Ideology and the Alliance for Progress: Charting the Boundaries of the Welfare State

This Fall I took a course on the history of the Welfare State at Penn. I also used to work “in the system,” teaching English and job skills to Spanish-speaking TANF recipients at an NPO in North Philadelphia, so it was a nice complement to that experience. Overall the course was great given the volatility of the subject and the difficulty of understanding an abstraction like “welfare.”  I thought the course fell short in contextualizing the welfare state within the broader scope of government, so I wrote a paper about how the welfare state and foreign aid interacted in Kennedy’s policy and rhetoric.

The perils of globalization and modernization have largely been attributed to “neoliberalism” and neoliberal American global hegemony, which I think has some merit. The American welfare state has historically been such a strange beast that it’s really difficult to point fingers–few nations have seen a clash between principles of general welfare/security and personal liberty on the scale of the USA. Yet today it seems that “foreign development” (generally taking place under neoconservative, globalist institutions) and “domestic” or “community development” (generally taking place from the American “left”) are at odds with one another. The consensus on foreign aid at best rests on our duty to help the global have-nots and at worst is a less-risky way to build global security in the post-911 world. But both of these reflect a Bismarckian idea of State building to me… So is there a historical link?

My paper looks for answers in JFK and his Alliance for Progress. This project was a foreign analogue of the New Frontier that got Kennedy elected and seemed to be the future of the American Welfare State until his untimely assassination. Due to resistance at home, the Alliance for Progress was much further along than any New Frontier domestic reforms, despite complementary rhetoric and Kennedy’s constant comparison of the two. The Alliance provided millions in aid to Latin America in the name of developing economy and–as many historians neglect to mention–society. It died out by the mid-70s (largely due to neoliberal push-back and underfunding, or so the story goes) but what was the ideological basis of the reform? What did Kennedy want out of the millions he was lobbying to send abroad?

Overall, the Alliance was multifaceted: It sought to strengthen perceptions of America, grow international political ties, and generally create a buffer against the Cold War Communist threat. But these aspects were presented as international extensions of domestic policy by both outward rhetoric and by internal Congressional and diplomatic correspondence. Agrarian reform (ie, away from communal landholding, especially in Mexico), income redistribution, and a more just hemispherical society were also included as benchmarks.

The program eventually aimed to directly map Tennessee Valley Authority river basin development on top of Colombian valleys, hoping to make a Tupelo or Knoxville out of Cali or Buenaventura. The founder of the TVA, David Lilienthal, won a contract to develop Colombia under the Alliance for Progress after abortive plans to similarly shape the Mekong Delta and the Nile. And while big business was the engine running the machine, rubber met road with promises of social reform, workforce development, and increased social equality for the poor, uncivilized masses susceptible to Communist dogma.

While globalization’s detractors cry capitalist overreach, authoritarian power grab, or something in between, proponents of foreign aid still need to explain why hunger, malaria, and TB are so prevalent given global wealth–and be honest about the beginnings of these international institutions. I can’t make prescriptive calls to action, but I can say that the foundation of the current international aid regime was laid by the example of domestic welfare state-building, by ideals of a strong state guiding a “free” market to achieve affirmative social outcomes

If you want to read the paper: Here’s a full (18 pp. with references) and 10-page version.

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3 thoughts on “Ideology and the Alliance for Progress: Charting the Boundaries of the Welfare State

  1. It wasn’t the New Frontier that got Kennedy elected so much as the fictitious “missile gap.” That plus election fraud on the part of the arch-criminals Lyndon Johnson in Texas and Richard Daley in Illinois.

    • Sorry, I meant to say that the New Frontier got him the Democratic nomination. Surely the election was about more than the New Frontier.

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