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NEPAD: Repackaging Colonialism in Africa

Michelle Robidoux
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002
    “We have a duty to act. This is the best chance in a generation to save the continent… Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world.” – Tony Blair, February 2002

Africans are weathering a flurry of visits from the rich and powerful these days. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Canada’s Prime Minister Jean ChrÈtien, and most recently, US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill have been busy criss-crossing the continent promoting the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). NEPAD will dominate discussions on Africa at this month’s G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Canada. Robert Fowler, Canada’s G8 ambassador, summarized what the summit will discuss as “Africa and how to fix it”: “It’s about putting in place the conditions that will allow investment to come to Africa, because private investment is going to bring to Africa far, far more than any foreseeable amount of global assistance could bring.” G8 leaders tout NEPAD as a plan to alleviate the crushing poverty afflicting Africa. And one could not overstate the urgent need for such a plan. According to the NEPAD introduction, “In Africa, 340 million people, or half the population, live on less than US $1 per day. The mortality rate of children under 5 years of age is 140 per 1000, and life expectancy at birth is only 54 years. Only 58 per cent of the population have access to safe water. The rate of illiteracy for people over 15 is 41 per cent. There are only 18 mainline telephones per 1000 people in Africa, compared with 146 for the world as a whole and 567 for high-income countries.” But the frenzy of high-level visits by G8 officials to Africa gives a clue to the underpinnings of NEPAD. It is the same bitter wine in a new bottle. For while it is put forward as a ‘development’ plan, the driving idea is still that African economies need “adjustment” in order to provide the conditions for investment that it is claimed will be the motor for development. The stated goals of NEPAD are to achieve and sustain an average GDP growth rate of above 7 percent a year for the next 15 years, as well as to ensure the continent achieves the agreed UN Millennium Development Goals, including:

    reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty by half between 1990 and 2015; enrolling all children of school age in primary schools by 2015; reducing infant and child mortality ratios by 2/3 between 1990 and 2015.

In order to achieve these goals, NEPAD sets out a number of initiatives – on peace, security, democracy and political governance; economic and corporate governance; bridging the infrastructure gap; capital flows; market access; human resource development; and the environment. As far as the crushing and urgent question of Africa’s debt, the document seeks to “link debt relief with costed poverty reduction outcomes”. But according to Jubilee Research, to meet the Millennium targets would require increasing aid threefold and cancelling all debt to the West. The continued demand for debt repayment makes a mockery of the West’s stated commitment to alleviating poverty in Africa. The spinal column of NEPAD is trade liberalization, privatization and deregulation – classic structural adjustment policies. NEPAD’s critique of SAPs is limited to stating that in the past, they “provided only a partial solution” because they gave inadequate attention to the provision of social services. In reality, SAPs have spelt complete disaster for millions of Africans. The Structural Development Participatory Review International Network (SAPRIN) recently published a review of the experience of SAPs and concluded that “the effects, particularly on the poor, are so profound and pervasive that no amount of targeted social investments can begin to address the social crises that they have engendered.” After two decades of structural adjustment, Africa’s income per person has declined. All the indicators regarding poverty and literacy are going dramatically backwards. In 22 African countries the GNP per capita is still lower than it was in 1980. The ratio of external debt to GNP for Sub-Saharan Africa is 73.5 percent, almost twice that of any other region. Notwithstanding debt repayments of US$229 billion throughout the 1980s-90s, the region’s foreign debt has ballooned from US$60 billion to US$206 billion. Mozambique is forced to pay 25 percent of profits from foreign exports to its World Bank debt alone. The United Nations estimates that if half this money went to health care, 100,000 children’s lives could be saved each year. NEPAD is being sold as an “African initiative” – and the working document states that it “will be successful only if it is owned by the African peoples united in their diversity.” But as Dot Keet of the Alternative Information and Development Centre explains, “this is African leaders taking on a World Bank programme. It is certainly not an African people’s programme. There has been no consultation regarding what SAPs meant. There is no critique within the programme of the impact of the World Bank [on Africa].” A select group of African leaders – South African President Thabo Mbeki, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika – drafted the document. Most African leaders have not been consulted. In fact, the first unveiling of NEPAD was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2001. As Mbeki said at that time, “It is significant that in a sense the first formal briefing on the progress in developing this programme is taking place at the World Economic Forum meeting. The success of its implementation would require the buy in from members of this exciting and vibrant forum!” The perception of NEPAD as another programme constructed to meet the needs of the IMF and World Bank has led to a series of hasty ‘consultations’, including a meeting hosted this May by the Canadian International Development Agency. Most of the 95 Africans who attended the Montreal meeting said it was the first time they had seen the document. 60 of them went on to sign a joint statement condemning the process. It is no surprise that the South African government is a driving force behind NEPAD. Over the past 7 years South Africa has dutifully implemented the whole gamut of neoliberal measures imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. At least 500,000 jobs have been lost in the past 5 years, representing the largest job loss in an industrialized country since the Great Depression. Unemployment sits at 35%. There is deep poverty, and a growing polarization between the wealthy minority and the mass of people. South Africa has now overtaken Brazil as having the worst income distribution in the world. Five million people are infected with HIV/AIDS – 20 percent of the adult population. There are increasingly violent conflicts between the South African state and the population fighting back against its policies of privatization and deregulation. One of the key elements of NEPAD is Public-Private Partnership. The public sector is supposed to guarantee conditions for the private sector to operate – including modifying labour laws, environmental policies, etc. These are the terms on which NEPAD is framed and which have been applied with devastating effect in South Africa – in particular in water and electricity services. According to the Anti-Privatisation Forum, “The government has, over the past few years, cut off the water and electricity supply of thousands of families living in Soweto. Thousands more have been evicted from their homes. Recently about a thousand residents of Mandelaville, Soweto, were forcibly removed and dumped at an isolated mining hostel with no water, no electricity, no access to schools, no access to jobs.” As for AIDS, the South African government’s record on this issue explains why NEPAD has little to say. The document’s policy on health doesn’t address the impacts of SAPs on health infrastructure itself. One thing is certain, though: the wealthy G8 countries can hardly be relied upon to tackle this health catastrophe. In spite of knowing that 25 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV/AIDS and desperately need access to anti-retroviral drugs, three G8 member countries – Canada, USA and UK – vetoed a proposal which would have granted cheap, generic AIDS drugs to the African continent at the last round of WTO trade negotiations in Doha, Qatar. If NEPAD can have any claim at all to be a “partnership”, it is akin to the partnership between a rider and a horse – or between exploiter and exploited. As an Afro-Colombian activist aptly noted, referring to Plan Colombia, “NEPAD is in reality ‘Plan Africa’. The only difference is that NEPAD is put forward as an aid initiative.” NEPAD is welcomed by the powerful nations as part of a scramble to grab up as much of Africa’s resources and services as possible. Take oil, for example. According to Robert Murphy of the US State Department’s Office of African Analaysis, Africa is important to “the diversification of our sources of imported oil” away from the Middle East. Murphy states that “political discord or dispute in African oil states is unlikely to take on a regional or ideological tone that would result in a joint embargo by suppliers at once.” The US currently gets 15 percent of its total oil imports from the African continent. By 2015, that figure will be 25 percent. NEPAD is about ensuring that US and other Western investment is “protected”. While NEPAD asks African leaders to “[promote and protect] democracy and human rights in their respective countries… [while simultaneously] instituting transparent legal and regulatory frameworks for financial markets,” it lets multinational corporations off the hook. These corporations have been at the forefront of horrific human rights abuses in Africa. Talisman, a Canadian-based oil company accused of complicity in crimes against the Sudanese people, is not held up to the NEPAD standards. Neither are Sutton Resources or Barrick Gold, for their role in the eviction of tens of thousands of small-scale miners – dozens of whom were buried alive in their pits – to make way for a large-scale Canadian mining operation in Bulyanhulu, Tanzania. It’s clear that the “solutions” put forward by NEPAD are in direct contradiction to what is really needed to deal with the problems faced by Africa. Despite the $100 billion in debt cancellation proclaimed since the 1999 G8 Summit, only $2.6 billion has actually been cancelled. And according to Robert Fowler, “No, we won’t relieve debt [at the Kananaskis Summit].” While Canada crows about its $500 million aid contribution, it will be spending the same sum on security for the G8 Summit (an estimated $2.7 million per hour of meeting). The objective of NEPAD will be to provide “increased aid to developing countries that embrace the required development model”. It will not even attempt to get at the heart of the issue of the plunder of Africa through debt slavery. But activists, trade unionists and women’s organizations all over Africa are mobilising against NEPAD. As Raj Patel writes, “This mobilisation needs solidarity… because everywhere are facing exactly the same problem, of elites asset stripping countries, undemocratic government, increasing inequality and declining social services. In both North and South, the captured state is ready to do whatever it can to stop the mobilisation from below. Protest is increasingly becoming criminalised…which renders it all the more urgent. In the wake of September 11th attacks, the Peace movement has mobilised around an exceptionally powerful slogan. ‘Not in our name’. The horrors that will be meted out on Africa under the guise of development, the bloodshed, the arms trade, the entrenching of patriarchy, the enrichment of the bourgeoisie and the hunger of the poor, these are all spectres of worldwide struggles. And we cannot let them happen in our, or anyone else’s name any longer.”