By Raliat Oluyemisi Sunmonu
A friend of mine once said: "the only way to fix Nigeria's economy is to lock the whole country down and force Nigerians to produce what they consume and consume what they produce." It sounds so simplistic and I suppose it is on several levels. But the more I thought about it, the less outlandish an idea it became. In a country where we import everything from oil (and Nigeria being one of the world's largest oil producers too!) to water (Evian, anyone?), it doesn't take much of an imagination to see how "isolating" ourselves to could lead to greater self-sufficiency. I decided to carry my isolationist views a step further and apply it to international relations. What if Nigeria (and other developing nations by extension) were to sever their ties to the various international organizations that do them more harm than good and instead, focused on internal development? It worked for the United States in the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth so why not Africa?
I can already hear the babble of voices raised in strenuous objection: impossible! The Africa of today is not the America of the 19th or 20th century. We need foreign investment, aid, technology, etc. to progress. Ok. I actually agree, in theory at least, with some of the arguments. I am not advocating a complete withdrawal from international matters, assuming such a thing were even possible in today's world. I am a strong believer in multi-national cooperation. I don't think any country should or can afford to exist in an island by itself. However, there IS such a thing as overkill and I think many African countries over-indulge. They belong to organizations that bring them little or no rewards, groups in which the price of membership far exceeds the paltry benefits derived, or organizations whose very existence is superfluous.
I have no problems with what I call "passive" organizations: those that require little more from their members than their act of belonging. They ask for little in terms of dues, contributions, etc. and do little beyond producing the occasional communique white paper. It's the other kind that I have a serious beef with. The ones that supposedly promote world peace/global trade/multilateral cooperation. The high-profile ones with the exorbitant costs that benefit one group and leave the others scrambling for meagre scraps. There are quite a few of them, and many more I've never even heard of, I'm sure but I will talk about just the few that have been especially on my mind lately.
World Trade Organization: Ok. I'm no financial wizard and I must confess that my knowledge of economics is limited to the usual basic college courses in macro- and micro-economics. I suppose there are all kinds of wonderful reasons why China pulled all the stops in order to be admitted into this august body. And maybe for China, it's a wonderful thing. Certainly for the United States the European Union and maybe Japan, it's a great thing; I mean, a market of over 1 billion people? Can anyone say "french fries" in mandarin?
The WTO evolved from GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) with the noble purpose of encouraging free trade among member nations. In any club, there are those who profit and those who just belong. Developing countries belonging to the WTO are like non-swimmers who join a swim club-at worst, they are unable to take advantage of the club's benefits because of their handicap; at best, they learn to dog paddle while the more advanced members are doing synchronized swimming. My point is, it just doesn't work. It is inherently unfair because the rules are inevitably designed to benefit the strong swimmers. That is the purpose of the club after all. The weak are trying to catch up to the strong while the strong resent the concessions they have to make to their weaker members in order to get their way. I realize this is a layperson's (ineffective) attempt to reduce what is more complex to simple terms, but stick with me here. The worst part of it is that the strong/rich nations can afford to flout the rules (letter and/or spirit) of the organization and get away with it but not so for poorer nations. For example, the United States imposed tariffs on imported steel in order to protect its own floundering steel industry. President Bush just signed into law a 10-year, 190 billion dollar farm subsidy. What has come of all this? Nothing, of course. The European Union makes a lot of noise about counter-measures while deals are secretly worked out among all parties. Everyone goes home happy. Meanwhile, our wonderful friends at the IMF, World Bank and their over-paid consultants tell us the only way to economic empowerment is liberalizing our economies, selling off all state-owned enterprises and removing subsidies on everything to promote "real" and "fair" competition!
While the structure and nature of the WTO ostensibly guarantees each member an equal vote and hence, an equal voice in the decision-making process, in reality this is not the case partly because the WTO decision-making process is based on consensus, not majority voting; consensus meaning that no member present at the meeting when the decision is formally taken formally objects to the proposed decision. The inadequacies of this sort of system compared to a majority-based one are glaring: smaller, poorer nations simply do not have the resources to maintain a presence at every or even many of the meetings where these decisions are taken even though they are bound by the outcomes. Even in cases where they are present, they may be unable or willing to speak out for fear of coercion or "reprisal" by stronger nations on whom they depend for just about everything. Let's not forget also that many of the maneuvering and behind-the-scenes dealmaking take place in sessions organized by rich countries and to which developing nations are not invited. Members must also bear the responsibility of researching and participating at these meetings. This naturally puts the rich nations at an advantage.
I could go on but the essential point is that the WTO, in spite of its appearance and protestations to the contrary in reality does only the already-rich countries good. An excellent paper to read on the decision-making processes of the WTO and the consequences for developing countries can be found at http://www.southcentre.org/.
The Commonwealth: Will somebody PLEASE tell me why we belong to this club? I don't know how much we pay in membership dues but why on earth would anyone want to belong to a club started by former colonizers for the countries they raped and colonized? Huh? Is it me? Am I missing something? We showed we really could do without it when we (Nigeria) were suspended during Abacha's regime.
The United Nations: Ok. Even I am not advocating a withdrawal from the U.N but it's obvious it must change. They do a lot of good things but it is still elitist in many respects. Veto power? Permanent membership in the Security Council? One country holding the entire UN hostage by refusing to pay its dues because some of the organization's policies do not mesh with their domestic policies? One country being allowed to flout resolutions with impunity while another gets bombed/sanctioned supposedly for the same reasons? Come on! Who are we all kidding?
Multilateral cooperation is wonderful and in any case where it will benefit the country, I say go for it. Unfortunately developing nations are being bound by treaties, resolutions, agreements and what-nots that they cannot take advantage of or which does them more harm than good. I say let's borrow a page from America (which is quite appropriate since that country holds itself up as the model for all other countries) who backtracked from a treaty to establish the International Criminal Court (forget that little thing about a signature because it does not want any of its citizens to be tried by such a court. All developing countries should re-examine their membership in various international bodies; remove themselves from those that do not benefit them AND consider themselves under no obligation to honor any agreements/treaties they feel do their country no good (my personal favorites are those to do with medical-related patents).