Book Review
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
By John Perkins
Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco
250 pp
Review by Fouad Khatib

In 1960, the income of 20 percent or world’s population living in the wealthiest countries was 30 times that of the 20 percent living in the poorest countries. After three and a half decades of ‘economic development’ of poor countries engineered by World Bank, IMF, USAID etc, the ratio stood at 74 to 1 in 1995. All the while, these various agencies, banks and corporations have maintained that the system of “aid” giving has been working and that countries have made progress. This dichotomy between the reality of the poor countries and the perceived progress attributed to aid clearly begs an explanation.
John Perkins has attempted to explain this dichotomy. He argues that contrary to general perception, the main purpose of the “aid” has never been to uplift poverty stricken countries, but rather to ease them into huge debts. Various “development” schemes are offered to them to exploit their resources such as oil, minerals, and metals. Once deep into the debt trap, these countries keep transferring their wealth to lenders in wealthier countries via interest payments.
Why would so many countries allow themselves to be sucked into this modern slavery? Who are the beneficiaries? The answers to these questions form the crux of Perkins’ book. He has coined the term “corporatocracy” to describe the interests of wealthy families and financial institutions and their strong connections with the US government and the media. Typically, a group of “economic hit men” would descend on a country to gauge the potential for development to “help” the country. Estimation of the potential and the need would be grossly exaggerated to justify huge turnkey projects. Then money would be lent for the projects, the beginning of the debt trap. Later, more development projects would be offered, ostensibly to propel them out of debt.
If the leadership of a country refuses to heed the “advice” of the economic hit men, the “jackals” – hit men of a different sort - will follow. The death of Jaime Roldos, the president of Ecuador in a helicopter crash in 1981 is regarded in Latin America as the work of the “jackals”. And if the “jackals” fail, military intervention becomes necessary. Perkins contends that the first Gulf War in 1991 and the subsequent strangulation of Iraq were necessitated by the failure of the economic hit men as well as the jackals. The war was the eventual result of Saddam Hussein’s refusal to accept the Saudi model for development, which facilitated recycling of petrodollars to major US corporations such as Bechtel through enormous development projects that transformed the Saudi landscape.
This general formula of persuading countries to relinquish real control of their resources seems to have worked fairly well for half a century. According to Perkins, the genesis of this method was the work of CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, who succeeded through payoffs, bribes and threats in overthrowing the popularly elected Mossadegh in 1953 when Iran tried to wrest control of its oil resources from British oil interests.
Perkins’ claim to insight into the workings of economic hit men is based on his personal experience of three and a half decades. He was an insider, an economic hit man himself who was covertly recruited and trained by the ultra-secretive National Security Agency and placed in a Boston-based consulting company as an “economist”. His work took him all over the world from Indonesia, to Middle East to Central and South America. He was never quite at ease with his success erected upon the misery of millions. Over the years, he tried to commit his conscience to paper but was deterred by circumstances. After September 11, 2001, he finally decided to write this book.
“Confessions” principally chronicles the experiences of the author rather than describing the exploitative “corporatocracy”. It is not a tell-all book, but rather the result of pangs of conscience. Perkins sounds neither like a conspiracy theorist, nor like an idealist. He seems genuinely concerned about the post 9/11 world his daughter has inherited. He reasons that the “corporatocracy” is self-destructive, and identifies its vulnerabilities, among them the impossibility of multiple simultaneous military interventions in a growingly defiant world, and the collapse that will follow if just one commodity, oil, is no longer traded in US dollars.
Perhaps seeking atonement, Perkins offers advice on responsible living and comments at length on exploitation. This account of his experiences will persuade readers to see recent and contemporary news stories from an entirely different perspective, stories such as rebuilding of Iraq and the sharp language at the Mar del Plata summit of leaders of the countries in the Americas. Perkins’ account of the intrigues of the “corporatocracy” in Latin America is thought provoking. This reviewer found the accounts of exploitation of Indians in the Andes particularly saddening.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.