The G8 Summit in Scotland has come and gone. The Live 8 concerts have come and gone. The announcement of a debt deal by the G8 finance ministers on June 11th has come and gone. But the immediate material conditions of impoverished people around the world have not changed.
All the talk about what was going to change or what is going to change because of the G8 meetings reminded me of a television news story from Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1997, as the Mobutu regime fell and Laurent Kabila took over. It was a poignant moment full of promise and hope that sadly was, and continues to be, savagely crushed. In the news story, one woman declared, “Tonight we will eat.” She has stayed with me and I wonder about her as each report of fighting, killing, devastation in the DRC is filed. I don’t know if she survived it all or if she is long dead. But I keep hoping, and so it is with the G8 and its promises to Africa and impoverished countries: I keep hoping.
We have been down this road many times, with several G8 summits, and with every G8 leader who wants to leave a legacy or needs a political boost. We have heard promises to fight hunger, end poverty, curtail HIV/ AIDS, put a stop to wars, to change the world. What has been clear with each communiqué, each initiative, each commission, and each promise is a profound lack of solidarity. These have been acts of charity, not solidarity or restorative justice. There is a huge failure to understand or acknowledge the role that the various countries - through colonialism, slavery, international debt, unjust trade, greed, and sheer exploitation - have played in the impoverishment of Africa, and the responsibility they bear for the very conditions they decry and promise to reverse.
There has also been tremendous blindness and arrogance in the failure to include or even consider the role of African peoples and governments in the endeavors that they embark on to “save” Africa. And perhaps this has been the fatal flaw in their plans and initiatives for Africa. Charity cases, basket cases, conscience cleansers, and wipers of bloody hands. When people do these kinds of things, they’re bound to fail. The G8 countries see themselves as knights in shining armor riding white horses - or is it white knights? But never as partners, never people or countries acting or responding in solidarity, recognizing that our problems are their problems.
There are several legacies, some centuries old, that demand honesty, accountability, and genuine partnership as we move forward.
In the indigenous practices, the women’s groups, and the formal and informal associations of craftspeople, local service providers, and self-help collectives all across Africa and the Global South, alternatives that immediately change the material conditions of people are being forged and implemented. They require neither the stamp of approval from the IMF nor a G8 communiqué, nor are they annual rituals in front of the international press, beamed around the world. They are alternatives and initiatives born of desperation, pride, and honor; of dignity and self-worth; and shared determination to resist and survive when everything and everyone says “die.”
The examples in Africa are countless and diverse - from the Niger Delta to the townships of South Africa to the slums of Nairobi and the deserts of the Sahel region. It would do the G8 good to remember they have little to teach us about survival, and much to learn. This is what the world needs to learn from Africa: the dignity, the survival, the perseverance of a continent and of peoples who have faced enemies from within and without, destructive forces natural and unnatural, but “Still we rise.”
The G8’s concessions on debt are the result of years of campaigning as well as of the contradictions and tensions in the global economic system. Finally, to a small degree, we see the inevitable recognition that another commission, another blueprint, another initiative is only more of the same. It’s the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. For 18 countries, with regard to multilateral debt, the insanity seems to have stopped, if only for a moment.
As I write from Kenya, I say: for campaigners in the South, we must now turn our attention from the creditors who ignored 80-plus countries in the plans they have announced. We must turn our attention to our governments and elected officials; they must become the new targets. We must build power in the movements that are going to deliver a debt wipeout. The logical conclusion is that we must embark on campaigns for debt repudiation - that is, to convince our governments and elected officials that the cost of paying the debt, the cost of servicing the debt, is too great. They must put a stop to it. As debtors, the only way they can do it is to repudiate the debt. In order to do so, first the people must demand it of their governments.
Too many of us in the South have become accustomed to governments that are more accountable to international donors than to their own citizens. Our first step, then, is to remind the people that they have power, power to move their own governments. Even in non-democratic countries, the demand for repudiation resonates deeply. We must then educate a broad portion of the population on the concept of repudiation, simultaneously organizing and strategizing on how to deliver the message to our governments and elected officials
A key piece of that campaigning will have to be the solidarity of our allies and colleagues from creditor nations. Northern campaigners and supporters must say to their governments “Don’t collect, don’t squeeze, don’t threaten or harm countries that make those choices.” We in turn must lay the groundwork for absorbing the savings from debt repudiation and for monitoring to ensure that the most marginalized and most impoverished - who are already paying a second, third, or fourth time for their own oppression by doing without safe drinking water, shelter, education, food, health services, livelihoods with dignity - must be the primary beneficiaries of the savings from repudiation.
This is the new front in the struggle to end debt slavery. It will take all of us, and we hope we will be able to count on the support everyone reading this - your work and commitment to end the injustice of the debt burden.