The Herald: Africa has spoken, but did any of us bother to listen?

Publisher Name: 
The Herald (Glasgow)

The sands of Libya may compare unfavourably with the lush surrounds of Gleneagles as venue for an international summit. But the event which took place there this week is every bit as important as the G8 jamboree.

The leaders of the rich world and Russia touched down in Perthshire just as the African Union completed its own meeting in North Africa. The Libyan event was more representative than the Scottish gathering, as it included leaders from 53 countries, not just eight.

While the host nation is hardly a model of good government (no anarchist clowns wrecking the centre of Tripoli), the vast majority of African Union governments are now democratic. This is the organisation which can deliver a brighter future to all those children who die every three seconds south of the Sahara. It has the ability to resolve conflict, promote peace, improve government and tackle corruption.

The organisation is particularly important because Africa is excluded from so much global decisionmaking - no permanent seat on the UN security council, poor representation in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Leaders from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Algeria and South Africa and the AU itself will, of course, attend the Gleneagles summit - but only at the invitation of the eight real powerbrokers.

In contrast, Africans were in charge of the Libyan meeting, and they spoke with one voice. Yet in a week when so many white people were making a noise about their solidarity with the continent, the AU meeting was largely ignored. It is the political equivalent of shunting Baaba Maal and his fellow musicians off to Cornwall last Saturday night.

No wonder so many Africans are cynical, not just about the G8, but about the whole debate surrounding their future. It was heartening to see more African musicians at Murrayfield than in Hyde Park, particularly as several emphasised they did not want charity, but justice.

So, had we listened this week, what would Africans have told us? They would have made clear that the debt write-off - which the UK government tried to pass off as meeting the demands of campaigners - falls far short of what is required. The plan aims ultimately for Dollars55bn ([pounds]32bn) of debt forgiveness for 38 poor countries, not all of them in Africa.

A separate plan cancels Dollars31bn ([pounds]17.5bn) of Nigeria's foreign debt - an important development for a country which ought to be the continent's economic engine. However, the World Bank calculates that Africa's total debt burden at the end of 2002 was Dollars295bn ([pounds]168bn) . Clearly, there is some way to go.

The AU countries did pass a resolution expressing gratitude for the progress which has been made on aid payments and debt cancellation. But they called on the G8 to "establish a fair and equitable trading system". Of the three demands from Make Poverty History, this is the most resonant for Africans themselves.

"Africa doesn't want to see itself as a beggar, " said the Rev Robert Aboagye-Mensah, president of the Methodist Church in Ghana and a visitor to Edinburgh this week: "We want to compete like any other nation. If we have a trade system which is just and fair, we'll actually be in a position to determine our future."

Maal, who is from Senegal, has made self-sufficiency the theme of his recent speeches and interviews, repeatedly quoting the Chinese proverb: "Give me a fish and I will eat for a day, teach me to fish and I will eat forever."

It's a point repeatedly made by other cultural ambassadors, such as Femi Kuti, son of the late Fela Kuti, the Nigerian superstar. "Africa should learn how to help itself, " he says. Dedicated anti-poverty campaigners have always emphasised trade justice as a key part of their agenda, but it has somehow become lost in the outpouring of genuine compassion we have seen in the past fortnight. It can be complicated and technical.

And while it will be discussed at Gleneagles, no decision will be made until December, when the World Trade Organisation meets in Hong Kong. Journalists are being briefed not to expect great things on this issue, despite it being the predominant reform demanded by Africans themselves. Late on Tuesday, George Bush's administration asked Congress to repeal a cotton subsidy which has been declared illegal by the WTO.

It looks suspiciously like a pre-G8 gesture, a meaningless one at that.

Congress is likely to reject the measure, which only accounts for 7per cent of the United States' Dollars3.7bn ([pounds]2.1bn) a year subsidy to cotton farmers. One Arkansas agri-business receives subsidies of Dollars6m ([pounds]3.5m), which trade justice campaigners say is the equivalent of the combined earnings of 25 million cotton farmers in Mali.

The livelihoods of those particular farmers have already collapsed, along with those in the neighbouring countries of Burkina Faso, Chad and Benin. They find they cannot even sell their crop at home, because American imports are cheaper.

It is part of a general and worrying trend. Agricultural exports earned Uganda Dollars110m ([pounds]62.5m) in 2001, down by a fifth in five years. Fair trade campaigners, such as Devinder Sharma, warned this week of worse to come.

The economist told a South African news agency that the European Union produced 200per cent more milk than it needed for domestic consumption. "Where is the market for this? The market is Africa."

Even countries hailed as economic success stories suffer. The charity Corpwatch says the income of 400,000 poultry farmers in Ghana is threatened by the dumping of chicken considered too fatty for European and American shoppers.

According to the Corpwatch report, 26,000 tonnes of the stuff was dumped in the West African country in 2002 alone - and this had almost doubled by last year. As a result, the domestic poultry market shrank from 95per cent in 1992, to 11per cent a decade later.

Increased aid, combined with debt reduction is supposed to make it easier for African countries to invest in health, education and infrastructure. The idea behind this is to allow the continent to achieve something like a level playing field whereby it can compete with the rest of the world, emulating Asia by selling quality products and providing skilled labour.
Much has been said about the danger of that money being spent instead on fleets of luxury cars by corrupt officials. But what if the income is swallowed up buying cheap European and American imports which simply keep these countries poor and dependent. Aid for unfair trade. That would be unforgivable.

AMP Section Name:Corpwatch in the News