The month of November had a peculiar aura around it. It was not only because it was just two months after the September 11 attacks, but also because it was the month in which the scheduled WTO Ministerial Conference, in Qatar, was to take place. Small wonder, then, that in November's focus on UNLDC3, most of the information was related to the upcoming conference.
The first article to set this trend came from the WTOIL 12 November. In an article, entitled "Africa and the WTO: The Issues in Brief", the author, William Minter, research fellow at Africa Action and designer of africapolicy.org, put forward some of the more contentious issues that have embroiled the negotiations both in Geneva and in developing countries. Of these, the most important are to do with Democracy and Transparency; Public Health; Agriculture; and Old/New Issues.
With respect to health, Minter argues that despite South Africa's victory in the courts when it forced drug companies way back in the Spring of 2001 (April) to back down on a court case, "the intimidation factor is still extremely powerful." He contends that "while Brazil, India, and Thailand have aggressively used generic drugs to push down costs, despite US pressure, only a few African countries have taken hesitant steps to do so."
Regarding TRIPs, Western countries have offered, Minter argues, to change the deadline for patent-law compliance by "least developed countries" from 2006 to 2016. However, the very fact that they are qualifying only LDCs, "would exclude precisely those developing countries most able to produce and export generic drugs, including Brazil, India, and such African countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa." Ultimately, this exclusion will cause tension and rifts between two parts of the Third World that need each other of their voice is to be heard.
In terms of inherent divisiveness at the WTO, however, the most striking argument would be that despite these contentious issues, the US and other rich countries have chosen not to dialogue, but "have opted for raw political power." African countries, Minter maintains, "are under enormous bilateral pressure to go along with the rich countries' agenda for a new round of trade talks on their terms, and to accept vague promises to deal with African concerns later." He intimates that the WTO likes to spin the fiction that there is a "consensus" over issues, when in reality "the unspoken rule is that if you are not present or do not speak up at a meeting, you are considered to support the "consensus" later presented by the WTO staff."
Perhaps, no where is this argument most poignant than over the issue of agriculture. The West, for all its oft-times genuine concern to development, remains hypocritical when it comes to the very thorny issue of export subsidies and agriculture. Minter maintains that "the catch-22 is that in practice the rich countries take full advantage of the openings they press on developing countries, while failing to open their own markets." This view of Minter's is echoed both by many a Civil Society Activist, not to mention activists, and the like. They do say, "the voice of the people is the voice of God". Over WTO issues, this could very well hold, too.
The curse of history
In another development of November's focus, a breath of fresh air came from a Ghanaian academic, George Ayittgey, who is associate professor of economics at the American University, as well as author of "Africa Betrayed" and "Africa in Chaos".
In his essay on SPEAKOUT.COM, entitled "How the West Compounds Africa's Crisis", he argues not the usual spiel that the West is to blame for all the ills in Africa, but rather they are to blame in not being sufficiently critical of what he regards are some "misguided policies of black African leaders."(WTOIL 5 November). He identifies three flaws as the genesis of the Western approach.
First, there is the problem of suppositions and misconceptions predicated on the belief by the West that because of their sordid history of colonialism, they should refrain from being openly critical over possible policies that prove to be wrong-headed. Secondly, "white Westerners are unwilling to criticise misguided policies...for fear of being labelled 'racist'". Finally, African Americans feel compelled to "defend despotic African leaders in the name of 'racial solidarity'". Surely, he maintains, frank and honest talk is the best way of dealing with the problems inherent in such a vastly populated and resource-rich country such as Africa.
If the Third UN Conference on LDCs has taught us anything, it is that the problems residing within the Least Developed Countries are far from simple. Apart from the problems of being marginalised as the "poorest of the poor", LDCs have to contend with those DCs that feel that because of their LDC status, they enjoy so-called preferential treatments, such as the EBA initiative. The reality proves very much that these are small steps towards creating a globalisation at par with the United States. But while these views, as contentious and nettlesome as they may be, persist among certain circles, it is undeniable that one factor that has been the bane of many LDCs is civil war.
Ayittey corroborates this, when he advances the view that wars in Africa have, in general, been fought not because of ethnicity, but purely and simply because of power: "Most of Africa's rebel groups do not seek to redraw colonial boundaries. Their main goal is to capture the capital - seat of government. In fact, the quest for power, explains why Africa is in chaos."
Furthermore, he believes that there needs to be a distinction made between the people of Africa and the leaders. Often, more than not, it is the latter that is the problem. Yet, Ayittey maintains, "many Western governments and organisations that seek to establish "solidarity" or a "relationship of deep friendship" with the African people naively believe that they can best help the African people by working with and giving aid to their leaders", which the author calls "reform acrobats and quack democrats."
Ayittey suggests that development aid could in fact come with a condition. First, as an African country, ensure that you have legitimate institutions - independent bank; independent judiciary, independent and free media, plus neutral and professional armed/security forces. His raison d'être for these is on the grounds that "leaders come and go, but institutions endure." He emphasizes that it must be "recognized that the solutions to Africa's problems lie in Africa itself - in the hands of the people."
Ultimately, the crux of the argument resides with the problematic arising from perceptions. At this stage in the game of life - survival, even - it is incumbent on the West that it stops dealing with those corrupt regimes that seek to exploit their people (the Togo is an example of the EU doing business with a leader whom they knew was oppressing his people). In turn, those African leaders should exploit the potential to make constructive plans for Africa's people - before it is too late.
© E.K.Bensah, 2002