Africa: ask the women

Patricia Daniel
2 August 2006

The British prime minister, Tony Blair, is not content to abandon any part of the world in his search for a global political role. A year after the Commission for Africa, in which he played a central part, he has returned to the subject by announcing in June 2006 the establishment of an "independent panel for Africa" designed to monitor progress of the commission's recommendations and to advise on "the problems facing Africa".

There are many possible objections to this latest consultative exercise: its motivation, its mandate, its likely effectiveness. There is, however, a less obvious but equally important issue: its personnel. If such a panel is thought necessary, who should – and should not – be on it? To approach the proposal in this way is also to understand that little thought is expended on this and similar initiatives.

Africa: a handful of problems

The problems of Africa were extensively documented in the 461-page report of the 2005 commission, the product of consultation and analysis by a high-profile multinational group. A year on, the core realities facing the continent are unchanged. In short, most informed observers are already fully aware of the five main issues at stake - and so should Tony Blair:

Trade: Despite numerous extensions since 2001 and a last-ditch attempt at the G8 summit in St Petersburg to persuade all sides to make concessions, the World Trade Organisation's Doha round has failed to reach an agreement that could have protected and helped develop markets for poorer countries.

George Monbiot pointed out in June 2005 that a 5% increase in developing countries' share of world exports would earn them an extra $350bn a year – three times more than they will receive in development aid by 2015 at the current rate of pledges.

This possibility has been scuppered by the European Union's resistance to cutting tariffs and the United States's refusal to cut domestic farm subsidies or stop dumping cheap exports (while these blocs put pressure on India, Brazil and China to reduce tariffs protecting their own markets for industrial goods). Tony Blair, whose country held the presidency of the EU in the second half of 2005 – and whose close ally Peter Mandelson is the EU's trade commissioner – must be well aware of this particular problem.

Conflict: A Whitehall consultation document published in 2001, concluded that "conflict in Africa is caused by inequality and economic decline … it has resulted in as many deaths each year as are caused by epidemic diseases and has uprooted millions of people … it requires a stronger and more focused international effort." Yet inter-ethnic conflict, which spills over into neighbouring countries, continues in Sudan, Congo, Somalia. These conflicts are fuelled by the unregulated arms trade, in which the US, France and Britain are the largest exporters.

West African countries have now declared a moratorium on small arms. However, the attempt by the UN review conference in July 2006 to reach a global agreement was aborted by a handful of countries (the United States to the fore) that saw control as "a national rather than an international issue". The Mali Red Cross commented: "The international community has developed various human rights agreements, but when it comes to the international trade in arms, these principles are often relegated to second place in order to serve economic and political interests" (see Volontariat 8/2005).

Patricia Daniel is senior lecturer in social development at the Centre for International Development and Training, University of Wolverhampton, England. She is currently involved in a study on gender, peace and stability in Mali, in collaboration with the University of Bamako and the Centre for Democracy and Development in Lagos. Her website is here

Also by Patricia Daniel in openDemocracy:

"Mali: everyone’s favourite destination" (11 May 2006)

Corruption:The Commission for Africa report highlights the problems arising from weak central government and a weak civil service, along with the need for support to build technical capacity, transparent systems and accountability mechanisms in order to ensure the absorption and effective use of development-aid funding.

An approach widely recognised as effective here is the strategic placement of European Commission experts in government finance and planning departments. The Commonwealth secretariat also provides legal experts to help draft model laws, counter money-laundering, prosecute for bribery and define parameters on judicial integrity, as well as investigating the recovery of assets of illicit origin.

Britain has given £1 million to Transparency International to support its work with civil society in holding governments to account. But corruption is certainly not only an issue confined to Africa: in the peer review of the OECD anti-bribery convention, France and Canada examined Britain's own record and were very critical about loopholes in corporate liability.

HIV/Aids: The attempt to strengthen national systems in Africa continues to be thwarted by the high incidence of HIV/Aids which is thinning out cohort after cohort of dynamic young professionals. The disease has a particular effect on the education of the next generation – pupils and teachers suffer directly or are forced to spend time caring for family members, enduring the trauma of loss and coping with social stigma as well as economic privation.

Even though antiretroviral drugs now exist, western pharmaceutical companies have refused to release generic patents to enable developing countries to produce their own treatment. Moreover, the US's "abstinence-only" approach to HIV prevention has led to a serious shortage of condoms in severely affected countries such as Zambia and Uganda.

Gender inequality: The continuing contravention of the rights of women, which leads to poverty, prostitution and lack of power over the use of condoms (if they are available) is a key factor in the spread of HIV/Aids. A key indicator of the low status of women is the perpetuation of female genital mutilation (FGM), whose incidence in some countries (Mali is one) nears 100%.

The Maputo protocol calling for the legal prosecution of the practice is now being officially accepted by individual governments, but eradicating it remains a huge challenge. FGM is the cause of severe lifelong health problems, which reinforce the obligatory household chores of millions of rural women: fetching water and firewood or pounding grain with a heavy pestle. Together, these mean that many African women simply don't have enough energy to sustain a collective struggle for their rights or play an equal part in development.

A pale panel

To address and advise on these five areas, Tony Blair has selected a panel of "experts" whose so-far-announced membership has three notable characteristics:

  • they are all ageing men
  • they belong to a western(ised) international elite
  • none of them are development professionals.

Among the existing appointees are:

Kofi Annan: the United Nations's secretary-general, is held in high esteem throughout Europe and has been much honoured by academic institutions. Yet his voice has consistently been shown to be ineffective, especially as regards conflict situations – Iraq, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and now Lebanon and the middle east.

Kofi Annan has made no real stand on behalf of the rest of the world against United States hegemony, fearing that direct confrontation will threaten the future of the UN; his voice, for example, was not heard at all against the refusal by US authorities to provide visas for Cuban representatives to attend the UN sixtieth anniversary summit in New York in September 2005.

At the same time, the reforms he has proposed will remain hard to implement, because countries in the global south are afraid that their logic will be to make the United Nations an instrument of the United States.

The UN leader, now approaching the end of his nine-year term, has been far more familiar on the international circuit than in grassroots development in his native Africa, listening to what ordinary people have to say.

Bill Gates: he probably possesses the vision, entrepreneurial drive and money to make a successful effort to address preventable diseases (such as malaria) in Africa. Indeed, it is possible that private philanthropists can do this more directly and effectively than G8 governments, hamstrung as the latter are by their own multiple agendas.

However, as a powerful member of the private sector, Gates has not raised his voice to influence US policymaking, to lobby against pharmaceutical firms on anti-retroviral drug patents or to protest against the suspension of condom sales to countries like Uganda.

It is also interesting that he has not put his information and communication technology (ICT) skills at Africa's disposal, but rather chosen an area where he admits to lacking expertise. ICT can provide valuable support for government management and communication systems, to enable countries to do their own development. In addition, it has been increasingly shown to be a key factor in the promotion of health, education, human rights and conflict prevention, especially for rural populations – through facilitation of distance learning, access to information and civil-society networking. Even more interesting is the fact that Bill Gates attempted to underwrite the roll-out of ICT infrastructure in China (a much more lucrative market) at a time when the EU is pursuing Microsoft for unpaid taxes.

Bob Geldof: the pop musician and entrepreneur is driven by good intentions based on a rather simplistic understanding: if we send more money, a miracle will happen and Africa will be saved. His lack of any real socio-political analysis of the problems, and of what makes people poor, was revealed in the BBC's 2005 series Geldof in Africa.

It showed Geldof travelling through several countries, observing, sitting under the stars and reflecting on the "the most beautiful and luminous place on earth". In Mali, he followed the tourist trail: libraries in Timbuktu, the mosque at Djènné, the cave dwellings of Bandiagara. The only Malian we heard speak directly in the programme was a member of the slave class. It is true that slavery still prevails, but it is far less widespread than female genital mutilation: it is limited to some of the Tuareg tribes and is in no way representative of the majority of Mali's population, who generally share good inter-ethnic and cross-border relations. Even less does a focus on slavery provide any explanation of the causes of poverty in Mali.

This embarrassment follows Geldof's promotion of the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park in 2005 which – despite his professed love for all things African – recruited only western artists like Madonna, and relegated true musicians from Mali and Togo to a hastily-arranged, afterthought event in Cornwall's Eden Project.

The real thing

Instead of this motley crew, I should like to propose a panel of real experts: seven African women with their feet on the ground, and two other women with a commitment to African concerns. This is actually not a difficult task as there are so many to choose from. Like Tony Blair's it seems, this list came off the top of my head, without needing to reach for my address book. That very fact is a small indication of the richness of experience and expertise there is to choose from – which is being so shamefully neglected.

Wangari Maathai: Kenya's deputy environment minister, won the Nobel peace prize in 2004 for her innovative Green Belt Movement campaign to plant thousands of trees across Africa to slow deforestation. The movement grew to include projects to preserve biodiversity, educate people about their environment and promote the rights of women and girls.

Since the majority of conflicts in Africa arise over the fight for scarce resources, especially between farmer and herder groups, protection of the environment is a key factor in preserving the peace. Wangari's contribution, in the words of the Nobel prize committee: "combined science, social engagement and politics, both locally and internationally".

Aminata Traoré: a well-known Malian activist, former minister for tourism and culture, and ex-resident representative for the UN in Mali. Today, she leads the Coalition for African Alternatives to Debt and Development (Cad) and is most famous recently for writing an open letter to the president of France.

In the wings of the 2005 France-Africa summit, she organised an alternative citizens summit, during which gourds were lined along the street and smashed one by one – an African metaphor for France-Africa relations: "empty vessels make most noise". In July 2006 she ran the fifth alternative G8 in Gao, northern Mali, which was attended by over 600 people from Africa, Europe and the US. This provided the chance for farmers, women and young people to discuss global issues themselves. A key actor too in the World Social Forum, Aminata's motto is always: "another world is possible".

Thokozile Ruzvidzo: works in the economic commission for Africa's Centre for Gender and Development in Addis Ababa, and has pioneered the development of the Africa gender and development index (AGDI). This tool for mapping the extent of gender inequality in Africa and assessing government performance was piloted in twelve countries in 2005. The pilot confirmed the strong relation between policy implementation and improvements in the situation of women.

The involvement of the African Union is an important factor, for example in peer reviews. "In Nepad, we are naming and shaming at a higher level – for the first time gender is on their agenda", Thokozile told a meeting of Commonwealth women's affairs ministers in New York in February 2006.

Marie Tamoifo Nkom: a militant lawyer from Cameroon, who was chosen as the spokesperson for the first ever African Youth Forum, held in Bamako (Mali) in November 2005 in the wings of the France-Africa summit. The manifesto she presented to the heads of state of Africa and France in December 2005 highlighted the urgent need to address the issues of youth unemployment, HIV/Aids, migration and the involvement of young people in democratic processes.

There is a clear relationship between neglect of youth issues and increasing conflict. Marie's address ended with this warning: "If politics don't take care of youth, the wind of change will lead youth to take care of politics."

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: a former vice-president of the World Bank and successively finance and foreign minister of Nigeria (who resigned from the latter position on 3 August 2006), whose country is ranked second on Transparency International's global corruption perceptions index. She says she is detested by some of her compatriots who have previously benefited from oil revenues and see her as a "problem woman" for diverting the money into providing clean water for the population.

Despite opposition, Ngozi had begun to reverse decades of economic mismanagement. Before her departure from government she had, through good housekeeping, facilitated a formal credit rating for her country by international bond agencies for the first time.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Africa's first woman head of state, after winning free and fair elections in November 2005 to become president of Liberia. She would probably be too busy to take part in a panel to advise on Africa's problems. But a further twenty African women opinion-makers, with influence in political, economic and cultural spheres are celebrated in the magazine Jeune Afrique (Number 2356 / 2006); and there are plenty more female experts available.

Rosalind Eyben: a former development policy advisor who became head of Britain's department for international development (DfID) office in Bolivia in 2002 and now works as a researcher. She has an informed view on the need to hold donors to account; in particular, she argues against the over-arching policy instrument for the aid system – the poverty-reduction strategy paper – which was developed by (mainly male) economists at the world summit on social development at Copenhagen in 1995.

The gender-equality agenda, developed six months later at the fourth world conference on women in Beijing, provided a different framework. But this agenda became invisible within the mainstream of donor-driven aid instruments and development targets. Rosalind regrets that the international community passed up the chance to "take the road less travelled … which would mean engagement with the concepts of society, culture and power that could help us interpret human action and support transformative processes for social justice"'.

Mary Robinson: the first woman president of Ireland who became the UN high commissioner for human rights. She is now president of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, which supports good governance and capacity-building in developing countries, and honorary president of Oxfam International. Her range of expertise and engagement, as well as her forward thinking about human rights in the age of globalisation, make her an appropriate choice for the alternative Africa panel.

Betty Mould-Iddrisu: leads the legal and constitutional affairs division of the Commonwealth secretariat. An important figure and role: but it is not always necessary to seek out high-profile women in order to access sound practical analysis.

In its response to the Commission for Africa report, the Mothers' Union highlights the fact that it pays mere lip-service to the role of civil society, has an exclusive focus on government-government partnerships and overlooks the need for gender equality and human rights to be integral to the development process: "Such gaps are less likely to have been missing if the Commission had included people from the grassroots of Africa and in particular more women."

A time for women

The 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles annexed the Make Poverty History lobby and was hailed as a landmark for development to Africa – but it really just heralded more of the same. Hilary Benn, then as now Britain's minister for international development, has talked of the need to harness the popular commitment generated by Live 8.

But "so much goodwill among so many people" is not enough. Good faith among G8 governments would be a better start. They claim that they will "(turn) talk into action", but Glenys Kinnock points out that "(Britain), along with many other donor countries, have been found guilty of creative accountancy" (see "EU efforts to fight poverty are not adding up", Guardian, 19 June 2006).

It is time to stop being impressed by superficial male charisma. It doesn't deliver. Addressing Africa's problems requires genuine expertise, courage and creativity. Above all, it is time to call a halt to the usual male approach to solutions which can be summed up as follows: if something doesn't work, carry on doing it, just do more of the same, it has to work eventually. All evidence is to the contrary. For a real change in Africa, let's just ask the women – to come up with the answers and to put them into practice.

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