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Another Africa is possible
They came, they talked, and then they marched down Independence Boulevard in the Malian capital, Bamako. Their demonstration blocked motorists' passage, and they shouted slogans: "Another Africa is Possible! Down with neo-liberalism! Down with injustice!"
Leading the vociferous procession of about 200 were several of Africa's most outspoken critics of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), structural adjustment programmes and the economic ideology the demonstrators called "neo-liberalism." There was Algeria's father of independence, Mr. Ahmed Ben Bella, 84 years old and still energetic. While the spirited protesters danced and sang around him, Mr. Ben Bella shouted, "Today we are going to bury capitalism here in Bamako!"
The march, in early January, came at the culmination of a week-long forum of representatives of more than 200 African social movements, from 45 countries. Held in advance of the late-January World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil (see box), it was an occasion for farmers' groups, women's associations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), trade union leaders and intellectuals from across the continent to meet face-to-face, to try to come up with an African perspective on globalization, and reach a consensus on what issues they could raise at the Porto Alegre forum.
Alternatives remain elusive
The African Social Forum, as it was called, did seem to mark a step towards better organization and coordination among Africa's social movements on basic development issues. But it was not clear that the participants were as successful in coming up with alternatives to the existing economic order. They had many slogans against prevailing economic policies and problems, and agreed on a firm rejection of "neo-liberal globalization," but had more difficulty developing a common voice on specific policy alternatives.
Two of the central figures at the African Social Forum in Bamako: Ms. Aminata Traoré and Mr. Ahmed Ben Bella.
Photo : ©Joan Baxter
The forum's final consensus read more like a dream than a practical working plan. "Our alternative vision is for a human-centred world," it read. "The future of the African people lies in the hands of African peoples." And it expressed "solidarity with all forces in Africa that are committed to the realization of real alternatives."
Still, the participants at Africa's first-ever Social Forum, diverse as they were, did come up with a consensus voice calling for the cancellation of the debt, a rethinking of structural adjustment programmes and the "fight against poverty" as laid out by the international financial institutions, and a denunciation of the inequities of the world's trading system.
On the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the continent-wide development strategy that is being put forth by African leaders, the forum participants were of two minds. One declaration welcomed the initiative, but another was highly critical, charging that its basic character was "neo-liberal" and that it was elaborated without the participation of civil-society groups.
Forging a continental movement
The organizers of the forum, Ms. Aminata Dramané Traoré, Mali's former minister of culture and a renowned sociologist, and Mr. Taoufik Ben Abdallah, of the Senegal-based Environment and Development Action-Third World (ENDA), admitted that Africa's social movements have lagged behind the rest of the world in putting together any kind of consensus perspective on issues of globalization.
Mr. Ben Abdallah denied that this indicates African people are not part of the world social movement, or that they are uninterested in the issues it raises, such as debt and economic liberalization. "We didn't meet until now because Africa is very big and to travel costs a lot of money," he said, adding that political factors also contributed to the problem. "But with this forum, we are now integrated into the world social movement and Africa will now have a voice at Porto Alegre."
Mr. Yash Tandon, director of the Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute, which trains Africans how to negotiate at the World Trade Organization and other trade fora, also touched on the political problems that have kept Africans from consolidating a broader movement. African leaders, he argued, have been "compromised, and most of them are interested in serving their own interests by retaining the existing system." As a result, he said, they have sought money externally rather than "developing an economic dynamic within Africa," based on local resources.
Mr. Tandon maintained that at the WTO meeting in Qatar last year, African leaders tried to put forward their own platform, NEPAD, because of popular pressure they felt on the continent. "But those positions don't last very long, because the African leaders then come under pressure from the major financial institutions and the donor community to fall in line for fear of sanctions," he charged. "So the leaders do fall in line. It's a big battle."
Mr. Tandon maintained that the assumptions underlying the policies imposed on Africa by the World Bank and IMF are based on "pure myth, that if countries open up their economies to foreign investment, the capital will flow in and people will feel economic development and growth." He claimed that capital flows only to countries where there are natural resources to exploit. This, he said, explains why investors move into war-torn countries such as oil-rich Angola. Even then, according to Tandon, "the profits are accrued externally and capital flows out under this neo-liberal paradigm."
Like others at the Bamako forum, Mr. Tandon agreed that such debate about globalization has been restricted to academic circles. "The people on the street are the ones who suffer, and they know the effects of neo-liberalism, even if they don't know what it is."
Mr. Nkotto Honoré Ndumbe, who represented a Cameroonian farmers' NGO at the Bamako forum, added that the social movement in Africa is slowly gaining ground. "It has taken time for Africans to understand the plot against us," he said. "But people are suffering and dying, and they now know that the main causes are the World Bank and IMF. So we are now looking for alternative policies and also trying to organize ourselves on the continent."
Porto Alegre forum
For the second year in a row, Porto Alegre, Brazil, hosted a massive World Social Forum, organized by non-governmental and civil society groups to voice the concerns of ordinary people over global economic and social trends. The event, held from 31 January to 5 February to coincide with the World Economic Forum in New York, drew some 50,000 delegates and other participants from around the world. Many of the representatives at the African Social Forum attended, as did numerous other African delegates. Among other proposals, the Porto Alegre forum called for:
- debt forgiveness for poor countries
- an end to tariffs on exports of poor countries
- increased development aid
- enforcement of international labour standards
- access to essential medicines, especially for AIDS and malaria, at affordable prices
- imposition of taxes on global financial transactions.
In a message to the forum, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the participants to avoid a confrontational stance and instead seek to build partnerships with governments and businesses. He also backed the forum's calls for more development assistance and greater access to Northern markets. "As I will tell the World Economic Forum, these issues can no longer be settled in private conclave among the rich and powerful. The developing countries have as big a stake as anyone in the future of the world economy."