WEF and The Little Match Girl

By J Brooks Spector 13 May 2013

Many readers will probably remember the old Hans Christian Anderson children’s tale of the poverty-stricken match seller who, starving, stares through a window at a restaurant banquet table overflowing with food as she lights one match after another of the ones she is supposed to sell so as to keep warm enough to stay alive. This 170- year-old cautionary tale, along with the Charles Dickens story of the nearly as unfortunate Little Nell, another hungry Victorian Age waif, swam into mind while attending the recent World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Inside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, the hundreds of WEF participants – most of them men fashionably clad in navy or midnight blue, ultra-fashionable Armani and Hugo Boss power suits – kept moving from meeting room to meeting room, and from buffet table to buffet table. Meanwhile, just three blocks from this gathering of the rich and the powerful, and after a full day of all this worthy, high-minded gabble, the writer was driving past a nearby building, just a minute or two from the WEF meeting site. There, sheltered in the alcove of that building’s delivery entrance, stood a dishevelled, shivering man, literally wearing nothing but a green, recyclable plastic rubbish bag. He had no other possessions. Not one.

Now, yes, of course, one could also say, there are dreadfully poor people everywhere. They are to be found in every great city of the world. And it is true it would be relatively easy to find an horrifically poor person just a few blocks from the UN headquarters in New York City, from the US Capitol Building in Washington, or near the Kremlin in Moscow – let alone in every big city in Africa. But what was astonishing was the virtual absence of any kind of dissent, let alone protest, at this meeting in Cape Town; the lack of any voice that could be presumed to speak for that rubbish bag-clad man and the rest of his kind among the continent’s destitute, dispirited and displaced.

Compare the consensual quiescence at this WEF to the pitched battles that have been the norm at WTO negotiations, at so many World Bank/IMF meetings, or even those Occupy Wall Street-style demonstrations or the anti-austerity riots that are everyday occurrences in some European nations. By contrast, at this WEF meeting, not a single picket was to be found.

No one had to dodge tear gas-flavoured, fervent dust-ups between the police and demonstrators. In fact, there was no direct action by anyone – no angst or anger from the Landless People’s Movement or from the Khulamani Support Group. There was no presence by the SA NGO Support Network. There were no marches by the NUM, Cosatu, or Amcu. There weren’t even any entertaining guerilla theatre groups trying to hang in effigy caricatures of the faceless leadership of Lonmin, Glencore, Placer Dome, Anglo, Mitsubishi, the China National Oil Company, Shell, Exxon-Mobil, Total, or Xtrata, (let alone the political mafiosa bands that have been treating countries like Equatorial Guinea as their very own personal satrapies for decades) for their presumed roles in Africa.

Even inside the convention centre, there was virtually nobody else but the Armani-wearing brigade in evidence – except for a couple of low-key NGO representatives trying to nudge participants to also remember the millions not participating in these meetings. Or, as one of those rare NGO reps said, describing his ongoing amazement about the texture of this gathering, “There is simply no perp walk here”, referring to the absence of any highly-publicised finger pointing at all of those who have helped create – or continue to sustain and perpetuate – the problems facing Africa.

When former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s team announced its extractive industries equity report on Friday morning, the focus was on getting extractive industry companies to behave themselves properly – equitably and fairly. And also to get the G-8 governments to follow examples like America’s Dodd-Frank anti-corruption law’s precepts so that African governments can then put in place requirements contractually for more equitable shares of commodity revenues to thereby finance the processes resulting in broader national benefit. As Annan had said, the world “can build shared prosperity but it requires transparency and accountability and the rule of law. Overall, the record for the past decade has been poor. A decade of high growth has not brought real benefits for people. Wealth has been squandered via undervaluation, shady deals, et cetera. We can do far better and can better manage the continent’s wealth. We can set a better agenda.”

Annan’s proposals, however, put relatively less weight on how to get Africa’s ruling elites in many of those mineral-rich nations to negotiate with companies to write contracts designed to benefit an entire nation – rather than for a small body of the connected and powerful; or how to enforce an end to those endemic back-handers, kickbacks and other forms of systemic corruption. How does, for example, Africa cope with the crooked diamond deals seen in Zimbabwe or the dehumanising, brutal coltan mining in the eastern Congo? The report and its proposals are similarly less than thoroughly and fully vocal about the nature of sometimes controversial mineral deals by Chinese corporations and other newcomers to the sector.

In fact, this and the other reports that came out of this WEF seemed to rely upon a kind of coulda/woulda/shoulda trio – and an assumption that stating the right kinds of behaviour for governments will be enough to encourage those governments to carry out a whole raft of difficult reforms – many of which are antithetical to the interests of those nations’ own ruling elites. If such things were easy and with little political cost, everybody would have done them already. And such reforms, in turn, presuppose the kinds of democratic processes that effectively bring together and articulate citizens’ demands and needs, and then bring them to bear in free, fair elections that lead to more than just the replacement of one kleptocratic elite with another. On such transformations, the WEF’s discussions remained quieter.

On this second day, an afternoon discussion on African values between Swaziland’s King Mswati, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Onaiyekan, South African former beauty queen and investment leader Batsesana Kumalo, Nigerian media figure Ishayo Bako, Ghanian foreign affairs minister Hanna Tetteh, and Nkosana Moyo of South Africa’s Mandela Institute for Development Studies had a unique opportunity to set out some kind of synthesis between African and Western; traditional and modern value systems. At the very least, such a panel might have taken a stab at defining the differences and then addressing whether or not there was some kind of discernible relationship between values and development.

Instead, however, the conversation fell back onto the formulaic. There was King Mswati’s assertion African kings have a mythic, subliminal connection with their subjects that transcends messier Western-style democracies. Then there was Bako’s argument that African values require an understanding and an acceptance of the sources of Africa’s embarrassment over its corruptions, that “there is a culture of impunity that has shame in it”. And finally, there was Tetteh’s concern traditional land use patterns are a drag on any efforts at real, deep, systemic modernisation in Africa. But there was no meeting of the minds in this room – and precious little agreement over any way forward for the great synthesis between values and development.

By the time the WEF Africa Forum wound up its final plenary session, its organisers felt they could assert that: “The question is no longer ‘if’ Africa will grow, but ‘how’ it will grow and building on recent growth ideally means investing in human capital and economic diversification.” The final plenary chair, businessman Eric Kacou, argued, “I think in Africa we are in the middle of a metamorphosis. People are just starting to recognise there is potential.”

Left unanswered, however, was the key, troubling fact one heard repeatedly during the two days of meetings – the half-a- billion young people in Africa who will want work, incomes and real access to the continent’s economies and polities in less than a generation, coupled with the fact that the continent is not – not yet, at least – generating anywhere near the number of jobs needed for such a clamouring crowd. This enormous number of young, impatient, would-be participants in the continent’s and the global economy can be the motor driving the continent’s growth, if governments can design and carry out pro-growth, pro-employment, honest and effective governments and economies that embrace foreign investment. Or – it can be the continent’s very own version of the Arab Spring.

At the final session, South Africa-based China expert Martyn Davies offered an actual development strategy, noting that as Chinese shucks off more and more of the lower end manufacturing jobs in the country in the coming years; rather than letting countries like Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka capture them, if Africa could only manage to grab 10% of these jobs, this would generate a manufacturing revolution on this continent. And, in the process, it would be at least a partial answer to that challenge of the multitude of new urban Africans and all those young people coming forward in the next few years.

But to do this effectively will require – in most cases – much more agile, more competent governments than are now the norm for the continent. And so, finally, here’s the real challenge – to generate a job for that starving, homeless man glimpsed in that alcove, and the many millions more who don’t want to end up like him. DM

Photo: A Congolese girl carries firewood, collected from a forest, in Bunagana town May 11, 2013. REUTERS/James Akena


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