The Marshall Plan: What it meant 63 years ago and what it means today

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World.

Here it is the 63rd anniversary of the signing into law the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948. Better known as the Marshall Plan.

Seems whenever there is talk of helping a country rebuild — think Haiti — inevitably someone mentions the Marshall Plan. What people tend to forget is that the Marshall Plan was designed to rebuild societies that already had stable political and industrial infrastructures.

What Haiti and many other countries need is development help.

The Marshall Plan was not so much a “development” plan but a rebuilding plan.

The Marshall Plan, by providing goods to a war-ravaged Europe also provided support to democratic forces — from democratic socialists to conservatives. Without the Marshall Plan the Soviet Union would have grabbed more influence in Western Europe by playing on the deprivation of post-war Europe.

The marching orders from Moscow were clear to their satellite parties in Western Europe: Stop the Marshall Plan. For example, while the French Communist unions refused to unload Marshall Plan goods at the ports, the French Socialist unions were anxious to do so.

Oh, by the way, the aid was offered to Eastern Europe as well. The Soviets made sure their puppet governments rejected the help.

Again, the Marshall Plan was designed to assist societies that already had a history and culture of industrial life and democratic rule. All they needed was a little help to get back on their feet.

With the help of the Marshall Plan Europe got back on its feet. In the process the U.S. gained new trading partners instead of clients. And we got political and military allies instead of adversaries.

All in all we got a good return for our minimal investment.

The problems countries such as Haiti and many in Africa face are a lack of democratic institutions and stable and safe infrastructure. What these countries need is not so much a Marshall Plan, but rather development support on a broad front.

The development of democratic institutions is vital to economic development. People have to see they have a stake in the growth and development of their country.

When only the political elite get the benefits of industrialization and when the workers are denied their basic rights, the embers of revolts and violence start to glow. Add unchecked corrupt government practices — because of no free press or independent watchdog — can only help the embers burst into an inferno.

Fortunately, the U.S. Agency for International Development figured out some time ago that along with building roads and power grids, development programs had to include the building a pluralistic culture.

In the past 15 or so years, AID has run programs that help local journalists understand what it means to have independent media. Sessions are run on how to either get the government to enact freedom of information laws or how to improve and use existing laws.

Adding to the development issue is the work of the National Endowment for Democracy. This private, government-funded group provides funds to the international arms of the Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO and the Democratic and Republican Parties. The programs these groups run help build business and labor groups and  the political parties run programs to improve the stability of political forces independent of government control.

Back to the main point:

Under the Marshall Plan, no one had to worry about building democratic institutions or building and industrial culture. The people were anxious and ready to do that. The Marshal Plan gave the people the material support they needed.

What is needed in the developing world are programs to get to that first step of development: the building of a pluralistic society with independent organizations to serve as a check and balance against government excesses.

So, please, let’s get our terms right in the future. Please let’s not see any more stories that say “Haiti needs a Marshall Plan.” It’s just bad history.

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