Africa: Globalization Without Ethics Impoverishes

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If globalization is not to be a zero sum game but rather a win-win process, progressive Africans must make the case to those in power that globalization should not be only about profit maximization but also about globalization of ethical values.

[Issues Of Principle]

A tragic irony for Africans since the advent of globalization in the sixteenth century has been the fact that their contribution materially to the phenomenon has more often than not resulted in the diminishment of their sense of worth and dignity, if not humanity.

At the heart of the dialectical relationship between Africans and globalization, which constitutes the tragic irony, has been the imbalance between the dogma of profit maximization and ethical values about human welfare. If globalization is to work to foster the welfare of Africans, a reasonable balance must be constructed.

In the current phase of globalization, which is characterized by revolution in information technology, and where fewer than four out of 100 Africans currently use the internet and the continent’s broadband penetration is below 1%, Africans find themselves in a quandary not fundamentally different from that which confronted their forbearers. It was in the context of these raw data that an international conference to seek financial commitments to improve technology and Internet infrastructure in Africa took place this week in Kigali, Rwanda.

Hamadoun Toure, head of the International Telecommunications Union, suggested that in order to solve the twin problem of internet access and connectivity, African states should provide the legal framework for competition by international and domestic private investors. In his speech, Toure made it plain that “We need to make sure we have a good environment that will attract private sector investment. There’s nothing wrong with making profits in Africa.” Is the formula adequate to address and redress Africa’s marginalization in the current phase of globalization?

If we are to avoid the pitfalls and not repeat the mistakes of the past, we should draw on the lessons of history about the actual impact rather than mantra of profit maximization and privatization brought about by globalization. A proper historical review of globalization reveals that it has been a complex phenomenon that has had many phases and differentiated and unequal impact on various social groups and regions of the world, since the 16th century. A historical understanding of its impact should help us calibrate our approach to the phenomenon in the context of an interdependent global village.

Let us begin with the recent past. In the 1980s, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other Western financial institutions demanded that African countries institute changes under the rubric of liberalization and privatization, in order to encourage investment in the continent. African countries obliged accordingly.

Under the new regime of liberalization and privatization, beginning in 1991 to the end of the century, profit rates of foreign companies operating in Africa averaged about 29 percent. During the same period, however, investment by foreign transnational corporation did not increase at similar rates. In fact, Africa’s share of global foreign direct investment (FDI) decreased to four percent in 1996-1997 from more than 11 percent in the period 1976 to 1980. During the same period, there was dramatic decline in spending in social sectors, such as education, health, agriculture and infrastructure; and huge increase in military expenditures.

The increase in military expenditures was intended to impose effective order for “investors”; but it did not achieve stability that could have been brought about only through the rule of law. This undermined prospects for democratic pluralism and accountability and transparency. Another discernable result was increased unemployment, widespread poverty, and lack of access to provision of basic needs such as health care, potable water, and food. The number of people living in extreme poverty increased substantially, with women and children constituting the majority of those affected.

The uneven impact of economic globalization during the regime of liberalization and privatization was not confined to Africa alone. According to the 1999 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report, 80 countries, by the end of the century, had per capita incomes lower than the previous decade. The bleak situation was compounded by the decline in official development aid from industrial countries of the North.

The Official Development Aid (ODA) to countries in the South, which includes Africa, decreased by one-fifth in real terms between 1992 and 1997 from $13 billion to $11 billion annually. The reduction of did adversely affected development in the Least Developed Countries (LDC).

The anemic rate of investment, high returns on investment and decrease in aid from Northern countries widened the income gap between the one-fifth of people living in the richest countries of the West and the poorest one-fifth of the South. The ratio increased from 30:1 in 1960 and 60:1 in 1990 to 74:1 in 1997. In fact, the richest one-fifth in the late 1990s enjoyed 86 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while the bottom one-fifth shared 1 percent of GDP.

The growing inequality can be illustrated differently in terms of personal assets. The assets of the top three billionaires in the West were more than the combined GDP of all the least developed countries and their 600 million people.

Using different set of data, at the end of 1997, there were more than 50 developing countries whose entire banking systems were smaller than the credit union for World Bank and IMF employees. Moreover, those of 30 additional countries were smaller than medium-sized metropolitan savings and loans, the same kinds of institutions that would be advised to avoid the international markets on account of their small size.

The evidence reviewed above shows that the creation of environment for profit maximization without ethical rules to guide investment has contributed more to increased poverty and inequality than to empowerment not only of Africans but also of the labouring majority of the world. The recent experience with the current phase of globalization in fact supports the historical experience of indigenous Americans and Africans since the advent of globalization in the sixteenth century.

The first phase of globalization was set into motion by the Papal Bull of 1493, which authorized Spain and Portugal, to conquer the Western hemisphere. The two countries, which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries set the tenor and pace of globalization, were the nations that mastered seafaring technology.

What is important to remember is that the impact of globalization spearheaded by the Spaniards and Portuguese was as uneven as later phases of globalization. Thus, whereas both Spain and Portugal gained much in conquering the Western hemisphere, this was at the expense of indigenous Americans. In fact, indigenous Americans were spared a fate akin to extermination largely due to the relentless campaigning for their human rights by the jurists, Francisco de Vitoria and Fernando Menchaca de Vazquez.

When Britain was the dominant naval power from about the 18th to the nineteenth century, it was the British who controlled globalization. Driven largely by motive to make profit, they enslaved Africans and commoditized them as means of production for cotton, sugar cane and tobacco in the Americas. Whereas the products of African labour made Britain the workshop of the world, the cost to Africans and Africa was incalculable. In material terms, the exploitation of African labour helped to create the wealth and the economic system of the West, while at the same time it contributed to the deindustrialization of the Indian sub-continent.

Today, the new phase of globalization is represented and symbolized increasingly by American values and rhetoric such as virtual democracy, individualistic freedom, acquisition of wealth, salesmanship, access to technology – the Internet in particular – quick-fix solutions and instant gratification, the allurements of consumerism, fast food, hip hop, aggressive behaviour, aversion to patient diplomacy and rigorous intellectual discourse, the right to own means of violence, and even the custom of making a virtue out of corporate greed.

However, although new phase of globalization under the aegis of the United States of America is characterized by revolutionary speed in information acquisition and dissemination that makes the world shrink dramatically every passing day, the motivating force is still profit-maximization, backed up by potent military might.

It is the flow of economic activities through information technology that has made national boundaries extremely porous, and now threatens to make sovereignty a concept of limited utility. In its momentum and operation, it rarely takes moral considerations into account, although those who are at its helm use moral rhetoric to justify its operation by defining morality in a manner that suits them.

It is the context in which the rhetorical ideology if not the substance of human rights has gained currency as a grammar of discourse, that the necessary objective of bridging the digital divide between Africa and the West in particular, poses a three-fold challenge for those who care and reflect about the future and welfare of Africans.

The first is how to share equitably the information and knowledge that propel globalization. The second is how to utilize this knowledge and information to foster human understanding and solidarity across regional, religious, gender, racial, and class boundaries. And the third is how to bridge the gap between theories and actions in such a way that building of Internet infrastructure is relevant to the lives of Africans. It is therefore not sufficient to create conditions for private investment and for the maximization of profit without taking into account the fundamental issue of the human rights of Africans.

If globalization is not to be a zero sum game but rather a win-win process, progressive Africans must make the case to those in power that globalization should not be only about profit maximization but also about globalization of ethical values. The humanistic accent on life and thought that is pronounced in African conception of social existence should be the continent’s area of comparative advantage that can contribute to a more humane globalization.

African contribution to give globalization a human face would indeed draw on the African genius, which despite centuries of exploitation resulting into material poverty, still boasts of spiritual wealth, which are captured in various proverbs or adages.

Among the Xhosa of South Africa, for example, there is a proverb that expresses the centrality of humanistic value in social interaction. It says, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu; this can be translated as “the quality of treatment we afford others defines us what we are”. Among the Lwo-speaking peoples of East Africa there is a customary adage which says: Dako nywal ki nyeke. Literally translated, it means, “A woman in labor may do well with the service of another woman with whom she may share a husband.” The underlying meaning is that “no one is completely self-sufficient and sometimes we may have to work with even our rivals to achieve a greater good in society.”

As Africans grapple with the question of the digital divide in the current phase of globalization, we should not attempt to be caricatures of others or simply repeat glibly the mantra of others, lest we would like to be treated as footnotes in the discourse of globalization. Instead, we must demand that globalization be domesticated with ethical values to serve the common and greater good of all concerned.


Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO chair in Human Rights, Executive Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, USA. His columns appears bi-weekly online and in the newspaper.


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