White Lies

African leaders will be forced to humble themselves at the G8 summit, by taking the blame for what has happened to their continent

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 25th June 2002

In the Canadian fastness of Kananaskis this week, the messianic cult of empire will solemnly worship itself. The leaders of the G8 nations will declare that they have come to deliver the world from evil. They will announce that they are sacrificing themselves for the good of lesser nations. They will propose solutions from on high, without acknowledging any responsibility for the problems.

It is traditional, when empire celebrates, that its vassal states come to pay tribute and beg for deliverance. This time, the African leaders who will be admitted to the summit on Thursday are prepared to suffer the final humiliation, by blaming themselves for the disasters visited upon them by the G8.

“Africa”, according to the Canadian government, “will remain a central focus of the Kananaskis Summit.” The discussions will revolve around a plan called the New Partnership For Africa’s Development, or Nepad, drafted by the African leaders and enthusiastically endorsed by the G8. The enthusiasm is not entirely surprising, as Nepad places nearly all the blame for Africa’s problems and nearly all the responsibility for sorting them out on Africa itself. In the hope that it might win them a few crumbs of aid and extra debt relief, the continent’s leaders appear to have told the rich world everything it wants to hear.

Nepad accepts that colonialism, the Cold War, and “the workings of the international economic system” have contributed to Africa’s problems, but the primary responsibility rests with “corruption and economic mismanagement” at home. Few would deny that these have played a significant role, but nowhere in the document on which the plan is based is there any mention of the far more consequential corruption and mismanagement by the nations to whom they are appealing.

Africa’s underlying problem, as the continent’s leaders acknowledge, is debt. Nepad implicitly accepts the rich world’s explanation for this debt: that previous African leaders have frittered away their economic independence through poor planning and personal graft. Nowhere is any context given: that Africa’s deficit is merely one component of a vast and growing global debt, affecting consumers and nations in the rich world as well as nations in the poor world. Nowhere is any mention made of the “fractional reserve banking” system which causes it, and which arose as a consequence of corruption and mismanagement in western nations. The system ensures that the only way debts can be discharged is through the issue of more debt.

This problem, as poor nations know but dare not acknowledge, is compounded by the policing system developed by the rich world in 1944. Rather than the self-correcting mechanism proposed by John Maynard Keynes, which forced creditors as well as debtors to discharge the debt, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were introduced as a means of persuading only the debtor nations to act, in the certain knowledge that this couldn’t possibly work.

This system granted the rich world complete economic control over the poor world. The power nations swing within the IMF is a function of their gross domestic product: the richer they are, the more votes they can cast. The World Bank is run entirely by “donor” states. These two bodies, in other words, respond only to the nations in which they do not operate.

The consequences for national democracy are devastating. African voters can demand a change of government, but they cannot demand a change of policy. All the important decisions affecting the continent are made in Washington, and they always boil down to the neoliberal demolition of the state’s capacity to care for its people. So when the African leaders announce that “Africa undertakes to respect the global standards of democracy”, they are accepting a burden they cannot lift. Democracy in Africa is meaningless until its leaders are prepared to challenge the external control of their economies.

But far from denouncing the authors of their misfortunes, they appear only to embrace them. “Structural adjustment”, the IMF policy which has forced countries to repay their debts instead of investing in healthcare and education, is now almost universally acknowledged as the nemesis of development in Africa. Nepad’s fiercest criticism is that it “provided only a partial solution” to poverty. Africa’s leaders have pledged to support not only its successor policies (such as the IMF’s demand that Malawi privatise its food reserves, with the result that millions of its inhabitants are now at risk of starvation), but also the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act passed by the US Congress. This act seeks to complete the job which structural adjustment began: forcing African countries to dismantle state support and privatise their economies in return for minimal concessions on trade and aid.

Without addressing any of these obstacles, Nepad blithely promises to eliminate poverty, enrol all children in primary school, reduce child mortality by two-thirds and supply the continent with clean water and effective infrastructure. It will achieve these worthy aims, it claims, largely by means of “public private partnership”: the mechanism which is now failing so spectacularly in the rich world, while being forced on Africa by the G8.

Agricultural development depends, Nepad tells us, “on the removal of a number of structural constraints affecting the sector.” One might have expected this to mean the dumping of subsidised produce onto the African market by Europe and North America, which is widely acknowledged as a crippling impediment to effective farming on the continent. But this is never mentioned. Instead, the plan insists, the “key constraint is climatic uncertainty”. Quite how the African leaders intend to “remove” this constraint is not explained, but that objective is arguably just as realistic as any of the others they propose.

Apart from a few timid requests for an increase in aid and a little more debt relief, the continent’s leaders absolve the G8 nations of all responsibility. Instead, they proudly proclaim that “we will determine our own destiny” and call on the people of Africa “to mobilise themselves in order to put an end to further marginalisation of the continent”. Self-determination is an admirable goal, but without control over economic policy it’s bombast.

Some might argue that this self-flagellation is a realistic means of engaging with the imperial powers in Kananaskis: the G8 nations, after all, do not take kindly to being lectured about their responsibilities. Nepad could be viewed as a white lie: the lies of the whites, repeated, with the best intentions, by the leaders of Africa. But development cannot be built upon a lie, for development is a matter of reality. So while their plan has admitted them to the imperial court, it merely reinforces the dispensation which ensures that Africa stays poor while the G8 stays rich. The continent’s leaders will be forced to kneel on the stony ground of Kananaskis. But at least they’ve brought a Nepad.