bulk of their munificent transfers generated no economic growth and encouraged no market reforms.  The conclusions of outside analysts, led by the pioneering British economist P.T. Bauer, have been more damning.  Bauer’s studies showed that, by pouring vast sums of money into many of the world’s worst governments, foreign aid has subsidized both socialism and repression.

Foreign aid remains yet another government program in which hope routinely trumps experience.  Instead of eliminating failed programs, politicians and aid officials simply add new ones, such as the Millennium Challenge Account.  Economist Jeffrey Sachs campaigns to end—not just to alleviate—poverty, as if a few more dollars spent on a few more programs by a few more governments could banish illness, hunger, and most every other human ill.

Although the intellectual and practical cases against foreign aid are impregnable, even many hard-nosed analysts retain a soft spot for humanitarian assistance.  Forget trying to fix economies, reform policies, maintain roads, and create businesses.  What about saving people who are starving, ill, or otherwise at risk?  Such noble efforts are often no more than cleverly disguised government subsidy schemes.  U.S. “Food for Peace” shipments to both Latin America and Asia, for example, were essentially an international ploy to unload domestic farm surpluses.  The program earned a reputation for ruining local farmers and, in turn, making more people dependent on foreign largesse.

So long as aid—whether money or goods—goes through a government, or something acting as a government, its efficacy depends on the character of that government.  In Somalia, for instance, food aid became a weapon of war.  Concerning Western humanitarian assistance, relief worker Michael Maren complained that

the relief program was probably killing as many people as it was saving, and the net result was that Somali soldiers were supplementing their income by selling food, while the [guerrilla group]—often indistinguishable from the army—was using the food as rations to fuel their attacks into Ethiopia.

Even where aid actually gets to the needy, it may still buttress the oppressive system that is responsible for much or most of the people’s distress.  This was the dilemma with the Ethiopian famine a quarter-century ago and the North Korean famine a decade ago.  In both cases, a monstrous regime was able to entrench itself in power, guaranteeing future murder, destruction, and hardship.

Burma suffered a horrid catastrophe, with an estimated 135,000 dead or missing, and another 2.4 million left homeless.  In response, Western aid agencies quickly offered their assistance: France and the United States even dispatched warships filled with food, medicine, and other supplies, as well as personnel to oversee their distribution.  This relief model—the sort of direct aid to the needy used after the devastating 2005 tsunami—is about the only one likely to work.  Naturally, the generals in Naypyidaw, the new capital built at the insistence of army chief Than Shwe, said no.

Their decision was not entirely surprising.  After all, the people’s welfare has never been a high priority of the so-called State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).  For decades the Burmese military has been killing and raping, impressing farmers as porters, destroying villages, and sowing land mines throughout the eastern hill country.  Democratic activists in the cities face prison.  Demonstrators last fall were brutally dispersed.  So what if a few people are killed by a natural disaster?

SPDC generals were suspicious of aid agencies, which they saw as representatives of governments determined to drive them from power.  The junta was wary of the U.S. military in particular, fearing a clandestine attempt at “regime change.”  Thus, the regime offered to accept assistance but not aid workers—and certainly not any military personnel.  (Almost a month after the cyclone hit, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates finally seemed to get the point, admitting that it was “becoming pretty clear” that the SPDC would not allow the four U.S. Navy ships waiting offshore to dock.)

As weeks went by, the junta issued more visas and reduced restrictions on foreign staffers, leading to a modest inflow of people, food, and other assistance.  Yet at almost every turn, the junta continued to exacerbate the crisis.  For instance, after being allowed into the country, aid workers often were prevented from reaching the neediest people in the remotest villages.  Even some native Burmese were turned back at roadblocks.  The military confiscated the supplies of others or forced them to pay bribes to continue on their way.  Workers active with the opposition risked arrest and impoundment of their cars.

The military’s interference spread well beyond the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta, as hungry troops seized money and food from villages in the north.  “They’ve started grabbing food for themselves because they are scared there will not be enough food left,” explained Debbie Stothard of the Bangkok-based human-rights organization ALTSEAN.  Weeks after the disaster, basic relief supplies had not reached more than a million people, yet the government began emptying its inadequate camps, ordering families to return to wrecked villages without food or other supplies.  One victim told the Financial Times that a local bureaucrat simply declared that “there must be no refugees in this country and we must reconstruct our homes.”  The regime was equally insistent that displaced people leave Buddhist monasteries, where many had taken refuge, as well as makeshift shelters along roads where they had a better chance of receiving charitable assistance.

The government also turned the aid business into a cash cow.  Foreign agencies had to pay up to $3,000 per cell phone.  In a country where gasoline is rationed and auto imports are limited, everything costs more.  One retired teacher told the New York Times, “The people get nothing here, and the military takes everything.”

Immediately after the cyclone hit, when aid from neighboring Thailand arrived, soldiers stuck labels with the names of leading generals onto the packages before distributing them.  There was evidence that assistance had been diverted; donated high-energy biscuits were replaced by cheaper domestic crackers.  Moreover, reported the New York Times, “some of the international aid arriving into the country for the victims of Cyclone Nargis was being stolen, diverted or warehoused by the country’s army.”

By the end of May, the SPDC declared that disaster relief was finished, so the West should hand over $11 billion for reconstruction.  Deputy Defense Minister Aye Myint told a donors’ forum in Singapore, “We would warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine goodwill from any country or organization, provided that there are no strings attached, or politicization involved.”  He added, “We are ready to accept [assistance] in accordance with our priorities.”

Those priorities are obvious.  As Thai analyst Aung Naing Oo explained, “when you are in a position of power within the military, you can enrich yourself easily.”  The families and friends of the generals are wealthy, and now they will grow even richer.  In mid-May the regime assigned 43 companies, many linked to top military figures, to receive reconstruction contracts.  In a country with an estimated GDP of only $15 billion, a little largesse can go a long way to expand private bank accounts.

Win Min, a Burmese academic exiled in Thailand, adds that “This is a very paternalistic regime.  They want people to rely on them, depend on them.  That is why they don’t want other people to distribute food—it will undermine their legitimacy.”

Fortunately, potential donors balked at this attempted shakedown, leading to regime denunciations of Western stinginess and “inhumanity.”  The junta was particularly outraged that the World Bank refused to send cash since Burma was a deadbeat borrower, having welshed on her obligations a decade before.

Nevertheless, there was more than a little chatter within the professional aid community about the need to put politics aside, take the junta as it is, and find areas of cooperation.  One official anonymously declared to the Financial Times, “More progress has been made in the last three weeks than in the last ten years.  It’s a highly encouraging sign—but it could stop tomorrow.  Now there needs to be a lot of little steps,” after which “we can start to believe that what we hope is possible is actually possible.”

This is a dangerous delusion.  Just meeting with SPDC officials to talk about assistance and treating them as equals worried one Western diplomat, who warned that “There’s a risk that the international community has handed the junta a propaganda victory, coming to the city and pledging aid without exacting much in exchange.”  And shoveling money into a system controlled by the corrupt autocrats who have kept Burma poor for decades would be a prescription for continued failure.  Whatever the short-term benefits for cyclone survivors, the long-term price paid by the Burmese people likely would be far greater.

The poor we will have with us always, Christ taught.  Those of us who have much should help those who suffer with little, but we must be wise as well as compassionate.  Painful experience should have taught us that foreign aid has more often proved to be foreign hindrance.  Why treat Burma as an exception to the rule?