Le Monde diplomatique

October 1997



A world transformed *

Che as I knew him *

The "white year" turns to grey *

The Longwy Commune *

Jostling for oil in Transcaucasia *

Eldorado or mirage? *

Algeria in the grip of terror *

Everyday life in Annaba *

Hopes and lost illusions *

The virtual development of Africa *

Somaliland, a forgotten country *

Journalism and the challenge of the Internet *



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(*) Star-marked articles are free. See subscription information.


The virtual development of Africa

For some months now the international financial institutions have been trying to promote the idea that Africa is on the road to prosperity. In a number of reports in the last few weeks this claim has been backed up with dubious statistics. By confusing growth and development rates and disguising the scale of the debt, they can be manipulated to conceal the fact that, in an age of growing inequality, the people of Africa are the victims.
by Christian de Brie

"Africa is on the move (1)". Global growth is creating a "rational dynamism (2)" and for the first time in a generation there are encouraging signs of progress (3). "Hope and real success are transforming the continent ... The changes we are witnessing, building foundations for prosperity and welfare, are creating a new sense of hope in the future (4)".

So say Michel Camdessus, director of the International Monetary Fund, Evangelos A. Calamitsis, the IMF's director for Africa, and Callisto Madavo and Jean-Louis Sarbib, vice-presidents of the World Bank. Confirmed by recent reports from noted experts in the major international organisations. Is this the good news we have long been waiting for or is the optimism misplaced?

According to the IMF report, the 1996 results for Africa are particularly encouraging and there is evidence to prove it (5). The World Bank report for 1997 calls for effective international cooperation in pursuit of global collective action. Roughly half of the developing world's people (in Sub-Saharan Africa especially) have not yet benefited from globalisation. With collective action they will be able to profit from the much-discussed rise in the volume of international trade and capital flows, and Africa as well as Asia will be able to enjoy an economic miracle (6). In the meantime, the 1997 World Human Development Report suggests we take steps to eradicate extreme poverty from the world by the beginning of the next century and make it a thing of the past (7). This was the first time anything like this had been heard since the promise of "a brighter and better future".

Some people believed that Africa was moving inexorably away from the development model created after the second world war and independence. For years, the endless civil wars - in Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Angola, Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire - created thousands of victims and successive waves of refugees in the camps. Villages were devastated and areas abandoned to the war lords. The continent was prey to desertification and malnutrition, deforestation and pollution, the destabilisation caused by the rural exodus, the insecurity and squalor of the cities, crushing debt, impoverishment of the population and the state. It was less and less able to sustain public services, finance infrastructures and provide everyone with access to education and decent living conditions.

Economists, statisticians and experts from 20 or so international organisations are confident that they can prove the contrary. The World Bank alone is spending $100m on research, and 500 experts and the same number of outside consultants are compiling appropriate data and spreading the good news (8). You just have to go there.

Sub-Saharan Africa is well worth a visit and it has a few surprises in store. In the mass of development statistics published by the World Bank, the hundreds of tables with figures from the most reliable sources seem to show the whole picture. But when you look at them more closely, it soon becomes clear that data for many of the headings are incomplete or totally lacking. Many of the figures that are available need to be treated with caution and, even when this is not so, they show the opposite of what is intended.

First of all, none of the 48 countries in the region can provide full and reliable basic statistics. Some of the most important are lacking, such as figures for industrial activity (in Angola, Chad, Eritrea, Guinea, Mozambique, Namibia, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for instance). Or they date back ten years or more (as in the case of Nigeria, Rwanda and Gabon). The same goes for agricultural surveys or water resources. Some are so fragmentary that it is impossible to identify trends over the years, whether in access to health care, drinking water or mains drainage.

Also many of the data supplied, in some cases by other international organisations, are meaningless or lack credibility. For instance the latest international figures available for three key indicators - the mortality rate for children under five, the net percentage of children of primary school age attending school and the percentage of children under five who are underweight - date back a year for Senegal, five years for Nigeria, ten years for Gabon, 15 years for Angola (for 32 countries, the figures are three or more years old), although they appear in the 1997 statistics. A few countries have no known figures for certain indicators. The data published for those countries are normally estimates based on neighbouring countries with similar per capita GNP (9).

Massaging the figures

In addition, the figures are manipulated with varying degrees of subtlety. This is normally done by changing the previous headings to new ones to cover up the true position, making it impossible to compare trends which might be at odds with official claims, or choosing the most favourable reference periods to prove the point. Knowing that the significant economic and social development noted in many countries between 1960-80 has since slowed down or regressed under the structural adjustment schemes, the temptation will be to try and camouflage the negative effects by taking 1970 as a reference point, rather than 1980 when the optimum results were achieved, whether for infant mortality or life expectancy. For instance, the infant mortality rate in Mali dropped by 23% between 1960-80, then rose by 26.5% between 1980-85, reverting in 1994 to a level close to that of 1980. By comparing 1970 and 1994, the increased mortality is concealed, giving the misleading impression that there has been a steady decline.

There are other examples. One encouraging sign is that the statistics show a significant drop in the infant mortality rate in the region. The statistics are calculated according to the number of births. Under the structural adjustment schemes, it was recommended that the beneficiaries should pay for health care themselves. Consultations and hospital deliveries have become too expensive and are on the decline. For women who can still afford to be monitored during pregnancy and give birth in hospital, the risks of complication are actually being reduced. But the growing number of deliveries not in hospital and the associated maternal and infant mortality are not taken into account.

Finally, in the absence of statistics, the assessment criteria have a strong ideological bias, but no scientific validity. The recent World Bank report, The State in a Changing World, is a typical example (10). In its concern not to reform the state (as some commentators have claimed) but to justify its role being confined to the maintenance of law and order (with the primary aim of protecting foreign capital), the Bank tries to back up its ultra-liberal views with a mass of statistics and graphs.

The evidence for the corruption and credibility of the states is highly subjective. We are shown with the aid of artificially generated figures that countries pursuing the right economic policy - it goes without saying that this is the policy advocated by the World Bank - grow more rapidly than others, and the more closely they adhere to the policy, the quicker their growth. We learn how a state can become efficient by progressing little by little from zone 1, the least capable state which tries to do everything with very limited resources, to zone 3, the most capable state which concentrates on a small number of essential functions after relinquishing most of its activities to the business community in zone 2.

There is even a small free market propaganda guide, suggesting responses to six objections to privatisation, and a country is held up as an example to be followed. This year Uganda is unquestionably the star pupil amongst the structurally adjusted African countries, succeeding Ghana as an "economic miracle". It has been congratulated on its skill in bringing about large-scale reforms by downsizing the public sector, and encouraging competition by sub-contracting public services to non-governmental organisations, and opening up to outside competition. Participation in the global economy gives extra protection against arbitrary state action. It restricts the rights of the state to the taxation of capital and exposes monetary and budgetary policies to the watchful eye of the financial markets (11). Clearly, the interests of the population are not the primary concern of the experts in the international financial institutions.

It is still not clear why the vice-presidents of the World Bank have identified this "rational dynamism" generated by "Africa on the move (towards) prosperity and welfare" when the figures provided by their own organisation and confirmed by others - notably the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report for 1997 (12) - reveal quite a different picture. Of the 50 countries in the world classified as the poorest according to the UNDP human poverty index, 33 are in Sub-Saharan Africa. There 45% of the population (255 out of 590 million people) suffer from a poverty more acute than in any other part of the world (13).

The global Disneyland

In the meantime, the situation is deteriorating. The poverty rate has increased and the number of people living on less than a dollar a day rose from 179 million in 1987 to 218 million in 1993. That is 85% of the population in Zambia, 72% in Madagascar, 65% in Angola, 61% in Niger, 50% in Uganda (14). Between 1981-89 per capita GNP fell by 21% in Sub-Saharan Africa, both in the structurally adjusted countries and elsewhere. The most dramatic declines were in Gabon (58%), Nigeria (50%) and Ivory Coast (42%).

Even in the 1990s nearly 32% of people in the region die before the age of forty (15). There is only one doctor for every 18,000 inhabitants (compared with one for every 350 in the industrialised countries). Two-thirds of the 23 million people who are HIV positive live in Africa and the virus is spreading more quickly there than anywhere else. Less than one in two has drinking water, one people in every two has no access to medical services, food production per capita has dropped since 1980. And illiteracy has increased from 125.9 million in 1980 to 140.5 million in 1995, and so on. At the same time inequality is on the increase globally. In 1994 the ratio between the income of the richest 20% and the poorest 20% was 78 to 1, a marked increase on the 30 to 1 ratio in 1960 (16).

The old socialist planners encouraged the use of false statistics. Whilst the production units, inspired by the brilliant ideas of Comrade Stalin, cheerfully exceeded the five year objectives in a few months, shortages were widespread. Stalin explained that the failure was due to "the vertigo of success" (17). It was the time of the "gaping heights" (18). Now we are in the age of the virtual economy, the great Disneyland of globalisation. Visit its enchanted growth, its wonderful world of development, its miracle-working dragons, its dwarves, docile and "well-governed" countries led by the Bretton Woods Snow Whites. Look through the magnificent guide to world development produced by hundreds of experts on $100,000 a year, with its pretty pastel graphics showing children how a country can grow better and more quickly by adopting the sound economic policies in the catalogue.

The whole thing is a farce. The obvious failure of the structural adjustment policies imposed on the African countries 15 years ago, solely to benefit the G7 members, and the damage caused by capitalist globalisation cannot be disguised. The greater the gap between rich and poor, and the more that poverty spreads through Sub-Saharan Africa, the more the illusion has to be maintained. The neo-liberals might be expected to be more rational, but they are peddling a myth of progress, development and an imminent economic miracle, apparently relying purely on divine intervention, about which even the churches have their doubts.

The age of "development" was ushered in by the American president, Harry Truman, in his State of the Union address in January 1949. From then on, there would be no Berbers, Thais, Ashantis, Guaranis and so on, but just "underdeveloped" nations, now "developing" with the help of aid from the "developed" countries, headed of course by the United States in a hierarchy based on a new indicator, gross national product (GNP).

The imperialists had found a new ideology to legitimise the spread of capitalism, threatened in the South by the demand for a new world economic order and by "third worldism", before it was sacrificed to the universal laws of the market like a lamb to the slaughter (19). In future, all they had to do was to control the relationship between strong and weak, rich and poor, North and South. The good liberal doctors would administer the shock treatment to the victims - the structural adjustment which is a product of humanitarian interference. On 25 September 1972 Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank, urged the board of governors to attack poverty and the deprivation threatening human dignity. Looking at the results 25 years later, it is time the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa challenged a Western growth model designed to cover up the injustices committed in the name of development (20).

(1) International Herald Tribune, Paris, 21-22 June 1997.
(2) According to Michel Camdessus in Les Echos, Friday 25 and Saturday 26 April 1997.
(3) Interview by Evangelos A. Calamitsis, IMF Bulletin, Vol. 26, no 13, 14 July 1997.
(4) International Herald Tribune, op. cit.
(5) "World Economic Outlook" quoted in the Financial Times, 14 May 1997.
(6) World Bank, "World Development Indicators 1997", Oxford University Press, 1997.
(7) United Nations Development Programme, "Human Development Report 1997", Oxford University Press, 1997.
(8) Catherine Caufield, "Masters of Illusion, The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations", quoted in Bank Check Quarterly, no 17, June 1997.
(9) The Progress of Nations, UNICEF report, Geneva, 1997, p.68.
(10) World Development Report 1997, World Bank 1997, op. cit.
(11) The State in a Changing World, World Bank report, 1997, summary in French, pp. 11 and 13.
(12) See Alain Gresh, "L'Ombre des inégalités", Le Monde diplomatique, September 1997.
(13) UNDP Report, op. cit., pp. 23 and 37.
(14) "World Development Indicators", op. cit., p. 31.
(15) UNDP Report, op. cit., pp. 35 and 26.
(16) Idem, p. 27.
(17) Title of a famous article by Stalin, published in Pravda, 2 March 1930.
(18) Alexander Zinoviev, "Les Hauteurs béantes", Laffont, Paris 1990.
(19) See the dossier published under this name in Le Monde diplomatique, May 1985.
(20) See Gilbert Rist, "Le Développement, histoire d'une croyance occidentale", Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, Paris 1996, and Serge Latouche, "La Planète des naufragés, essai sur l'après-développement", Paris 1991.

Translated by Lorna Dal




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