Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the struggle to end colonial rule spread inexorably through the Third World. In the imperial homelands, the anti-colonial movement was one of the great causes of the mid-twentieth century. Progressive internationalists were convinced that independence would open a dramatic new chapter in the history of human emancipation.
Instead of building nations that repudiated the policies and behaviour of the colonial era, the reign of the “Big Men” spread across Africa, bringing with it terrible brutality, bottomless venality, and an almost sadistic callousness. All the while,
The betrayal by the new elites is not the entire story of the continent’s continuing crises. For centuries Africa’s history and development had been profoundly influenced by outsiders, both Europeans and Arabs, and external influence by no means disappeared with independence. And just as most of the pre-independence impact was exploitative, so has it remained. Yet the conventional wisdom remains the opposite:
The reality is demonstrably different. The fact is the West is deeply complicit in the crises bedevilling Africa, and we’re up to our necks in all manner of retrograde practices, virtual coconspirators with monstrous African Big Men in underdeveloping the continent and betraying its people. In almost every case of egregious African governance, Western powers have played a central role. Hardly a single rogue government would have attained power and remained in office without the active support of one or another Western government, primarily the
Both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had soft spots for the apartheid rulers of South Africa, who were, after all, passionate fellow anti-Communists; it was Bob Woodward who exposed the close personal working relations between Bill Casey, Reagan’s CIA director, and key South African government officials, including its intelligence service. In Angola and
Oil companies grow fat from the
But Western governments, international financial institutions, and transnational corporations do far more harm than merely bolstering and arming tyrannical regimes. Western commercial and financial activities in Africa, as a wealth of research by Human Rights Watch, among others, confirms, are overwhelmingly exploitative and destructive. Research carried out by the well-respected
Southern African academic and researcher Patrick Bond looked at other variables: “Although remittances from the Diaspora now fund development and even a limited amount of capital accumulation, capital flight is far greater. At more than $10 billion each year since the early 1970s, collectively the citizens of Nigeria, the
In truth, not a single African country has the sovereign right to introduce policies that would significantly direct or alter its own destiny. Governments must either implement the demonstrably failed policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank or forfeit aid, loans, debt relief, and general international acceptance. This is the new imperialism, or neo-colonialism, in practice. As noted by prominent American economist Jeffrey Sachs, “The IMF routinely works with the finance ministers of impoverished countries to set budget ceilings on health, education, water, sanitation, agricultural infrastructure and other basic needs, in the full knowledge that the consequence is mass suffering and death.” As a Zambian pediatrician told me, for him IMF will always stand for Infant Mortality Fund.
Joseph Stiglitz, former senior vice-president of the World Bank and author of Globalization and Its Discontents, calls it market fundamentalism. He means the extreme version of free-market nostrums that the IMF and World Bank, backed by Western governments, have unilaterally imposed on Africa over the past twenty-five years. These policies have overwhelmingly failed to grow African economies, but they have succeeded magnificently in increasing poverty and the gap between rich and poor, both between
Forcing Africans to pay for schooling and health care meant that fewer went to school or attended health clinics, an outcome that apparently came as a shock to the experts at the IMF and World Bank. Imposing tight ceilings on health and school staff, slashing funds to schools, health clinics, and hospitals, and failing to maintain or expand health infrastructures, have inevitably led to deteriorating health and school systems across the continent. All these deliberately severe austerity programs were imposed at exactly the same moment the aids pandemic was surging out of control. According to the ngo Essential Action, when the World Bank demanded that
At the same time, Western financiers offered generous loans to African leaders, including the most monstrous among them. Then interest rates rose usuriously, and the debt crisis became yet another component of the African reality. This crisis led to an enormous outflow of scarce capital from Africa to the West, a direct reverse transfer from the poorest of the poor to Western governments and their financial surrogates at the World Bank. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, between 1970 and 2002 sub-Saharan
In a sane world, where commerce yields to justice, much of Africa’s debt to Western institutions and governments would be considered odious and cancelled. Yet not even in the case of Rwanda, where a $1-billion debt was incurred by a government largely responsible for the 1994 genocide, or of South Africa, which inherited a debt of $22 billion from its apartheid predecessor, or in some sixteen other states left unbearable debts by their Western backed dictators, is there discussion of unconditionally cancelling these debilitating debts. Contrast this with the Bush administration’s successful call for the full cancellation of
The IMF and World Bank’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative and its successor, the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (G8), have delivered debt relief. However, it amounts to far less than the 100-percent debt cancellation the world was deliberately led to expect. Furthermore, in order to become or remain eligible for debt relief, all countries must comply with the same free-market policies that have already damaged Africa so brutally.
Even when it seems the West is actually investing in Africa, the reality is almost exactly the opposite. With few exceptions, Africa’s fabulous natural riches — from
To be continued
By Gerald Caplan
Gerald, Principal author of
First Published in The Walrus Magazine