SA needs a strategy for its global diplomacy

2013-05-14 00:00

SOUTH Africa successfully hosted the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town last week. It brought together over 1 000 social, political and economic leaders to discuss the state of the world economy and Africa’s place in it.

The meeting, which was well covered by international media, provided a precious opportunity for the country to showcase its potential and enhance its role in discussions on reforms to the global economy. It thus firmed up its position as a responsible global citizen and communicated its role as a voice of Africa. The forum is a transnational network of the political and economic elite contributing to the evolution of development thought and practice that has been dominant since 1945.

Research by analyst Dimpho Motsamai found that the forum’s convening power and ability to generate ideas on global development is the reason it has been so influential. It began in the eighties as a forum for economic managers to discuss the European economy. But by the nineties, it had evolved into an influential global epistemic network, seizing on the currency of the idea of globalisation to attract larger numbers of elites from beyond the Western world in annual gatherings in Davos, Switzerland.

Whereas the World Social Forum brings together the elite and ordinary people concerned with the vagaries of global capitalism, the economic forum carefully brings together selected influential people in the sector of development. While the former is sceptical of the World Bank and IMF, the latter accepts the responsibility for solving global problems.

In the former, South Africa is represented by a few non-governmental organisations, including Cosatu, Oxfam and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, which have offices in the country. To the economic forum, it sends its president, cabinet ministers, advisors and senior officials to join captains of industry.

The government, whose formal position is the reform of the global economic order, focuses on the forum designed to maintain the status quo, while shunning the social forum, which concentrates on debating alternatives to the current order, systems, paradigms and ideologies of development. This comes across as sort of an irony. It must irk organisations such as Cosatu and Sanco, which are members of the governing alliance and see the economic forum as part of a network of institutions created to maintain the current unequal and western-centric global economic order.

It should dismay them that while the alliance takes positions calling on their government to work harder in joining forces with the growing push by developing countries within the G77, and other clubs of the south, for the democratic appointment of heads of the IMF and the World Bank, the government is participating in bodies seen as dedicated to perpetuating inequality.

But neither these ANC-aligned NGOs nor other pro-poor NGOs have been loud in raising concerns about South Africa proudly hosting the meeting of status-quo thinkers. This is strange.

I don’t know if this is because their concerns are not being communicated or there are no concerns at all. There is not much conversation about these annual forums in our media generally.

I suspect that this derives from the fact that the governing alliance thrives on an internal plurality of ideologies and paradigms, which is part of its broad-church outlook. For this reason, parts of the alliance head for the tents at the social forum, while other parts land in Davos yearly to attend the economic forum meetings.

Secondly, on both occasions they push for reform in different ways. In the first, the reform talk is loud and in your face, while in the latter it must be subtle, being part of an effort to subvert the paradigm of the status quo from within.

This appears to be the case, on careful analysis of the country’s formal statements at meetings of the economic forum since 2000. They call for reform of the IMF and the World Bank decision-making structures and procedures for the appointment of heads. They highlight the need for what is called a global partnership for Africa’s development. They push for a shift of focus away from just growth, to growth for development, including the eradication of poverty and structural inequalities.

Instincts alone are optimal for this game of diplomacy. It is time the country has a written strategy on the global economy and development, to guide its participation in the forum, the G20 and G77 etc, which is discussed by all concerned. We must be certain that opportunities are harnessed fully to eradicate global and national poverty.

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