IMF & World Bank Policies Responsible For Weakening Health Systems in West Africa
After emerging from colonialism, many nations in the African continent were forced to accept economic arrangements that allowed multinational corporations to overwhelmingly benefit from the wealth and resources of the region, says policy analyst and activist Nii Akuetteh
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
The Ebola epidemic continues to spread rapidly in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. If the virus continues to surge in the three worst-affected countries and spread to the neighboring countries, the two-year regional financial impact could reach $32.6 billion by the end of 2015, says the World Bank. Economic activity in West Africa has come to a virtual standstill because of Ebola. Markets, centers of commerce, and cross-border activity is halted in order to contain the virus.
How will these countries cope with this kind of a price tag protect the people? The people of the West African nations will over the next few years have to rely completely on the international community for their survival and livelihood. How much of that price tag will come from the World Bank and the IMF group? Let’s have a look at what the president of the World Bank had to say, Jim Yong Kim.
JIM YONG KIM, PRESIDENT, WORLD BANK GROUP: –just announced that the World Bank Group will raise as much as $200 million to support Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in their efforts to battle the Ebola epidemic that has broken out in those three countries. This money will go for very basic support for medical supplies and medical staff, and also to help with people who are facing economic hardship as a result of this epidemic.
We want to stress that we’re doing this under the leadership of the World Health Organization. When I was working at the World Health Organization in 2003 at the tail end of the SARS epidemic, we learned several things. One, these epidemics can happen anywhere. And two, when they do happen, the world community has to respond to put in place those systems that can prevent these kinds of outbreaks from happening again.
We have a responsibility to that particular region of Africa. We’re going to do everything we can not only to provide support in the short term, but to think really think about building the kind of public health systems that the people of those three countries deserve.
PERIES: Now joining us to discuss if that is an adequate response the part of an organization that is set up to respond to economic development and financial needs of developing countries is Nii Akuetteh. Nii is coming to us from Washington, D.C. Nii is a Ghanaian-born policy analyst and activist. Akuetteh is the founder of Democracy and Conflict Research Institute. And he is the former executive director of Africa Action and editor of TransAfrica.
Thanks for joining us, Nii.
NII AKUETTEH, FMR. DIRECTOR AT AFRICA ACTION: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
PERIES: Nii, do you think this is an adequate response on the part of the World Bank?
AKUETTEH: I don’t think so, because for one thing, it simply is not enough to contain the virus, as well as directly halt the virus, and as well as the economic repercussions that you mentioned; so certainly, if it’s not enough medicine to address the disease. But I think the additional factor is that the reason that these three countries have been hit so hard, in my very strong opinion: the World Bank and the IMF have contributed to the weak health systems in Africa, which is why Ebola hit so hard. So, therefore, so to speak, they contributed to the problem; therefore they need to own up to their mistakes and they need to do more to help rescue these countries.
PERIES: What do you mean by that? What role has IMF and the World Bank played in West Africa in the past?
AKUETTEH: Oh, well, you know, two phrases. One is structural adjustment programs. Anybody who’s been studying Africa since independence [knows that] especially since the ’80s, when Ronald Reagan got into power in the United States and the World Bank and the IMF actually made themselves the economic stewards of economic policy in Africa, structural adjustment, otherwise called austerity measures, they have imposed these policies on the African countries regardless of what the people want, regardless of what the leaders wanted. So structural adjustment is one of those phrases. And the governments were told, were forced, that in order to get a good mark from the World Bank and the IMF, you have to keep government small, you have to slash government officials’ pay; after you have slashed the number of government officials, you have to privatize everything and you have to force people to pay, and especially to pay for health care and to pay out of pocket for education.
So I think, though structural adjustment went on for decades and they devastated the African economies, the other phrase that I wanted to throw in is IMF riots. This actually came from Africa, where every time the IMF would impose economic conditions, ordinary people in the street were so hit hard that they would riot. And so it actually created a new phrase in the English language and in economic writing: IMF riots.
PERIES: So, Nii, explaine more, in the sense that, yes, of course the IMF would have these horrendous austerity policies and neoliberal economic policies and force governments to shrink their bureaucratic and civil service, all these things in the past were set up in order to service their people. But why are they forced to come to these kinds of agreements with the World Bank and the IMF?
AKUETTEH: I think that’s a great question, because on the surface of it, a government, a country can simply say, sorry, your conditions are too harsh, we don’t have to deal with you. After all, the United States doesn’t take the advice of the World Bank and the IMF. A number of big countries don’t. But for African countries, number one, they are economically small and weak. Secondly, having just gotten out of colonialism–I know this is about 50 years ago, but when you are trying to restructure economic systems that was built over more than a century, it is not easy. And so they are tied into the global economy. They are tied into their former colonial masters. That is especially France and the U.K. And they are tied to the United States.
Now, those three countries, the United States, the U.K., and France, play a major role in the World Bank and the IMF. And therefore the World Bank and the IMF actually act as policeman and gatekeepers for the entire global economy if you are an African country, because the rest of the global economy says to you, we will deal with you only if the World Bank and the IMF says you are well behaved. And the World Bank and the IMF will say you are well behaved only if you agree to their conditions. And therefore it’s almost impossible for an African country to say, listen, I don’t want to do this anymore.
You know, everybody who reads the news, Africa news, and especially U.S.-Africa, will know that the West doesn’t much care for Robert Mugabe. Usually you will be told that it’s because he is internally repressive and other things. But I happen to think that one major factor also is that for about ten years after Zimbabwe became independent, Robert Mugabe followed the dictates of the World Bank and the IMF very closely. And after about ten years he said, no, this is not working no more. For instance, they made Zimbabwe sell its stock of maize, and say it’s uneconomical to hold it; sell it, buy it when you need it. But that was bad economic advice, because when they wanted to buy it, they had to pay more. And so I am saying that countries that defy the IMF and the World Bank get punished by the larger global economy, and therefore it’s not been very easy for those countries to reject what the World Bank and the IMF recommend, because they were doing it on behalf of the global economy.
PERIES: But these economies are very resource-rich. I mean, places like Sierra Leone have diamonds and gold, and West Africa is considered one of the natural resource rich regions of the world. The World Bank adopting these policies is really opening the doors and the gates to a flood of corporations coming in to do business in the region and reap the resources out of the region and leave very little behind. Can you sort of describe those complex relationships between the World Bank, the IMF, the local governments, the corporations that have left–the conditions that they have left in the region that is now unable to cope with basic–I shouldn’t say basic, but a grave epidemic of Ebola in the region?
AKUETTEH: I think that question is fantastic. I mean, because the reason that the World Bank and the IMF do what they do, the reason that they squeeze the African countries and say to them, you do what we tell you, never mind what your own people might want, never mind what your own leaders might want, the IMF and the World Bank, there’s a method to their madness. And I believe said the method, the reason they do what they do, is actually to make it safe and hospitable for international corporations to go in and plunder Africa’s wealth. It is as simple as that.
Now, it’s been going on for years. The IMF and the World Bank are creatures created after the Second World War. They’re Bretton Woods institutions. So [then U.S. came in. (?)] After the Second World War, with the U.K. and Western Europe being weakened, they were created to help stand up again in the global economy. So they took over what has been done, which is plundering Africa’s wealth, leaving very little for the Africans, [under whose feet the world is (?)]. And so you are so right. That question goes to why this is done. The World Bank and the IMF would tell the African countries, keep governments small; you can’t afford–. I mean, when I was in school, our governments were being told, listen–I’m from Ghana–you are a small country, the United States doesn’t invest this much into education, so why should you? You shouldn’t invest in education; let parents pay for it, when most parents are poor and when education is an investment. So they want to keep governments small. They want the people of the country to get as little as possible from the wealth–the bottom line is because they want the Western corporations to continue taking the wealth from out of Africa. This is precisely why they do it. Even as recently as in Liberia, when Ms. Johnson Sirleaf–whom I know well because she was my boss at a certain point– when she became president, she got a lot of kudos from the West because she is well known in the West and it was great that a woman had been in elected president in Africa. But behind the scenes, she was told that, listen, you will get a lot of corporations investing if you don’t insist that they clean up the environment, if you don’t push hard for labor protections, if you don’t insist on high taxes, so all the things that the World Bank and the IMF says.
I’m saying your question is great because it goes to the heart of it: it’s designed to make it easier for Western corporations to plunder Africa. It’s as simple as that.
PERIES: Nii, I want to thank you for joining us today and explaining all of this, and I’m hoping that you will come back and keep us posted so that we could use this very dire and sad situation of the Ebola crisis to really open the hearts and minds of the people around the world to what’s really been going on in the region prior to all of this.
AKUETTEH: I thank you very much for having me.
And I think that after–containing Ebola is important, but this issue goes beyond that, because after Ebola is contained, there has to be: how do we rebuild health care systems so that this doesn’t happen again? And so we need to understand how the health care systems became weak. And then for–those like the World Bank and others who contributed to it must be held accountable, so that they can be made to help rebuild the systems. They must not get away with hiding their mistakes.
PERIES: Thank you so much, Nii.
AKUETTEH: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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