Bearing the Brunt: An Interview with Demba Moussa Dembélé on Africa's Postion in Corporate-led Globalization
Michael McGehee: For starters, Can you tell us a bit about yourself - where you come from, what you do and how you got into the work you are doing?
Demba Moussa Dembélé: I am an economist, trained in France and in the United States. I worked for the Ministry of Economy and Finance [for the Senegalese government] in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, I moved to the NGO world, doing mostly research and training for social movements and where I can more openly oppose IFIs' [International Financial Institutions] policies. Even when I worked at the Ministry of Finance, I used to argue with IMF and World Bank missions to Senegal. So, my opposition to their policies dates back from that period. I am part of the world social movement opposed to neoliberalism or corporate-driven globalization. I participated in all editions of the World Social Forum (WSF) since 2001. In 2011, Senegal will host that event and I'll be among the leading figures of the host Committee.
MM: What particular policies did you argue over with the financial institutions, and did anything productive come from those arguments?
DMD: The policies included trade liberalization; lifting of subsidies; end to the protection of the domestic market; privatization of State-owned enterprises (SOEs). The Senegalese government resisted and delayed the implementation of some of these policies (privatization of SOEs & end to domestic market protection) but in the end it succumbed to the IFIs' pressure.
MM: How would you describe the current state of affairs in Africa; and what role does the US government play in it?
DMD: In Africa, after nearly 30 years of policies associated with the "Washington Consensus" imposed by the IMF and World Bank, the situation is very bleak. 33 African countries out of 49 in the world are classified as "Least Developed Countries" (LDCs) by the United Nations.
Trade and financial liberalization have led to the collapse of domestic industries and increased capital flight. The imposition of cash crops has resulted in greater food dependency while the export-led growth model has deepened Africa's specialization in the production and export of commodities and raw materials.
The ideology of "minimal state" led to collapse of many States. No wonder Africa is bearing the brunt of the current crises: food, energy, financial and economic crises. Africa has the lowest human development indicators. Of course, the US has a big responsibility in all this since it is the leading power behind the IMF and World Bank. Its "free trade" and "free market" stance lay the foundations of the "Washington Consensus". It also contributed sweeping trade liberalization imposed on African countries. Furthermore, US subsidies -especially for US cotton growers- have hurt African farmers and contributed to the decline of African agricultural sector.
MM: Under President Bush, some $15 billion was given to Africa through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar). A review of the program in The Harvard Law Environmental Review (Spring 2004) described the program in these terms:
[T]he Bush Administration wants to channel the vast majority of the funds in the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief through bilateral channels rather than multilateral vehicles, such as the Global Fund. The United States wants to maximize its leverage with other countries through the funds available for distribution in the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The Global Fund and other multilateral venues do not possess the same top-down leverage as does the United States in demanding fundamental national-level reforms.
How do you respond to this assessment?
DMD: This assessment is totally true because the Plan was used as a foreign policy tool. One of the Bush Administrations objectives was to use the Plan as a weapon in order to impose what it calls "good governance" or deny assistance to countries it sees as "supporting terrorism" or "undemocratic". In their jargon, "good governance" is nothing else than a set of neoliberal policies ("free trade"; "free market"; free movement of capital; etc.) With multilateral institutions, such as UN agencies, it would have been difficult to achieve these objectives... Moreover, it is mainly US private corporations that were in charge of implementing the Plan, which gave these corporations an excessive influence over recipient countries' health policies.
MM: How successful and effective has The Global Fund been, and how can it be improved?
DMD: Quite frankly, I can't tell you much about it. NGOs working on health issues are more familiar with it. My response was based on general principles of the Bush policies and on comments made by people following closely disbursements from the Fund.
MM: The US government has been trying to establish AFRICOM under the banner that it wants to help Africa, yet it has been unable to find a host country and is currently based in Germany. What do you think the motives are, and how would you describe the popular mood towards the effort?
DMD: I have been following this project since almost it was announced by President Bush. In reality, it has nothing to do with "Africa's security". On the contrary, its aim is to protect US vital interests in Africa. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the US is trying to get military bases in key countries or sub-regions of the continent. The fundamental mission of AFRICOM is to protect US supplies of oil by African countries, from the Gulf of Guinea (Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Chad, among others). Various sources have projected that by 2015, the US may depend for up to 25% of its needs on African oil. Therefore, it needs to secure sources and keep safe supply lines. This is why it is so desperate to find a good location for AFRICOM. But many key countries, such as Nigeria in West Africa, South Africa, Algeria, have made it clear that they will oppose any attempt by the US to move AFRICOM to Africa. So far, only Liberia has officially expressed interest in hosting it. But the US knows that Liberia is a very fragile State and an unstable country. Moreover, it is a bit far from the Gulf of Guinea. We suspect that the US is courting Ghana as a possible host, which may explain Obama's visit to that country. To summarize, the mood is of general hostility to having AFRICOM on African soil.
MM: In the US we have the School of the America's Watch to put pressure on closing the institution, are there groups and organizations focusing primarily on stopping this Trojan Horse before it is delivered?
DMD: So far, many people are not well aware of the AFRICOM problem. Resistance came mainly from African governments themselves, such as Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, among others. Our organizations are trying to strengthen that resistance and we use all opportunities (sub-regional and regional meetings) to alert our members to the danger of AFRICOM.
MM: Every continent (and every country) has their popular movements, their heroes and history's where people struggle for freedom, in regards to the modern struggle in Africa to escape from neoliberalism and US imperialism are there groups, organizations or persons at the forefront we should know about?
1) African intellectuals:
Prof. Samir Amin (Egypt/Senegal); Prof. Yash Tandon (Uganda); Ms. Aminata Traore (Mali); Prof. Hassan Shivji (Tanzania); the late Tajudeen Abdou Raheem (Nigeria); Ms. Mohau Pheko (South Africa); Thandika Mkandawire (Malawi); Adebayo Olukoshi (Nigeria); Ebrahim Sall (Gambia); Yao Graham (Ghana) and so forth.
There are many others teaching in US Universities: Prof. Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University) and in European Universities (Paris; London; Amsterdam)
2) African institutions:
- Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), based in Dakar (Senegal): www.codesria.org
- Third World Forum (based in Dakar) headed by Professor Samir Amin. It is one of the leading institutions in the forefront of the struggle against imperialism and global capitalism in Africa. www.twf.org
Third World Network-Africa Office (TWN-A), based in Accra (Ghana). It is the leading progressive institution on trade issues. It coordinates a loose network called Africa Trade Network (ATN) which is leading the fight against the "free trade" agreements the European Union wants to impose on Africa under the name of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). www.twnafrica.org
Southern and Eastern Africa Trade and Investment Initiative (SEATINI), based in Harare (Zimbabwe), plays a role similar to that of TWN-A for Southern & Eastern Africa.
Pambazuka News, a progressive weekly magazine published each Thursday and containing articles on aspects of African development (www.pambazuka.org)
4) Social movements:
- Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) based in Accra (Ghana) is the umbrella for leading trade unions in Africa. It has a very progressive agenda
MM: Can you tell us a bit about the OATUU's agenda?
DMD: OATUU is an umbrella for close to 200 trade unions in Africa, from across the continent. From what I know, here are the main items on its agenda:
1) Defend and protect the interests of its affiliates
2) Defend the freedom of association in all African countries
3) Protest against all forms of repression against trade unions in Africa
4) Be the principal spokesperson of African trade unions at the International Labor Organization (ILO)
5) Lobby the African Union on social issues
6) Promote solidarity between its members and the other African social movements
This explains why OATUU is an active member of the African Social Forum (ASF). It participates actively in the campaign against the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) being negotiated between Africa and the European Union. It is also a leading member of the Africa Jubilee South (AJS), a Coalition of social movements calling for the unconditional cancellation of Africa's external debt and the rejection of IFIs' conditionalities.
MM: You have written about the "challenges" of the proposal in the African Union to create a United States of Africa. I think many, if not most, are unaware of this proposal. Can you tell us about it - the purpose of the proposal, the prospects and the challenges it faces?
DMD: The debate on the United States of Africa is well known in Africa. It was raised about two years ago by President Khadafi of Libya supported by a few others. Already three African Summits, including the latest in early July in Libya, debated the project. The idea is that Africa needs to form a Federal government with the coordination of key policies, such as Defense & Security; Monetary & Financial Policies; Foreign Affairs; among others. This way, they think that Africa may overcome its fragmentation and weakness and be able to speak with one voice in international affairs.
However, other countries, such as South Africa, even though they support the idea of a Federal Government, think that it is premature and that African countries need to build and strengthen sub-regional communities, which will then become the building blocs of a United Africa with a strong and credible Federal Government.
A Symposium which just ended here in Dakar (July 27-30) revisited the debate with some 250 intellectuals coming from over 50 countries, including from the Diaspora (US; South America; the Caribbean). They were invited by the Senegalese government, which is strongly supporting President Khadafi. The Symposium urged African leaders to move speedily toward the Governmentof the Union, no later than 2017, that is, in 8 years.
The Senegalese foreign minister was quoted as saying that there are 20 African countries that are ready for forming a Federal Government now. But they want to give more time to those who are hesitating or are keptical so as to avoid a split on this critical issue.
MM: What do you think of the proposal - what would you like to see come of it, and what is your reaction to Khadafi's support, do you think his support is a liability?
DMD: The United States of Africa is a very popular proposal, not only among intellectuals, but also among ordinary citizens. The idea of African unity is a very strong one in the public opinion. We all wish to see the United States of Africa realized. However, personally I think it will take time to achieve this because most African leaders are not very sincere about it. Many of them prefer keeping their own power in their respective countries and continue to have close relationships with Western countries.
I think that someone like Khadafi is committed but some of the other African leaders are distrustful of him. And Western countries do not like to see him exercise a strong leadership in Africa. And these countries are pushing some African leaders not to accept to follow Khadafi. To me, Khadafi's support of the United States of Africa cannot be a liability because he is the only one who can push forward this project at this time. And last month, here in Dakar a big Conference of intellectuals coming from all over Africa and from the Diaspora was held on the subject of the United States of Africa. So, from my standpoint, Khadafi is the main driving force of this project, even if the West and some African leaders don't like him.
MM: This question has to deal with vision and strategy - What role can popular, grassroots movements around the world play in scaling back these aggressive policies (i.e. imperialism and capitalism); the World Social Forum has the slogan "Another World is Possible" - how do you envision that world in terms of popular participation in politics, economics and social order?
DMD: Popular movements and grassroots movements can play a crucial role in fighting imperialism when they link up with more politically-oriented progressive organizations. Of course, for this to happen, there should be genuine democracy and respect for opinions of the popular movements. I think that wherever strong and well-organized grassroots movements exist, they can make a significant impact on policies at all levels. They can exert a strong pressure on leaders and policymakers to alter economic and social policies or even security policies.
They can be a strong catalyst for popular mobilization against unpopular policies.
I don't have an ideal blueprint on what role popular movements should be in another world order. However, as a general principle, I am of the opinion that a new world order should set as a priority genuine democracy by avoiding top-down decision making. There should be institutions that should allow people to be heard and influence policies that affect their lives. New democratic rules should allow people to freely choose those who would represent them. At the same time, these rules should allow people to change their leadership whenever they feel betrayed by that leadership or think that it is not effective in doing its job. I think all the types of popular mobilization around the world since the late 1990s and the birth of the WSF have contributed to raising a strong citizen consciousness which has served to strengthen grassroots movements.
Demba Moussa Dembélé is the Director of the Forum for African Alternatives, and contributing researcher for a council of NGO's, CONGAD
Michael McGehee is an independent writer and working-class family man from Kennedale, Texas. He has also recently established the Dallas/Fort Worth Project for a Participatory Society. He can be reached at email@example.com