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The fears that former UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld expressed 50 years ago about the negative impact that the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee would have on the UN and the African continent have turned out to be prescient, writes John Y. Jones.

During his last years Africa increasingly dominated UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld’s life and agenda. He challenged colonial powers’ attempts to quench the quest for freedom that swept the continent, and he openly criticised those who tried to make ‘the Congo a happy hunting ground for [their own"> national interests.’[1] He summed up his frustration over ‘many member Nations [who"> have not yet accepted the very limits put on their national ambitions by the very existence of the United Nations and by the membership of that Organisation’.

So Hammarskjöld got enemies. Chrustchev’s demanding his resignation is well known. The Americans wanted a more cooperative man at the helm of the UN. Less known is de Gaulle’s humiliating turning down an invitation when the French president came to New York. On 15 February 1961, there were riots in the UN building that physically threatened him. Even small nations like Ghana after Congo’s first Prime Minister Lumumba’s death, turned against him. None of this would, however, stop him from going to Congo that fatal September in 1961.

That Africa should become Hammarskjöld’s final destination became symbolic of his days in the UN. The dirt that eventually soiled his face as his plane crashed, was that where Patrice Lumumba was humiliated and executed only months before, where Western multinationals for years had spread their mercenaries in search of minerals and geopolitical control, and where King Leopold’s ‘humanitarian’ endeavour had viciously taken more than 10 million lives. But it also was the soil that for another 50 years would continue to see unimaginable bloodshed and suffering, from Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, to West Sahara, Congo and South Africa.

Hammarskjöld knew who and what was waiting for him that day in September 1961. At the age of only 20, he had formed the sentence that he later chose as intro to his diary texts: ‘Death shall thrust its sword into an alert man!’

40 years after Hammarskjöld’s death[2] congresswoman Cynthia McKinney summed up ‘the misconduct of Western nations in Africa’. She claimed that this was ‘not due to momentary lapses, individual defects, or errors of common human frailty …[but was">… part of long-term policy design to access and plunder Africa’s wealth at the expense of its people.’ Hammarskjöld’s warning about Africa being turned into a ‘happy hunting ground’ has been proven right. But where McKinney only saw US fingerprints, others have been pointing at the World Bank or IMF as efficient tools for ‘Western plunder’. Hammarskjöld, however, saw already in the mid 1950s the formation of a larger and more dangerous ‘policy design’, to use McKinney’s expression, a design that has been receiving far from the attention it deserves: The creation of DAC.

After 1945 Hammarskjöld served at the Organisation for European Economic Development and witnessed its transformation into the OECD. As head of the UN he soon became the small countries’ spokesperson, and protested when OECD took upon itself to address the former colonies through the Development Assistance Committee, DAC. That recent oppressive colonial powers – that only reluctantly were about to give in to liberation’s ‘wind of change’[3], and which only 75 years earlier had cut up the African continent as spoils at the Berlin Conference – now should be the saviours’ of the Third World, was bad news to Hammarskjöld. The responsibility for the developing world belonged, as he saw it, with the UN itself. Only the UN had the credibility to assist the emerging new countries in their formation and nation building. To Hammarskjöld, the OECD’s DAC was a threat to UN itself.

50 years with DAC/OECD[4] have shown that Hammarskjöld was right. While the rest of the world has seen leaps in material accumulation, as well as in level of life expectancy and welfare, Africa – subject to DAC’s leadership and through its close proximity to the IMF and the World Bank – has seen coordinated structural adjustment policies and aid-programmes that have done everything but address the root causes of poverty and underdevelopment. Rather, OECD and DAC have orchestrated a development agenda that has resulting in the largest gap between rich and poor countries that history has ever witnessed. Hammarskjöld feared what Bruce de Mesquita[5] documents 50 years later: Western democracies would not come to promote democracies in the South, but rather establish stable partners that fit their own needs. And dictators were often more stable and manageable than vulnerable democracies. Says Mesquita[6]: The rich democracies’ support to these dictatorships is called ‘development aid’.

On the surface everyone shared the view that exploitation of colonies had to come to an end. But Hammarskjöld also strongly demanded substantive support to developing nations to build sound communities that had been vandalised from years of abuse and exploitation. And he demanded their proper integration into the world economy at large. The UN, as a fellowship of all nations, was to hold the reigns in all this. And he feared that splitting the UN into many specialised agencies would weaken the General Assembly and the EcoSoc. It should come as no surprise that the Millennium Development Goals were not concocted at the UN but in the halls of OECD/DAC.

Hammarskjöld would have loved to witness the large funds annually transferred to the developing world. But given the fact that DAC and rich nations refused to transfer power to the UN in any significant way, Hammarskjöld would not be surprised to hear that wealth today is in the hands of the rich world to a degree unimaginable in 1961.

50 years after Dag Hammarskjöld, the West has failed to let UN become the tool he dreamed of. We ignored his warnings. We weakened the UN, not only by splitting it up and under financing it, but also by channelling attention and authority away from the World Organisation over to the ‘effective’ Bretton Woods institutions, ‘successful’ private operators and initiatives like Ted Turner and Bill Gates, the G-8/10/20 that are better at serving the West’s interests. World leaders fill the hotels in Davos rather than the UN halls. We have systematically hindered poor nations in taking control of their own development. Did someone mention ‘local ownership’, ‘development from within’ or ‘Southern responsibility’?

Even more grave is it that we have kept Africa from turning resources in to wealth, from industrialising, from developing advanced research-centres and high-tech skills. We have kept our expensive medicines to ourselves through high prices and patents. We have short changed Africa by dispatching mosquito bed-nets and micro finance from our 5-star hotels in Switzerland. In short: We have made Africa an expert in remaining poor, and effectively blocked their roads out of poverty. Not only the 25 rich countries constituting the DAC committee, but also NGOs and private businesses will have to take responsibility for this.

Dag Hammarskjöld was ‘greatly impressed by the new generation of African leaders’[7] of his day, and had high hopes for ‘the economic potentialities of Africa’ 50 years later there is no sign of new opportunities that will be handed to Africa for free. This time hope lies in another ‘new’ generation that will cut the continent loose. This time liberty and prosperity will come to Africa from within. Let us pray that it will not resort to quick fixes, revenge, violence and war that for so many years kept it down. And that a reformed UN will organise and start speaking for the small countries and keep the powerful ones accountable to their signing of the Charter, like Hammarskjöld dreamed of – too many years ago.


* John Y. Jones is with Networkers SouthNorth.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

[1] Urquhart, Brian, Norton, 1974, p507.
[2] 16 April 2001.
[3] After Hammarskjöld had visited 24 African countries, Britain’s Macmillan toured the continent in 1960 preparing his allies for liberation of the colonies, and coined the expression ‘a wind of change’.
[4] All the 25 countries of DAC are industrial countries.
[5] in the latter’s upcoming book ‘The Dictator’s Handbook’
[6] in a BBC-interview 30 July 2011
[7] Urquhart, Norton 1994, p 381.
[8] SG papers volume 5.