Self-determination—it’s the economy, stupid!

The 1960s ‘wind of change’ that swept across sub-Saharan Africa heralded a new dawn of self-determination. While this manifested itself in political and territorial declarations of independence—17 countries gained independence in 1960 alone—the right to self-determination also includes the right to pursue economic, social and cultural development as well as the freedom to dispose of natural wealth and resources as defined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Obstacles to economic self-determination

However, five decades after the ‘wind of change’, the right to economic, social and cultural self-determination remains elusive for many sub-Saharan African countries. Their economies are being weighed down by debt with five sub-Saharan African countries already in “debt distress” and others predicted to join the list. A decade after 13 sub-Saharan countries had their debt written off, the IMF is stepping in to bail out many. However, such bailouts come with caveats and achieve limited success, thus undermining the very economic self-determination that countries fought for.

According to a recent UN report, IMF, World Bank and UN policies promoting the privatisation of public services ‘is systematically eliminating human rights protections and further marginalising those living in poverty’. The report noted that while privatisation is promoted as key to ‘managing resources and reducing fiscal deficits’, it in fact marginalises the most vulnerable whose interests are side-lined in the pursuit of profit.

The result of such policies is that it is multinational corporations with operations in Africa that benefit the most from privatisation. Often far more economically powerful than the countries they operate in—69 of the richest 100 entities on the planet are corporations—some corporations have been accused of gross human rights breaches and a failure to pay sufficient tax exacerbated by the absence of a effective internationally agreed treaty to hold them to account. The impact of such activities undermines any attempts at economic self-determination.

Complex views

However, a more complex view of the obstacles to economic self-determination comes from the role played by Chinese loans and infrastructure investment. Some caution that African countries should be wary of a failing Chinese model and the ‘no political conditions attached’ loans. However, it remains to be seen whether such fears are credible. In fact, it could be argued that African countries are exercising their sovereignty and right to economic self-determination by agreeing terms with China that may not be possible with Western powers. Additionally, the infrastructure development that results from Chinese investment helps with economic development and increases countries’ bargaining position.

In conclusion, Africa has some way to go to exercise full economic self-determination. The relationship with China points towards a concerted effort to develop infrastructure and finance projects in a way that has hitherto not been possible with Western partners. Crucially, for Africa to witness the ‘winds of change’ similar to those that swept across the continent in the 1960s, the international community would have prioritise economic self-determination and put in place binding mechanisms to hold multinational corporations to account.


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