Thursday, November 1, 2007

Globalization with an African face

There’s been a lot of talk, maybe too much talk, about the effects market liberalization has on the lower end of a country’s economic stratum. We’re talking globalization, and at least some of the research I’ve read claims the poorest of the poor (read: low-skill workers) fail to make short-term gains when a country opens itself up to foreign trade and investment. No matter what precautions a government may take (temporary tariffs to protect certain industries, for example), the low-skilled sector oftentimes find its wages cut and/or its jobs outsourced.

Now, people debate whether this is a causal relationship or not (globalization = keeping the poor poor?) or how much it depends on the level of economic liberalization a country undergoes. Then, debate rages whether low-skilled workers eventually find better work and higher wages in the long-term.

Yes, some of this stuff may sound arcane. But I think the poor track record globalization has with the working class is the major reason it seems so unpopular in places like South and Central America.

One interesting aspect of this research on countries going through globalization is how little of it focuses on sub-Saharan Africa. That probably says a lot more about the impact globalization has had on the continent than about the availability of researchers willing to slug it out in the slums of Nairobi. Let’s be honest, in the past decade perhaps only a few African countries could candidly speak about opening up their industries to outside investment. Off the top of my head, the list could include: South Africa, Kenya and Uganda (maybe), Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal (sort of), and the countries of North West Africa.

There’s other countries that belong on this list I am certain, but that’s only due their mineral and oil deposits. What I am interested in is finding African countries with professional manufacturing sectors. (That’s why I included Nigeria.) It would be interesting to find how how this handful of countries deal with the upgraded connectivity with the rest of the world.

What I do know is that most of Africa remains shut out. In places like the Sahel (high transportation costs, low education levels, expensive goods and services, expensive banking structures), I just don’t see much export-quality manufacturing taking place. That’s why globalization hasn’t had much of an impact here because nobody is looking to invest in those countries. (Now, on the level of cheap plastic stuff and fake soccer jerseys, globalization has definitely made its presence felt.)

This doesn’t mean all of Africa will lag behind forever.

In lieu of this week’s Connect Africa conference in Kigali, Amii Omara-Otunnu argues that Africans must grapple with globalization, even though its present incarnation has what he would describe as globalization with an American Face – dominated by American styles and rhetoric. I don’t quote too many pieces that use the word “dialectic,” but this is an interesting argument on Africans’ responsibility to take globalization and make it their own.

Because this American-sponsored technology has made borders porous, Africans must cross the digital divide and join the rest of the world. However, in doing so, they must tackle these difficult challenges, Omara-Otunnu says:

The first is how to share equitably the information and knowledge that propel globalization. The second is how to utilize this knowledge and information to foster human understanding and solidarity across regional, religious, gender, racial, and class boundaries. And the third is how to bridge the gap between theories and actions in such a way that building of Internet infrastructure is relevant to the lives of Africans. It is therefore not sufficient to create conditions for private investment and for the maximization of profit without taking into account the fundamental issue of the human rights of Africans.

If globalization is not to be a zero sum game but rather a win-win process, progressive Africans must make the case to those in power that globalization should not be only about profit maximization but also about globalization of ethical values. The humanistic accent on life and thought that is pronounced in African conception of social existence should be the continent’s area of comparative advantage that can contribute to a more humane globalization.

African contribution to give globalization a human face would indeed draw on the African genius, which despite centuries of exploitation resulting into material poverty, still boasts of spiritual wealth, which are captured in various proverbs or adages…The underlying meaning is that “no one is completely self-sufficient and sometimes we may have to work with even our rivals to achieve a greater good in society.

No comments: