Free trade is a prison

The East African (Nairobi) | 20-26 August 2007

Free trade is a prison

Title: From the Slave Trade to ‘Free’ Trade: How Trade Undermines Democracy and Justice in Africa
Editors: Patrick Burnett and Firoze Manji
Publisher: Fahamu
Year: 2007
Pages: 170
To order: http://www.fahamu.org/pzbook.php

Reviewer: PHILIP NGUJIRI

AS THE WORLD PREPARES to celebrate the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on August 23, a new book on the lessons learnt from that trade and how its “successor,” free trade is undermining democracy and justice in Africa has just been published.

Can trade in the era of globalisation be just? This is the principle question the book, From the Slave Trade to ‘Free’ Trade; How Trade Undermines Democracy and Justice in Africa, tries to answer in insightful, sharp and thoughtful articles by writers from across the African continent.

The book published by Fahamu and edited by Patrick Burnett from South Africa and Firoze Manji, originally from Kenya, is a collection of essays first published in the electronic newsletter Pambazuka News, leading up to the world commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade and the 50th anniversary of independence in Ghana.

The articles were designed to raise awareness on issues of trade and justice. Topics range from the absence of women’s voices at global level negotiations to the decimation of a country’s health system as a result of World Bank policies or the sacrificing of community rights in the interests of multinational corporations.

The contributors are Charles Abugre, Tope Akinwande, Soren Ambrose, Nnimmo Bassey, Patrick Bond, Jennifer Chiriga, Cheikh Tidiane Dièye, M.P. Giyose, Manu Herbstein, Mouhamadou Tidiane Kasse, Salma Maoulidi, Stephen Marks, Mariam Mayet, Henning Melber, Winnie Mitullah, Patrick Ochieng’, Oduor Ong’wen, Robtel Neajai Pailey, Liepollo Lebohang Pheko and Jagjit Plahe.

The book begins by looking back at 2005 - the Year of Action for Africa on Debt, Aid and Trade - and what it achieved. This first section considers the role of foreign investment in Africa and the impact of the global financial and trading regime on communities. Why is China so keen to invest in Africa? Why do global trade policies determine the health care available to millions of Kenyans? Why is South African industry getting cheaper electricity than poor consumers?

THE NEXT SECTION EXAMines diverse issues related to slavery, colonialism and reparations and is followed by an exploration of trade and women’s rights. The articles profile the damaging effect of trade policies on the rights of informal traders, who in Africa are often women, how global trade policies have resulted in the feminisation of poverty and how it is the women who have to step in when the state cuts back on health and social services.

The final section deals with agriculture and the environment. Why does the oil trade wreak havoc in the Niger Delta? Why are local communities excluded from development projects driven by multinational companies? Why is it that cotton farmers in West Africa suffer because of a grossly unfair subsidy racket? Why are international trade rules more important than a population’s right to food security?

The editors say they have chosen a deliberately provocative subtitle for this book: ‘How trade undermines democracy and justice in Africa.” In the global trading system, justice and the interests of ordinary working people often take a back seat to trade policies dictated by global powers; countries and even entire continents like Africa frequently appear to be on the losing end of the equation.

It is in this context that 2005 saw calls for “trade justice,” defined as a commitment to lobbying for the introduction and implementation of trade rules that work for all people, instead of benefiting those who already have the most.

CAMPAIGNERS FOR TRADE justice argued that existing trade rules were damaging to many people, especially the poor and vulnerable, the environment and social policies. They maintained that the global trading system should be re-balanced, taking into account the needs of the poor, human rights, and the environment. The mobilisation for fair or just trade during the period received few, if any, concessions, although it was noted that the issues were at least given a higher profile in the minds of many.

The rationale behind the “more and better aid, debt cancellation and more just trade policies” is that this will create the conditions to ensure adequate resources to finance Africa’s development. Undoubtedly, if fully addressed, argues Charles Abugre in his article, “Plugging The Leaks: The Role of Debt, Aid and Trade,” this will put more money in the hands of governments and the people and ease resource constraints.

“On their own, never mind the quality of aid, the speed of debt cancellation, the degree of market opening in the North and the end of export subsidies, these demands will not provide the resources adequate for Africa’s development.”

He says the demands, though relevant, are slightly misplaced in their singular focus on sources of “inflows,” to the total denial of the mechanisms of “outflows.” It is the balance of inflows and outflows that creates the net resources for development, he points out. The singular focus on inflows entrenches the sense of Africa’s dependence and perpetuates the myth of the continent’s resource poverty and powerlessness.

There is much romance about the nature of trade. Trade may not be quite as “old as the hills,” but it has certainly been around since the early emergence of human societies. In its early form, trade involved exchange of goods on the basis that there was some equivalence in the amount of time and human labour embodied in the goods. If it took you three days to make a basket, you’d hardly exchange it for something that took less time to make. But once trade exchanges became more complex and a class of traders emerged, trade became something different. For the trader’s task was to buy below value, and sell above, and the larger the difference between the two, the greater his profits. The mercantile cities of Zimbabwe, Timbuktu, Cairo and Venice owed their wealth to this form of accumulation. But things have come a long way since then.

The trade in African slaves was just the beginning of a major transformation of the nature of trade, leading to an accumulation of capital that fuelled not only the industrial revolution in Europe, but also provided the impetus to the imperial scramble for territory worldwide.

The world market as we know it today has long been conquered, controlled and dominated by metropolitan capital. This was not achieved by economic means alone, but also - and primarily - by the use of brute force. The metropolitan countries imposed unequal treaties, demolished existing manufacturing industries, enslaved, robbed, seized by tricks, exploited and carried out wholesale colonisation.

ONCE THE CONQUEST OF the world market had been achieved and the North had ensured its domination, the dogma of “free trade” was imposed on a worldwide scale. The industrial revolution led to massive over production and the voracious appetite to conquer the world and seize its markets. The more recent revolutions in micro- and biotechnology have also led, in their own way, to an era of conquest of world markets through a massive restructuring of economies - which was what the period of structural adjustment programmes and poverty reduction strategy papers was all about.

And it is no surprise that “free trade” is once again the banner of the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. This new voracious surge is what is currently referred to as “globalisation.” It is what has led to the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. It is what has condemned us to be consumers, not citizens, and commercially degraded every aspect of our lives.

And since only a minority have the capacity to consume, the vast majority of Africa’s people are effectively disenfranchised.

And it was precisely the imposition of the neo-liberal economic policies that led to the enforced opening of Africa’s economies to the free movement of capital - the so-called liberalisation of the market. And once the markets were opened up, one should hardly be surprised that capital in all its forms should seek opportunities in Africa.

The penetration of Asian capital - including China, India, Malaysia - as well as from Latin America that we have witnessed recently was only possible once the international financial institutions had been victorious in opening African economies to “free trade.” As Arundhati Roy writes, there is a notion gaining credence that the free market breaks down national barriers, and that corporate globalisation’s ultimate destination is a hippie paradise. But “what the free market undermines is not national sovereignty, but democracy.”

Multinational corporations on the prowl for sweetheart deals that yield enormous profits cannot push through those deals and administer those projects in developing countries without the active connivance of state machinery - the police, the courts, sometimes even the army. Trade in the era of globalisation is neither “free” nor “just.” Behind the arrangements of the world trade system lies the ever present threat of force. As Thomas Friedman put it: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.

McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas ... And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”

Taken together, these articles provide an insight into how ill-considered trade policies have a profoundly negative impact on the rights of communities.

Whether it is the absence of women’s voices at global trade negotiations, the decimation of countries’ health systems as a result of international trade policies or the sacrificing of community rights in the interests of multinational corporations, it is clear that trade policies impose a “profit first and people last” regime in Africa.

source: East African