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Promoting Socially Responsible Finance, Trade and Investment

By L. Muthoni Wanyeki 

(Notes from a paper presented at the African Regional Dialogue on Fighting Poverty: Social Innovations and New Coalitions in Addis Ababa last November)  

The theme of this African Regional Dialogue is Fighting Poverty through Social Innovations and New Networking. When thinking about this theme, we may ask what we consider to define poverty. What are the indicators of poverty? The concept paper includes as indicators of poverty the facts that 1.3 Billion people live on less than one dollar a day and that the assets of the world 200 richest people are more than the combined income of 41 per cent--almost half--of the total world population. The indicators of poverty here are real incomes, the proximity of real incomes to the so-called poverty line and inequality. Such indicators depend on relativity--relativity to what we have determined people can subsist on and relativity in relation to others. Such indicators are useful to gauge progress, but they do not encapsulate what the aims of any poverty eradication strategy should be. 

When all Africans have crossed the so-called poverty line and accumulated enough assets and capital to decrease inequality, will we consider the battle won? Is it feasible for all Africans to cross the so-called poverty line? Is it feasible for all inequalities to be eliminated? If so, what is it that we are actually working for? With regard to this question, the concept of sustainable livelihoods must be brought in. 

Another sub-theme of this African Regional Dialogue points to the importance of respecting cultural diversity. Culture is not static and and culture is not just about cultural signifiers--culture is about ways of life and how we organize ourselves. Culture is about livelihoods. If we are convinced that maintaining cultural diversity is important, then we must also be convinced that maintaining diversity of livelihoods is important. So, a critical indicator of poverty is the decreasing choice available to African peoples in terms of our livelihoods. Do we all need or want to live in a wage economy? How many of us actually own and control our own labour? 

Thus an end and an indicator of gains in the struggle against poverty is the ability to choose between livelihoods, between modes of production that we ourselves own and control. Therefore, it is appropriate to focus on sustainable livelihoods and how our choices of livelihoods are being decreased by the national and international policy choices we are making with regards to finance, trade and investment. 

What do we mean by sustainable livelihoods? In the south of Tanzania, in Lindi, there is a center called the Mtwara Media Center. This center has been using participatory video with traditional fishing communities. A ban on traditional fishing practices was imposed by the Ministry responsible. And there was a decrease of fish available to traditional fishers due to large scale dynamite fishing for commercial sale to urban markets and for export. Through participatory video, villagers documented their experiences, the decrease in real incomes and their inability to continue to survive on fishing, for both men and women, even though the kinds of fish traditionally caught by men and women, the fishing areas and methods were different. 

Participatory video enabled the local communities to share their experiences from one village to another. It was an eye opener and enabled them to decide to challenge the ban collectively. They decided to used participatory video to show how traditional fishing methods protect coral, fish eggs and young fish in their reef environment and compared this protection with the devastation of dynamite fishing. With the help of the centre, they shot and edited the video and sent representatives from different villages all the way to Dar es Salaam. They managed to get an audience with the Minister. The Minister was impressed by what he saw and lifted the ban on traditional fishing practices. 

The result, although positive, created conflict between those who wished to continue with traditional fishing practices and those who wanted to continue with dynamite fishing. What the story does not address is why people within the communities involved were forced to go into dynamite fishing, which is detrimental in the long term, to get money from commerical sales and export. But the story is an example of how a Ministry initially made a policy choice based on the lack of information. It is also an example of how that policy choice was corrected with information.

Another story, also from Tanzania, concerns the Orkonerai Integrated Pastoralists' Survival Programme. This programme was initiated by Maasai people in Terrat who were facing severe land alienation from wildlife conservation projects, large scale commercial horticultural farmers, and mining. They established a community resource center and entered into contact and information exchange with indigenous people across the world. Based on experiences shared, they engaged with human rights organizations and put forward a case for challenging the forced removal of their community from the Mkomozi game reserve. Last year, they won their case--a historical and precendent-setting case which has recognized that their removal was wrong and is granting restitution. They are going back to court to seek restitution in the form of their original communal grazing lands. They have thus played a part in getting the right to communal land recognized and protected more explicitly in Tanzania's recent land law review. 

The first lesson for us, from these two stories, is that the concept of sustainable livelihoods has not featured in economic planning in Africa. Our economic planning tends to address the commercialization of agriculture for export, which does not address everyone's needs. The second lesson is that national economic policy choices are actually often at odds with the concept of sustainable livelihoods. And national economic policy choices are increasingly limited by international commitments and obligations. Why else the investment in fishing for export, in wildlife preservation over people's preservation and large scale horticultural farming over food production? 

Yet, these two examples also show that communicating experience can validate experience and build solidarity. Validated experiences of threats or wrongs and the solidarity so created can find expression in organizing at the local level in a manner that impacts the national level--despite the national level's constraints. Organizing at the local level can be successful if it is done with an awareness of national policy objectives and the context in which national policy is made. For there are other international commitments and obligations which can be utilized. In the case of Terrat, the people drew from international human rights standards and law. These standards were the basis on which they won their case. Other international commitments that we can draw upon are international labor standards and law and, of course, international standards and law relating to women's rights. From the examples cited, it is also evident that even though the process of negotiating interests, both at the local and national levels, is complex nowadays, it can be done. 

The examples above also show that the current international context is contradictory. There is increasing divergence between international environmental law, human rights law and labor law on the one hand, and finance, trade and investment law on the other hand. International environmental, human rights and labor law have increasingly recognized and valued people and have codified their rights and choices or options. However, its implementation through harmonization with the domestic laws is slow, haphazard and resisted and its enforcement is weak.

  The concept of sustainable livelihoods is outside of international commitments and obligations related to finance, trade and investment. We ourselves do not always recognize the extent to which our livelihood choices have been and are being defined for us. Such commitments and obligations recognize only livelihoods based on capital accumulation and production for such capital accumulation. Everything is for consumption, and thus for sale. Yet, the implementation of such commitments and obligations is immediate. What is said by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) finds its way almost instantaneously into national law and policy because its enforcement mechanisms are stronger--we are dependent on the multilateral and bilateral loans, the release of which is hinged on adherence to these commitments and obligations.

  What are we doing about it? There are two examples of processes at the national level. The first addressed the formulation and passing of the Kenyan law on the deregulation and privatization of telecommunications. When the first draft of the bill to privatize telecommunications was released, there was an outcry from a range of local stakeholders -- internet service providers, telecommunications service providers and developmentalists working on universal access who were and concerned with what the bill would mean for the communications ability of rural people. Thus came together a motley crew of advocates against the bill. There was an interesting process of negotiation between the civil society and private sector actors to agree on what could collectively be said to the government. They finally succeeded in getting the first bill withdrawn, a second one substantially revised and, finally in 1998, the Kenya Communications Act was passed by parliament. 

What was interesting was that the local and international private sector could understand the local civil society concerns about getting telecommunications services into the rural areas and that they supported recommendations around these concerns so as to keep the lobby together. This shows that negotiating divergent interests can be successfully done. 

The second example concerns the Kenyan campaign against the proposed Multilateral Agreements on Investment (MAI) put forward by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. EcoNews Africa, a local non-governmental organization (NGO), spearheaded a campaign among development NGOs that track international economic policy. They produced research showing the impact of current investment in Kenya in terms of community participation, human rights, labour law and women's rights. The campaign then drew in local Chamber of Commerce and the local manufacturing association, who were horrified about the extent to which the proposed MAI would limit the government's choices to prioritize local business and industry. The campaign was launched and it resulted in Kenya taking a position against the MAI. This example again shows that although interests may be divergent in other situations, sectors can work together to address issues of common concern.

  The lesson here is that there are opportunities for creating national and international solidarity. In the campaigns around the liberalization of telecommunications and against the MAI, we drew on the experience of civil society actors throughout Africa, throughout the South and in the North as well. 

There are links between the two examples cited. First, the recognition in both instances that addressing poverty cannot only be through service delivery but must be through advocacy--engagement with policy that will bear results in terms of service delivery. Second, the recognition that the globalization we talk so much about is not an amorphous, intangible process--it is the result of choices about policy at both the national and international levels. We can map and track these policies and intervene while decisions are being made. Third and most important, the recognition that we can represent ourselves, we can fight for what livelihoods we do have and we can accept that our different livelihoods are not necessarily mutually antagonistic--they can co-exist.

What are the alternatives? We have never valued our traditions of communal livelihoods in non-feudal African societies enough to document and analyze whether and how they worked. We are told that socialism has failed. We fight against globalization yet refer anxiously to the WTO commitments to bolster our case when lobbying for the privatization of telecommunications, for example. We are overjoyed when privatization finally happens, hoping to get a telephone that does not fail in the rainy season or to get a telephone at all. And yet, we are angry when we learn that teff and Arabica coffee--both of which are indigenous to Ethiopia--have been patented by Americans under yet another WTO commitment. 

We can see that our own thinking about choices has been constrained. In short, we in civil society are confused and contradictory. But not to worry. International finance, trade and investment law is equally confused and contradictory. The assumptions of free markets do not apply. There is no equal access to market information. Players in the market do not have equal weight, especially in this age of transnational corporation mergers (TNCs). There is nothing more protectionist than the notion of intellectual property rights (IPRs) in the form of patents and the so-called life industries. And what could be more incredible than international law that forces a government to dismantle its universal health care system on the basis that it is a form of subsidy that acts as a trade barrier preventing the fair competition of private commercial health insurance providers?

  We may be confused and contradictory, but we are not crazy. We shall not continue to accept such confusions and contradictions in ourselves or in the national and international laws that govern us forever. We need to open our eyes to the whole picture. As civil society in Africa we have often failed to open our eyes to the whole picture. We must reject in total the idea that we are to become the privatized development and social service providers for our governments. We must demand accountability for development and social service provision. 

When talking of debt relief, for example, we must tie debt relief to national debt audits and be clear what was sought, for what and what was achieved. And accountability here refers both to our governments and to our financiers. Where the management of development projects was taken over by foreign technical advisors and still there was no delivery, we must refuse to be held accountable. We must also refuse to be held accountable when lending conditions change midway, especially given the historical context in which development financing first began and the concessional terms that were first offered.

  We must also reject the idea that challenging our governments at the national level precludes working with them at the international level. The issues are too big and too important for that. We must work for strong governments, strong in the sense that they are willing to and capable of planning for sustainable livelihoods at the national level and representing the concept of sustainable livelihoods at the international level. We must seek to harmonize acceptable international law with our own law, so that we can use such tools to challenge unacceptable international law. We must move out of international decision making bodies where we have already made space and where we are already beginning to feel comfortable and seek to engage with international decision making bodies where we have no space, particularly as African women, and learn our way out of discomfort. 

As civil society actors, we have often failed to address the structural framework in which we work. Many social innovations in this area--engendered budgets, fair trade, voluntary codes of conduct, etc--while useful, are concerned with achieving equity within the given structural framework. As Africans, we know that the concept of fair trade is being perverted to continue to shut out products from the South, the argument being that such products were made with child labor or under environmentally unsound conditions, etc. This is certainly not to say that in the South we should not be concerned about labor conditions or the environmental impact of production. We should be and we are.  It is to question the convenience with which and the speed at which Northern producers are suddenly picking up issues they have no history of ever being concerned about.

 As African women who have been preoccupied with the debate over equity versus equality, we know that solutions for equity are not the same with solutions for equality. Social transformation is not about relativity--whether we are under or over the so-called poverty line, or whether we are creeping across the divide that separates rich from poor. Social transformation is about setting our own standards--standards which fundamentally question the divides and inequalities that exist. To do that, we have to admit to ourselves that not everything is for sale and not everything is for consumption. There are livelihoods that are based on values of communal and sustainable use. We need to begin to work on creating national and international law which acknowledges these values and allows diverse livelihoods to fully flourish.


L. Muthoni Wanyeki is Executive Director African Women's Development and Communications Network (FEMNET) E-mail: wanyeki@iconnect.co.ke

Transmitted 2000

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L. Muthoni Wanyeki is Executive Director African Women's Development and Communications Network

Date Uploaded 1/23/2008
Copyright Africa Economic Analysis 2005