Nairobi — To end Africa's economic isolation in the global system Clinton's government forged for a bill that African countries must remove measures that protect their local industries, effectively treating US investors the same as local investors.
With the right policy instruments, Africa will soon be open for business. That's what US President Bill Clinton and others within the upper echelon of American politics told delegates and participants of the Africa and America: Partners in the New Millennium conference, held February 16-20 in Washington, D.C. The conference was part of the National Summit on Africa, an initiative that began four years ago to come up with a plan of action that would influence future directions in US foreign policy towards Africa.
The final plan approved at the conference contains 254 recommendations for policies in the areas of economic development, democracy and human rights, sustainable development, peace and security, and education and culture.
Much to the delight of the more than 5,000 people who attended the conference, the plan of action and the opening and closing speeches emphasised the importance of Africa and the need to end Africa's economic isolation in the global system. But beneath the affirmation of Africa's potential, the US's intentions of supporting peace initiatives, its limited commitments to debt reduction, and other themes expressed in the conference's opening and closing speeches was the thinly-veiled message that the African market is up for grabs.
The biggest clue was the unanimous endorsement by American and African leaders of the US's African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), different versions of which were passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The two versions need to be resolved in a conference committee that has yet to be formed.
"I urge the Congress to resolve the differences and send me a bill for signature by next month," Clinton told the crowd.
The bill aims to stimulate US's African trade by reducing tariff, non-tariff and other trade barriers, setting up free trade areas in Africa, and creating a United States' Sub-Saharan African Economic Cooperation Forum. To be eligible for tariff reductions and other forms of assistance specified under the legislation, African countries must remove measures that protect their local industries, effectively treating US investors the same as local investors. AGOA also requires that countries take steps to reduce poverty and refrain from committing human rights violations.
Now, there are some who doubt that the poorest countries will benefit if we continue to open markets, but they should ask themselves: "what will happen to workers in South Africa and Kenya without the jobs that come from selling the fruit of their labours abroad?" Clinton told the gathering.
"What will happen to farmers in Zimbabwe and Ghana if protectionist farm subsidies make it impossible for them to sell beyond their borders?" said Clinton.
Among those who strongly urged conference participants to lobby for the bill's resolution and passage were: Clinton; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Ambassador Andrew Young; the Hon Ed Royce, Chair of the US House Subcommittee on Africa; and Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi. These and other supporters say AGOA will make African countries more competitive and productive, which will in turn fuel economic, social, and political development and stability in those countries.
The bill will also create jobs and other opportunities in the US, they assert. This line of thinking did not sit well with those participants who oppose AGOA. They say the legislation: lacks labour, environmental, and health standards; forces countries to accept the punitive, destructive neo-liberal structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); limits African countries autonomy and policy choices; and will restrict Africa's textile industry by insisting that African clothing be made with US thread.
Many of these concerns are summarised in a background paper that was sent to participants before the conference. The national plan of action itself endorses AGOA, but only with 12 conditions attached. This Act equates economic and social development with unregulated private sector policies, said Fr Carroll Houle, Maryknoll priest and representative at the United Nations. In actual fact, AGOA is setting the African country up to be foreign-owned, he said. One millionaire could buy everything.
The fact that speakers endorsed AGOA so heavily at the conference infuriated some participants. A group calling themselves Concerned Summit Participants distributed a statement criticising various aspects of the conference and the National Summit on Africa (NSA).
"Why is the NSA promoting one particular piece of legislation - the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in its documents and plenaries? said the group's statement. Why, given the rise of African and global social movements for economic justice, has there not been similar space allocated for their proponents to examine the role and impacts of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO? Where is the dialogue on fair trade, economic reform and developmental alternatives?
Ironically, the conference that so heavily endorsed AGOA was funded in part by Chevron and the biotechnology company Monsanto, two known exploiters of workers, communities, and the environment, said the statement. Also embarrassing for the National Summit on Africa was the fact that Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi was the only African head of state to accept the organisers invitation to speak, even though early agendas listed speeches from such leaders as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings.
"If the NSA's ideals are partnership and democracy, why would an African leader who has a well-documented record of human rights abuses be honoured?" said the statement of the Concerned Summit Participants. Besides endorsing AGOA, many conference speakers described how ordinary Africans are being crushed by their countries' tremendous debt burdens. President Clinton reminded participants that he wrote off the debts last September of approximately 27 countries that qualified for the G-7's debt relief programme, and that last year he had asked Congress for $970 million for debt relief. "We must continue this work to provide aggressive debt relief to the countries that are doing the right thing, that will take the money and reinvest it in their people and their future," said Clinton.
David Bryden, communications and outreach coordinator with the Jubilee 2000/USA Campaign, was happy that Clinton and others called attention to the importance of debt relief and how that should be a priority in lobbying efforts. But he thinks the discussion did not go far enough. "What I would have liked to have seen is President Clinton explicitly challenging Japan, Germany, and France to follow suit with his commitment to 100 per cent cancellation of debts owed bilaterally," said Bryden.
"If I could ask President Clinton a question, it would be this: You've decided to go to 100 per cent for debts owed to the United States specifically. Why are you willing to settle for a much lower figure when it comes to the debts of these countries owed to all of their creditors, particularly to agencies in which the United States has a controlling share like the IMF or the World Bank? Why stop at the United States government?" Bryden asked.
Peace was another conference theme. Clinton said he supports the upcoming United Nations Security Council vote on whether to send a 5,500-strong UN mission to monitor the ceasefire in Congo. After the congressional hearing, the US government earmarked approximately $40 million of its peacekeeping fund to support the UN's mission. The real effectiveness of the National Summit on Africa and its National Policy Plan of Action for US Africa Relations in the 21st Century will manifest itself in the coming months. Whether the finalised African Growth and Opportunity Act addresses the many concerns outlined in the plan of action, or whether the US takes further measures on debt relief or other actions to benefit Africa remains to be seen.
AFRICANEWS News & Views on Africa from Africa Koinonia Media Centre, P.O. Box 8034, Nairobi, Kenya email: firstname.lastname@example.org