It is now two months since the heinous attacks in the United States of America. Much has happened since then and will have profound implications for civil society organisations around the world. The Bush Administration has abandoned, in part at least, its earlier reluctance for engaging with global governance institutions such as the United Nations and has constructed a broad, albeit shaky, coalition for a war against terrorism. This period has also seen the curtailment of civil liberties in the United States and in several countries around the world. In Afghanistan, an existing humanitarian crisis has now reached catastrophic proportions as innocent people flee their homes and as many are threatened with starvation. What does this mean for civil society in Africa?
To a large extent African opinion, of both governments and civil society organisations, has not been taken into account in media coverage or in the deliberations regarding the response to the events of September 11. What little coverage there has been has focused on the tragic conflict in Nigeria, speculation that Sudan might be a possible target for the war against terrorism and comments by the South Africa President, Thabo Mbeki, to the United Nations, where he urged that there should be no stigmatizing of people on the basis of their race, language or religion.
Civil society in Africa now faces several challenges. When talk of war predominates, voices of citizens and their organisations are often sidelined or silenced. War becomes the overbearing and all consuming focus and given the global nature of the current US-led initiative African civil society runs the risk of being relegated even further to the margins of global discourse and events.
To compound matters it seems likely that we are about to enter a prolonged global recession as the United States slips into recession. Joseph Stiglitz, one of the winners of Nobel Prize in Economics this year and formerly the chief economist at the World Bank, said this week, that developing countries stand to lose the most. He notes that: Globalisation has been sold to people in the developing world as a promise of unbounded prosperity or at least more prosperity than they have ever seen. Now the developing world, will see the darker side of its links to the US economy. It used to be said that when America sneezed, Mexico caught a cold. Now, when America sneezes, much of the world catches cold. And according to recent data, America is not just sneezing, it has bad case of the flu.(Washington Post, 11 November 2001)
Given this global financial crisis, African NGOs who have received support from institutions in North America and Europe face the daunting prospect that potentially the scale of that support might be cut back or withdrawn completely. Some US Foundations, for example, have seen their resources drop to alarming levels and are now considering serious reductions in the funding levels in the coming year. More importantly, the demand for support for services provided by African NGOs is likely to grow sharply as the economic crisis deepens the existing developmental challenges facing the continent.
On the advocacy level, the important work that has been done around African debt relief is also set to suffer a setback as billions of dollars of potential debt relief resources get drawn on for the war on terrorism. Furthermore, there is growing intolerance of voices for greater economic justice at the global level. Some commentators have attacked those that have been lobbying for a more equitable world trading system that benefits all of humanity, and some have gone so far as to say that there is not a coincidental synergy between those that have advocated for greater economic justice and those that perpetrated those awful attacks of September 11.
One of the issues that has concerned African civil society activists was the absence of African voices from much of the activism at a global level. Resource constraints, urgent priorities on the continent, and violent political conflict have all contributed to the relatively low level of African participation. Now with growing security concerns particularly in the United States and in Europe, where most of the global institutions are headquartered, the restrictions to international civic mobility, particularly of African civil society leaders, seem very likely. It is important to note that even prior to September 11, many of the developed countries in the world have been more than a little hesitant to grant visas to Africans. For example, at the CIVICUS World Assembly in August in Canada, some participants from Africa were denied visas. This is likely to worsen.
We can also anticipate that the challenge to advance the concerns of the African continent will become increasingly difficult. The valiant attempts made by the Secretary General of the United Nations to mobilize resources to fight HIV/AIDs might turn out to be a casualty. At a time when HIV/AIDS continues to decimate Africa it becomes imperative that civil society organisations in Africa and their allies elsewhere find creative ways to argue that, if there is a will to fight the AIDS pandemic and genuinely support Africa’s overall recovery, this will be possible. It is important to observe the levels of financial and other resources that have been mobilized overnight for the war against terrorism. We need to ask, why was it not possible to raise even a small fraction of resources when millions of people’s lives are at risk. We need to question, why is it that the pharmaceutical companies and powerful governments in the north, are now more than willing to waiver patents, or offer to relax other trading rules, to ensure that drugs are available to fight the obnoxious anthrax attacks, when no such flexibility was offered to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa and elsewhere.
In the light of what is a gloomy period for Africa, how should African civil society organisations respond? Firstly, it is imperative that we persevere with much of the current work that is being done to fight poverty, to improve the quality of life for people, to promote long-lasting sustainable peace where political conflict persists and not to be immobilized by the current focus and talk of war. Yet, we cannot ignore this reality. We have to monitor developments carefully, offer African perspectives and interpretations on current developments, and argue strongly that it is not appropriate for African civil society to be sidelined.
Specifically, we must recognize that the African continent is home to millions of citizens of the Islamic faith. We therefore need to be vigilant that we contain the rise of Islamophobia and do whatever it is necessary to promote inter-faith dialogue and understanding and work creatively to avoid a repeat of the recent tragedy in Nigeria, elsewhere on the continent.
It is also vital that we do not allow pessimism to dominate our thinking and work. If anything, what we need right now is an all out war against poverty and injustice. Only if humanity succeeds in creating a more equitable world can we secure a just and sustainable peace for future generations. In pursuing this goal, African civil society should be a central player. Forging the appropriate links with partners around the world is also necessary. The future of this planet is far too important to be left in the hands of politicians alone.
* Kumi Naidoo, CIVICUS