Imagine a plot of land, dry and wasted. In the distance, a woman and her two children sort through the ground, looking for remnants of what used to be their farmland. Nearby, construction is underway for a cigarette factory. Even before the factory is completed, the devastating effects this ‘investment’ will have on the cultural, social and economic norms of this community are far beyond imaginable.
This scenario is all too familiar in many African nations. Every day international organizations and developed nations come forth with proposals to ‘improve’ the economic and social conditions in African nations. Every day, rural communities are displaced, natural habitats destroyed and the environment plagued by the symbols of economic and social development. More often than not, these ‘well-to-do’ organisations have their own interests at heart. The result: exploitation of African nations struggling to overcome economic and social problems.
Philip Morris International, one of the biggest players in the cigarette industry is currently building a cigarette plant in Pikine, Senegal. The $25 million factory is expected to produce about 300 permanent jobs in the town which is one of the poorest in the West African country. It’s no surprise that the company mentions nothing about the health hazards that the emissions from the plant could cause. The fact that the population is 98% muslim and that smoking is not encouraged in Islam might not even have been thought of. But why should these concern Philip Morris or any other ‘well-to-do’ organizations? Their main concern is making money, and so long as that is assured, nothing else matters to them.
Lawrence Summers, the former President of Harvard University, made a comment during his term as Vice-President of the World Bank: ‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs (Less Developed Countries)? I can think of three reasons… The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.” These words by Lawrence Summers from a World Bank memo dated December 12th, 1991 serve as a rendition of the underhanded notions that some people have about African nations and other developing countries. If Lawrence Summers could suggest that the pollution of western industries be ‘migrated’ to African nations, then one can only imagine what other corrupt individuals with no obligations to Africa’s welfare might think up.
Most Africans accept the fact that the economic situations in many African nations are deplorable by global standards. But does this mean that they would sit back and watch people undermine any African country for the sake of doing so? Absolutely not. Being in an economic state of emergency does not mean allowing oneself to be taken for granted. Unfortunately, many ‘developed’ nations and international organizations seem to think the economic dependence that ‘developing’ nations have on them is reason enough to treat them disrespectfully. What is even more distasteful is the fact that these are the same ‘developed’ nations and international organizations that claim to be committed to human rights, equal opportunities and the myriad of other empty promises they propose.
In our snug little bubble here at Mount Holyoke, the sale of Uncommon Ground’s left over Chef Jeff cookies at a lower price in the Blanchard Cafe could be regarded as dumping. In the case of African countries and other developing nations, it involves an outright disregard for humanity past, present and future. As has been the trend, the assumptions made are that whatever is being dumped, be it food nearing expiration, dangerous chemicals like DDT, or harmful economic policies, will essentially have no real effect on the populace because a) the costs are relatively low, b) diseases will probably kill people before the effects of using the dumped good set in c)African nations are indebted and really have no say. These arguments might be regarded as economically or scientifically viable to Lawrence Summers and his buddies at the World Bank, but in the grand scheme of things, they are outright preposterous. To choose economic gains over human life is ridiculous. An unfortunate consistency in the exploitation of African nations is that the citizens have no inkling about the death contracts they have signed in the name of diplomatic relations, economic advancement and the many other titles used to cover up the exploitation of developing nations.
It could be argued that developing nations aren’t the only nations that could be potentially harmed by the decisions made by certain industry power houses. To some degree that rings true, but to a greater extent developing nations are the most affected. Philip Morris might be taking a huge risk by setting plant in Senegal, but its the poor Senegalese countrymen who will have to live with the diseases from inhaling life-sucking asbestos emissions from the factory. The proponents of the exploitation of developing nations do not offer the same ‘conditions of service’ to both developing and developed nations. Whereas fine china and glassware might be offered to the developed nations, paper cups and plates are flung at their developing counterparts.
Why is such injustice tolerated by developing nations? Do Pikine’s inhabitants really want to deal with the long-term effects of having a cigarette plant in their town? It’s not because these nations or people don’t have a choice, it’s because they do; life or potential death. Either way you look at it, it’s not to their benefit, so they opt for the lesser of the two evils. Any individual who barely has the basic necessities of life would choose to tolerate such injustices because the alternatives are far less enticing. At such a point, it’s not the logic of profit maximization that comes into play, but rather the innate desire of winning the survival
Just as it is highly discourteous to classify all 54 African countries as one country, it would be unfair to categorize all the efforts of developed nations and international organizations as negative. Some reconstruction and aid efforts by developed nations and international organizations like the World Bank are honorable and serve as a daily manifestation that there is still hope for developing nations and humanity as a whole. However, so long as certain members of the global community deliberately undermine the very existence and presence of developing nations, the fight for global harmony is far from won. In this fight, it should not be an issue of economic profit, but rather the protection of global citizens.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.