By Tom Odhiambo
It is difficult to get a more appropriate title of a book than ‘Trade is War.’ This is why I find Yash Tandon’s book, Trade is war: The West’s War Against the World (2015) a most apt reading in the aftermath of the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Nairobi in December last year. I doubt that the African ministers of trade – or those from the developing world – who gathered here had read this little but compact book. Some will definitely have met the author. But I guess that others don’t know him or wouldn’t be bothered to know why it might be worth reading his book or publications or talk to him.
A glance at the title – without reading the whole book – might mislead one to think that it is one of those socialist/leftist ranting against capitalism. Yet it is not – even if the author is of socialist convictions. Trade is War is a rigorously researched and carefully compiled argumentation about why global free trade isn’t producing growth and progress for the majority of world citizens. Tandon argues, through and through, that what ‘free trade’ stands for is the trapping of millions of already poor families and communities into a market economy over which they have no control and which serves the interests of global capital or multinational corporations. But this isn’t a new proposition? Or is it?
Well, it depends on how one looks at it. Considering the just released report on global wealth inequalities by Oxfam which shows that more and more people are getting poorer as global wealth is concentrated in the hands of a smaller number of people than before, then Tandon’s arguments become refreshing, but in an ugly tone and sense. For this isn’t a book about the niceties of Africa as an ‘emerging frontier.’ This is a book that warns about the dangers of Africans negotiating with the West on terms that are clearly set by the same West.
So, for instance, how does free trade guarantee access to agricultural inputs for poor farmers in a continent threatened by desertification? How do African farmers guarantee that they will get good seeds, appropriate fertilizers, the right pesticides and insecticides or even farm machinery when most of these are produced and patented elsewhere? How does Africa ‘industrialize’ its agriculture to produce beyond consumption needs and for a global market? But even where Africa – or the developing world – produces goods for trade beyond the continent, on what terms would it enter the European or American market?
But even if African countries were to satisfy all the requirements for their produce to enter the Euro-American markets, how would their prices compare with those of produce from European and American farmers? By what margin would they have to adjust their prices to compete with the heavily subsidized ‘local’ produce? What about ever-present risk of price fluctuations of primary goods in the global market, often due to shifts in the exchange rates between the dollar or Euro and the various currencies of African countries?
Think of patents. How many patents does Africa register in a year? Considering the low quality of local research many significant discoveries made by African research institutions, in collaboration with Western partners, end up being patented in the West. How does Africa benefit from such patents – for instance in the case of medicine? African countries struggle today to get access to generic drugs or medical equipment and technology, which would be affordable to many of their poor citizens. Years of negotiations have borne little or no success. Consequently, medicine for a number of manageable conditions, which is inexpensive in the West, is still beyond the reach of millions of Africans. The case of HIV/AIDS drugs is one that should always remind African ministers of trade that indeed those negotiations are ‘war.’ As African governments allow GMOs into their countries, how do they guarantee that they won’t be prisoners of the multinationals that own these GMOs?
Tandon discusses tens of cases where Africans need to be wary of the demands of the West through WTO and other organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. There is enough evidence that even where and such organizations present their suggestions on local economic policy, benevolence isn’t necessarily the basis of such engagement. Often such interventions serve ‘their’ rather than local interests. In a language that very few people speak today, these organizations are imperialistic in intention. They are looking to acquire dominions – otherwise known as markets – and make money.
So, why can’t Africans pool resources and invest locally, innovate and manufacture locally appropriate technologies, adopt and adapt technologies that have been produced elsewhere, think more creatively about intra-region economies of scale, trade more within the continent and speak as one in negotiations with the rest of the world, especially with the West? If trade is war, isn’t Africa better served when it engages bigger global players as a united front, having pre-strategized collectively rather than as regions based on the artificial notions of, for instance, Eastern versus Southern; SADC versus EAC; North versus West etc? Trade is War is a book that Africans who care about their continent and the future of its people should treasure.
Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.