To Remake Multilateralism, Start With the Role of Africa

Columna
World Politics Review, 05.11.2021
Zainab Usman, académico y director del Africa Program (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

In early August, I watched the frenzied U.S. exit from Afghanistan from my hotel room in Accra, Ghana. I was not the only one in West Africa transfixed by the events in Kabul. Though Ghana is some 7,000 miles from Afghanistan, the chaotic scenes from the Kabul airport played on a loop in hotel lobbies, government buildings, restaurants and homes, broadcast not only by global networks like Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN, but also by local news channels.

The distressing images playing out on the TV came up repeatedly in my conversations with government officials, scholars and friends in Accra and later in Abuja, Nigeria. People were dismayed to see the throngs of people at the Kabul airport scrambling to make it onto departing planes, as well as those who clung to the wheels and wings of those planes without regard for their own safety.

And yet, in these African countries, there was a fundamental resignation and a conspicuous lack of surprise at the abrupt end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Their reaction was not for lack of compassion, but rather because they were confronting more immediate problems. The African continent has barely begun to recover from the social and economic impacts of COVID-19, despite promising interventions at the outset of the pandemic. Drawing from harrowing experiences of previous deadly epidemics, like Ebola, African countries took early precautions to limit coronavirus infections and deaths. At Accra’s Kotoka International Airport, for instance, visitors must pre-register with their health status before coming to the airport and show a negative test result to board their outgoing flights, and consent to both a temperature check and rapid COVID-19 test upon arrival for incoming flights. Nigeria has an efficient contact-tracing system over a seven-day period for all visitors.

Despite these precautions, African economies experienced a recession in 2020 as a result of lockdown measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and government budgets are still heaving under the fiscal pressures of additional health expenditures, debt servicing and insufficient revenues. Meanwhile, violent extremism continues to ravage parts of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Suffice it to say, Afghanistan was the least of many African countries’ worries.

If there was also a lack of real surprise at the unceremonious end to the war in Afghanistan, that is because it marks the latest in a string of damaging blows to the liberal international system. The global financial crisis—ignited by an implosion of subprime mortgages in the U.S.—rattled global confidence in free markets, while the fact that no individuals, groups or organizations were tried or convicted for causing the crisis undermined the idea of an impartial rule of law. The fallout from the crisis eroded trust in institutions, particularly in Europe and North America, where it drove polarization in domestic politics.

Even without the Afghanistan debacle, economic and demographic shifts are straining the post-World War II liberal multilateral system to the breaking point. China now does more trade than the U.S. with a vast majority of countries, including in the EU. Beyond China, projections show that by 2030, eight of the world’s 10 largest economies in purchasing power parity will be neither European nor North American. And beginning in the 2000s, the African continent broke out of its low-growth trap of the preceding decades—at least until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Similarly, the most populous countries in the world are in the Global South. By 2030, the world’s 10 largest cities will all be found in either Asia or Africa. Yet, despite the continent accounting for nearly 15 percent of the world’s population, no African country has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, reflecting Africa’s underrepresentation in key multilateral bodies.

So even before the withdrawal from Afghanistan, any discerning scholar or policymaker that looked to the plight of developing countries, especially in Africa, should have realized that the current system is no longer adequate to face the demographic, economic and political realities of our time. Some policymakers are already recognizing this shift. In the U.S., the Biden administration has signaled an interest in reorienting relations with Africa, with planning for an updated strategy for engagement with the continent currently underway. And a long-awaited Europe-Africa summit is scheduled for February 2022. All these developments indicate an acknowledgement of changing times and the necessity of responding accordingly.

Although it is currently unraveling, the multilateral system can be remade, centered around the low- and middle-income economies in Africa and beyond.

This is welcome because, though it is unraveling—due to both organic evolution and a string of fatal errors, including the costly war in Afghanistan—the multilateral system can be remade for this new era, centered around the low- and middle-income economies in Africa and beyond that are driving many of these changes. The debacle in Afghanistan may even end up being seen as a turning point that catalyzed the reconstruction of a stronger multilateral system—one built on more equitable partnerships, particularly with African countries.

In the aftermath of Afghanistan, three principles should be heeded in remaking this multilateral system, especially with respect to Africa. First, a “beyond aid” mindset should inform this reorientation. While critiques of foreign aid are not new, a prevailing humanitarian approach still pervades bilateral economic relations between high-income countries and African countries, as well as engagement by many multilateral development banks with the continent.

The structural deficiencies of the “foreign aid” mindset are evident in the multilateral Geneva-based initiative known as COVAX, set up in 2020 to help supply COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries. Due to avoidable supply shortages, COVAX is unlikely to meet its own goal of supplying 2 billion doses and vaccinating 20 percent of the population in developing countries by the end of 2021.

Indeed, some African countries that tried to purchase vaccines could not find supplies, while attempts to convince pharmaceutical companies to share patents and expand manufacturing by standing up production hubs in the Global South have proved futile. The $60 billion that the African continent receives in foreign aid per year is far less than the estimated $89 billion it loses to illicit financial flows by corrupt African elites and tax-avoiding multinational corporations. A doubling down of this aid and humanitarianism mindset will not address the vast global challenges of our time, from climate change and pandemics to violent extremism and tax evasion.

Shedding this aid mindset will yield a second important principle: the need to take into account the priorities of low- and middle-income countries. It is striking that many well-intentioned development projects often make no reference to the African Union’s Agenda 2063 on continent-wide economic transformation or other such domestic economic strategies. Incorporating these priorities will immediately reveal the dearth of ambition in poverty-reduction goals set by “donor” interventions in comparison to “recipient” countries’ own legitimate aspirations for prosperity and dignity.

For instance, the principal indicator used to track progress on electricity access includes a threshold of household electricity consumption set at 50 kilo-watt hours per year for rural areas and 100 kWh per year for urban areas. This level of electricity consumption is sufficient to power low-wattage light bulbs and basic appliances in a subsistence lifestyle above the poverty line, but absolutely insufficient to power refrigerators, air conditioners and industrial machinery in a modern and productive economy. China has made so much headway in engaging with Africa because, by means fair or foul, it seems to understand the aspirations in poor countries to acquire the trappings of modernity enjoyed by the wealthy countries, be they smartphones, gleaming airports or modern rail services.

The third principle is based on the central necessity of working with existing institutions in Africa and the rest of the world. External development partners have for too long focused on transplanting “ideal” institutions that are open, transparent and democratic in poor countries. In reality, even though we all want this democratic ideal, achieving it is often a messy journey. In the meantime, well-intended governance interventions that bypass or alienate lumbering bureaucracies, transactional governing elites and complex politics consistently fail to deliver, because lasting change cannot be achieved without the buy-in of influential stakeholders in these countries. Even the World Bank’s World Development Report of 2017 acknowledged that policymaking and implementation occur in “complex political and social settings.”

To put this principle into practice, we need to think about not just how institutions look, but the functions they perform. The unceremonious exit from Afghanistan is perhaps the most visible of a string of disappointing external state-building efforts that include Libya and South Sudan in Africa. The lesson here is that there are no shortcuts to building lasting institutions. It is an arduous process of bargaining with influential elites, working within existing but flawed systems, and settling for imperfect but workable reforms that deliver tangible results. Above all, it is fraught with uncertainty.

The dust is still settling on the circumstances and implications of the unceremonious end of the war in Afghanistan. While its fallout will put a considerable strain on the current multilateral system, it could also mark a turning point for external state-building interventions and serve as a wake-up call for how to reimagine multilateralism. Given the scale of global challenges, an overhauled multilateral system that is more attuned to the demographic, economic and political realities of the 21st century is more necessary now than ever.

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