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US in Africa: Partnership or Pillage?

Posted on: Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Africa

Spring 2000

Alarming reports about the specter of famine in the Horn of Africa have recently resurfaced in the media. The culprit, we are told, is insufficient rainfall. But while a drought might ruin harvests, mass starvation cannot be blamed on the weather. Famine is caused by grossly disparate access to resources; yet the idea of famine in Africa as "natural" disaster persists as part of a broader web of images. Africa is a diverse continent three times the size of the United States with over 50 countries and 3,000 languages. But it is consistently portrayed in the US as a monolithic mass of primitive tribal wars, disaster, disease and death. The images are so pervasive that it's difficult to discuss African social and political problems without triggering the "dark continent" myths that everyone in the US ingests. Part of what makes these images so powerful is that they are presented to us without explanation, as though chaos and suffering were the natural condition of Africans. Only when we extend the picture of African "victims" to include their victimizers, can we begin to see a schematic of cause and effect; of actual people and policies that create and maintain the poverty, violence and disease that appear endemic to Africa.

Often, Africa's problems are traced to European rule. But increasingly, it is the United States that creates conditions of deprivation and unrest across the continent. Since President Clinton's 1998 Africa tour—the most extensive of any US president—Africa has become a focus of US foreign policy like never before. His Administration has even proclaimed "a new US-Africa partnership" that aims to integrate Africa into the global economy and contain the spread of AIDS and armed conflicts. These categories do reflect some of the worst hardships confronting African women and families. But "partnerships" are not unilateral declarations made by the strong about the weak. In fact, if we explore these problems from the perspective of African women and their communities, a very different set of causes —and solutions—emerges than those described by the President.

Trade Not Aid

"Trade, Not Aid," is the Clinton Administration's mantra on Africa. The slogan encompasses policies that pressure African governments to implement economic reforms beneficial to the US. In return, they are rewarded with small packages of trade and investment. According to the President, "the legislative cornerstone of our Africa trade policy," is the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which will likely become law this year. The bill reinforces IMF Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) by cutting government social spending and privatizing state enterprises like utility companies, coffee and tea plantations and mines. Like SAPs, AGOA positions US corporations to cash in on these reforms by buying up newly privatized holdings (i.e., "increased foreign investment") and selling services like phone access and electricity back to African consumers, usually at higher prices than the former government owners (i.e., "opening African markets"). Thanks to provisions for "removing restrictions on investment," African governments will be prevented from enforcing standards to protect workers or the environment.

The US Commerce Department has labeled Africa "the last frontier for American business." But to most Africans, Clinton's trade policy is simply the latest maneuver in a long history of exploitation by the global North (rich, industrialized countries led by the US). This history encompasses the slave trade, colonialism, neo-colonialism (economic domination even after political independence), and now, a kind of re-colonization in the form of neo-liberal policies like SAPs and "free," or unregulated trade.

In the 1950's, African independence movements won some control over national resources and basic rights like healthcare, housing and jobs. But African economies remained dominated by Northern governments and banks whose reckless lending policies generated a massive debt that has kept African countries vulnerable to Northern policy demands and dependent on even more loans to make payments. Some of us are familiar with the terrible burden that debt has placed on poor and working people in Latin America, where the debt is a full 38% of the region's Gross Domestic Product (the total value of goods and services produced within a year). In Africa that figure is 106%.

In the 1980's, as the debt crisis mounted, the IMF imposed SAPs that redirected government spending to debt servicing (making interest payments). These "austerity measures" obliterated the modest development gains of the first years of independence and actually ushered in a period of negative development. Across Africa, SAPs slashed national budgets for health and education by 50% and 25% respectively. Per capita income dropped by 20%. Meanwhile, money flowed North as trade and investment rules were weighted to favor foreign corporations. Current estimates put the transfer of money from Africa to the North at about $200 million a day. That means that for every one dollar the US puts into Africa, it gets back four. Today, half of Africa's population (300 million people) earn less than $1 a day and lack basic healthcare and safe drinking water. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of poverty, HIV infection, illiteracy, malnutrition and infant and maternal mortality in the world.

Yet the US insists that Africa press ahead with policies that devastate the poor. For example, President Clinton hopes to create a NAFTA-like free trade zone between the US and sub-Saharan Africa. Many African labor, human rights and women's organizations worry that like NAFTA, this plan will hurt poor people and the environment and only benefit a tiny African elite. The real winners will be US corporations. Even without "NAFTA for Africa," the World Bank estimates that by 2002, US corporations will pocket 70% of the profits from trade with Africa.

What would an equitable US-Africa trade bill look like? First of all, it would work to generate and sustain African economic independence and development. Goods would be produced for local consumers as well as export, and local industry would be safeguarded from unfair competition with bigger foreign manufacturers. Investors would be held to at least the same environmental and labor standards as in the US and a fair share of the jobs and profits generated would be reinvested to meet basic needs of people within the country. If US-Africa trade is to benefit ordinary citizens in Africa, then trade and aid should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but as complementary paths to development.

AGOA is supported by the biggest US-based oil companies, Bank of America, GAP, Citicorp, K-mart and Coca-Cola. Corporate-owned media in the US have presented some African businessmen and politicians saying that AGOA is "pro-Africa" and that it's about time the US pay some attention to the continent. They point out that Africa is the only major area of the world where the US doesn't have a coherent trade policy. Some proponents of AGOA even claim that to be against the bill is to be anti-Africa and, by implication, anti-black. Corporate concern about racism is highly suspect. After all, these same companies are infamous in Africa and elsewhere for practices that violate human rights and destroy indigenous communities. One of AGOA's main backers is Chester Crocker, architect of the Reagan Administration's "constructive engagement" policy with Apartheid South Africa.

But corporations can play this race card precisely because Africa's marginalization in foreign policy is linked to racism inside the US. Consider the way that the "trade not aid" paradigm mirrors the domestic welfare debate. Like poor and working class African Americans, Africa is presented as a hopeless charity case and a drain on US resources. But foreign aid (like the former welfare system) is a negligible proportion of the US budget. Besides, as a member of the world community, the US should have responsibilities proportional to its resources. After all, the US owes its unprecedented wealth in part to the (slave) labor, plundered natural resources and cheaply imported raw materials of Africa. In fact, maybe we should reconceive "aid" to Africa as a kind of reverse debt servicing—a chance for the US to compensate for its long-time exploitation by helping to restore African economies. (See statistics on African debt and foreign aid).

Exploitation, War & Under-development: The Vicious Cycle

The end of the Cold War was like taking the lid off a pressure cooker in Africa. The interest of the big powers evaporated, creating a vacuum which shattered weak states and exploded long-simmering civil conflicts in Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burundi, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Zaire (renamed Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, in 1997). The US built much of the arsenals for these wars with $227 million worth of weapons and military training since 1989. Today, the biggest war in African history is raging in the DRC, where the Pentagon has trained or armed eight of the nine warring countries. Most African militaries now receive US training through President Clinton's African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), which pushes even more weapons sales on these countries. The program is couched in a language of self-determination, with slogans like "African solutions to African problems." But in reality, it serves to beef up those African forces that will protect US interests, while avoiding a direct US military presence. ACRI also sidelines multi-lateral peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations, which may not match US priorities.

Like many armed conflicts, Africa's wars are fed by a "structural violence" of extreme poverty, inequality and the exclusion of most people from the opportunities and resources that society has to offer. This widespread disempowerment is built in (i.e. structural) to many societies, including the US, where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a small elite. Structural violence breeds frustration, humiliation and resentment that can be easily ignited to fuel armed conflicts.

A look at Rwanda reveals the close ties between US-imposed economic policies, structural violence and war. Since colonization, Rwanda's economy has been distorted to suit the European market. Its main function was to produce coffee for export. In 1989, when the world coffee market crashed, retailers in the West were selling Rwandan coffee for 20 times more than the price paid to farmers.

As the government's income plummeted, the national debt soared and Rwanda was forced to cut a deal with the IMF to finance payments. The prescription was a typical SAP: liberalize trade, privatize resources, end subsidies to the poor and drastically devalue the currency. As in Haiti, Mexico and elsewhere, local farmers went bankrupt when restrictions on cheap food imports were lifted. Famine swept the country. Ninety percent of Rwanda's predominantly rural population sank deep below the poverty line. The rudimentary public health and school systems were virtually dismantled, causing a sharp rise in malaria deaths, child malnutrition, illiteracy and general unrest and hopelessness.

In 1990, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that any further aid would depend on Rwanda institutionalizing IMF policies. Similar pressure was applied throughout Africa. Rwanda's government complied and was rewarded with increased foreign aid just as it was escalating its genocidal campaign against the Tutsi. Scapegoating the Tutsi helped divert growing opposition to IMF reforms. Meanwhile, the government used development aid money to import weapons and expand the army seven-fold. Tens of thousands of soldiers were newly available from the swelling ranks of the landless and unemployed. Like a growing number of destitute young men across Africa, these recruits felt they had little to lose. Genocide propaganda told them they had much to gain, including the property of Tutsi neighbors and a chance to reclaim their dignity, which was in fact badly battered by decades of structural violence.

Each Rwandan (like each of us) is, of course, responsible for his or her own actions during the genocide. But our choices are shaped by the conditions of our lives. In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, those conditions are created in part by Northern institutions like the World Bank and IMF. For example, in 1992 the World Bank ordered the Rwandan government to privatize its electricity and telecommunications companies and hand over the sale money to the IMF for debt servicing. The utilities were sold to a European corporation that fired hundreds of workers and jacked up electricity prices, immobilizing services in the cities and exacerbating ethnic tension. By 1994, international development agencies like USAID funded a full 80% of the Rwandan national treasury. Aid money continued to flow into the coffers of the genocidal regime, which remained a model of compliance with IMF and World Bank policies.

Today, survivors of the genocide have to repay the debt that the former government incurred (partly by buying weapons to carry out the slaughter). Unlike individuals and businesses, poor countries do not have the option of gaining a clean financial slate by declaring bankruptcy. After the genocide, the new Rwandan government had to accept another SAP to service its massive debt and win loans to rebuild the country. Today, Rwanda's economy, along with 30 others in sub-Saharan Africa, remains tightly supervised by the same Northern institutions that funded the genocide. The structural violence that their policies create is still the order of the day.

Development for People, not profits

Someone once defined foreign aid as the poor people of a rich country sending money to the rich people of a poor country. In fact, large-scale development aid is channeled from US taxes through international agencies like USAID and the World Bank, into the treasuries of African governments who are locked into the proscriptions of these Northern institutions. Even when money is channeled to non-governmental organizations, they are usually big operations that, like governments, represent the interests of the powerful. In fact, most development aid money ends up in the hands of the richest 1% of the population. Funds go into creating jobs for a small, skilled elite and into massive projects that mostly bypass the poor. Often these projects are actually detrimental to poor people, as when governments confiscate peasant farm land for development initiatives with no compensation or benefit to the farmers.

Women, who are the poorest of the poor, are hurt most. African women are the backbone of most of the region's economies. They generate more than 70% of household incomes and work an average of 13 hours a week more than men (17 hours a day). Women are not only the main caretakers of children, the sick and the elderly, but are also primarily responsible for feeding their families. They account for 75% of the workforce that grows, processes and markets food. But the importance of women's work, whether it's raising children or plowing fields, is ignored.

For example, although African women often do more farm work than men, less than 1% of agricultural development loans are made to women. Where land reforms have been part of development schemes, they have often reduced women's access to land by assigning ownership titles only to men (the exception in Rwanda is a recent hard-won victory of women's organizations). In keeping with the US designation of Africa's place in the global economy, development strategies have privileged export-bound cash crops controlled by men over food crops grown by women. The threat of famine rises as poor countries become unable to feed themselves and dependent on volatile market forces to import food from the North.

US policymakers continue to insist that "development" will eventually flow from the same macro-economic policies that benefit US stockholders. But development is not a function of Gross Domestic Product or export ratios. Rather, development is a process by which people cultivate the skills and resources necessary for them to meet the needs of their communities and create conditions that enable people—individually and collectively—to realize their full potential. To achieve long-term development, local people need knowledge and political power to influence the interplay between policies at the local, national and international levels.

Poor and marginalized women, like those in MADRE's newest sister organization in Rwanda, are key actors in development. They are the people primarily responsible for meeting families' basic needs. And they are the world's majority who are denied the means to development. If we shift our perspective to the vantage point of these women, we see that many of the hardships they face are linked to policies favored by powerful people and institutions in the global North. When we expand our scope in this way, potential solutions also begin to come into focus: once we see that famine is not caused by bad weather, but by bad policies, we can begin to identify alternative policies. Together with our sister organizations, MADRE works to create these alternatives and fights to put them into practice—in Africa and around the world.

By Yifat Susskind, Communications Director

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