New lords of Africa

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Thu Jul 10 2003 - 18:03:46 EDT

New lords of Africa

Global protests did help poor countries over drugs and Aids. But the
counterattack has begun

Saskia Sassen
Wednesday July 9, 2003
The Guardian

Warlords. They have a bad name but not all they do is bad. Their basic premise
is that a good gun is better than a good law. Then there is the horsetrading:
you give me oil, I will get you aid for Aids treatment; horsetrading can work
when bureaucrats fail. Some warlords are grubby, others are imperial: as in
Liberia, the warlord can descend from the heavens and declare it's time for
the old order to go. Then there is the domestic warlord: the cowboy or the
caudillo, always riding something - a horse, a tank - to an unknown
Although warlordism is not new, it has had to adjust to new settings, like
international treaties and whatnot. And it has had to become far more complex
and indirect in its horsetrading. Bush is becoming a warlord who can handle it
all. Two cases come to mind. One is the current visit to Africa, where Bush
wants access to oil and the installation of US military bases and troops to
make the region secure against terrorism. The second is the Bush
administration's handling of the World Trade Organisation Doha declaration
giving poor countries the right to override pharmaceutical patents in public
health emergencies.

At the top of the list for horsetrading in Africa are oil and military bases
or, at the least, troop stations. In return, Bush is offering aid for Aids
victims and enhanced access to US markets. This is horsetrading at its best.
The fine print on the offer of US market access has some notable features: the
benefits for African producers are actually neutralised by the distortions
resulting from US government subsidies to its farmers; these subsidies are
larger than many African economies, and they are three times as large as total
US aid to Africa as a whole.

US investment in oil production is being presented as a tool for development.
This is not the first time this has happened, so we have some evidence on the
matter. Again, the fine print does not look as good as the headlines. Oil has
been a devastating fact for development in Africa: it has concentrated wealth
and produced disincentives for any other type of development. Nor has it
helped democracy, since entrenched elites lose much more than office if they
lose control over the government. The economic shadow effect of oil is largely
negative, and it all winds up creating more poverty. Oil-rich Nigeria and its
100m poor are exhibit number one.

What does the US get out of it? Today the US relies on Africa for 15% of its
oil imports. The estimates are that by 2005 this will rise to between 20% and
25% of US oil imports. To this we should add the high quality of some of the
African oil and the better transport distance from the Atlantic coast compared
to the Middle East. Finally, if the US can also set up military bases and
station troops to make sure everything is quiet, even if not peaceful, then we
have a nice military-economic linkage.

One might say that Africa is special - that is, especially vulnerable - when
it is horsetrading with imperial warlords. But we see similarly crafted fine
print if we go digging into some of the WTO agreements that supposedly are
victories for the interests of people in the global south. It also tells us
something about why aid for Aids might be the one item in the horsetrading
that might actually bring benefits to Africa - and it has nothing to do with
the noblesse oblige of imperial warlords.

Every time countries of the global south have politically organised to see
some of their interests reflected in the WTO declarations, the work of
elaborating the details takes a peculiar turn. Sheer power trumps politics.
The only time that politics can trump sheer power is when larger sectors of
global civil society get involved in the fray, and do so with very
well-defined goals in mind. Dissecting the case of the WTO Doha declaration
illuminates each of these issues.

Global south countries did organise themselves effectively at the Doha
meetings to resist some of the more damaging resolutions proposed by the
global north. They succeeded in introducing the notion of options to override
patents on pharmaceuticals. In the context of WTO and intellectual property
rights this is almost subversive of global capitalism and "morally" wrong
because it will damage the public collective interest of both poor and rich in
supporting costly research. This was an important victory, especially since
countries such as Brazil, India and Jordan have formidable pharmaceutical
capabilities and are able generically to produce many of the drugs now under

There was a second victory for the global south at the meeting. The WTO
recognised that some of the poorer countries lack the resources to produce
these medicines. Paragraph 6 of the Doha declaration is quite clear on this.
These were the headlines.

But the horsetrading started soon after. the WTO designed a list of "approved
diseases" that justify overriding patents on pharmaceuticals crucial for
countries lacking the capabilities for generic production. The list turns out
to exclude just about all major diseases for which the global north firms have
developed medicines. Left on the list are mostly diseases for which these
firms have not - one is tempted to insert "bothered to" - develop medicines or
for which treatment is so old as to be off-patent. Dr Mary Moran of Médicins
Sans Frontières reports that almost all of the major causes of mortality and
morbidity in Africa for which patented western drugs exist have been excluded
from the list of drugs poor countries can acquire outside the intellectual
property rights framework.

There is one exception to these defeats: drugs for treating HIV/Aids. There
are two important political lessons to be learnt from this case. Worldwide NGO
mobilisation played a crucial role in making the large pharmaceuticals desist
in their efforts to prevent poor countries from importing the far cheaper
generically produced HIV/Aids drugs. What matters politically is that global
protests by civil society helped poor countries get what they needed from the
most powerful countries in the WTO: overriding the patents of Aids treatments
held by the most powerful corporations in the world. This success is
particularly significant as it is one of the few serious diseases that were
not eliminated from the list.

The second lesson is that warlords will not simply leave it at this. The
latest war the US is now preparing is a major attack on the WTO itself: they
don't want it any more. Another attack is targeted against "progressive" NGOs
and their growing influence. Two components illustrate the matter. The
American Enterprise Institute, an influential thinktank closely associated
with the Bush administration, launched the attack with a conference in
Washington co-sponsored by the Australian rightwing thinktank, the Institute
of Public Affairs. At least 42 senior representatives of the Bush
administration attended. Secondly, the US Agency for International Development
is now moving to grant more contracts to private firms instead of NGOs.

Warlords can go along with laws and international treaties if these do not
interfere. When they do interfere, the horsetrading begins. And when this is
not enough, well, there are always those guns.

Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and
the author of Guests and Aliens

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