Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Beyond neo-colonialism?

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed The dawning of the new millennium marks a symbolic crossing over from the past to the future, and provides an opportunity for decision-makers throughout the world to adopt a future-oriented perspective to political events rather than to continue regarding them as products of developments in the past. This is true as far as the time dimension is concerned. When it comes to visualising the space dimension, events are bound to be affected by what is now perceived as the shrinking of the planet and its transformation into a global village thanks to the globalisation process. All such frames of reference are essential in understanding the significance of this week's Euro-African summit.

It is no longer possible to leave Africa out in the cold. As with other parts of the South, the time has come to integrate it into the world system. Latin America has been more or less successfully appended to North America, much of South-East Asia to Japan and America. Given Africa's traditional ties with Europe, surely some formula for enhanced cooperation between the two continents can be devised. In the context of globalisation, the North-South divide should not be allowed to prevail anywhere in the world.

The North has more to gain by ensuring the integration of the various parts of the South into the world system than by keeping them excluded, marginalised and prey to anti-world order forces. Such forces are particularly manifest in Africa: the breakdown of the state itself in a number of central African countries, the scourge of AIDS, the world's highest illiteracy rates and the brain drain, with educated Africans seeking better economic opportunities and jobs in Europe and elsewhere in the developed world.

Of course, European and African politicians have very different agendas when they meet. The Europeans are more concerned with such issues as human rights and democracy, with the need to put an end to widespread corruption and promote civil society and 'good governance'. They underscore the importance of ensuring the stability of civil institutions, the rule of law, transparency and openness. But this comes up against the phenomenon of cronyism and nepotism that is rampant in many parts of Africa, where independence has favoured given segments of society, given tribal elites, rather than society as a whole, and where a shift to genuine democracy would threaten the vested interests of a powerful nomenclatura.

African politicians, for their part, are more interested in discussing economic and developmental problems and, at the heart of those problems, the excruciating debt burden. For Africa as a whole, this is in excess of one third of a trillion dollars, of which the share of the sub-Saharan countries alone stands at 235 billion dollars. Without a radical solution to its debt problem, Africa faces a very grim future.

At their Cologne meeting in June 1999, the G7 leaders announced that they were slashing 100 billion dollars off Third World debts. In July, Canada announced that it was canceling 100 per cent of the Third World debts due to it. In September, President Clinton announced that he was forgiving 100 per cent of the debt owed by 36 countries to the United States. In December, Gordon Brown, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the United Kingdom was also canceling the Third World debts. Then came the turn of France and, in February 2000, of Italy. But despite these promises, there is yet no cause for celebration.

By April 2000, ie ten months after the G7 decision, only three out of the 41 most indebted countries had benefited from debt alleviation: Bolivia, Uganda and Mauritania. In the best of cases these three countries will still have to reimburse 35 per cent of the amounts of money due. An editorial in the Economist noted that: "Taken as a group, the fifty poorest countries in the world spend twice as much for the servicing of their debt as the sum they actually received!" Clearly, Third World debt cancellation as it has been conceived does not qualify as a radical solution to Africa's debt problem, and there is an urgent need to rethink the whole issue. To what extent the Euro-African Summit will actually contribute to this need remains to be seen.

In preparation for the summit, a preliminary meeting was held in Cairo on 17 January between Jaime Gama, foreign minister of Portugal and current chairman of the European Union (EU), Youssef El-Youssefi, foreign minister of Algeria and current chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Javier Solana, the chairman of the European Commission, and Amr Moussa, foreign minister of the host country. The participants met the following day with President Mubarak, who gave his blessing to the proposed summit. On the occasion of and before the official Euro-African summit, European and African NGOs convened the Euro-African Civil Society Forum which allowed representatives from African and European civil society to express their concerns and address their recommendations to the heads of states and governments during the summit.

However, the forum, which was preceded by three preparatory workshops in different locations in Africa and one in Europe, did not convene in Cairo, site of the summit, but in Lisbon. Its recommendations aimed at opening long term perspectives for the realisation of the forum's main objective, namely, to formulate an agenda and an action plan for the reinforcement of civil society in Africa and its consolidation in the context of a Euro-African partnership.

Europe is now assuming the role of ensuring Africa's development in the framework of the globalisation process. Given the asymmetry between Europe and Africa, one should be very sensitive to the danger that, without the active participation of a wide range of democratic forces from both Africa and Europe, the partnership could well acquire neo-colonial connotations, irrespective of the fact that, in the new era of globalisation, the term 'neo-colonial' has become outdated. In the absence of an NGO community, the Cairo summit is bound to reflect the balance of power between the European leaders on the one hand and the African rulers on the other.

Meanwhile, the forum, meeting independently in Portugal, developed a dynamic informed more by the Euro-Mediterranean Summit to be held under French presidency of the European Union during the second half of 2000 than by the Cairo summit. This reveals that Europe is not concerned simply with containing Africa within a Euro-African framework but also that it is bracing itself to face the possible emergence of the United States as a rival pole of influence in Africa. Europe has been kept out of the Middle East peace process sponsored by the United States. In the press conference delivered by the representative of the European Union after the Cairo meeting in January, Portuguese Foreign Minister Gama made a point of stressing that "the EU role in the Middle East peace process is not that of a negotiator." The implication here is that as Europe did not impinge on America's zone of influence in the Middle East, America should not impinge on Europe's in sub-Saharan Africa! Great power rivalry is not a negligible factor in this effort at inserting Africa into the new global game.

The working document of the forum included the principal topics on the agenda of the forum, actually, a compromise formulation of both the needs of the Europeans and the Africans: poverty eradication and welfare; creating a stable and democratic environment and promoting citizenship and national and international transparency; towards a culture of human rights in Europe and Africa: learning without paternalism; how to strengthen national and regional capacities for welfare and citizenship.

Since the days when colonialism described itself as a 'civilising mission', much has changed in the structure and the features of the world system and in the consciousness of humankind. But if it is true that national sovereignty can be invoked to maintain tyrannical rulers in power in the non-developed world, it is also true that it serves as a shield against intervention of a neo-colonial character by the leaders of the new world order acting in the name of globalisation. This is a dilemma of our time that only democracy, in both the South and the North, can resolve.

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