Forgiving a dying man's debt isn't enough, says OAU Chairman
In a moving speech to UNCTAD X, the Algerian President and Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity painted a grim picture of an indebted and marginalised Africa that was being excluded from the mainstream of development by a globalising world. If Africans, who are now a disappearing people threatened with extinction, are to survive, more needs to be done, he added, than merely forgiving the debts of the poorest African countries.
by Martin Khor
A COMPREHENSIVE analysis of the plight of Africa and a devastating critique of the response to it by Western governments was presented by the President of Algeria and current Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Abdelaziz Bouteflika, on the final day of UNCTAD X.
Bouteflika's speech and answers to questions, which came at a panel made up of world leaders (including the Prime Ministers of Thailand, Mozambique and Morocco and the President of the Dominican Republic), were a major highlight not only of the final day but of the entire conference itself. The Algerian President's views and comments were greeted with loud and long applause.
The OAU Chairman's main message was that writing off the debt of 33 poorest African countries which could not pay the debt anyway was only a gesture - a 'macabre scene' where a creditor visits a dying man to forgive his debts.
Much more needed to be done by the international community if Africans, who are a disappearing people threatened with extinction, are to survive.
Whilst the speech by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad set a high note for the critique of globalisation at the start of UNCTAD X, Bouteflika's presentations at the very end of the conference served as a stark reminder of how the poorest continent had been subjected not only to exploitation but also to hypocrisy from rich nations that purported to help the poor countries.
The OAU Chairman's remarks had all the more impact as the Committee of the Whole of UNCTAD-10 had the previous night concluded a Plan of Action which, in terms of governmental commitments, provided no new breakthrough in terms of duty-free and quota-free access for least developed countries, or of debt relief for developing countries, despite well-publicised wrangling for several days on these two key issues.
This had left officials from developing countries feeling that the Northern countries as a whole were not willing to extend concessions or goodwill despite the failure of the WTO's Seattle Ministerial, and had also influenced the NGOs inside and outside the conference to criticise UNCTAD X for only being a discussion forum and lacking substantial results.
In his introductory remarks, the OAU leader said the major problem facing Africa was indebtedness. Whilst current debt relief measures were welcome symbols, they only applied to bankrupt states that could not repay the debts anyway. For debt alleviation to go beyond the symbolic, it must be provided for middle-income African countries, as it had been to Russia.
Amplifying on this theme in response to questions from the moderator, Bouteflika, speaking without notes and in a passionate tone, said that 'Africa is completely being marginalised.' This was made clear at the WTO conference in Seattle, where the dialogue was between the US and the EU. The Africans were the forgotten ones in Seattle, and they held their tongues and their dignity.
He said Africa had been split away from the flows and processes of development of the rest of the world. 'Globalisation can only benefit those countries with the material basis and technological foundation to operate,' he added.
The Algerian President said that the international community had not taken measures to help Africa, which was lagging behind. 'Its backwardness in trade is such that it will be utterly left out of the process.'
Asking how such a situation came about, Bouteflika said it was necessary to look at history and the background.
'Africa is a continent that suffered from slavery and the trading in blacks. Africa was used to develop other continents that are now more advanced. I am not blaming anyone, but just looking at the past to understand the present. Colonialism divided Africa, (and) introduced regional imbalances, social inequality and inter-ethnic conflict that have used up our energies.'
Wrong development model
He added that the colonising countries were interested in exploiting Africa's natural resources, to the detriment of schools, education and social development, whilst also causing cultural divisions. 'This jeopardised our subsequent development.'
The OAU head said: 'Once we attained independence, African countries, sad to say, chose the wrong development model. Those that chose socialism or the free market failed equally. There was a lack of executive personnel, services, infrastructure. It was disastrous. There was a general imbalance at every level.
'The international economic order kept the African countries as suppliers of raw materials and as markets for manufactured products. By deregulating trade and bringing in competition when the forces in the North and South are so disproportionate, it is obvious that Africa is absolutely out of the race.
'What can we do? How can we combat marginalisation? What are the palliatives, since there are no remedies? African countries must take responsibility to combat their marginalisation, but without shame we must also say the world cannot set aside such an enormous swathe of humanity and live with a clear conscience.
'We can't live with a conscience side by side with this large part of humanity, which faces drought, disease, AIDS affecting up to 40% of the population. Africans are a disappearing people, going extinct. Developed countries now have third-generation AIDS drugs, but not a single African country has benefitted yet from the first generation of such drugs. Everything is happening as if we are trying to regulate the world's population through Malthusian logic, to let the weakest die so we can have a world of the rich and let the poor go to the wall.'
Bouteflika said it was too easy for others to say that Africa must settle its disputes. He agreed that this was a major problem, with 13 conflicts at present between states. Besides, there were also internal social disputes that strike African countries, including Algeria.
'Of course, we can recommend countries to take on their own social responsibility. But we have lost all our rights except the right to dream.'
Touching on the need for solidarity and partnership among African countries, Bouteflika said solidarity of the poor is a fantasy more than a dream. 'Our people are big-hearted. But the big problem is that of African debt.'
'You can die happy...'
He welcomed the Group of 7 (leading industrial nations) decision in Cologne on debt relief as a first step to a solution. He also welcomed the decision of UK premier Tony Blair and President Jacques Chirac of France to extend debt write-off for eligible countries from 90 to 100%, and the outgoing IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus' statement that 33 African countries would benefit from debt write-off.
'But what are the 33 countries that have benefitted? We have written off the debts of the countries that are bankrupt and that cannot pay. Their debts could not have been paid anyway. We are looking at a macabre scene of someone visiting a dying man and telling him 'you can die without debts, you can die happy because you do not have debts to pay'.
'The debt problem will not be solved this way. We knew the 33 countries could not squeeze anything out anymore, anyway. Writing off their debts is a welcome gesture. But we need to bring these countries up, to bring their dignity back, and charity is not enough.'
The Algerian President said other measures are needed to resolve the debt problem. The debt of middle-income countries needs to be solved. He noted that the Western nations had written off Russia's debt, and urged that similar measures be applied to middle-income African countries. If these countries were free of debt, they too would have a chance to develop and to contribute to resolving world problems. He added that whilst everyone wanted to be part of globalisation, and to go against it would be running against history, yet 'globalisation is something that must not leave out the rich or the poor, and the rich who have must truly share with the poorest among us.'
In response to another question, the Algerian President said he was struck by Camdessus' idea of expanding the Group of 7 to 30. The idea to bring together creditor and debtor countries for discussions was a good one, but after speaking to his African colleagues, he felt that UNCTAD could become the facilitator between creditors and debtors so that African debt can be discussed in the appropriate forum. This, he said, was a crucial issue for Africa.
In the same session, Thai premier Chuan Leekpai said the Thai crisis was initially due to a fall in foreign reserves as they had been used to fight an attack on the Thai currency. The sharp currency decline led to the disappearance of investor confidence and major capital outflows or 'the bleeding of the country.'
He added that the agreement with the IMF was strict and limited fiscal spending. 'But the situation did not improve, so we arranged to adjust the agreement from one requiring a fiscal surplus to one allowing a fiscal deficit. Clearly, the IMF's initial assessment of the situation was wrong.'
Chuan said Thailand used the crisis to undertake measures to prevent a recurrence such as revising the legal and regulatory framework and improving governance.
'Less than 50 cents a day'
Mozambique premier Pascoal Manuel Mocumbi said the first challenge facing Africa was: 'How can we be part of the global picture when we have high poverty and weak institutions? How can we move people earning less than 50 cents a day up from that bracket and then go on to produce?'
The second challenge was the debt crisis that impeded growth. 'All that we have is used to pay off this debt.' He was happy that 'today there is agreement on the need for broader and deeper consideration of the issue.'
In the interactive part of the session, South African deputy president Jacob Zuma said the format and processes of the WTO did not allow for a good exchange of views as discussions in the WTO were in a negotiating mode. At UNCTAD X there was a freer atmosphere for discussions.
He added that at UNCTAD IX in Midrand, South Africa, some had predicted the demise of UNCTAD. 'We have succeeded in turning UNCTAD around at UNCTAD X. Many stakeholders have made their voices heard here. This forum can bring all stakeholders of the world together so we can discuss our problems.'
The Moroccan premier Abderrahman El-Youssoufi said UNCTAD should now endeavour to play its role in full. 'After the failure of the WTO at Seattle, UNCTAD now enjoys more legitimacy and weight, and we have the opportunity to rethink the principles and guidelines of the multilateral trading system. Our institution should be a democratic forum where everyone can defend their views. It should be the appropriate framework for consensus to emerge. This is the optimistic impression from UNCTAD X.'
Martin Khor is the director of Third World Network.