What the Tigers Teach (2/98)

Am I the only one who takes some pleasure from the shake-up of the "Asian Tiger" economies? Perhaps it’s because I can’t count the number of times I’ve been taunted by Westerners about Africa’s economic problems. "Look at Asia!" they would say. "Two decades ago, they were in the same position as many African countries. Today, they are called the Asian Tigers. Why can’t Africa do the same?"

But consider the peculiar circumstances under which the Tigers flourished. As the engine of growth in the region, for example, Japan exported technology to its client states, even if it was "second-hand" tech. As a result, Japan’s own economy grew astronomically, partly because guilt-ridden US dollars poured in to make up for the ruthless atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong benefited from the fear of communism that dominated US thinking for over 50 years. No effort was spared to make the Tigers a showpiece on the doorsteps of their deprived communist neighbors.

Even though Asia’s economic "miracle" was (and is) touted as "economic growth," it’s a flawed model, relying on the "trickle-down effect" to better the lives of huge populations while much of the proceeds are transferred abroad. Yet, political pressures and other regional peculiarities require a much tighter retention of resource flows. All these factors represented a time-bomb ticking away – and now it has exploded.

Malaysia is the only country thus far to publicly recognize that Mammon extorts a steep price for its favors. Kuala Lumpur welcomed foreign investment, and, in turn, participated vigorously in foreign acquisitions, mainly in countries forced by the IMF to open their doors to the "globalized" economy. Yet, when the currency speculators’ supremo, George Soros, rode in on the exit of foreign investors, showing Malaysia the other side of the coin, the air was filled with piteous cries. Countries in which Malaysian entrepreneurs had swallowed state-owned enterprises weren’t impressed. But now, even Japan, for years saturated with foreign reserves, is reeling under the weight of corruption brought about by "liberalized" (that is, poorly-regulated) economic activity. We’re going to see word-eating such as we haven’t witnessed in decades.

For the poor, "marginalized" areas of the world, including much of Africa, these happenings send an urgent signal: Don’t do what the US-IMF gang says, but what they do – or perish at their hands.

Even a cursory examination of the world economic system indicates that those engaged in the speculation and financial service sectors of major economies cream off far too much of the world’s wealth. And that wealth is coming from somewhere: the poor, especially in developing countries. We in the developing world are the only ones producing "real" wealth: minerals, raw materials for industry, and the commodities processed into consumer items the rich countries love, such as cocoa, coffee, and tea. Speculators make a great deal of money on the backs of such commodities, as do the manufacturers who process them into finished goods.

Obviously, we can benefit from these products only if we process them before export. But either we don’t have the funds to set up manufacturing plants, or, when we do have the money, we’re deterred by the high tariffs that the consumers of our products place on finished imports. We keep chasing our own tail: meager and fluctuating earnings from raw materials’ exports, caused by an inability to process them beforehand.

Many of us think there’s nothing we can do. But we have only to look at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to see the answer. Three decades ago, the price of crude oil was as subject to the control of the powerful Western countries as any other material. The formation of OPEC changed that. In the same way, developing countries should form a Raw Materials Cartel, which would enable us to influence, if not dictate, the prices of our raw materials.

How can those who produce such a huge volume of raw materials not have bargaining power? We apparently think it’s only because the West says so, and bullies us into believing it through the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization. Thus, liberation must come from within. OPEC was also told it couldn’t develop coherence, since its ranks included "conservative" countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, along with radical ones such as Libya and Iraq. Yet, see what they achieved together.

The clinching argument, however, comes from the West itself. Why is it that if a developing country becomes over-burdened with external debt and wants to reschedule, it is forced by the World Bank and IMF to meet the "Paris Club" and the "London Club," who negotiate together against the single, weak, debtor country? Yes, we must do as the Western countries do, not as they say.

And who knows? By putting some reality back into the world economic system through demonstrating the importance of real products, as opposed to paper contracts, we may even save the system from itself.

            –Cameron Duodu, a Ghanaian reporter and playwright,
                was editor of Drum in West Africa before writing a
                novel, The Gab Boys.