The Recolonization of Africa: IMF and the World Bank

Africa 2000 in the New Global Context

As we prepare to enter the third millennium, a new political and economic agenda is being designed for Africa that will deeply affect the lives of its people far beyond the year 2000. What are the contents of this agenda, its implications, and some of the possibilities it opens?

Since the end of the Cold War, a new global vision has emerged with the shift to a unipolar world dominated by only one superpower. The presumed demise of the conflict between capitalism and socialism has so changed the global political landscape that Francis Fukuyama has even suggested that we are witnessing “the end of history.”[1] According to Fukuyama, we are moving toward a world where major political and economic trends and patterns can be expected to remain essentially unchanged. I believe such a vision is a world where power will always be in the hands of those who now possess it, and the powerless will (unfortunately) continue to remain so — a world where the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Politicians as well as academics are spreading this new orthodoxy.

This trend is upheld by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) according to guidelines that were established in 1944 at the Bretton Woods conference in New Hampshire, where policies were devised to prevent the type of political and economic disruptions brought about by World War II. These two institutions recently celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. Perhaps what they were also celebrating is their capability to impose the agenda that issued from Bretton Woods, which they were unable to realize during the Cold War due to the existence of a conflictual world dominated by two nuclear superpowers.

Glimpses of this agenda, particularly as it affects Africa and other “less-developed” regions, can be caught from a statement made in 1992 by Lawrence Summers, who was then chief economist of the World Bank and is now deputy secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration. In an internal memo[2] leaked to the press, Summers proposed that the toxic waste of the “first world” be shipped to the countries of the “third world.” He argued that the Third World has more space for such waste and that the cost of treating the diseases produced by nuclear waste is much lower in these countries.[3] Summers’s views are typical of those who are shaping World Bank policies.

The World Bank asserts that the causes of Africa’s economic bankruptcy are the corruption and inefficiency of its political class and its wasteful government spending, including that for education. What Africa needs, according to the World Bank, is not more educated people — professionals, people with managerial skills — but rather more people who have “practical” skills, whether in agriculture or industry. “Capacity,” not education, is the key word in this context, and the World Bank has appointed itself as the agency to provide it, as we learn from their 1991 document “Africa Capacity Building Initiative.”[4]

What the World Bank has recommended are both massive cuts in the education budgets of African countries — spending cuts reaching 50 percent for some universities (for buildings and salaries of staff and teachers) — and cuts in enrollment. Paul Johnson, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, describes such external initiatives in an article entitled “Colonialism’s Back and Not a Moment Too Soon.”[5] In this article, Johnson makes three points about African countries: (1) they are economically bankrupt; (2) they have discovered that they cannot govern themselves; and (3) they are now asking the colonial powers to return to run them. As unbelievable as these assertions may seem, they reflect the position of both the World Bank and the IMF as they extend their hegemony over Africa and other “less-developed” regions of the planet.

One of the central mechanisms by which this recolonization process is carried out is the loan system through structural adjustment programs. Significantly, many of the countries that received loans from the World Bank have not seen their economies improve. Quite the opposite. Some are in a far worse economic position and more indebted than they were prior to taking the loans.

Once a loan is taken, paying it back can be a back-breaking matter. But this is only a part of the problem. Even more pernicious is that the World Bank often dictates how the borrowed money is to be spent, which is specified through a whole set of “conditionalities.” One of them is the drastic reduction in public spending for higher education, which can be cut by as much as 50 percent. Other conditions include equally devastating cuts in the number of civil servants and massive currency devaluations that dramatically diminish the purchasing power of many Africans, while at the same time dramatically increasing the cost of imported products.

In the case of South Africa, which is still negotiating with the World Bank, such structural adjustment policies are referred to as a “rationalization” program. The implication is that there is something quite irrational — that needs to be corrected — about the number of university instructors and students who are in professional programs. While the debate continues in South Africa, some of the World Bank’s conditionalities are already being carried out, including the sale of South African Airways.[6] The existence of a minimum wage is seen as a major flaw. In addition, the South African government, under Nelson Mandela, has been asked to promise that it will not allow workers to strike.

The end result of structural adjustment programs, such as those proposed for South Africa, can be a country that is even more bankrupt, more unable to repay its loans, and more impoverished, as its currency is devalued, its services are gutted, and its agricultural sector is turned upside down to produce cash crops for export rather than food for the people’s subsistence. This has been the case in Zimbabwe, where the World Bank persuaded the government to shift production supports from food crops like maize to export crops like tobacco. Not surprisingly, malnutrition has increased and infant mortality has doubled.

It is hardly imaginable that anyone could knowingly devise such a ruthless, heartless system that is entirely devoted to increasing profit and largely indifferent to its human cost. This, however, is the system that is shaping life in Africa today, and it is the system that we must challenge. It is crucial that we do not accept the current academic wisdom that pretends that there are no choices or alternatives — a position one often hears rehearsed in South Africa today. The debate has been conducted within the African National Congress (ANC), where opposing sides have adopted the labels TINA and THABA, standing for “there is no alternative” and “there has to be a better alternative.”

Alternatives do exist.[7] We have to challenge the assumption that structural adjustment is inevitably Africa’s way to the future. A crucial condition is that African countries begin to cooperate with each other on a regional basis so that they are no longer forced to depend on the global structures and agencies that today try to dictate Africa’s political and economic course. If this can happen, a better, more promising future can be envisaged.

What is certain is that we cannot accept the prospect of a world where the majority continues to become poorer and poorer while a few individuals continue to amass incredible riches. While the World Bank was celebrating its fiftieth birthday, demonstrators in the streets of Washington were declaring that “fifty years is enough!” They were part of a strong “Fifty Years Is Enough” campaign that has been mobilizing across the United States and other countries. Along the same lines, during the G-7 Summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 3,000 people gathered in the streets protesting the G-7’s global agenda and organizing a “People’s Summit.” Similarly, during the recent Summit of the Eight in Denver, an alternative people’s summit, termed “The Other Economic Summit,” was convened over a period of several days. In numerous workshops, the global agenda of the G-8/IMF/World Bank was examined and challenged in Denver; among the distinguished participants were Vandana Shiva,[8] David Korten,[9] Kevin Danaher,[10] and Lisa McGowan and Njoki Njehu of the “Fifty Years Is Enough” campaign. Joining them were the homeless, women who are fighting against discrimination, and teenagers who know that there are no jobs for them and who have no hope for the future.

They all understood what structural adjustment involves, and not just in the Third World, for this program is being carried out not only in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but also in Canada and the United States. In Washington, Halifax, and Denver, people recognized that there is a link between the recolonization of Africa and other parts of the Third World, and the attack on workers’ social and economic rights in the metropoles. They recognized the increasing homogenization of global rule as multinational corporations and multinational financial agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF increasingly control the economies of every country in the world. Most important, they recognized that the struggle for self-determination and human welfare must be a globally coordinated project. The future will decide whether this project can be realized. But there can be no doubt that the answer to this question will determine the course of African history in the twenty-first century.

Dennis Brutus

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Dennis Brutus was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and grew up in South Africa. He was a teacher until 1962 when, as a result of his political activism — most notably against blacks’ exclusion from South African sports — he was arrested, wounded as he tried to escape, and imprisoned in the infamous Robben Island. He went into exile in 1966. His testimony concerning apartheid helped win support for the ban against South Africa’s participation in the Olympic Games. Since then, he has taught at Northwestern University (until 1985) and at the University of Pittsburgh, where he currently teaches in the Department of Africana Studies. Dennis Brutus is also known worldwide for his poetry, which reflects his prison experiences, his struggles for justice, and the agony of political exile. Notable among his publications are Salutes and Censures (Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1982), Stubborn Hope: New Poems and Selections from China Poems and Strains (London: Heinemann Educational, 1978), and Letters to Martha, and Other Poems from a South African Prison (London: Heinemann Educational, 1968).

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1. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
2. See Catherine Caufield, Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations (New York: Henry Holt, 1996).
3. “Let Them Eat Pollution (Excerpt from a Letter Written by the Chief Economist of the World Bank),” The Economist 322 (8 February 1992):66.
4. World Bank, The African Capacity Building Initiative: Toward Improved Policy Analysis and Development Management (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1991); Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, “The World Bank’s African Capacity Building Initiative: A Critique,” CAFA Newsletter 6 (Spring 1994):14-19.
5. Paul Johnson, “Colonialism’s Back — and Not a Moment Too Soon,” New York Times Magazine (18 April 1993):22.
6. See articles by Patrick Bond and others in Southern African Report, 427 Bloor St., West Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
7. See, for instance, various studies on sustainable development, especially Ann Seidman and Frederick Anang, eds., Twenty-first Century Africa: Towards a New Vision of Self-sustained Development (Trenton NJ: Africa World Press; Atlanta: African Studies Association Press, 1992).
8. Vandana Shiva, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1997).
9. David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World (London: Earthscan, 1995).
10. Kevin Danaher, Fifty Years Is Enough: The Case Against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (Boston: South End Press, 1994), and Corporations Are Gonna Get Your Mama: Globalization and the Downsizing of the American Dream (Monroe ME: Common Courage Press, 1996).

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