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Nyar, Annsilla (2002) Facing NEPAD Head-on: Who’s Fooling Who?
A report on the second Wolpe lecture. Special report for CCS online : -.

As a woman attempting a critique of the second Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture on NEPAD by distinguished guests Roger Southall and Stephen Gelb, there is one immediately striking impression. It is that of the predominance of Y- chromosomes in and around the processes of NEPAD. This could easily range from the hands- on involvement of its principal (male) architects, (Presidents Mbeki, Bouteflika and Obasanjo of South Africa, Algeria and Nigeria respectively) to the colourful procession of states(men) at the African Union, and then to the fact that NEPAD is simply devoid of any substantive reference to women. Ironically for this woman writer, this bias could be felt at the Wolpe lecture itself, trickling as far down to two highly-educated males expounding on NEPAD, (plus a male moderator) even in such a fairly liberal (but nonetheless male-centered) institutional environment as the University of Natal.

Gendered as it may have been, the lecture began on a sobering note with venerable economist Dr. Stephen Gelb, who is director of the Edge Institute. He is well- known to South African political observers as co-architect of the government’s macroeconomic policy, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR). He also served as a consultant on the South African side of NEPAD.

Gelb’s presentation consisted largely of a sizeable dose of realpolitik, making for a vision of dry technicism through a faultless but intellectually sterile Powerpoint presentation of the NEPAD developmental model. Despite prefacing his presentation with the statement that that he would be presenting his own personal views, (which would, in any case, he explained, "be overlapping with the official view"), the dense thicket of official rhetoric used in the presentation often made it difficult to distinguish between both.

He began by outlining the 'preconditions' for development as a) peace and security, b) political governance d) economic governance and e) regional and sub-regional approaches to development. Such 'preconditions' are referred to as 'initiatives' at various points in the 60- page NEPAD document and are interestingly resonant of the (self-prescribed, it may be added) 'conditionalities' in the style of World Bank parlance.

NEPAD has several priority sectors a) infrastructure including ICT, b) human development: health, education, poverty alleviation, c) agriculture, d) diversification of production and exports e) more domestic savings (public and private) retained in Africa f) more ODA and debt relief and g) capital flows.

Gelb’s portrayal of Africa rankled somewhat disturbingly. Even given the broad level of generalisation that such a presentation usually involves, he seemed to make constant reference to a static picture of Africa as a homogenous entity, rather than the complex and richly diverse continent that it is, with its varying levels of development and with all of its huge differentiations amongst the various sub-regions and countries.

Terms such as ‘weak states' and 'bad governance' were casually bandied about by Gelb, unmindful of their overtly political overtones, in a clear appropriation of the Washington-consensus type language of diagnosis and prescription. This then raises the following questions. Why are African states 'weak' and why is African governance 'bad'? Why is 'openness so difficult' for African states? Therefore, does the responsibility lie only with us Africans?

Gelb’s allusion to issues of responsibility was piecemeal: "African investors have contributed to the marginalisation of the continent” was all that he had to say. To espouse the NEPAD principle of 'African solutions for African problems' does and cannot preclude frank acknowledgement of historically-based responsibilities on the part of the developed North as well as the injustices of the (ever-growing) unevenness of world capitalist development.

Perhaps the most violently contentious aspect of NEPAD, i.e. the adverse role of globalisation, was all but denied by Gelb." NEPAD is not about advancing neo-liberalism," he insisted vehemently. If neo-liberalism is understood to be about the weakening of the state, then, he insisted, NEPAD is ‘really about strengthening the state’.
His only concession to the need for structural change within the global order was “Africa's relationships with the rest of the world need to be restructured. The globalisation process needs to be regulated and we need more intervention in markets."

There is a wealth of internal contradictions and limitations contained within the NEPAD project, to which Gelb only weakly alluded. One might cite the much-lauded African Peer Review Mechanism, located under the Democracy and Political Governance Initiative. As constantly emphasised by President Mbeki, the Peer Review Mechanism is central to the NEPAD mission and as explained by Gelb, involves countries who join NEPAD submitting to an external peer review every three years, by respected international bodies as well as country missions of 'eminent Africans'.

There is no doubt that the peer review mechanism, like NEPAD itself, is a laudable initiative. However it is difficult to see how NEPAD could work, whereas conflict resolution mechanisms such as in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have failed in the past. Why, it may be reasoned, should the peer review process be any different? It has to be also borne in mind that the integrity of the peer review process will undoubtedly have to contend with issues of corruption, bias, abuse, national interests, competing interpretations etc.

The question may be asked, what makes NEPAD such a ‘new’ approach to African development? The current discourse on the ‘newness’ of NEPAD and its ability to propel the continent along a new course of prosperity, ignores a whole slew of indigenous initiatives at challenging Africa’s current political and socio-economic malaise. For example, what makes the chances of success for the peer review mechanism any greater than the previous initiatives? Remembering, of course, that President Robert Mugabe was once chair of the OAU’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security!

The NEPAD document proclaims, "across the continent, democracy is spreading, backed by the African Union (AU) which has shown a new resolve to deal with conflicts and censure deviation from the norm." One would be hard-pressed to find evidence of the spread of such ‘democracy’ let alone even countries within the AU who could measure up to the stringent standards of democracy and governance as set by NEPAD. Presidents Obasanjo and Bouteflika, let alone our own President Mbeki facing a barrage of domestic political ferment, are hardly model African leaders!

The “non-rivalist club of African nations" that Gelb speaks of downplays such imperative issues as the self interest of elites whose very political survival strategies are premised on everything that is the antithesis of what NEPAD supposedly stands for. As rightly pointed out by Patrick Bond, Zimbabwe remains a crucial testing ground for Nepad, noting of course that certain rabid NEPAD supporters would insist that Zimbabwe does not have NEPAD membership and therefore eligible for the peer review process.

Gelb made shallow reference to what must be the most obviously damning critique of NEPAD, which is its exclusivist formulation over the heads of ordinary Africans for whose benefit the project is presumably intended. Instead he declared "without civil society, NEPAD would not succeed" and "we can use NEPAD to build civil society." The problem is that terms such as democracy and civil society have been worn out in popular usage and now assumes the status of a kind of ‘right all wrongs’ developmental mantra to be trotted out to lend legitimicacy to any political project. For example, civil society is perfectly compatible with an authoritarian state!

Gelb’s counterpart at the lecture was the eminent Professor Roger Southall, political analyst and director of the Democracy & Governance Group at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). Southall was scrupulously even-handed in his treatment of the controversial pros and cons of NEPAD. It would be fair even to say that his presentation was so rigorously balanced as to fail at offering any kind of sustained challenge to the views espoused by Gelb, the nature of which certainly demanded a vigorous rebuttal.

Southall made a good overview of the current range of critiques on NEPAD, beginning with a reference to a UNDP report ‘Deepening Democracy.’ In striving to be balanced, he explained NEPAD to be two documents: first, a neo-liberal strategy which "is lambasted by radicals" and then as "a forthright analysis which does acknowledge the structural constraints" (on Africa). The incompatibility of both views assumes strangely schizophrenic overtones. How can two such views be possibly compatible?

The body of Southall's presentation involved a careful consideration of the issues surrounding NEPAD and its model, implementation and future challenges. Interestingly, he began by outlining some popular criticisms levelled at NEPAD (such as its depth of commitment to democracy, the capacity and performance issues, the over-reliance on international assistance) and then he went on to elaborate on ‘radical’ views of NEPAD.

Some reflection on the importance of academic labels is necessary at this point, given Southall’s careful separation of the ‘radical’ point of view of NEPAD, from other such critiques. Why indeed should this be so?

There are distinct associative surface-oriented overtones of the radical critique with long-haired angry youth, rebels without a (real) cause and extremist political views, despite, of course, him saying,”one cannot easily discard these arguments" and "clearly something's going badly wrong." Not to be taken too seriously, perhaps? One might even say (judging from Southall’s remarks) that the ‘radical’ critique of NEPAD is to somehow confine the voices on the left to the peripheral margins of extremist political debate and discourse. If this is not the intention of the separation of radical critique as a set of issues on its own, then there is something in the labeling that demands rigorous consideration.

In summation, Gelb asked, “can it work?” (adding,“I’m not implying that in 15 or 20 years time, African economies will have risen to European or North American standards”) The necessary attitude should be one of “skepticism, not cynicism.”

It seems that ‘skepticism’ is too vapid an attitudinal stance toward so a far-reaching project with deeply political ramifications involving the fate of millions of Africans, male, female, young, old, poor. There is simply too much at stake.

It cannot be termed ‘cynicism’ let alone ‘radical’ to recognize that NEPAD is clearly not feasible and only means further indignities for the continent. Through NEPAD Africa continues to extend the begging bowl in a further erosion of the dignity that has been denied by centuries of exploitation, first through slavery, colonialism, apartheid and now what Patrick Bond has popularized as ‘global apartheid.’

In his opening remarks, Gelb had sounded an ancillary cautioning note in stating that 'the NEPAD model' was perhaps an inappropriate term as "these cannot be implemented in a straightforward way." How then will implementation work? Gelb could not answer that question.

NEPAD’s claims to ‘rebirth’ and ‘rejuvenation’ are flamboyant, as is its baseless claim to being ‘people-oriented’. There is modest reference to gender issues, let alone human rights and HIV/AIDS. Its strategies ie more privatization, more ODA, more trade with the developed North, the accent on humility for Africa’s apparent wrongs, etc do not, in any way, begin to challenge the prevailing dominant power structures that keep the continent in its current state of deeply skewed under-development and abject marginalisation. It brings to mind the lyrics of the old song “who”, (albeit to a feckless lover),”is fooling who?"

The audience reaction to both Wolpe presentations was fairly subdued. As I closed my notebook, I reflected that perhaps one of the most serious indictments of the Wolpe NEPAD lecture was not merely the fundamental lack of a gendered input. Male or not, the Wolpe guests lacked any real passion or inner belief that could have turned a bland presentation on NEPAD into a truly lively thing for the audience, to be deconstructed, unpacked and thoroughly and emotively engaged with. If anything, it could have provided, at least within the micro-context of the Wolpe lecture, the local social anchor that has been missing from the larger NEPAD project. That, in itself, would have given even a modicum of legitimacy to NEPAD at least from the side of the Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture Series and from the point of view of the Natal University intelligentsia.

What are our alternatives? Ultimately, one is left with the feeling that, in searching for the answer to Africa’s problems (which NEPAD clearly is not), maybe the most damning thing we may find ourselves guilty of is the idea that development is value-free. Certainly mild-mannered technocrats benignly wielding Powerpoint slides will not provide the kinds of answers Africa should be looking for, nor smartly besuited statesmen with impressive utterances of 'rebirth' for the continent. Development is fraught and conflictual as well as riddled through with tensions and contradictions. NEPAD, for all its glorified presentation to us, will not prove an exception to that immutable reality. Until then we Africans must and will continue to search and struggle for alternative developmental paradigms.

Annsilla Nyar is a researcher at the School of Development Studies at the University of Natal.

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