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Basic Needs First: African Leadership, Representation and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

I came across a social media post and an article on Africasacountry stating how the new Director General of the World Trade Organization, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala may push further Neoliberalist policies and some thoughts on “Representation for representation sake”. This is my personal view on the article, I try to write most simply as I strive to become better with my writing, so the article may not feel like a traditional “economics” write-up. Maybe we as Africans should be focused on having more seats at the table before fighting for what comes after that. No matter the argument on the quality of representation, I am hopeful some good can come from her position.

Part of the article says;

“The Pan-African left must, however, reject the politics of representation for representation’s sake. If the point is to have a Black African woman provide cover for the same neoliberal policies that have hindered economic development in Africa, then such representation is counterproductive” From Blacks in High Places

I have read a lot of research papers and articles on the whims and caprices of neoliberalism, and its institutions but as a Nigerian, I have always focused on survival first and the kind of leaders in my country. As much as I would love to hate the ideologies of neoliberalism and how much it furthers racism and injustice, I must survive first before I can fight. Capitalism the sibling of neoliberalism as I would like to describe is such a stronghold that is easier to talk of dismantling it than actually making it happen. If there is anything I have learned from studying Sustainable Development at Uppsala University, Sweden is that even people who condemn capitalism benefit from the same system of imbalance in the North and South. (Yes, people will argue this but checking your privilege helps).

It is such a complex setup that no matter how much we try to remove ourselves from the system, our lives are intertwined in the same system we so detest. Globalization is full of ills like child slavery, human trafficking, underpaid workers, and more and more people becoming poor because good old “trickle-down” economics has not exactly delivered on the promise of a better life. Globalization and free trade are full-on imbalances that favor those at the very top, a system that keeps giving to countries and citizens of the core at the expense of the peripheral. But in the face of hunger and joblessness, globalization is the reason some people will ever get a job to meet basic needs, it is why and how people will ever get a chance to travel the world, go on a paid vacation (something that many people would not count as a big deal for many in the North). The world is full of ironies and this is why even when the facts are there, the reality is different, far more complex.

What leverage do citizens of these countries have in a world where everything is set to work against you including the leadership of your own country? This is one of the least talked about issues in sustainable development and leaving no one behind. Considering the level of poverty in Africa, what leverage do we even have on a negotiation table with the WTOs, USAIDs, and IMFs of this world? Who remembers our interest in the table? How many of our leaders truly bother about the downside of neoliberalism when they go for negotiations? Do they care enough for their citizens to worry that far? Big lofty ideas and rhetoric will never put food on the table of ordinary people; i would at least embrace the devil I know if it saves my life in the absence of any other options.

The writer also stated that “In her second stint as finance minister, Okonjo-Iweala became the public face of the deeply unpopular decision to remove the subsidies on fuel in January 2012, which led to a doubling of transport prices overnight and a sharp rise in the cost of living. Millions of Nigerians felt that the fuel subsidy was the only benefit they received from their country’s vast oil wealth and did not trust their political leaders to reallocate funds to social spending as they were promising. The move sparked a national strike and the Occupy Nigeria protests, joined by artists like Seun Kuti, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe”.

As a Nigerian who lived in Nigeria at that time, watching everything happen, I would say that this particular incident had political undertones; something we have discovered with the present administration. Things are worse off now than they were….given a choice, millions would choose that over what we have now. The writer may not have stressed the importance of her role in The Paris Club debt forgiveness, which was an economic miracle period for Nigeria and home-based governance structures deep in corruption have set us back.

Until that basic needs are met, then theories & real life will be parallel lines. Survival first and it is human nature to embrace what promises hope amid hopelessness…If capitalism does that for us then, Africans will embrace it. The Chinese with every negative publicity of their presence in Africa by Western media are being embraced by more Africans because they offer something tangible but play negatively into the governance structure of corruption, and unaccountability in many African countries. You can flightshame others for example or talk of cutting down on flying because you have the option, you can think of green power because you have access to traditional electricity. It is easy to a pick Us vs. Them narrative when you have options.

For people in poor countries, survival comes first and if capitalism promises that with all the ills….then the embrace is only logical. It takes people who have the most basic things in life to tell others that Neoliberal policies are doing more good than harm. The stronghold of capitalism is replicated in many ways aided by things like greenwashing. It is such an easy route to take even when it is not environmentally sustainable. That is why SDG 1&2 (No Poverty, Zero Hunger) is the bedrock of every other Sustainable Development Goals. Basic needs first. Not just lofty ideas on moving on from capitalism (because to what?)….we need options that are easily adaptable and accessible. Real life is always different and more complicated.

Let me not mention all the sustainable, environment-friendly inventions across Africa that die a natural death because of national policies aimed at frustrating citizens and crushing their determination to rise. The failure has very little to do with the neoliberal policies of these international organizations in many instances. People are so hungry in Africa, so broken from bad governance that even the most basic things of life like electricity, education, food, and shelter can do even more than being caught in theoretical arguments on neoliberalism. What can we do with what we have and where we are right now? This is what matters for poor Africans.

For many Black women and girls in Africa, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala represents the shattering of a kind of glass ceiling. It says we can dream, work hard and believe in even bigger things. African men can have the liberty to question what kind of representation but for us, it is something big to have someone that looks like us at the high table of global power brokers. To be fair, she is only operating in a system that was built and thrives in neoliberalism. She cannot wake up one day because of her position to bring down the system, that would be unrealistic and utopian. African leaders must work hand in hand with her by doing better economically for their citizens. The language of power lies in the economic standing of the poorest in the population because until basic needs are met for the most vulnerable, there will never be any leverage for Africa to gain any advantage.

To overcome the “brutality” of capitalism, the same tools and institutions forged in neoliberalism must be used in a way that is accountable to doing the simple good in a world of hopelessness for millions of impoverished Africans. We must use the resources we already have to do the most to benefit more people than the elites. No matter the policies she pushes at the top as the DG of WTO, if the systems of governance are weak, it will not translate to any change. I say we worry less about the quality of representation at a capitalist institution built to favour the pros of globalization and focus that energy back home on leadership. On the world stage, it is about the quality of your economic game… have yourself to blame if your pigeon does not fly.

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