World Bank’s Africa strategy remains rutted in comfort zone

14 June 2011 | Guest comment

Soon after the February launch of the World Bank’s ten-year strategy document, Africa’s future and the World Bank’s support to it, a mini-tsunami of Afro-optimism swept in, with similar publications from the IMF, the Economic Commission on Africa, the African World Economic Forum and the African Development Bank.

Drunk on their own neoliberal rhetoric, the multilateral establishment swooned over the continent’s allegedly excellent growth and export prospects, in the process downplaying underlying structural oppressions in which they are complicit: corrupt power relations; economic vulnerability; worsening resource curses; land grabs; and threats of environmental chaos and disease.

Embarrassingly, the Bank’s strategy endorses the African Union (AU). There were once high hopes that the AU would respond to Africa’s socio-political and economic aspirations, but not only did Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi exercise a strong grip as AU president, the organisation became a source of no small patronage. It has been unable to address repressive rulers across the continent, from Dennis Sassou-Nguesso in the Republic of Congo, King Mswati III in Swaziland, to Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Ali Bongo in Gabon.

These sorts of rulers are the logical implementers of the Bank strategy. No amount of bogus consultations with civilised society can disguise the piling up of odious debts on African societies courtesy of the Bank, IMF and their allied strongmen borrowers. In contrast, the Africa strategy makes no mention whatsoever of those pesky, uncivil-society democrats who are opposed to Bank partner-dictators, so visible in recent uprisings and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Uganda, and Swaziland.

The Bank will continue standing in their way by funding oppressors, leaving the Africa strategy with a structurally-unsound, corny architectural metaphor: “The strategy has two pillars – competitiveness and employment, and vulnerability and resilience – and a foundation – governance and public-sector capacity.”

Setting aside hypocritical governance rhetoric, the first pillar typically collapses because greater competitiveness often requires importing machines to replace workers. And Bank advice to all African countries to do the same thing – export! – exacerbates mineral or cash crop gluts, such as were experienced from 1973 until the commodity boom of 2002-08. It is not strategic for Africa for the Bank to promote further exports from African countries already suffering extreme primary commodity dependency. Nowhere can be found any genuine intent of assisting Africa to industrialise in a balanced way.

The Bank strategy also faces “three main risks: the possibility that the global economy will experience greater volatility; conflict and political violence; and resources available to implement the strategy may be inadequate.” These are not just risks but certainties, given the unresolved problems that caused the 2008-09 meltdown; an increase in resource-based conflicts as shortages emerge; and donors chopping aid budgets for years to come. While the Bank retains “some confidence that these risks can be mitigated”, its strategy actually amplifies them.

The Bank’s bland counterclaim: “While Africa, being a relatively small part of the world economy, can do little to avoid such a contingency, the present strategy is designed to help African economies weather these circumstances better than before.” But these are not “circumstances” and “contingencies”: they are core features of North-South political economy from which Africa should be seeking protection.

A poignant example is the Bank’s warm endorsement of Kenyan cut-flower trade in spite of worsening water stress, commodity price volatility, inclement carbon-tax constraints, and crippling water shortages for peasant agriculture.

And as for what is indeed “the biggest threat to Africa because of its potential impact, climate change could also be an opportunity.” Dangers to the peasantry and to urban managers of the likely seven degree rise in global temperatures are underplayed, and opportunities for a wider vision for a post-carbon Africa are ignored, such as the importance of the North (including the Bank itself) paying its vast climate debt to Africa.

The Africa strategy hubris is dangerous, especially in seeking a route to “an African consensus.” Does Africa need a sole neoliberal voice claiming “consensus”, speaking from shaky pillars atop crumbling foundations based on false premises and corrupted processes, piloting untenable projects, allied with incurable tyrants, impervious to demands for democracy and social justice?

Patrick Bond, University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society