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As regional summit convenes, African economies grow unsustainably

African leaders have gathered for a regional summit to discuss development. Yet the continued dependence of nations like Zimbabwe on raw materials jeopardizes the hope for sustainable growth.

African workers sift for diamonds

Economic dependence on raw materials such as diamonds is considered unsustainable in the long run

Members of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) are meeting Monday and Tuesday in the Namibian capital of Windhoek to discuss regional development and the on-going process of political reconciliation in Zimbabwe.

But South Africa, the regional power broker, has supported Zimbabwe's export of $72 million (56 million euros) worth of diamonds. The diamonds come from the controversial Marange fields, where Human Rights Watch has documented reports of forced labor, torture, beatings and harassment by soldiers against workers.

The Kimberely Process - a global watchdog that ensures "blood diamonds" cannot be exported - revoked its certification of the fields in 2009 as a result of the reported abuses. The organization lifted its ban last July and allowed exports to resume after ruling that the abuses had ceased.

"This is a legitimate process and Zimbabwe is beginning to use its natural resources to improve the lives of its people," said Ayanda Ntsaluba, the director general of South Africa's foreign ministry, during a press conference in the capital of Pretoria.

While raw materials like diamonds are indeed fuelling growth in Africa, they are also reinforcing a cycle of economic dependence and poor governance.

Africa's unsustainable bubble

The African Development Bank projects that Africa's economy will grow by 4.5 percent this year. Growth of that kind is impressive at a time when the global economy is just beginning to crawl out of the recession.

Yet this growth is driven primarily by the export of raw materials such as oil, coltan and cocao. The revenue from these exports is used to buy value-added products from the industrialized world such as cars and cellular phones. This lopsided relationship reinforces economic dependence and prevents many African nations from developing an industrial base that could support sustainable economic growth over the long term.

"There cannot be any talk of sustainability here," Robert Kappel, an expert on Africa's economy and the president of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, told Deutsche Welle. "If Africa doesn't industrialize, then over the long term it won't be able to grow any further. At some point raw materials come to an end, and then there is a major disaster."

A Zimbabwean girl searches for food in garbage

Short-term economic gains are designed to alleviate daily poverty in nations like Zimbabwe

But there is a fundamental gap in how industrialized and developing nations view economic growth. Whereas the wealthy industrialized countries can afford to have a longer time horizon when it comes to economic development, in Africa the sense of urgency is much greater.

In nations like Zimbabwe, where 95 percent of the population is unemployed and life expectancy is just 47 years, short-term economic gains can make the difference between life and death on a day-to-day basis.

"There is no tomorrow when there is no today," De Roy Kwesi Andrew, a filmmaker and political student from Ghana, told Deutsche Welle. "We have to ensure that today's generation lives comfortably enough and then we can plan for the future. The developed countries themselves did not abide by the concept of sustainability when they were industrializing."

Despite the economic urgency felt in many African nations, experts such as Kappel believe a basic economic logic exists that must be respected in order to ensure healthy development.

"It just doesn't make sense to have 100 million euros more in export earnings now but to lose 300 or 400 million euros later," Kappel said.

Raw Materials and Governance

The earnings from raw material exports may jeopardize political as well as economic development.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai

Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai govern Zimbabwe under a power-sharing agreement

Zimbabwe's diamond trade has raised concern among human rights organizations that the revenue could be used to consolidate the power base of President Robert Mugabe and his political party ZANU-PF, endangering the fragile power-sharing agreement with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

"The security forces that have been committing abuses in the Marange diamond fields answer to ZANU-PF," Tiseke Kasambala, senior researcher with the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told Deutsche Welle recently. "A key arm of this government of national unity is benefiting from smuggling in those diamond fields and is likely to use the revenue to commit further abuses, perhaps even during the next elections in Zimbabwe. That is what we're warning about."

Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 after the white-minority government had ended. The international community has criticized him for stifling democracy and committing human rights abuses. Although the opposition - led by Tsvangirai - won the elections in 2008, Zimbabwe's electoral laws prevented his Movement for Democratic Change from decisively displacing Mugabe from power.

The former electoral opponents have jointly governed Zimbabwe since the election. But conflict recently flared up after Mugabe unilaterally appointed the Reserve Bank governor and the attorney general.

South African President Jacob Zuma has played a major role in mediating the conflict between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. He is expected to announce during the SADC summit that Zimbabwe is "on the correct path."

"He will recognize that the task in Zimbabwe is not completed but the overwhelming picture is favorable," said Ntsaluba, South Africa's foreign ministry director general. "There is a semblance of stability and Zimbabwe is on the correct path."

As the summit opened on Monday, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba praised the political progress the region had made since the end of colonial rule and the apartheid era.

"Our region has established a strong democratic culture, in which a political transition is regularly achieved through the ballot box," he said.

Author: Adrian Kriesch, Spencer Kimball afp/dpa
Editor: Rob Mudge

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