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A continent stressed to the breaking point


Recently the CBS program “60 Minutes” did a piece on basketball star Dikembe Mutumbo of the Atlanta Hawks, accompanying him to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mutumbo, who had just signed a four-year contract with the Hawks for $14 million a year, was donating a multimillion-dollar hospital to his hometown. For four decades, the Congo (formerly known as Zaire) was the key U.S. client state in sub-Saharan Africa. When Mobutu Sese Seko’s post-colonial dictatorship finally imploded in 1997, he left the country wracked by civil war, ravaged by AIDS, its infrastructure ruined and its natural resources pillaged by transnational corporations in collusion with local thugs, military and civilian.

Ed Bradley and the “60 Minutes” crew presented an unsparing picture of Kinshasa’s medical facilities. A few overworked, unsalaried doctors and nurses struggled to provide a minimum of care for the injured, diseased and dying -- only when the sick could afford a modest payment. Medication often had to be obtained on the black market. In one moving scene we saw Mutumbo weeping beside his mother’s grave. She had recently died for want of elementary medical care.

What “60 Minutes” did not report was that one quarter of the youngest children, those who followed their seven-foot hero through Kinshasa’s decaying streets, will die of measles or other preventable diseases well before they reach adolescence. Of the survivors at least one-third will succumb to AIDS by their late 20s. Few of those who live will find employment.

The viewer was left wondering what Mutumbo’s gift could accomplish where medical services, the electricity grid, transport, telecommunications, the civil service, schools, courts and police were in a state of collapse.

These conditions and their underlying causes are not confined to the Congo; they can be found throughout tropical Africa. In the aftermath of independence in the 1960s, per capita income declined. There was an increase in malnutrition and environmental deterioration. Rural flight and rapid urbanization led to expanding slums and the erosion of traditional cultures. Towns and cities more than doubled in size each decade. Constitutions, bequeathed by departing European colonial powers to the artificial states they had created, were soon swept away and replaced by one-party systems or military regimes. A population explosion, reaching the highest growth rates in human history, stressed to breaking point state services and the organizations of civil society. An unreformed agriculture sector, where 75 percent of the population worked, could not produce sufficient food for millions of young mouths.

Funding for schools, clinics, court systems, the police and civil service dried up. All of this fueled ethnic and class tensions. In the process of repressing the resulting discontent, the military were politicized and coups proliferated. All too often, army officers joined civilian elites in using state offices for private gain.

No money for modernization

The population explosion ran well ahead of any capacity to develop an economic surplus for modernization -- that is, internal sources of savings for investment. Widespread poverty limited private savings; so did the consumerism of elites who were also stashing loot in foreign banks. Foreign corporations leveraged highly favorable tax deals but focused narrowly on raw material exports, refusing to reinvest their profits to diversify local economies. African states also failed to raise funds for development. They were either unable to generate sufficient tax revenue to sustain existing government services, or corrupt civilian and military elites diverted funds to personal accounts. Such was the case in oil-rich Nigeria and Mobutu’s mineral-rich Zaire.

Without an adequate flow of tax revenue, governments turned to deficit financing that fueled inflation, often at rates exceeding 100 percent. This eroded civil service salaries. Teachers, magistrates, nurses and doctors could not survive on their incomes. Soon most state employees succumbed to some degree of bribery. These trends were exacerbated by an acute shortage of foreign exchange as tropical Africa’s terms of trade deteriorated. Ghana, for example, saw the price of cocoa, its major export, collapse. In the wake of this continuing inability to earn sufficient foreign exchange, and OPEC’s oil price hikes in the 1970s, country after country borrowed heavily to sustain imports.

By the 1980s the region’s debt service problem dwarfed that of Latin America, often chewing up 40 percent of a country’s meager foreign exchange earnings. The result was an inability to import essentials -- from fertilizer to medicines, electric generators, spare parts for vehicles and schoolbooks. This crisis was deepened by the failure to reform agriculture, which by the 1980s led to the use of precious foreign exchange to import staple foods. Cash crops for export had been given attention, but not food production for rapidly expanding populations. By the 1990s Zambia’s predicament was typical. It was spending five times as much on repaying foreign debt as on education and medical services combined.

If these problems were not enough, the horror of the AIDS pandemic now threatens large regions. From the core areas of infection in East and Central Africa, the virus traveled south, moving rapidly via the transport system, military conflict and migratory labor. Where malnutrition, malaria and tuberculosis were already endemic, at least 25 million Africans are now infected with AIDS. Approximately 25 percent of the population in Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe is HIV positive; working populations are being decimated and orphans are counted in the millions. While the ready supply of low cost generic drugs to combat this calamity has yet to be pried from the transnational pharmaceutical corporations, Africans themselves must bear responsibility too. For far to long the virus has been given free range by widespread male promiscuity and a gross failure of political leadership to challenge the machismo cultures of denial.

Protest grows in ’80s, ’90s

Moved in part by sheer desperation, political protest movements began to form in the 1980s and 1990s. This has been called Africa’s second liberation struggle, an attempt to claw back power from the continent’s corrupt elites. In many countries, incompetent military or civilian cabals gave way to national conventions, new constitutions and multi-party politics. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund provided fresh loans to support the new regimes, but insisted on harsh Structural Adjustment Programs. These required the sharp devaluation of African currencies, the phasing out of deficit financing, and increased taxes. They also mandated the privatizing of state-owned enterprises -- for example, utilities -- and slashed social services, including education and medical programs. Foreign capital, it was assumed, would move into this new environment as more financially responsible governments were charged with raising revenue and curtailing state services.

For a few years stagnant economies began to grow as the export of raw materials (foods, fibers and minerals) increased. There was greater access to foreign exchange. Tax revenues improved and inflation subsided. However, positive trends soon tapered off. Given tropical Africa’s political fragility and inadequate infrastructure, the anticipated private investment from abroad failed to materialize. The continent’s chronic debt service problem put a severe limit on further development loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Functioning political systems -- for example in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the Ivory Coast -- look increasingly fragile. Where corrupt regimes remain entrenched, or weaker predatory states have imploded, brutal conflicts continue -- as in the Sudan, Congo, the Horn of Africa, Burundi, Angola, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Rather than the short-term fix of Structural Adjustment Programs that opened up an unprepared region to the gale-force winds of global competition, sub-Saharan Africa needs comprehensive debt forgiveness. The region also needs something like the Marshall Plan, under which for a decade after World War II the United States bolstered the economic and political recovery of Western Europe. In Africa’s case, however, the challenge is more complex: to create a consortium of nations, international institutions and non-governmental organizations ready to provide supportive development financing, foreign exchange and technical assistance over the next 50 years.

Such an aid program could help to strengthen democratic processes, restore state institutions, including the civil service and courts, and expand basic services. It would not be an alternative to market economics. Its aim would be to establish a context where community development programs, Africa’s entrepreneurs and foreign investors would contribute their energies to a sustained recovery. Despairing media images have obscured the continent’s potential, its cultural riches, the resilience and ingenuity of its peoples. With appropriate international assistance, Africa will be able to regain control of its own destiny, use and conserve its treasure trove of natural resources and participate successfully in the global economy.

U.S. response is laughable

The response of the United States to Africa’s intractable problems has been laughable. While modest debt forgiveness is being negotiated in the wake of initiatives taken by the European Union, the panacea offered by the Clinton administration and Congress has been that of unrestrained market forces. Legislation to “assist Africa” has in essence promoted free trade and the interests of transnational corporations. The Bush administration will be even less sympathetic, more closed-minded.

Looked at over half a century, U.S. long-term economic aid for the destitute of our planet has shrunk dramatically. The Marshall Plan transferred approximately 3.5 percent of the U.S. gross national product to assist Europe in the late 1940s and 1950s. Later, in the early 1970s, the United States supported a United Nations resolution that exhorted industrialized countries to provide .7 percent of their GNP as economic aid for poor regions. During this time, the United States was allocating approximately .5 percent of its GNP, albeit skewing this in the Cold War toward strategically important client states. Today, U.S. economic aid to all areas of global poverty stands at less than .1 percent of GNP -- which leaves it at the bottom of the aid table (with European countries contributing in the range of .3 to .8 percent of GNP).

Of this U.S. aid, sub-Saharan Africa receives under $1 billion a year. (Israel receives over $3 billion.) Perhaps the ultimate abdication of moral responsibility came in late 2000 with Washington’s belated response to Africa’s AIDS pandemic: a $1 billion loan from the Export Import Bank to purchase drugs from U.S. pharmaceutical companies. One is hard pressed to imagine a more cynical example of usury -- the sin of lending surplus funds to take advantage of another’s disadvantage.

A U.S. president working with a committed Congress and cooperating with the United Nations, members of the European Union, Japan and other industrialized nations, could make a big difference. While there is no definitive blueprint, one scenario would be a reformed World Bank radically changing its Structural Adjustment Programs. In this it would need to work in cooperation with democratically elected African governments and a revived Organization of African Unity. United Nations agencies -- including the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and Children’s Fund -- should be part of the emerging consortium. In addition, non-governmental organizations like OXFAM and Catholic Relief Services could be supported in their already impressive, although underfunded, projects.

To help finance such an initiative, the United States would have to improve on its appalling .1 percent of GNP for aid and move towards .7 percent for the destitute regions of the world -- with sub-Saharan Africa at the top of the list. It could make a modest start by diverting 1 percent of the current military budget for the projected African aid program. This in itself would more than triple Washington’s intended appropriation for African development assistance in 2001.

Of course all of this will remain a pipe-dream while U.S. politics are hostage to corporate funding and an ideology of free market economics dulls the humane instincts of so many of its citizens. In the meantime, sub-Saharan Africa faces its overwhelming problems without significant support from the world’s superpower -- which for decades has loudly proclaimed a commitment to human rights, international cooperation and the eradication of poverty around the world.

Peter Walshe is professor of government and international studies at the University of Notre Dame. His e-mail address is a.p.walshe.1@nd.edu

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001