Greece birthed European civilisation but can no longer afford to live by its standards. Who can then? Not Africa, surely

We have to consider the possibility that dictatorships in Africa have become an integral part of the global system of fiscal governance.

THERE was joke in repetition about how Greece is preparing to make an application to join the African Union in the event of a not so voluntary exit from the Euro currency zone, and possibly the European Union (EU) itself.

At its core, there is a serious point: given the current treatment of Greece by fellow European countries’ powerful global financial institutions -not least in terms of tone and language- one could easily be forgiven for mistaking the country, one of great cultural significance to the European idea of itself, for a typical aid-dependent African stereotype of Development Studies folklore.

Despite her civilsiation having been seeded by Africa, such an application would never work in reality, and not just because Greece lies outside Africa.

Why Greece can’t be African

She does not qualify for Africa memberships simply because she was able to do something no African country has managed to do since our much earlier introduction to the same austerity programme of the international finance system: elect a government opposed to austerity.

 Greek Syriza supporters celebrate its victory: They were among the first to vote in an anti-austerity coalition. (Photo/AFP).

Sub-Saharan Africa has lived with the World Bank/ International Monetary Fund (IMF) designed austerity measures, called Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP), for more than a generation now.

The formula - now popping up in the various stricken economies of the European Union-  is straightforward: massive cuts to government spending on education, public health, environmental protection, public housing and social amenities, as a condition for accessing cheap loans.

That is not all, the borrower is expected to make their country more “investment capital friendly” by removing controls on the movement of money in an out of the country, as well as providing guarantees against nationalisation of foreign assets.

The borrower is also expected to design a massive programme of selling off public assets, ostensibly in the quest for greater operational efficiencies, and generally withdrawing the arm of the state in managing the public space.

These are the very measures that at least twenty-nine of Africa’s 54 countries also conceded to nearly three decades ago, from some of the very same institutions.

Key differences

That is where the similarity ends, however. Greece has gone on to vote out the government that agreed to this painful, conditional lending, and to elect one directly opposed to the entire austerity programme.

This has come against a backdrop of loud and violent street protests, media debates, industrial actions and agitation as a widespread public rejection of the just five years of cuts and sell offs. Given the intensity of their reaction, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Greeks were the first humans to ever encounter this bag of – some might say toxic - policy.

 There were protests in Africa, and other impoverished parts of the world against the IMF and World Bank loan conditionalities on the 1990s. Many, such as the 1986 riots in Zambia over a hike in the price of maize, were just as agitated.

A key difference therefore has been the quality and resilience of the demomcratic rights available to the citizens, all the way from the right to speak to the right to be elected.  The Greeks were able to put together an anti-austerity political coalition, explain their views to the public, mobilise vote support through rallies, and finally stand for election and have their victory at the polls accepted.

The Africa story tended to be quite different.  With varying degrees of both effectiveness and intensity, the pattern was to clamp down on protest and mobilisation, as well as to manipulate or intimidate the media into preventing a full ventilation of the issues at hand. The possibility of real debate over the IMF policies was killed off  in many parts of Africa by the entrenchment of either outright unapoloigetic dictatorships, or of serial electon riggers, in the critical phases of  their implementation.

The austerity measures, as well as this method of keeping them in place, have now been in place for so long, that many an African citizen considers them normal.

Uganda is an important example: As a flagship project of the IMF, Uganda was the first African country to make two important concessions. 

 Ugandan women drag food relief sacks: The country was a flagship project of the IMF, but is today a poor advertisement of the model. (Photo/AFP).

The first was on capital movement, guaranteeing 100% profit repatriation for foreign direct investors; the second was a guarantee against nationalisation, whereby the state would remain liable for any government nationalisation of foreign owned enterprises, with a duty to make restitution at the earliest opportunity.

Dictatorship and global finance

It was therefore not simply a policy shift, but also an important piece of political symbolism in which the founding ideas of the African Independence project were seen to have failed, and to now be repudiated by Africans themselves. For those advocating the policies, that was pretty valuable propaganda.

This has left an enduring legacy, both in terms of effects, and in the capacity of any given African government to remain comfortably indifferent to them. For example, in 2011, the average state Primary School teacher in Uganda was earning the equivalent of $92 per month. 

When the Uganda National Teachers Union began a strike aimed at securing substantial increase, the country’s then Prime Minister calmly announced that any teacher not at work the next day would simply have their name deleted from the Education ministry’s payroll system. The strike did not start.

What is certain is that while the IMF and World Bank may not be the ones that put  such governments into power, they certainly have found the existence of governments with dictatorial tendencies helpful in promoting and protecting the policies.

Up until now, the key difference has been that Europeans live in countries where there is a real chance of the majority getting the government they voted for.

We therefore have to consider the possibility that dictatorships in Africa have actually become an integral part of the global system of fiscal governance.

But this level of economic crisis, even the respect for democratic procedure, should not be taken for granted.

“We don’t change policies depending on elections,” the UK’s The Guardian newspaper reported Jyrki Katainen, the Finnish vice president of the European commission as saying in response to the May 2015 election victory of Greece’s anti-austerity coalition. 

Perhaps all of Europe will find itself joining Africa.

Counting benefits and costs

It may never be possible to design a truly objective way of evaluating whether the economic measures that swept sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s ever really yielded benefits. Part of the problem is one of perspective; verdicts are dependent on where one was located in the process, and how it affected their lives.

Some, not least those who designed and implemented the policies, say that they are working.

Others, while in agreement that there has been “positive growth”, argue that the outcomes would have happened anyway, even without all that economic engineering, and the discomforts that came with it.

Those who were secure in, or at least used to, the previous systems see nothing but social devastation and insecurity.

Even actual gross domestic product (GDP) figures are not necessarily helpful, since an increase can be as much a result of counting the proceeds of selling off a forest or public enterprise, as it can from boosting manufacturing output.

There was therefore never going to be a consensus on this fundamental matter across any given political spectrum, as it brought into play differences of philosophical and even semantic opinion.

Many things that had been taken for granted for decades suddenly began to disappear, but there was a riddle in all this: due to the general dysfunction of the average African country in the 1980s, many of these services had disappeared anyway, so why was there an argument about “preserving” them?

Was the IMF not simply making a formal recognition of their disappearance with new policy and laws?

This was partly a problem of assumptions, and the expectations that arise from them. For many Africans, the concept of recovery was assumed to be the organising of a return to the status quo ante: that honeymoon period just after independence when social services allegedly worked, jobs were being created, and optimism was justifiable.

 Malawians protest the high cost of living and unemployment. It was at one point forced to sell off its food stocks to pay an IMF loan - when a drought was around the corner. (Photo/AFP).

But the argument within public discourse had changed. It was no longer about the quality of the public service being delivered, but about whether that service should even exist in the first place. 

The essential element was the abandonment of a kind of state protectionist regime. This represented a radical departure from the expectations of the average African citizen. Terms like “cost sharing” and “retrenchment” entered the language of public politics and private misery.

Bad timing

Much of the continent’s intellectual communities were simply completely unprepared for such a development, and could not respond.

In this way again, an absence of democracy became very useful, especially when insisting that the attendant discomforts were a necessary part of a process of adjustment, and also appearing decisive in the midst of a generalised intellectual disorientation in the public sphere.

This led in many cases to the wholesale swallowing of very questionable advice, such as in 2001 when the then government of Malawi sold off all 167,000 metric tonnes of its grain reserve as a part of a plan to pay off a debt of US$9 million owed to the IMF.

As this happened just as a severe drought hit the region, and led to not just suffering, but also denials from the IMF who claimed the Malawians had in fact taken the “advice” from an EU-funded consultant.

The point here is that only a free debate guarantees the best policy outcome. But this was not possible with policymakers in the grip of neo-liberal dogma. Neither will it allow a proper tackling of the ever-growing elephant in the room; namely if the capitalist path is the true route to prosperity, then how come it is in crisis at its source?

If the country that birthed the European civilisation can no longer afford to live by European standards, then who can? Not Africa, surely.

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