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Keep Hope Alive


shameful foreign economic policy in Africa. It’s a nice object lesson for those who think

that progress is only made by those who "go along to get along," begging for

crumbs and then settling for "reforms" that actually make things worse.

Here’s the story: the Orwellian-named "Africa Growth and Opportunity Act"

would require African countries to submit to a host of onerous conditions in order to

qualify for trade preferences, including some which they already have under current U.S.

law.

Backed by the Clinton administration and sponsored by Phil Crane (R-IL), the bill

passed the House last year but died in the Senate. Now it is back. Many of those who voted

for the bill last year thought it was a bad bill, but felt they had no alternative. So

Jesse Jackson, Jr., representing Illinois’ 2nd Congressional district, came back with an

alternative: the Human Rights, Opportunity, Partnership and Empowerment (HOPE) Act for

Africa.

The contrast between the two bills could hardly be more striking. The Crane bill

would impose conditions such as lower corporate taxes, market access, and other privileges

for foreign corporations, regardless of the impact on African economies. It would also

require compliance with IMF mandates. For those who are not familiar with the destructive

impact of IMF policies in sub-Saharan Africa– these countries rarely make the news here–

just think about what this international economic wrecking ball has done to Indonesia,

South Korea, Russia, and Brazil over the last year and a half.

Jackson’s HOPE act would provide trade preferences, but without the nasty

conditions. It would also take more serious measures to ensure that the goods exported to

the U.S. are actually produced in Africa, rather than just transhipped through Africa from

elsewhere. And to make sure that ordinary Africans actually get something out of this

trade, Jackson’s bill would add the kinds of conditions that give multinational

corporations indigestion: internationally recognized labor standards, such as the right to

organize a labor union.

Perhaps most importantly, the HOPE bill calls for the cancellation of Sub-Saharan

Africa’s crushing $230 billion debt burden. These countries spend four times as much on

debt service than they do on health care, and hundreds of thousands of people die each

year as a result. Children go without schooling, and crops rot in the fields because there

is no money for roads that could transport them to markets. This debt is unconscionable

and unpayable, and current levels of payment are a guarantee of poverty for generations to

come.

Jackson’s strategy has already proven successful, regardless of the outcome. He has

forced the issue of debt relief onto the political agenda. "When you have a man or a

woman laboring under this kind of debt and then you say to them, these are the rules of

trade . . . it doesn’t work," he said at a press conference last week.

The Old Testament declared that it was wrong for a creditor to seize the tools that

a person needed to make a living, in payment of a debt. But Washington’s money mandarins

are bound by no such moral constraints. They are bleeding Africa dry.

Interestingly, even the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal European edition,

a conservative voice that certainly respects the sanctity of contracts, have recently

endorsed a bankruptcy procedure by which poor countries could get out from under unpayable

debt.

Only among Washington’s elite– and their proxies such as the IMF– does the logic

of debt relief fail to register. That’s because, as the Journal suggested, this massive

debt burden is a powerful lever by which the architects of the global economy can dictate

economic policy to most of the world’s poorer countries.

These modern day colonialists can and will be increasingly isolated. That’s why the

voice of just one young Congressman has made such a difference: no one can rise to defend

the indefensible. There is no personal or political gain for Jackson in taking the lead on

this issue. In fact he will almost certainly be punished by some of the nation’s most

powerful corporate and financial interests, and their friends in the Administration and

Congress. He’s just doing the right thing. The voters of Illinois’ 2nd district have

reason to be proud: they have a representative who is not only standing up for their

interests, but for the rest of humanity as well.

Mark Weisbrot is Research Director at the Preamble

Center, in Washington, D.C.

 

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