Africa’s struggle to be heard in global summits

The pledges trip easily off the tongues of global leaders on summit occasions, but experts canvassed by AFP fear African nations may forever struggle to be truly heard no matter the global forum.

The days of undue Group of Eight influence on their lot may be numbered, given admissions at this month’s summit gathering Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the US in Italy’s earthquake-hit L’Aquila.

But the G14 some believe will now take precedence — adding emerging economic giants Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa, plus Egypt — may not offer much more, despite including two African voices at the table.

Neither South Africa nor Egypt could ever be said to represent the vast swathes of sub-Saharan Africa to which most aid is directed.

Besides, South Africa is already a member of the G20 — gathering all the major world economies, developed and emerging — that will meet at the end of September in Pittsburgh, and African nations have long complained of their lack of collective voice in that forum.

“South Africa cannot represent a whole continent,” said Tiberius Barasa of the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research in Nairobi, Kenya.

“South Africa is a developing country but it is quite different from the rest of the African countries given its history and its economic growth.”

Money talks, in global politics. And for Stephen Gelb, who heads up the Edge Institute in Johannesburg, his African neighbours will have to earn the right to be heard.

“African countries are being left aside and they will have to grow their economies in order to gain a more powerful voice, that’s how the internationl system works,” he said.

The leaders of the G8 nations vowed in L’Aquila to honour their promises to Africa and make up a 25-billion-dollar aid shortfall, but anti-poverty campaigners were not alone in demanding action not words.

“I don’t take these pledges seriously because they don’t carry any punishment if they’re not met,” Gelb added. “No country is going to be kicked out of the G8 because it hasn’t given aid to Africa.”

For Leonard Wantchekon, who heads an economic think tank in Cotonou, Benin, the debate about Africa is “limited to questions about whether to raise or lower aid pledges… Yet poverty is only one part of the African reality.”

The L’Aquila pledges felt hollow to many observers, given memories of commitments given in 2005, when the G8 met in the Scottish resort of Gleneagles.

Then they promised to increase aid to the world’s poorest countries by 50 billion dollars by 2010. While some countries, notably Japan, exceeded their promises, others, in particular Italy, fell far short.

Assefa Admassie of the Ethiopian Economic Association warned that the G8 “never honour their commitment(s).”

The solution, for him, is for Africans to take matters into their own hands. “We can’t only blame G8 or multilateral organisations,” he said. “We have to put our own houses in order.”

However, for these experts, achieving that aim depends on global trade negotiations — and the crucial issue of access for African goods to European and American markets, and on what tariff bases.

Truly liberalised global trade seems further than ever away given current global economic conditions, not least with the ongoing stalemate in the Doha Round of talks begun in 2001.

“Any move on agriculture and food security would be incomplete if it’s not sort of coupled with some reform on global trade policy, particularly under Doha,” said Philip Osafo-Kwaako, of the Center for the Study of the Economies of Africa in Abuja, Nigeria.

Africa faces intense volatility of raw materials prices with the effects of climate change on food security especially marked across the continent.

Wantchekon maintains the African Union should be given its own permanent seat at the G20 table, as with its European counterpart.

Even there, though, finding a common voice could prove testing, with Abdoulaye Diagne, who leads an economic and social research consortium in Dakar, Senegal, warning of a history of short-termism and narrow self-interest.

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