Africa “rising”…or crashing.

By Patrick Bond, Guest Blogger

Earlier this month, Time Magazine pronounced,

“Africa owes its takeoff to a variety of accelerators, nearly all of them external and occurring in the past 10 years:

•    billions of dollars in aid, especially to fight HIV/AIDS and malaria;
•    tens of billions of dollars in foreign-debt cancellations;
•    a concurrent interest in Africa’s natural resources, led by China; and
•    the rapid spread of mobile phones, from a few million in 2000 to more than 750 million today.”

The reality is very different, so let’s try this paragraph again. Actually, Africa owes its economic decline to a variety of accelerators, nearly all of them external and occurring in the past centuries during which slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism locked in the continent’s underdevelopment, but several of which – along with climate change – were amplified in recent years:

•    stagnant overseas development aid – around 60 percent “phantom”, anyhow – to most African countries, except to 14 “fragile states”, with Washington leading further cuts in funding to fight HIV/AIDS and malaria;
•    tens of billions of dollars in foreign debt cancellation (of what was mainly unrepayable ‘Odious’ loans to dictators) in 2005 yet at the same time a squeeze on low-income African finance ministries that immediately afterwards caused a dramatic rise in debt repayments (from 5 to 8 percent of export earnings);
•    a concurrent looting of Africa’s natural resources, led by China and the West, resulting in dramatic recent falls in mineral and petroleum wealth (when calculated as ‘Adjusted Net Saving’ to incorporate resource-stripping); and
•    the rapid spread of mobile phones, which because of high costs and low internet connectivity, has done very little to solve the digital divide.

Moreover, tax avoidance is epidemic and capital flight from Africa continues to outpace aid and investment, as documented by my colleague Khadija Sharife in his book Tax Us If You Can ,and by Leonce Ndikumana and James Boyce in various studies of capital flight that deserve much more attention, e.g. their recent book Africa’s Odious Debts.

Most crucial is that Sub-Saharan Africa is losing a net 6 percent of gross national income each year, according to the World Bank’s 2011 book The Changing Wealth of Nations. The figure comes from recalibrating Gross Domestic Product, which measures raw materials stripped from the soil as once-off credits to GDP. More appropriate is to consider them as debits: the decline in ‘natural capital’ that occurs because the minerals and petroleum are non-renewable.

In contrast, the wealth of resource-based countries Canada and Australia soared because their extraction is done largely by home-grown companies that reinvest and return profits to local shareholders; most of the extractive corporations operating here send profits to London, New York, Melbourne and Toronto.

In most Afro-optimist reports, information about the role of these firms in causing the African Resource Curse is scarce. Most such stories are informed by export-oriented, petro-minerals-centric, finance-driven ideologies, and Time is no exception. To illustrate, other telling quotes Time used last week are from the inimitable Bob Geldof: “The continent has 60% of the world’s unused arable land. As Geldof says, ‘In the end, we all have to go to Africa. They have what we need.’ And it is in that second scramble for Africa that the continent’s best hopes lie, because if the first scramble for Africa – as historians dubbed the period from the 1870s to 1900 – was a European imperialist carve-up, the second should leave Africa as the big winner.”

More likely, Africans will be the big losers of a Brazil-Russia-India-China-SA (BRICS) sub-imperialist carve-up of the continent’s land, minerals and hydrocarbons. More likely, Durban in March 2013 and subsequent BRICS summits will resemble, economically, the political deals of Berlin in 1885. “They have what we need” says it all.

Moreover, with climate change causing only a 2 degree average warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that Africa’s crop revenue will fall by 90 percent by 2100. Last month even World Bank president Jim Yong Kim expressed concern about a 4 degree rise, “which is what scientists are nearly unanimously predicting by the end of the century, without serious policy changes” (including his own institution’s world-leading financing of fossil fuels, which appears set to continue).  Already 400 000 die from climate change each year, and Christian Aid estimates that 185 millon Africans will perish this century. As the Doha COP18 and Durban COP17 and every other climate gathering shows, those with power from Washington and Brussels to Beijing and Pretoria don’t really care. Time’s praise for Resource-Cursed Africa doesn’t mention climate change even in passing.

However so as to not end in despair, it is also crucial to recall growing evidence of Africa uprising, from Egypt and Tunisia, to Senegal and Nigeria, to Kenya and Uganda, to the militant poor and working people of southern African. The best information about the continent’s social struggles comes from the ezine Pambazuka, but there are other sources. For example, using data gathered even before the August Marikana massacre and wildcat strike wave, the Davos World Economic Forum’s 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report rated SA workers the most militant anywhere. It is the intensity of these Africans’ critique of status quo political economy – and perhaps, soon, a growing breadth and depth, as strike committees fuse with community groups and environmentalists to transcend South Africa’s fabled popcorn protests – that provide the only real hope for a durable rise, by the peoples of a very oppressed continent.

Patrick Bond is a political economist with longstanding research interests and NGO work in urban communities and with global justice movements in several countries. He teaches political economy and eco-social policy, directs the Centre for Civil Society and is involved in research on economic justice, geopolitics, climate, energy and water.

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