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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON AFRICA

A Forced March to Congress' Tune

A bill emerges to impose business-friendly U.S. and IMF development standards on sub-Saharan countries.

March 11, 1998|RANDALL ROBINSON and RALPH NADER | Randall Robinson is the president of TransAfrica, a Washington-based foreign-affairs advocacy organization. Ralph Nader has been the leading U.S. consumer and environmental advocate since the 1960s

The House is scheduled to vote today on legislation targeting two dozen sub-Saharan African countries. Unfortunately, this bill, introduced Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.), is a threat to Africa's long-term interests.

The legislation unfairly singles out Africa with harsh new conditions that African countries alone must meet simply to maintain existing U.S. trade and some aid benefits. It also authorizes the president to enter into a sub-Sahara free trade agreement--a NAFTA in Africa.

There has been enormous confusion about the Crane bill. While many members of Congress are eager to vote for legislation to help Africa, the Crane bill would do anything but that by granting special favors for multinational corporations at the expense of equitable, sustainable African development.

The bill requires that each sub-Saharan African country be certified annually by the president to have met certain conditions or risk termination of trade preferences. These countries also must join the World Trade Organization, which many African countries have rejected as damaging to their interests, and comply with harsh International Monetary Fund terms.

Efforts to remove offensive provisions from the Crane bill have been rejected. Thus, Congress is being given a bill that combines NAFTA's failed rules with cruel IMF dictates. Under the cover of a nonbinding preamble, the bill is devoid of binding labor, environmental or human rights standards. Even efforts to change the bill to prevent Asian manufacturers from transshipping their products through Africa were rejected, although this practice already costs tens of thousands of African and U.S. textile and apparel jobs.

What sort of Africa policy should the U.S. adopt? Substantial public investment in education, health care and infrastructure is an essential foundation for economic development anywhere. Developing nations must be free to shape investment that promotes their nations' industrial, communications, financial and transportation capacity--policies that were essential to U.S development. Many such provisions remain in U.S. law today, such as limits on foreign ownership of communications services and national security-related industries and, in many states, farmland and mining and timber operations. Yet the Crane bill denies Africa precisely these rights.

Instead, the bill would terminate existing U.S. programs for African nations if these countries do not cede to U.S. mandates about how to organize their economies and societies for the benefit of multinational corporations.

The potential effect of the Crane bill is ominous, particularly as we observe how the imposition of similar conditions by the IMF on Asia is resulting in growing instability, lower growth rates and the purchase at fire sale prices of natural resources and productive capacity by a few immense foreign corporations.

Because economic and political pressure on sub-Saharan Africa is enormous, some African governments have not made public their private misgivings. We must not replace European colonialism that long burdened Africa with a new colonialism of servitude to external corporate interests.

The Crane bill bypasses policies that support domestic market growth and food security, and promotes instead shaky export-driven economies. It provides no debt relief and would impose on Africa the failed NAFTA model rejected by Congress just four months ago. The sort of pro-Africa bill needed was never considered by the domineering corporate forces that are pushing the Crane bill.

Congress should reject this legislation in its current form. A bad bill on Africa is worse than no bill at all.

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