Is Economic Globalization a “Neutron Bomb” for African Labor?

Posted on May 10, 2011 by


  (Editor’s note: T’was not so long ago that there were serious suspicions and discussions about the development of neutron bombs by the so-called developed powers of the world – weapons that could destroy targeted human populations while leaving the physical structures and material resources of their lands intact for exploitation and profit by the perpetrators of such heinous undertakings. How well-founded those suspicions were is a matter of speculation. But the views of one African scholar reflect that this sort of process might now be unfolding under the guise of global economic evolutions rather than military invasions.)

In a commentary entitled Africa’s Contemporary Threats, posted in the April 6-13 edition of The African Executive online magazine, Prof. Mwesiga Baregu of the School of Graduate Studies, St. Augustine University of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, reflects that current global economic and labor changes amount to a third phase in which African labor is no longer required, neither as slave labor nor as colonial forced labor as in the first and second phases, respectively.

Beading industry, Nairobi

Baregu asserts that in this current phase, as a result of technological advances, lack of skills among African labor and shrinking markets for their traditional exports, “African labour power is no longer required either to extract Africa’s resources or to supply agricultural and industrial commodities. It has become dispensable,” he writes, “rendering Africans redundant in the global division of labour.” The popular saying that is widely known in African economic and labor issues — “we produce what we do not consume and consume what we do not produce” — is no longer tenable in Baregu’s view. “We may be producing what we do not consume but we consume very little of what we don’t produce.”  Further, this reality progressively results in “used products of all kinds” becoming the hall mark of African markets, he points out.

“Meanwhile Africa’s resources are becoming globally demanded and exploited at an inverse rate to the marginalization and steady exclusion of its people. The rampant plunder of Africa’s resources by external agents is rapidly becoming reminiscent of the plunder of its population during the slave trade.”

“On the production front traditional agricultural export markets are failing while the continent suffers from structural food shortages because of producing non-food commodities. In industry, production is encumbered by high production costs, narrow domestic demand due to low incomes, and stringent export markets due to supply and quality conditions.”

“Raw material production, including mining and logging, is rising under predatory conditions precipitating violent conflicts and generating low returns to the countries concerned. Capital intensive methods of production and demand for highly skilled labour mean low employment creation for manual as well as unspecialized skilled labour.”

“This situation engenders both positive and negative implications for Africa. On the negative side it exacerbates the crisis of unemployment in at least two senses. One sense is in absolute terms through the growing army of unemployed youth – structural unemployment. Secondly is the relative sense in which peasants continue to produce agricultural crops at prices far below their costs of production – relative unemployment. Either way this situation is largely responsible for the persistent poverty that has become the hallmark of the continent.”

On the positive side, Baregu argues that this process is “shattering the long held illusion . . . that the colonial pattern of production and trade can bring about long-term transformation in Africa. By shattering this illusion it liberates the mind and opens it up to new ideas in contemplating the challenges and opportunities facing the continent.”

Joint E. African-Chinese project

“By making African labour redundant in the emerging international division of labour it frees it up,  making it potentially available for the first time since the slave trade, to be re-allocated, reorganized and mobilized to stimulate, produce and supply domestic markets. Africa is being forced to reposition itself and create new roles for itself. In rising to this challenge, Africa will, for once, have to pose and answer the three basic economic questions: What to produce; For whom to produce; and How to produce.”

“The marginalization of Africa also creates new opportunities for African countries, including East Africa. As the bonds with the west become loosened, Africa has at least two windows of opportunity. One is to embark seriously upon regional integration and continental unity, realizing that this is a necessary condition for transformation and reconstruction. This is a precondition for taking advantage of the second window. The second window is the opportunity to forge new relationships, particularly with the rapidly growing economies of China and India.”

“A symbiotic relationship can grow with these countries and create a new and different economic space. These countries have a high demand for raw materials which Africa still has while Africa suffers from a major deficit in technology. Rather than exporting their commodities in return for dollar earnings Africa could negotiate resource-for-technology deals with these countries. It is the combination of these two windows — African integration and repositioning of Africa — that holds the prospects for fundamental and sustainable transformation in the continent. China and the emerging economies of India and Brazil present such an opportunity.”

To be continued

Baregu’s post can be accessed at the following link: