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Accountability in Africa: whose problem?

About the author
David Mepham is UK director of Human Rights Watch. He was formerly associate director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, and head of policy and advocacy at Save the Children UK

The lessons Simon Zadek draws from his thoughtful openDavos blog from the World Economic Forum are cast in generic terms, without a strong geographical focus. But there are few areas of the world more in need of the meaningful accountability he describes than Africa. What are the prospects for this? Is this where the Commission for Africa could make a difference or where the United Kingdom could use its presidencies of the European Union and the G8 to good effect in 2005?

Africa can be said to suffer from two accountability deficits: a lack of domestic accountability, with inadequate structures for holding Africa’s governments accountable to Africa’s people; and a lack of external accountability, an absence of mechanisms for holding rich countries to account for the impact of their policies on Africa. A disproportionate amount of the debate in the UK and other rich countries has focused on the first to the detriment of the second.

openDemocracy’s articles on Africa include:

Osman Bah, “I was a child soldier” (January 2004)

Harun Hassan, “Somalia: exit into history?” (February 2004)

Victor Youmbi, “Bad seeds” (February 2004)

Lyndall Stein, “Darfur journal” (November 2004)

If you find this material valuable, please consider subscribing to openDemocracy for just £25 / $40 / €40. You’ll gain access to easy-to-read PDFs of these and all our articles.

A critical part of the explanation for the condition of Africa does indeed rest with Africa’s elites and with the state of politics and governance across the continent over several decades.

There have been many cases in which Africa’s elites have pursued ruinous economic and social policies that have impoverished their people, widened inequality and increased injustice and discrimination (Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe is a classic modern example).

These elites have sometimes been blatantly predatory, amassing enormous wealth for themselves and their associates through theft and corruption (Zaire – now the Republic of the Congo – under Mobutu Sese Soko is an especially blatant case).

Despite the spread of democratic elections across the continent, in too many countries democratic institutions remain weak or non-existent (the military coup in Togo following the death of long-term dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema, which brought his son to power, is a recent illustration).

Many of the worst cases of human rights violations on the continent have also been carried out by Africa’s elites against a section of their own people (the genocide in Rwanda, the wars in Congo, and the massacres in the Darfur region of Sudan are some of the more extreme examples).

Africa’s reformers now openly acknowledge these profound failings in many post-independence African states, and the need to correct them by developing genuine mechanisms of accountability. The signing of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) in 2001 signalled a clear intention on the part of a group of African countries to break with the mistakes of the past. The countries subscribing to Nepad are committed to good governance and accountability, respect for human rights, better conditions for private investment and trade, and action against corruption. They have also established the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), whose signatories are expected to subject themselves to the scrutiny of their peers through a process involving consultations with African governments, NGOs and the private sector.

But if African governments should be held accountable for the impact of their policies, so too must the governments of rich countries and the international institutions that they largely control. Too often, Africa’s development plight is seen as an exclusively internal phenomenon in need of an external remedy. Yet some of the policies currently pursued by rich countries are actually damaging Africa.

Four kinds of damage

There are four areas in particular – aid and conditionality, trade, arms transfers, corruption and conflict financing – where this damage is felt.

Firstly, aid and conditionality. While Africa needs significantly more aid, not least to tackle the HIV/Aids pandemic and to help meet the Millennium Development Goals, donor aid has sometimes served to strengthen local elites and done too little to improve the lives of ordinary Africans. Aid has also been used to promote the commercial objectives of donors through tied aid, or to leverage policy reforms through inappropriate conditionality that worsen the conditions of Africa’s poor. And the way in which aid is delivered often imposes significant transaction costs on African societies.

Second, international trade rules. These rules are heavily stacked against Africa’s interests. European Union and United States agricultural subsidies and the dumping of surplus agricultural produce is destroying the livelihoods of large numbers of African farmers. African exporters still have restricted access to rich-country markets. Many African countries also suffer the effects of tariff escalation, with countries like Ghana facing much higher tariffs on processed chocolate than on unprocessed cocoa beans when they try and export into rich country markets. Another trade agreement, on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (Trips), has the effect of increasing the cost of technology and other essential goods, including the price of drugs for treating HIV/Aids.

Third, arms proliferation. Rich countries are significant suppliers of weapons and military equipment to Africa. Some of these arms fuel and exacerbate armed conflicts or strengthen repressive regimes or rebel groups in Africa. Weapons and ammunition are also transferred to Africa by arms brokers, traffickers and transport agents from rich countries, and their governments have still not put in place adequate controls to curb this deadly trade.

Fourth, corruption and conflict financing. Poor governance of the international corporate sector can damage and distort Africa’s development prospects. Despite widespread bribery in Africa involving western companies, rich country governments have done far too little to implement their commitments under the OECD Convention against the Bribery of Foreign Public Officials. For example, not a single G8 country has yet ratified the UN Convention against Corruption. Nor has enough been done to tackle the role of rich-country governments and companies in financing conflict in Africa through the purchase of commodities like oil, diamonds or timber.

A year of opportunity

The accountability deficit in these four areas reinforces what is often described as the “policy incoherence” of rich countries towards Africa. The key concern has been that rich countries should not take away with one hand what they give with the other, and that they should ensure that their broader economic and foreign policies are consistent with their stated objectives for international development.

True, it is not easy to implement “policy coherence” for development. All governments are trying to fulfil multiple objectives at any one time, and these objectives will often conflict. However, better processes of decision-making can make these choices and tensions more transparent. What is important is that these choices, and the costs of policy incoherence towards Africa, should be openly acknowledged and addressed.

This is not happening at present. Genuinely independent reporting, better analysis and a refined methodology for assessing coherence issues – all these could help in better holding rich countries to account. However the real obstacles to improved policy towards Africa are not technical but political. Africa’s interests, and the harmful impacts of rich-country policy towards Africa, need to be made a consistent focus of international political concern, partly by creating new mechanisms that can sustain that concern over time.

This is the opportunity of 2005. The British government, as president of the EU and the G8, carries a particular responsibility; it has identified Africa as a priority for international action, and its Commission for Africa will report in March. Moreover, the United Nations review conference on progress towards the Millennium Development Goals in September will ensure that the needs of Africa are the subject of political attention in the global arena.

David Mepham is associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr). A new ippr report, Putting our house in order – recasting G8 policy towards Africa, is published in February 2005.

2005 also marks the twentieth anniversary of Live Aid, and this shows signs of encouraging a much wider group of people to engage – perhaps some for the first time – with issues related to Africa and global justice. The imaginative and energetic NGO campaign, Make Poverty History, is one sign of this.

This growing public constituency for development and Africa is particularly critical. Serious campaigning by NGOs, policy networks, activists and sections of the media has already pushed aid, debt, and trade issues further up the political agenda. Continuing public pressure of this kind holds out the best hope that rich-country governments will be held to account and be persuaded to end those policies that currently damage and disadvantage the African continent.


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