The New Face of International Development in Africa

Is Trade Aid?

Friday 3 May 2002, by François L’ÉCUYER

As host of the next G8 summit, Jean Chrétien’s priority will be on kickstarting the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). Critics wonder if it is diplomatic generosity or the defence of corporate interests.

During a recent promotional tour of Africa, Chrétien met with the principal architect of the African "Marshall Plan," South African president Thabo Mbeki.. While in Pretoria, Chrétien asked Mbeki how the negotiations were going with the other African countries. Mbeki replied that other countries would be forced to sign on, regardless of whether or not they want to. To which Chrétien added, "it’s a carrot and stick situation. We hope to have a lot more carrots." The carrot he was referring to is the still unapproved plan for Western countries to provide development aid amounting to 12% of African GDP, to the tune of US$ 6 billion.

According to the document, NEPAD aims to show "the determination of Africans to extricate themselves and the continent from the malaise of underdevelopment and exclusion in a globalizing world" with the hopes of reversing "centuries of unequal relations."

Nevertheless, the anti-imperialist and pan-Africanist rhetoric used by African leaders doesn’t quite conceal the market-driven ideology behind NEPAD. Behind the curtain, one can find fiscal and monetary austerity programmes, the deregulation of markets, export-led growth and mass privatization of public services. "Public-private partnerships," ubiquitous in the document, could provide corporations with the keys to African public services, namely electricity, drinking water, health care, and education.

"The way Mbeki promoted his programme to the big international players - the World Bank, the IMF, the G8 in Geneva - and the very enthusiastic response he got from them, is very scary for us" says Nicolas Dieltiens, of the Rural Development Services Network, a NGO in Johannesburg. "They know they have an interest in a more liberalized Africa. But we don’t want to see our own development being owned by foreign, private companies."

GEARing up for NEPAD

Confirming Dieltiens’ fears, the process is already underway in South Africa. Since 1996, the government’s guiding economic policy has been the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) programme, which many analysts consider to be NEPAD’s blueprint. "Since GEAR, most of our municipal drinking water services have been sold to Vivendi, Suez-Lyonnaise, and other multinationals," says Prishani Naidoo of the Johannesburg-based Khanya College. After the changeover, many people could not afford to pay the higher bills, leading to "parts of the population having their drinking water cut off. 350 people in Durban’s townships died of cholera after drinking the water in the surrounding rivers. What’s more, last year in Soweto, 20,000 households a month had their electricity cut after the national company was privatised."

For Patrick Bond, Professor at Witwatersrand University, the link between GEAR and NEPAD is clear. "Everything is coming from the creation of an investor friendly environment: market deregulation, enormous pressure to privatise and corporatise public assets, fiscal and monetary austerity, etc. With a constant emphasis on ’public-private partnerships,’ which is the euphemism here for privatisation, NEPAD assures that essential needs such as water and electricity cannot be met for the vast majority of Africans. The poor in South Africa already suffer from the neoliberal policy of the ANC-led government and those who criticise it with the greatest integrity now find themselves in jail."

On the eve of Chrétien’s visit to South Africa, 100 Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee activists were arrested. "Fear and anger were driving the demonstrators, thanks to the constant attacks against the poor and workers: evictions, electricity and water cut-offs, etc.," notes Trevor Ngwane, who was among those arrested. The demonstration was held in front of the mayor’s residence in Johannesburg. "They cut off the mayor’s water supply, threw things at the residence and damaged the garage doors. The security guards responded by firing on the crowd."

According to Chrétien "over the last 10 years, Africa has regressed rather than progressed, and we are all paying the price for it." He claims to have the solution in NEPAD. African civil society counters his assertion by saying it is no different than the development ideology imposed on them by the heavily criticized Structural Adjustment Programmes. The promise of NEPAD is that increased investment in Africa will solve problems like chronic malnutrition and access to water. However, the systematic exclusion of civil society and unions during the negotiations suggests an only slightly veiled collusion between African governments and multinationals.

If Chrétien really wants to leave a legacy of having made a difference in the lives of Africans, he needs to start pressuring African governments to work with their citizens to create a plan which provides for the needs and the future development of all Africans.

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