African civil society calls for a new economic model

The World Economic Forum on Africa (WEF) was held in Tanzania for the first time on 5-7 May. While the WEF meetings are dominated by corporate executives and government leaders, the voice of ordinary people is often missing. Oxfam supported the African People’s Forum, a civil society conference running parallel to the main event. Marc Wegerif attended:

The African People’s Forum was set up to create a space where the people affected by the decisions of the big corporations in the WEF can share ideas and raise their voices on the kind of future they want, and how they think they can get there. In the face of threats such as climate change, rising food prices and corporate exploitation, such a forum is needed now more than ever.

It was a huge success. Over 300 people attended two days of fascinating discussions under the theme, “For Prosperity, Resilience and Inclusive Growth in Africa”. Everything from climate change to ‘land grabs’ by foreign companies and the economic role of women was fiercely debated.

The conclusion though was clear: “The current growth-orientated economic model, and the investments from big business that come with it, are often not benefiting citizens. Inequalities are growing and the poorest are getting poorer,” said the forum’s final communiqué. A common feeling was that WEF priorities are often implemented at the expense of the poorest African people.

For me, a highlight of the first day was the keynote address by Professor Issa Shivji, a leading Tanzanian expert on development issues. Mapping out Africa’s place in the global economy over the last century, he argued that what the business leaders at the WEF are promoting is in reality a new era of “primitive accumulation” – based on the continued exploitative extraction of resources out of Africa at the expense of the African people. “They don’t want African people, they just want Africa,” he declared.

Unlike the main WEF, some of the most marginalized sectors of society got plenty of opportunity to speak. Women’s groups, small farmers, pastoralists and the urban poor are all particularly affected by the WEF policies. All spoke of their challenges and experiences, from being evicted from their lands to make room for international companies, to a lack of investment in health care and gender inequality.

Day Two saw people brave torrential rain to debate climate change issues and the roles and responsibilities of big businesses. The forum heard how prolonged droughts, floods and changing weather patterns are affecting Tanzanian communities. They called on companies to dramatically reduce their carbon emissions, pay compensation for the impact of climate change and environmental destruction, and increase investment in “clean” energy technology to provide electricity to all citizens.

International companies were also a focus in the workshop on land grabbing, where they were accused of taking the land and natural resources of small-scale producers. A shocking number of cases were presented where foreign businesses had taken land from local communities with little or no respect for traditional or legal land rights. In Tanzania, for example, participants told how farmers have lost land in Kisarawe to an international bio-fuel company, and how in North Mara a foreign mining company has polluted local water sources.

African governments also came in for criticism, for “not doing enough to protect the rights and interest of citizens.” Basic services that people depend on, such as health and education, are not improving and in some cases deteriorating while governments try to cut costs.

The Forum was a space for citizens to discuss their own development and make their own suggestions for a better, fairer future. The world should listen to what they have to say.

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