Millennium goals: Meeting Africa's special needs?

At the dusk of a century and the twilight of his life in 1998, Tanzania’s former leader Julius Nyerere met with top-level staff at the World Bank in Washington, DC.

“Why have you failed?” the World Bank experts asked.

Nyerere answered: “The British empire left us a country with 85% illiteracy, two engineers and 12 doctors. When I left office, we had 9% illiteracy and thousands of engineers and doctors.
Our per capita income was twice what it is today. Now we have one-third less children in our schools and our public health and social services are in ruins. During these 13 years, Tanzania has done everything that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have demanded ... Why have you failed?”

That story recalls something that has been erased from the history books and our collective memory.

Without analysis of the past, you cannot know exactly how to change the present to make a better future. This is quite true with regard to the High-Level Panel report. It seems that, without examination, it bought into the conventional neo-liberal economic theory and practice that were used to create and enforce destructive structural adjustment programmes.

Nowhere in the report is that paradigm questioned.

How can Africa be prescribed to without an accurate analysis of what has gone wrong? How can you start to suggest what needs doing if you start from today?

For example, in the annex of recommendations to the March report, the UN secretary general urges heads of states and government “to reaffirm and commit to ... the development consensus” around the Millennium Development Goals.

One of these aspects of “consensus” is the following:

“Developing countries should recommit themselves to taking primary responsibility for their own development by strengthening governance, combating corruption and putting in place the policies and investments to drive private-sector-led growth and maximise domestic resources to fund national development strategies”: that is, to make the country attractive to international private capital.

A later paragraph apparently ignores the history of Africa’s $295-billion debt crisis and therefore the fact that Africa was persuaded on false information to take out loans, and has in fact repaid these loans many times over. Further, that any person owing such debts would by now have been offered solutions that acknowledge that the lender also has a responsibility for “foolish lending” and that the borrower has the right to start again, and by rights owes nothing. One may not agree with this, but should it not at least have been examined?

Yet another paragraph makes the unexamined assumption that export-led growth and growing trade are automatically the drivers for development. What worries me is not that those views are held but that those economic theories—the Washington Consensus—are apparently accepted as a sine qua non.

Surely by now, quite apart from historical lessons—but especially in view of those—we should have begun to have some doubts about the private sector’s ability to address poverty and unemployment, about export-led growth as serving poor people, and about trade as driving growth that serves people. If development is an aspect of collective security, one should at least talk about what works and what doesn’t—and why.

And yet, although these reports repeat old solutions, there is no doubt that they reflect an urgency, an awareness of the horrors of poverty and usher in a period of inquiry.

We could begin by saying that the old answers are not working and that new thinking is needed.

We need a new paradigm that is more than American economist Jeffrey Sachs’s idea that it’s all about money passing from the rich to the poor world. We need a paradigm rooted in the critical analysis of what the current economic order does to create poverty, and how this situation can be changed.

And finally, we need to understand what constitutes Africa’s bargaining power: What leverage do we have?

There are things “we” have that “they” need, including our markets and the stability of the international debt economy. We need to start breaking some rules. For example, we should refuse, as a continent, to repay any more of the odious debt. We could reintroduce tariffs on imports that have been subjected to subsidies by the exporting nations. But, for these and other measures, we need to have courage.

Margaret Legum is an independent economist

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