Riches to Rags

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“The African debt must be paid,” announces Anne Sidoe Zoa, professor of sociology at Laval University. The debt owed to Africa by Western countries after years of oppression, she means.

Zoa and several other African speakers were in Montreal last week to denounce the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) at a conference dubbed “The G8, NEPAD and the Debt that Kills.” NEPAD — championed by Canada — figures as one of four items on the agenda at the G8 conference in Kananaskis this week.

At the June 19th conference organized by NGO Alternatives, the Canadian Labour Congress and la Federation des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Quebec, African activists urged Canadians not to buy into the self-serving logic governing the G8’s discourse on Africa.

African Debt

“The question we must ask is: Who owes what to whom?” Zoa insists. “When we speak of debt, we fail to question the legitimacy of a rigged system.” Instead, Zoa suggests a historical analysis of what has been taken from Africa.

From the 16th century onward, the African continent has been manipulated into unequal trade with the West. Over the course of three centuries, 45 million Africans were taken off the continent in the slave trade.

Zoa, a Cameroon native, described how colonization, inequitable trade relations and Western involvement in internal politics have taken Africa from its days of powerful empires and flourishing kingdoms to the depths of poverty.

“What Africa has contributed to the wealth of Western countries cannot be evaluated in US dollars.”

The Legitimacy of NEPAD

When Robert Fowler, Canada’ s ambassador to the G8, visited McGill earlier this year, he praised NEPAD as an African initiative. “It is an African proposal by visionary African leaders.”

More accurately, NEPAD is a proposal by a handful of African leaders and has not involved African citizens or civil society. As Austin Muneke of Kenya pointed out, the proposal was not discussed in the parliaments of most countries involved.

Muneke also noted the absence of a formalized structure for citizens to engage in meaningful dialogue. Without a formalized structure, there is no accountability. “Meetings are held, reports are written, but there is no one to hold responsible.”

Nothing New about the Partnership

The primary objective of NEPAD is to make Africa investment-friendly. The partnership in question is one between African elites and foreign investors.

According to Abdourahmane Ousmane, a journalist from Niger, this strategy bears an eerie resemblance to Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. SAPs, imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) resulted in drastic cuts in public spending. Consequently, literacy rates plummeted, mortality rates soared and poverty has become virtually insurmountable. Crippling loan conditions and debt servicing have left Africa worse off than it was twenty years ago.

The idea of African governments initiating neoliberal strategies is not new either. According to Prishani Naidoo, a student activist from South Africa, the fundamentals of NEPAD are derived from South Africa’ s Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy. Implemented by the African National Congress in 1996, GEAR was to increase South Africa’ s international competitiveness.

In concrete terms, this has meant selling South Africa’ s public water supplies to multinationals. It has meant electricity cuts in several neighbourhoods. It has meant large-scale unemployment and the casualization of labour.

“NEPAD is an extension of GEAR to the entire African continent,” said Naidoo.

Advocates of NEPAD speak of poverty reduction in Africa  also the aim of SAPs and GEAR. But as Naidoo put it, “The prescription for attaining this goal has had the opposite effect.”

Reject NEPAD

When Robert Fowler addressed his audience at McGill he said, “it would be immoral to neglect Africa.” In the days leading up to Kananaskis, Canadians will hear more moving statements about the need to save Africa. Discussion about NEPAD will be couched in humanitarian rhetoric.

But as Zoa observed, the West’s relationship with Africa has always been about “helping Africa.” Western nations have never admitted that is has actually been about helping themselves to Africa.

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