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Pierre Omidyar: It Is Better to Receive than to Give

Dave Emory’s entire life­time of work is avail­able on a flash drive that can be obtained here. [1] (The flash drive includes the anti-fascist books avail­able on this site.)

[2] [3]COMMENT: In the long FTR series on L’Affaire Snowden,  we noted that all of the players were outright fascists and/or exponents of corporatist economic theory. That includes Pierre Omidyar [4], Nazi fellow-traveler Glenn Greenwald’s [5] financial angel and backer of First Look media.  Touting the laissez-faire economics of the GOP and other corporatist elements around the world, Omidyar has also helped to finance the rise of fascist elements abroad, including assisting in the ascent [6] of the OUN/B successor forces in the Ukraine, as well as Narendra [7] Modi, heir to the RSS Hindu fascists that spawned his BJP.

Omidyar’s “philanthropy” is cast in the laissez-faire economics to which he is wed. Building on the lethal record of his SKS microfinance project in Andhra Pradesh state in India, Omidyar Networks has utilized the Rural Development Institute, the child of Roy Prosterman, a counterinsurgency veteran of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam and similar projects in places like El Salvador.

Omidyar and his then-CEO Meg Whitman (of EBAy) also were  under investigation: “. . . .  in return for giving Goldman Sachs the lucrative eBay IPO, the “vampire squid” [8] bank set up private secret accounts for Omidyar and CEO Meg Whitman letting them spin dozens of tech IPOs before they went to market — ripping off both retail investors and startup investors. Omidyar settled a shareholder fraud lawsuit [9] in 2005 without admitting wrongdoing, ironic for a visionary who believes so deeply in accountability.

Omidyar and other EBay executives are currently being investigated for another alleged scam: “Omidyar was subpoenaed [10] by a federal grand jury [11] criminal investigation [12] into his and other eBay executives’ alleged roles in stealing Craigslist’s “secret sauce” [13] for eBay’s profit.”

What a swell guy Omidyar is. Read the article below for details on his (and other corporatists’) vision for the mutating of micro-finance into a profit-making vehicle, often at the lethal expense of the poor who are supposed to benefit from those programs.

“EBay Shrugged: Pierre Omidyar Believes there Should Be No Philanthropy Without Profit” by Mark Ames; Pando Daily; 5/31/2014. [14]

EXCERPT: This week, India’s newly-elected ultranationalist leader Narendra Modi unveiled his cabinet, three-quarters of whom come from a fascist paramilitary outfit, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) [15] — including one minister accused by police last year of inciting deadly Hindu-Muslim violence that left over 50 dead.

The RSS was founded in 1925 by open admirers of Mussolini and Hitler; in 1948, an RSS member assassinated pacifist Mahatma Gandhi. In 1992, it was the RSS that organized the destruction of the Ayodha Mosque, leaving 2000 dead, mostly Muslims; and in 2002, the RSS played a key role in the mass-murders of minority Muslims in Gujarat, according to Human Rights Watch, when the state of Gujarat was ruled by Narendra Modi — himself a product of the RSS.

Earlier this week, Pando reported that Modi’s election received help from unlikely sources in Silicon Valley including Google, and to a much more serious extent, Omidyar Network, the philanthropy fund of eBay billionaire and First Look publisher Pierre Omidyar.

From 2009 through February of this year, Omidyar Network India Advisers was headed by Jayant Sinha, a longtime Modi adviser and newly-elected MP in Modi’s ultranationalist BJP party ticket. The Omidyar Network partner and managing director played a double role, investing funds in Indian nonprofits and for-profits, some with distinctly political agendas; while privately, the Omidyar man “worked in Modi’s team” in 2012-13, and served as director in the ultranationalist BJP party’s main think tank on security and economic policy, the India Foundation. This week, Modi appointed the head of the India Foundation, former intelligence chief Ajit Doval, as his National Security Advisor.

Modi was the “hi-tech populist” candidate: London techies managed Modi’s 3-D hologram campaign, beaming 10-feet-tall Modi holograms to rallies across India. And India’s techies played a key role both in campaigning for Modi and voting for Modi.

Despite the sunny progressive Silicon Valley gloss we’ve been fed these past few decades, Modi’s appeal shows that the tech industry is as prone to far-right authoritarian politics as any other industry.

And that is what makes the Omidyar Network story so revealing: Perhaps no other figure embodies the disconnect between his progressive anti-state image, and his factual collaboration with the American national security state and the global neoliberal agenda, than Pierre Omidyar.

The role of Omidyar Network in so many major events of the past week — helping elect India’s ultranationalist leader Narendra Modi; co-funding Ukraine regime-change NGOs with USAID, resulting in a deadly civil war and Monday’s election of Ukrainian billionaire oligarch Petro Poroshenko; and now, this week’s first-ever sit-down TV interview with Edward Snowden, through an arrangement between NBC News and Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media — shows how these contradictions are coming to the fore, and shaping our world.

Omidyar’s central role in the US national security state’s global agenda may still come as a shock to outsiders and fans of First Look media’s roster of once-independent journalists. But to White House foreign policy hawks, Pierre Omidyar represents the new face of an old imperial tradition. . . .

. . . . . By taking a closer look at Omidyar Network’s investments in India, we gain insight into where the common interests between Big Tech, the US national security state, and neoliberalism align — and Omidyar’s strategic thinking aligning eBay/PayPal with Omidyar Network and First Look media.

Let’s start with Omidyar Network’s investments in the Rural Development Institute, founded by one of the godfathers of American counterinsurgency strategy: Roy Prosterman.

“Property Rights”: Omidyar and “Phoenix Program” guru Roy Prosterman

Omidyar Network identifies “property rights” (or “property titling”) as one of its five areas of focus. One of Omidyar’s personal heroes and largest grant recipients is neoliberal economist Hernando de Soto, the former right-hand man to jailed dictator Alberto Fujimori. De Soto is the world’s leading peddler of “property titling” as the answer to global poverty: rather than giving aid, De Soto says we should give the world’s poor private property titles, which slum dwellers can presumably collateralize into microloans for their slum-based startups. The results have often been catastrophic — but that hasn’t stopped De Soto from being admired by the world’s ruling elite, ranging from Bill Clinton, to the Koch brothers — to Pierre Omidyar, who gave $5 million to De Soto’s neoliberal think tank . . .

. . . .India, like many developing countries around the world, has what Anglo-Americans consider a weak legal structure on property rights. In particular, local indigenous peoples lay ancient claims to lands they live on, and have resisted state attempts to forcibly evict them to make way for industry, mining, and other powerful interests. The Naxal Maoist insurgencies raging in parts of India are fueled in part by displaced, landless peoples. Since Modi’s election landslide, global investors have been hopeful that India’s land will now be made easier to buy and sell. Omidyar Network’s longtime top man in India, Jayant Sinha—now an MP in Modi’s far-right ruling party — told CNBC that Modi’s first job should be making land acquisition easier:

We have to start with land acquisition. We have to make land acquisition a lot better in terms of both the people that are acquiring the land from the farmer’s and so on as well as for industry.

So perhaps it’s little surprise that Omidyar’s first major India grant, in 2008, went to the Rural Development Institute’s (renamed “Landesa”) program “to help secure land rights for the rural poor” in India’s Andhra Pradesh state. By 2009, Omidyar Network had committed $9 million to the RDI land rights program, the largest grant in the outfit’s history.

And what a history: The Rural Development Institute was founded in 1967 by Roy Prosterman, whose land reform programs were a key element in the Vietnam War counterinsurgency strategy, the “Phoenix” assassination program. The Phoenix program became the template for modern American counterinsurgency — violent terror, combined with soft-power land “reforms” cooked up by Prosterman’s Institute.

During the Vietnam War, Prosterman teamed up with USAID to implement his “land-to-the-tillers” reforms, granting land to peasants as the carrot, while at the same time CIA death squads assassinated tens of thousands of Vietnamese village leaders and terrorized restive regions into submission. The result, Prosterman later boasted, was that Viet Cong recruitment dropped 80 percent.

A decade later, Prosterman sold the same land reform program to El Salvador’s junta, just as the junta was ramping up its deadly attacks on rural civilians that left 75,000 killed by US-backed government forces. Prosterman also served as “land reform” advisor to Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. And in the 1990s, Prosterman was contracted by Booz Allen to advise land reforms in Moldova, according to journalist Tim Shorrock. . . .

. . . . . A few years ago, Prosterman’s Rural Development Institute changed its name to Landesa. But Prosterman’s Cold War outfit hasn’t changed its close cooperation with USAID, or its core strategic mission, tying land ownership to security (and counterinsurgency) — neatly summed by Landesa’s India director’s article: “Connecting the Dots Between Security and Land Rights in India.”

Leaving aside the alleged benefits to India’s poor of giving them land title to the commons — 400,000,000 Indians live on less than $1.25 a day — for the more powerful interests funding land titling programs, there are endless advantages. It helps create a mass tax base for governments that want to shift more taxes onto the masses; it formalizes and legalizes transfer of property from the commons to the strongest and richest; it makes foreign investors happy; it helps the government and businesses track and keep data on its citizens; and, to quote Omidyar Network managing partner Matt Bannick — recently appointed by the Obama White House to a special task force — Prosterman’s land reforms made Omidyar “excited about how micro-land ownership can empower women and help them to pull themselves out of poverty.”

That’s because micro-land ownership helps create the real focus of Omidyar Network investments in India: Microfinance.

“Financial Inclusion”: Omidyar, Microfinance & Suicide-By-Pesticide

Omidyar Network’s ugliest disaster — besides co-funding Ukraine regime-change groups with USAID — was its role in funding SKS Microfinance, whose predatory lending and debt collecting practices led to a rash of gruesome suicides in rural Andhra Pradesh.

First, a quick word on the theory and practice of microlending. In theory, the original microfinance concept — a nonprofit extending micro-loans to the poor, under favorable terms, below market rates — could be beneficial, and under the right circumstances, it often was. But to the neoliberals, the original microfinance concept smacked of do-gooder state socialism — so microfinance floundered in the margins of the development community until 1992. That year, USAID commercialized a Bolivian microfinance nonprofit called Prodem, creating a new for-profit micro-lender, BancoSol in its place. BancoSol ballooned overnight — both in loans and in profits, making millionaires of the former nonprofit directors before BancoSol nearly collapsed at the end of the decade.

USAID liked the for-profit neoliberal model for microfinance, and it persuaded the World Bank and other global financial institutions to load in and sing its praises. That brought microfinance to the attention of Wall Street funds, eventually pushing out “old” “unsustainable” nonprofit microfinance institutions, and seducing the likes of Nobel Peace Prize winner and microfinance industry guru Muhammad Yunus into the for-profit sector as well. As we now know, it ended in disaster — particularly in India’s Andhra Pradesh state, where Omidyar-funded land title programs had been busy creating legions of rural poor “micro-land owners” now ready to load up on Omidyar-funded microfinance loans. The result would be scores of women driven to grisly suicides, forced prostitution, and despair.

It’s hard to overstate just how central the for-profit microfinance model is to Pierre Omidyar’s “vision.” In a 2006 New Yorker article detailing Omidyar’s near-religious zeal for commercializing microfinance, we learn that the eBay billionaire not only rejected the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s appeals to soften his monomaniac focus on profiting off the world’s poor — we also learn that Omidyar was committed to wiping out whatever remained of charitable non-profit microlending, so as not to “distort the market.” Omidyar rejected on principle entreaties from his fellow billionaires to invest in a nonprofit microfinance fund. Because on principle, Omidyar refused to believe that good could come from anything but the self-interested profit motive. Here’s the New Yorker:

[Omidyar] often cites Adam Smith’s doctrine that unrestrained market forces and self-interest drive the most efficient—and socially beneficial—use of resources. Omidyar sees Smith’s principles at work in eBay; he believes that eBay’s commercial success was linked to a profound social good.

Omidyar’s faith in the eBay model is so great that he is convinced that it can be applied to solving humanity’s problems, including poverty — and that is why Omidyar singled out for-profit microfinance as his life’s mission. After rejecting Yunus as an “old thinker” wedded to old do-gooderism non-profit thinking, Omidyar announced a $100 million donation to Tufts University, the largest in school history, with the stipulation that the Omidyar-Tufts Microfinance Fund went “specifically” into “investments that would promote microfinance’s commercialization.”

To manage the fund, Omidyar hired a Senior Credit Officer from USAID — the agency that originally commercialized microfinance in 1992 — who channeled Joseph Schumpeter to the New Yorker:

“One of the things we need and we will get is a cycle of creative destruction,” said Tryfan Evans, the director of investments at the Omidyar-Tufts fund, who previously worked at U.S.A.I.D. “If you’re inefficient, you will get overtaken by competitors.”

What is rather shocking in hindsight is how fanatical Omidyar’s faith is in the free market, to the point that he’s willing to risk exploiting the most vulnerable poor on earth to prove that Adam Smith is right. The dangers of for-profit microfinance lending to India’s poor were no secret: the New Yorker article references a string of microfinance related suicides in Andhra Pradesh back in 2006, before Omidyar’s millions poured oil on that fire. . . .

. . . . And so Omidyar tested his theory: plowing millions into India’s SKS Microfinance via  investments into murky microfinance outfit Unitus. In 2010, SKS Microfinance listed a $350 million IPO [16] that netted insiders and early investors like Unitus obscene profits. The murky, interlocking nonprofit/for-profit [17] structures ensured that only those on the inside knew whether Omidyar made money on his investment.

The only sure thing was that the explosion of microfinance lending in the state of Andrah Pradesh, led by SKS Microfinance, wound up saddling the world’s poorest and most vulnerable village women with debts they could not pay, causing a wave of suicides. An AP investigation [18] directly implicated Omidyar-funded SKS Microfinance agents in several suicides:

One woman drank pesticide and died a day after an SKS loan agent told her to prostitute her daughters to pay off her debt. She had been given 150,000 rupees ($3,000) in loans but only made 600 rupees ($12) a week.

Another SKS debt collector told a delinquent borrower to drown herself in a pond if she wanted her loan waived. The next day, she did. She left behind four children.

One agent blocked a woman from bringing her young son, weak with diarrhea, to the hospital, demanding payment first. Other borrowers, who could not get any new loans until she paid, told her that if she wanted to die, they would bring her pesticide. An SKS staff member was there when she drank the poison. She survived.

An 18-year-old girl, pressured until she handed over 150 rupees ($3) – meant for a school examination fee – also drank pesticide. She left a suicide note: “Work hard and earn money. Do not take loans.”

In all these cases, the report commissioned by SKS concluded that the company’s staff was either directly or indirectly responsible.

After the report, Omidyar Network scrubbed SKS Microfinance from its website. An old cached webpage [19] shows Omidyar hailing SKS Microfinance for “serving the rural poor in India” and claiming that the murky Unitus private equity fund’s IPO “exit strategy” will “attract more capital to the market.”

Instead, Unitus dissolved its microfinance NGO, a wave of resignations and murky millions moved hands, SKS Microfinance became a pariah, and Andhra Pradesh passed laws regulating microfinance institutions. A tiny handful of insiders and investors pocketed obscene millions, over 200 killed themselves, and entire Indian rural communities were devastated. Self-interest and profit motive did not create the greatest social good that Omidyar believed in; and yet, Omidyar Network continues to expand its portfolio [20] of microfinance — or “financial inclusion” — investments.

eBay Shrugged

 “Omidyar stopped talking about microfinance as a way to end world poverty, and instead described its mission in a way congruent with the eBay experience.” —New Yorker

The key to understanding the enigmatic eBay billionaire and his many contradictions — an active participant in Washington’s global empire on a scale unrivaled in publishing, while also founder of a quarter-billion dollar “adversarial journalism” startup and privatizer of the Snowden NSA files, the largest cache of leaked national security secrets in US history — is understanding Omidyar’s eBay-centric vision.

Omidyar is a vision man [21], as his star employee Jeremy Scahill [22] constantly reminds us. And his vision was shaped, for understandable reasons, by his experience making ten billion dollars overnight off of eBay, which Omidyar believes is proof of a larger philosophical and moral structure at work, rather than a combination of smarts, luck, privilege… and other less savory factors.

In 2000, Omidyar confided to his New York Times biographer, Adam Cohen, that he founded eBay to create a “perfect market” after feeling cheated by the way tech IPOs in the early 1990s let insiders “spin” IPOs for a quick profits before dumping them onto the market to regular investors — like the pre-eBay Omidyar. Cohen writes [23]:

When 3DO announced plans to go public in May 1993, Omidyar placed an order for stock through his Charles Schwab brokerage account…. 3DO went public at $15 a share, but when Omidyar checked his account, he learned that the stock had soared 50 percent before his order had been filled…. it struck him that this was not how a free market was supposed to operate—favored buyers paying one price, and ordinary people getting the same stock moments later at a sizeable markup.

Omidyar’s solution was an online auction.

Cohen, a member of the New York Times editorial board, found Omidyar’s story convincing. There was only one problem: At the very time Omidyar spun this yarn to Cohen, Omidyar was under investigation [24] in the largest IPO stock spinning scandal in history. According to a House investigation, in return for giving Goldman Sachs the lucrative eBay IPO, the “vampire squid” [8] bank set up private secret accounts for Omidyar and CEO Meg Whitman letting them spin dozens of tech IPOs before they went to market — ripping off both retail investors and startup investors. Omidyar settled a shareholder fraud lawsuit [9] in 2005 without admitting wrongdoing, ironic for a visionary who believes so deeply in accountability.

More recently, Omidyar was subpoenaed [10] by a federal grand jury [11] criminal investigation [12] into his and other eBay executives’ alleged roles in stealing Craigslist’s “secret sauce” [13] for eBay’s profit. . . .