African anguish

The tone that the leaders of the world’s richest and most powerful nations set at last week’s G-8 Summit meeting in the Canadian mountain resort of Kananaskis did nothing to ensure that past mistakes on Africa will not be repeated. To the Africans’ chagrin, there was a hollow, all too-familiar ring to the solemn pledges made for Africa’s development.

The G-8’s plan for Africa is bound to fail to alleviate Africa’s problems. Neither the continent’s acute economic crisis will be assuaged, nor the anxieties of African leaders who secured little meaningful support for their brainchild, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

The G-8 Summit was not the first time that African leaders were given a platform at G-8 summits. Past precedents include the Okinawa (2000) and Genoa (2001) meetings.

An unsettling sense of déjé-vu currently grips Africa’s perturbed leadership. They have heard similar promises before, most notably at the special United Nations session on Africa in May-June 1986 when a programme of action for African economic recovery and development was adopted. It failed. One can only conclude that the annual ritual has reduced the continent’s leaders into a state of abject confusion. They are urged to grovel for a marginally larger percentage share of the meagre assistance on offer. Not to mention the attached conditions and strings. African leaders are encouraged to open up their economies, privatise, deregulate, liberalise and even vote themselves out of office for adopting unpopular policies.

Mounting foreign debts, plummeting commodity prices, low levels of foreign investment and a drastic reduction in international development aid are all key factors that have contributed to Africa’s downward spiral in recent years. These critical determinants of African development are largely induced and controlled by outside forces. Forbearance and inaction hold obvious dangers for the continent. Both rich and poor nations know all too well that poverty today kills far more people in the world than terrorism. Yet the US Congress, which approved $40 billion to fight terrorism in the wake of the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, is loath to seriously tackle poverty in Africa.

The flow of development aid to Africa has dwindled to a trickle over the past decade. In 1990 Africa was receiving $19 billion in aid; today the continent gets a mere $12 billion. France is still the most generous donor to Africa, disbursing some $1.8 billion in assistance, mainly to its former colonies and francophone countries. It is followed by Japan and the US whose aid to Africa amounts to around $1 billion each.

Reluctantly, the G-8 pledged $1 billion towards fighting poverty. But even this paltry sum has strings attached. The West views economic deregulation, privatisation and political liberalisation — including the institutionalisation of multi-party political systems — as the only important yardsticks of progress.

“I’m sick of them all, to be honest with you,” Paul Geldof said of the G-8 leaders. Geldof, one-time leader of British pop group The Boomtown Rats, organised Live Aid in 1985 in response to the Ethiopian famine. He criticised the fragmentary solutions which he believes are inadequate for the scale of Africa’s problems. “You can’t do it piecemeal, you must do it as a totality,” Geldof said.

While the notion of helping Africa is fast gaining support among G-8 nations, the world’s wealthiest countries are reluctant to make a meaningful commitment, even as their policies impinge on every aspect of economic, social and political life in Africa today. The wealthy countries preach free trade while practicing protectionism. African leaders at Kananaskis begged for better trade terms but it is the G-8 nations that have introduced, in the past few years, non-tariff barriers that pose no less of a threat to exporters from impoverished African countries than the tariff barriers enforced by rich countries on African goods.

According to the NEPAD plan — marketed as a blueprint for African economic survival — African economies must grow at a virile seven per cent plus annual rate over the next 15 years if the number of Africans living in extreme poverty is to be halved. The continent’s average economic growth in 2001 has been half this. Yet NEPAD largely overlooks how vital fighting the vested interests and power relations that perpetuate the stranglehold of wealthy nations on the markets is. The United States and the European Union talk of instituting a liberalised trade regime that will benefit poor countries, yet the US recently promulgated $190 billion in domestic agricultural subsidies over the next decade for the benefit of US farmers. The EU, meanwhile, has similar farm subsidies in place. So how can the US and the EU be the guarantors of NEPAD’s success when they have clashing priorities?

Blinkered by its obsession with the war on terror, good governance, multi-party democracy and individual human rights, the US has spent $100 billion on a missile defense system but finds it hard to cough up another couple of billion dollars to combat poverty.

Politically, too, the West has applied considerable pressure on African states to institute what is termed “good governance”.

Good governance, human rights and democracy are pivotal elements in the NEPAD plan. But concerns have been voiced that undemocratic African leaders will reject the so- called “peer review” principle whereby African countries monitor each other’s conduct.

Selective deafness seems to be a G-8 characteristic, especially when it comes to cancelling Africa’s crippling foreign debt. Even in relatively developed African countries, such as South Africa, more than five times as much money goes to servicing foreign debt as to education. Effective debt relief would free up money for housing, education, medical care and sanitation. But G-8 nations will not hear of it.

Another of NEPAD’s cornerstones is attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) to Africa. At present, Africa receives less than one per cent of the world’s FDI flows, and most of this is poured into the extractive and mining sector — oil and diamonds.

Worse, the continent’s leaders have failed to state clearly the significance of their decisions as they move into action.

Nonetheless, action is being taken, with or without the consent of Africa’s leaders, something that is likely to force the continent to search its conscience and make a choice.

The G-8’s plan for Africa promises benefits for African countries “whose performance reflects the NEPAD commitments”.

The main elements of the plan are designed to reinforce traditional neo-colonial relations between Western powers and African countries in economic, military and political matters. Under the guise of instituting peace and security, an agreement has been conjured up for a peacekeeping force in Africa — significantly, it will be under Western supervision. Economically, there was a vague commitment made to improving global market access for African exports by tackling trade barriers and farm subsidies by 2005. On the medical front, the G-8 pledged to eliminate polio in Africa by 2005. Politically, an offer to work towards spending over half of the G- 8’s annual new development aid budget of approximately $6 billion on African nations that “govern justly” was proudly promoted.

Ironically, the poorest, least developed countries in Africa usually receive the smallest amount of aid, trade concessions and FDI. Moreover, the benefits of increased agricultural exports from developing countries can be detrimental to the welfare of the poorest people in those countries, especially where farm exports are produced by large scale, capital-intensive, mechanised farms. In countries where agricultural exports are produced by labour-intensive, small-holder producers there is a close correlation between rural poverty reduction and increased agricultural exports.

Trade barriers and tariffs imposed by rich nations must be lowered if African products are to access Western markets. Moreover, subsidies on agricultural products in the North must be reduced if the pauperisation of peasants in the South is to be stopped.

Buzz words like democracy, good governance, human rights, sustainable growth and development often crop up in the G-8 plan for Africa, but no serious effort is made to bridge the technological and infrastructural gap between rich and poor countries. Market access initiatives have floundered and the promotion of African exports and the removal of non- tariff barriers by the rich have failed to materialise. Most crucially, calls for cancelling Africa’s debt have consistently been ruled out by the G8.