In Other Words

Africa Trades Down

From the Slave Trade to ‘Free’ Trade: How Trade Undermines Democracy and Justice in Africa Edited by Patrick Burnett and Firoze Manji 170 pages, Oxford and Nairobi: Fahamu — Networks for Social Justice, 2007 At the start of the 21st century, anyone wishing to advocate against international trade as a lifeline for Africa must answer ...

From the Slave Trade to ‘Free’ Trade:
How Trade Undermines Democracy and Justice in Africa

Edited by Patrick Burnett and Firoze Manji
170 pages, Oxford and Nairobi: Fahamu — Networks for Social Justice, 2007

At the start of the 21st century, anyone wishing to advocate against international trade as a lifeline for Africa must answer three basic questions. First, why oppose free trade when a reliance on exports has been the defining feature of successful economic development throughout East Asia, Southeast Asia, and now South Asia? Second, how could international trade in Africa be a significant cause of its poverty when the continent has not seriously participated in the international economy for decades? Finally, what is the alternative? Given that the vast majority of African countries have weak political and economic institutions, significant ethnic and regional divisions, and levels of material deprivation that are increasingly unique to the continent, there won’t be a magic formula to end poverty and promote justice anytime soon. No international system will affect the entire continent in a wholly benign manner; there will be losers no matter what policy stance a government adopts. The question is always what does, on balance, the most good.

One new book, From the Slave Trade to ‘Free’ Trade: How Trade Undermines Democracy and Justice in Africa, attempts to offer a scholarly but accessible critique of globalization in Africa. Released by the left-leaning, Africa-focused Fahamu publishers, and on Pambazuka News, a sister Web site devoted to social justice in Africa, the book is a series of articles by scholars and activists overwhelmingly based in Africa on how international trade affects the continent. Editors Patrick Burnett and Firoze Manji, who also work at Pambazuka News, compiled the essays, which vary in tone, use of evidence, and nuance but all are generally critical of the neoliberal approach to free trade and economic reform in Africa. The book is extremely informative, but not for reasons that the editors and authors would hope.

From the Slave Trade to ‘Free’ Trade answers none of those important questions about globalization in a systematic manner. Indeed, democracy is hardly addressed in the volume — despite the subtitle — perhaps because the wave of democratization that Africa has experienced since 1990, inconveniently for the authors, largely coincides with the era of globalization that they intend to deride. The volume is largely a series of old and disproven arguments that do not even attempt to counter the fact that the rest of the world is getting richer through international trade. The editors’ introduction sets the tone for the book by arguing that "the world market as we know it today has long been conquered, controlled and dominated by metropolitan capital," an apparently self-evident fact that is being ignored in Bangkok, Beijing, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, Seoul, Taipei, and a host of other places outside Africa that are becoming richer by the day. The editors go on to assert that globalization has led to "the rich getting richer, and the poor poorer." Although the rich have certainly become richer, it is not the case — given the economic growth of Asia — that the poor have become poorer on a world scale.

Much of the rest of the book suffers from breezy assertions about a complicated world. For instance, the volume espouses, as does much of Africa, a continuing attachment to "regional integration." Jennifer Chiriga, a Cape Town-based mediator who wrote the chapter "Trade, Gender and the Search for Alternatives — Trade Liberalisation and Social Development," and several of the other authors see increasing ties between African states as a way to avoid complete globalization. For instance, Chiriga argues that "the emergence of regionalism as an alternative is gaining ground as a possible solution to the dislocation of Africa’s economic potential." It is never actually explained why it is better for a group of extremely poor countries to try to trade with each other rather than attempt to access the roughly 98 percent of the world’s economy that is outside Africa’s borders. Regional integration is simply not a substitute for the kind of economic reform that many of the authors view with contempt. Zimbabwe will not trade more with Zambia, as long as most of Zambia’s exports are copper. The experience elsewhere in the world is that regional integration and globalization go hand in hand: Countries that can trade with their neighbors also have something to offer the rest of the world.

Written anywhere else, this book might be dismissed as outdated and provincial development theory. But written in Nairobi, or Durban, or Accra, it goes a long way in explaining the continuing African ambivalence about international trade, despite the clear evidence that other poor countries have enriched themselves by hitching their wagon to the international economy. There is, in fact, a pervasive belief, even among African elites who are implementing the kind of economic reforms that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank favor, that the world will not allow Africa to advance because of racism, and that the kind of reforms that have worked elsewhere will not be as useful to Africa. Most notably, even elites who favor globalization do not campaign explicitly for pro-market policies. There is no one in Africa who says, as Asian leaders said to their populations several decades ago, "Export or die," even though the situation really is that perilous in many African countries. And yet, regional integration is continually held up as a perennial hope, despite its obvious profound limitations, because it is a way to trade without entering the racist global economy.

Nowhere is this paradox of market avoidance more apparent than in President Thabo Mbeki’s South Africa. After decades of apartheid, which was a kind of racial socialism where the entire market was rigged against blacks, the post-apartheid governments have developed a set of policies that make their markets the most free in South Africa’s history. The elimination of discrimination was a start at leveling the economic field for all South Africans, though obviously much more must be done. In addition, South Africa’s macroeconomic management has been outstanding as measured by the World Bank and the IMF; government spending has been conservative, despite legitimate demands for greater social spending; monetary policy by an independent central bank has curbed inflation; and there has been considerable capital and trade liberalization. Partially as a result, South Africa is enjoying its highest economic growth in decades, accompanied by a strong rand.

But does Mbeki publicly celebrate the market or South Africa’s successful globalization? Hardly. In his weekly presidential column, he never argues that South Africa has adopted, and benefited, from capitalism. Instead, he quotes Karl Marx and says that involvement in the international economy enslaves millions of people.

The reason that few in Africa tout the market and especially international trade, even when they benefit from it, is because the historical baggage of the continent has not been wiped away. The title of Burnett and Manji’s book — From the Slave Trade to ‘Free’ Trade — is not merely a rhetorical device. Indeed, they devote three chapters to "Lessons from the Slave Trade." To an extent that Westerners do not understand, the scars of that period, seen across the continent as Africa’s first encounter with globalization, are still vivid. The slave trade, combined with the more recent history of colonialism in Africa, makes many leaders wary of global integration, even if they understand the economics of comparative advantage. Few have found a way of explaining to their publics why integration with the international economy doesn’t mean being ripped off by the white man. As a result, even successful pro-market policies that take advantage of globalization seem impermanent, as they rest on uneasy political foundations.

The World Bank, IMF, and many others have made the case for Africa to engage in the international economy, and the arguments found in this book likely won’t dissuade anyone familiar with hard evidence. The problem is, the rhetoric of From the Slave Trade speaks to more Africans than the speeches and databases of the world’s international financial institutions. Some African countries will certainly master engagement with the international economy. But accepting globalization is not merely a conclusion to be reached after studying economics; it’s a revolution in attitude that forces leaders to confront and overcome a brutal past.

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