Analysis: Weapons of mass financial destruction
Economic violence can be just as vicious as the world's most devastating armoury, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Poverty, underdevelopment, political instability and armed conflict are inextricably intertwined. Global inequalities in standards of living are now larger than ever before. Some 20 per cent of the world's people living in industrially- advanced countries account for 86 per cent of total private consumption expenditure, while the poorest 20 per cent, living in developing countries, make up only 1.3 per cent. The overall consumption of the richest 20 per cent of the world's people is 16 times that of the poorest 20 per cent.
Even more to the point, the assets of the 200 richest individuals are worth more than the combined income of 41 per cent of the world's people.
The gross global social injustice that characterises the international economic order can only be described as economic violence because it kills so many hapless people, including countless children. It ruins lives, engenders hatred and sparks wars.
For millions of Africans, economic prosperity is now a long forgotten dream. Poverty pits one ethnic group against another, and fuels religious, confessional and tribal conflict. It also sets into painful motion an exodus of professionals and less educated job seekers from Africa to Europe. An estimated 500,000 Africans risk their lives each year trying to enter Europe illegally, and some 150 are thought to have died in 2004 crossing the Mediterranean -- many by drowning, others of hypothermia. Meanwhile, the illegal businesses that specialise in helping the desperate make the treacherous journey between the continent of the have-nots and the continent of the haves are blossoming. The migrant-smuggling mafias are, quite literally, making a killing.
The problems caused by this mass emigration are also taking their toll on the African economies. The disastrous repercussions of the brain drain are plain to see -- villages are deserted, leaving the very old, the vulnerable and the very young to fend for themselves, as what were once vibrant centres of activity are reduced to economically irrelevant and culturally paralysed backwaters.
Meanwhile, the riches of Africa have long attracted the unwarranted attention of foreign powers and entrepreneurial buccaneers. Giant multinational corporations, especially energy and mining companies, today exercise a stranglehold over the continent's economy. And in the wake of their activities come not wealth and stability for the local population, but more exploitation and more violence.
The most important mineral for extraction is, of course, oil. Africa is expected to emerge in the near future as a major supplier of crude to the US. The continent could be supplying as much as 25 per cent of America's oil needs by 2015, thereby greatly reducing the superpower's dependency on Middle Eastern sources. To see the impact of the global oil industry on the continent, one need only look to the Sudan. One of the most promising sources of oil for the coming century, Sudan is also a country torn apart by civil war. And many of the areas which suffer the worst violence are those which are on top of or close by the major oil fields. Huge swathes of territory across the country have been depopulated, either by the intense fighting triggered by the arrival of foreign interests, or because they have been deliberately and forcibly emptied of their people.
Conflict is drawn to minerals-rich areas like flies to honey. The oil-rich Niger Delta is another case in point. The US, meanwhile, have demonstrated their "commitment" to developing the African oil business by acting as the main motor behind the recent Sudanese peace talks in Kenya. US oil companies are already present in neighbouring Chad as well as in Nigeria. And the emerging offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Guinea, from Ivory Coast to Angola, is also dominated by US corporations.
As money and capital pour in for the purposes of taking stuff out, Africa -- like so much of the so-called "developing world" -- continues to stagnate, if not regress, in terms of human development. Of the 4.4 billion people who live in developing countries, three-fifths have no access to basic sanitation and almost one-third are without safe drinking water -- and most of these people are in Africa. One-quarter lack adequate housing, while one-fifth live beyond reach of modern health services. And one-fifth of the world's children are undernourished.
Dwindling aid barely help change the status quo. Indeed, in many cases, rather than contributing to the creation of wealth and the development of people, aid only exacerbates dependency and social unrest.
And then there is the black hole of the debt. Africa's debt burden is one of the most appalling forms of economic violence ripping the continent apart today. Yet in global finance terms, the sums are relatively small. Debt relief for the 20 worst affected countries would cost between $5.5 billion and $7.7 billion -- or the equivalent of three or four stealth bombers. Is any clearer illustration required that the primary purpose of the debt is not to make money for the banks, but to keep up the pressure on the African nations, so that they remain economically "pliable" to external interests -- whatever the cost to their own people?