Western Populism is Africa's Equalizer Game
Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Global politics took an inward-looking turn in many of the key financier countries of global development in 2016. Plans to deepen protectionism in the United States are gaining traction in Donald Trump’s administration, and the economic impacts of Brexit on the United Kingdom seem to be driving the economy on a throbbing path to “seizing back control.” In a rather strange twist, the Netherlands managed to quickly tone down the excitement that grew behind a populist leader, making the defeat of Geert Wilder a clear caution against the likely negative consequences of a separist agenda. However, this does not mean the populist movement has been dispensed. Even in the Netherlands itself.
Whatever gains or losses that will be encountered, the picture is not looking good for aid recipients in Africa.
On 16 March 2017, Mr. Trump’s administration announced a 28% cut in the US Government's State Department budget which would see millions of dollars chopped from the global United Nations arm charged with promoting women's sexual and reproductive rights (or SRHR, largely seen as support for abortion services), UNFPA. Several other institutions lie in the way of US budget scrutiny should their strategic objectives spell out abortion and women’s rights in the same sentences. The World Bank Group, an entity that may not explicitly state its favorability of SRHR, stands to lose $650 million in the name of the broader scope of State Department cuts. Those that preach global warming will not fare any better than those nipping population growth through women’s health services. This is likely to affect the wider United Nations family and international Non-Governmental Organizations, who will find themselves routinely on quick sand, and a call for help will have to reach farther afield if new development funding will be mobilized.
The troubles surrounding Theresa May’s Britain are slowly eating away the great expectations Brexit was going to deliver that, by regaining full British control on the economy and borders, were to make the Kingdom’s economy work primarily in the interest of the people. These promises will only come after a hard and painful fight, it seems. A falling currency, rising importation costs since June 2016, and the reluctance of the European Union to make trade talks bear fruit before the full divorce process takes its course, are determined to keep Britain on a downward path for some time. Amidst the chaos, the world sits on the verge of those burgeoning nationalist movements in France and Germany.
In spite of the general decline of global ODA flows, the European Union, a multilateral wing of European governments investing substantially in global development, announced an increase of 11% of its annual contributions to ODA in the past fiscal year. While this presents a positive movement towards consolidation of development activities in Least Developed Countries (LDCs), many in Africa, the results from France's first-round elections placed Marine Le Pen in a possible presidency, and all that comes with it. With the pending elections in Germany, the two countries will impact the policies of the EU, let alone its survival, should voters look more inward as in the election of Mr. Trump in November 2016 and the Brexit referendum last June. The growing appetite for stricter immigration and independence from the EU is all but quenched. Many thanks to a recent terror attack in Paris just days before the country's presidential elections, this may just become reality.
A Hidden Opportunity.
The future looks gloomy, if we go by prevailing populist movements. But, for Africa, it presents a new era in which it can shift gears for the continent's benefit. Because, looking ahead, countries that stand alone – like Britain - will soon need to negotiate new alliances beyond their traditional ties with countries like the United States. Cheaper commodities, goods and services that Africa is poised to provide the global markets will continue to be sought after in a new wave of globalization. Africa has the opportunity to shape new rules of the game, rejigging the way World Trade Organization terms of exchange have been applied to Africa's disadvantage for decades, by applying its collective weight on both improvement of the terms of trade as well as protection of its local industries.
In the realm of negotiation for better trade terms, stand alone countries as the United States, Britain, a possible self-weaned France and a smaller and weaker EU bloc will definitely raise the bargaining power of other countries supplying their spoils on international markets. And the outcome is likely to enhance competition in the supply of goods and services among Africa's key suppliers. All things being equal, access to better quality goods and services would improve at more affordable levels. This, Africa needs for acquisition of capital goods for it to generate and increase its wealth and production for more and better trade.
Three priorities for Africa.
Political revolutions in a handful of countries in the Americas and Europe seem to clasp Africa's fate in their hands. But this website believes the growth of populism/nationalism may actually be the first time, in a long time, that Africa's nations will gain real independence from the Western world's influence on its development agenda. It might be the first time Africa is truly independent since the partition of Africa. But it needs to up its game.
Firstly is the need for its Member States to know how to play its international politics, and to utilize the weight of the African Union (AU) appropriately. The AU needs to go beyond the character of a club funded by donor money – which comes with vested interests – and start charting pathways for intracontinental trading if the bloc will stand in the event of changes in global markets. Investments in connectivity among African countries, such as those the East African bloc is making, need to span across the continent, to make movements of people, goods and services more fluid. One of the driving tenets of such independence will be to learn to say "no" when terms seem to be shifted to the advantage of certain parties.
Secondly, African countries needed to fully support infrastructure development, taking advantage of the seemingly vanishing commitment of BRICS countries made several years back. The lessons from the Asian Tigers have demonstrated how the development of infrastructure provided the basis on which growth in these countries accelerated. Africa needs no new investment in good practices, although adapting these lessons to the diverse contexts on the continent is not a bad idea. Growth in both physical and ICT infrastructure will enable mobility and communication that will facilitate the transition and continuous learning.
And thirdly, Africa needs to invest in its human capital. And keep it home. Today, UNESCO seems to think that sub-Saharan Africa still has about 192 million (74.9 million males and 117 million females) adults illiterate, making about 26% of the world's illiterate adult population. An important driving force that has affected brain drain in Africa is how poorly the continent takes care of its own professionals. The conditions have been of a deplorable state, and the Western nations have eventually benefited. And the growing aged populations in Europe are likely to see better terms offered to Africans who can provide the necessary skills to keep Europe ticking, and so, politically better positioned to call the shots in as far as determining how much Africa's development can happen.
To this end, Africa needs a second look at whether its current cohort of leaders comes in the kind of molding and turf to drive this new agenda.
And, perhaps someday, African nations will sit on the same table with their Western counterparts. As equals.