Africa needs HOPE, not exploitation

By Robert Jensen

with Robin Kilson

Published in San Antonio Express-News · March, 1999

[This article appeared in the San Antonio Express-News, March 9, 1999, p. 7-B.]

In a world where even the experts don’t seem to understand very much about how global trade and finance really work, it can be a daunting task for ordinary citizens to sort through complex trade proposals.

The questions about the African Growth and Opportunity Act – dubbed the “NAFTA for Africa” bill by critics who fear it will gut the African economy just as NAFTA has done to the Mexican economy – seem even more complex, given that people in the African-American community are lining up on both sides. U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and the respected black-studies scholar Cornel West are against it; on the other side are the Rev. Jesse Jackson and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. The Congressional Black Caucus is split on the issue.

One place to start to make sense of the bill is to ask some questions not just about who supports the bill – after all, reasonable people of common faith and principle can disagree about political strategy – but about who stands to gain from the policy. One doesn’t need a degree in international finance to understand that the mega-corporations lining up to push the bill aren’t doing it out of concern for Africa and Africans, but to line their pockets with mega-profits that the bill will make possible.

Those profits will be squeezed out of countries that could benefit from a bill that truly was about economic growth and opportunity. Instead, this trade agreement would in the short term increase the suffering on that continent and could be a long-term economic disaster. It promises not real development, but the “recolonization of Africa,” as one African critic has put it.

What’s wrong with the bill? Rather than benefit African nations, it will force them to open up their economies to multinational corporations; reduce corporate taxes and cut spending on health, education, and food subsidies; and sell off Africa’s enormous natural resources to private individuals and corporations. To see how that works, all you have to do is look at how similar International Monetary Fund policies already in place have reduced the standard of living for Africans.

If they accept those conditions, African nations will be eligible for benefits in the bill, but even those benefits are largely illusory. The bill promises additional access into the U.S. market for textiles and apparel, but those quotas end in 2004. Other “benefits,” such as granting least-developed-country status, are already in place for most of the sub-Saharan countries.

The almost-certain result of the bill: African economies would be opened up to “development” (meaning, “exploitation”) by multinational corporations, while African countries would be handicapped by a severe shortage of capital, much of which goes to pay off the existing debt. If they are going to develop, African countries need the same power that the United States and Europe had when they started – the ability to protect their own economies and set their own policies. The bill robs African countries of this freedom, all in the name of mythical free-trade policies that the great powers have never accepted for themselves.

Opponents of the bill aren’t trying to block real economic development in Africa and have put forth proposals for an alternative bill that does more than enrich corporations. A key to any plan must be debt relief; development in Africa is impossible with 80 percent of all export earnings now earmarked for debt payment. The United States and other developed nations also have a moral obligation to offer aid to overcome the damage of past exploitation of the continent. The goal should be self-determination through trade and investment rules that benefit people and regulate corporate excesses. The current bill does the opposite, constraining people and freeing up corporations.

So, the first and most pressing step is to kill the African Growth and Opportunity Act being sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). As TransAfrica’s president Randall Robinson puts it, “A bad bill on Africa is worse than no bill at all.”

The next step is to promote the alternative bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). The HOPE (Human Rights, Opportunity, Partnership and Empowerment) for Africa Act will cancel the debt owed by African countries to the U.S. government and take steps to relieve the debt burden to multilateral lending agencies and private lenders. This bill also has important provisions for environmental, worker-safety, labor-rights, and living-wage standards, and will ensure that aid and development money is used for basic social services and strengthening and diversifying Africa’s economies.

We must demand that Africa, a continent that has struggled in this century to recover from the devastation of the old colonialism, not be burdened with a new colonialism in the coming century.