ECONOMIC HUNGER GAMES IN AFRICA – With Pan-African feminist Crystal Simeoni
By Elizabeth Njambi
What doesn’t mainstream economics “get” about Africa? What is the future of the state itself in Africa? And how much should we really be focusing on corruption within Africa?
Max and Nabil have a riveting conversation with Pan-African feminist Crystal Simeoni – who is Director at Nawi: Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective (which is well worth checking out here!). Previously, she was head of the economic justice department at FEMNET, one of the largest African women's rights networks. She is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Justice at the London School of Economics.
This is the second of a two-part special deep dive into African economics. The last episode, with Zambian economist Grieve Chelwa, took us back recalling history and how it’s shaped economics in Africa today. This episode looks forward.
Please do listen and share the episode on your social media platforms.
What doesn’t mainstream economics get about Africa?
Nabil: [00:04:12] … You try to carve out a different way of thinking about the economy. Crystal, let me ask, what doesn't mainstream economics get about Africa that it needs to?
Crystal: [00:04:31] Well, it completely invisiblizes the nuance of our history. … Our history means that we're not on equal footing. Our history has been one that is super extractive. You know, when people say that we must build back better; built back to what? What was built was never for us: only from us. And so, we can't go back to that. That system was built on a neoliberal economic model that is fundamentally placed on extractivism at its core.
Something has to subsidize the system for it to work. Usually, that something is the global south regions or African women, or actually women in general. It's on our bodies, on our backs that economies and wealth is built. But that wealth is not anything that we enjoy in many parts of the world. And that's concentrated in such a few spaces of the world.
Let’s Talk Stereotypes
Max: [00:05:34] There are so many stereotypes about Africa. If you had to list your two or three, most annoying white-man expatriate stereotypes – probably economists, they're probably economists. Let's face it – What would you say they were and how wrong they are about Africa?
Crystal: [00:06:00] Yeah, I could write a whole book. I'm sighing heavily.
Nabil: [00:06:05] This podcast can turn into therapy at this point. It's no longer an interview. it's now a session of therapy.
Max: [00:06:12] This podcast is therapy. Exactly. Yeah.
Crystal: [00:06:28] (Laughs) It ranges from this very white liberal feminist thing. “Just work harder. You can lean in. Just work harder.”
Yeah. Just work harder as you say this from your position of privilege, where you have all these things at work that you don't even recognize work. That are made to work because the system was set up for that to work in specific parts of the world and not everywhere.
It goes to representation politics.
It goes to an email I got last week from a friend of mine in the UK who got an email from somebody with the reference that said, "Request for Crystal Simeoni". And basically they wanted me to stamp my name on an article that would be ghostwritten on climate justice. Not ... even taking the time to bother to understand that I don't really work on climate justice specifically. And there are such amazing African women that work on climate justice and they also have an opinion. Maybe you can ask them to write. This idea that they just need to rubber stamp something with a black woman's name.
To … everything about the power and dynamics of working in global spaces as an African feminist. Of working in economic spaces as a feminist. There are so, so many, but this complete refusal and sort of agreement to completely invisiblize a history of colonialism and to completely not have a conversation of reparations; but then talk about aid and talk about handouts and always victimize.
And I'll speak specifically for Africa. Victimize, Africans. And paint them in the most vulnerable picture, paint them as you know, not having the capacity to think for themselves, not having the capacity to create their own solutions for their own problems. This infantilization of all Africans of, even if, you know, “we can't give you back your money because you will re-corrupt the money again”. …
It's the audacity of the OECD to still set up frameworks and rules that govern global tax, yet so much of the extractive sector is based in Africa and 65% of the $100 billion that bleeds out of our continent every year (is) through illicit financial flows.
A majority of that 65% is through the extractive industry. So, the extractiveness that continues to happen and be hidden behind jargon and big words. And behind calls and spaces of power in the global north that discuss us as case studies and as issues (is what) I take issue with.
In the bid to change that, it sort of morphed into development as a sector, as an industry, as a job. Where so many people can close their laptops and continue with their worlds and their work, but so many of us, live in this world and don't have the privilege of shutting down our laptops and watching Netflix at the end of the day. Because I still have to play the hunger games for vaccines for my parents. I still have to drive on these roads. I still have to figure out how to get private insurance because you know, the public sector doesn't provide universal access to health or education. It means making sure that I always have a consultancy on the side to be able to pay for certain things. And so, there's so much that happens at the same time. I sometimes just want to lie down, but I can't. Yeah. I'll stop my rant there.
Max: [00:09:51] No, crystal, I think the rant was perfectly reasonable. What I like about what you said, it's just the sheer hard work of living in a developing country. And having just moved back here to the UK and seeing the difference. … And I think it's amazing that anything ever gets done and how much we have here in the global north that we just don't even think about.
And I remember being at a workshop in South Africa once and we were talking about community-led committees to organize your water. And there was an activist who stood up and said, "look, we didn't fight against apartheid to get on committees, to sort our water. In Europe, you don't have to be on a water committee to turn the tap on. We just want taps with water that comes out of them.
Crystal: [00:11:04] Yeah. And then it's hidden in this idea of resilience, which is really a celebration of you having to live through hardship that you shouldn't have to, but let's celebrate your resilience. Which I find so, so problematic.
Max: [00:11:15] Yeah. Yeah. It's pretty patronizing, isn't it?
Nabil: [00:11:18] There's a whole industry dedicated to that idea of, of resilience. It's another way to dress up the wounds of capitalism.
Max: [00:11:25] Resilience. Self-help. Build your own school because we're never going to build it for you.
Crystal: [00:11:30] Exactly. Uh, we're diverting funds so that your government isn't able to do it. And you have to pay debts for a road that you will never use for the next number of generations, but you know, be resilient and build your own middle school.
Is the Message Cutting Through?
Nabil: [00:11:47] Do you think the message is cutting through that in a way that it perhaps didn't, for example, in the wake of the structural adjustment era? Is there something different about how the message is being received today? Because in some ways, it doesn't feel like it. …
Crystal: [00:12:05] Yeah, that's a tough one and it's hard to be optimistic and to see any rays of hope. Living in Kenya and now signing new programs with IFIs, it really just feels like that structural adjustment programs season 2, on red bull.
And it almost feels like we've forgotten what the structural adjustment programs of the 80s and 90s did to our economy. Completely decimated public services. And the narrative that that creates. … I'm not as young anymore, but even for me, I don't remember what it's like to live in a country that has functioning, universally accessible public services. … Almost everything is privatized.
And this narrative that private is better than public has really permeated our society, our communities. And that's really problematic. And with that, the World Bank and the cascading approach where private finance is being sold as our only option to be able to provide for our citizens. But it also creates this very problematic narrative that the African state is incapable of providing for its citizens.
Max: [00:13:23] At least (there's) some understanding in some countries across the continent, post-COVID, of the need to address these issues, particularly of public health.
Crystal: [00:13:34] So Kenya, for example, with our vaccine roll out. That has been all public, which has really confused, very many upper middle class and middle class Kenyans. Suddenly it's like, “oh, isn't there anywhere I can just pay for it because that's what we're used to. Must I line up with everyone?” …
So that has been really interesting for me to watch, and really interesting that the government hasn't allowed the sale of vaccines, despite the fact that we have I think less than 1% of the population has had even the first vaccine. I'm not sure what the numbers are for the fully vaccinated Kenyans, but that begins to equalize things in a way that hasn't been done before. … Taking off this veil that public services are useless (and) can’t be trusted with delivering services. … I think that changing that narrative is a very important first step. And so, I'm really, I'm really proud of that. Well not so proud that we have been botched of our vaccine rollout, but that's beside the point. I'm trying to be hopeful.
Low-Cost, Private Schools
Max: [00:15:05] Oh, it was good to be hopeful. I think another thing I've really noticed is, (the) big World Bank solution to the education crisis has been these low cost private schools. And I think everyone has seen as soon as the crisis hits, how unsustainable that is and how, many of them will not reopen. … It’s certainly a lot easier to argue that with the World Bank now. They can't really say that this is a great way to deliver education.
Crystal: [00:15:44] Yeah. And funding seems to be redirected to more pressing COVID issues, for example.
So, what does that mean? That the education of our children is to the graces of what funding is available or not? And then what does that mean? Is it actually then a right for African children to access education? ...
A friend of mine, who's a neurosurgeon told me this really hopeful story of a child who came in and had a tumor removed. This tumor was found by the teacher in the public school of the little village that she lived in. And the teacher noticed her handwriting was slightly off. Told her parents. Parents took her to a doctor. Doctor referred her to the national hospital. National hospital found a tumor, ended up having surgery done. Everything was (free). The parents didn't have to pay for anything. And so, the systems can work. If we allow them, if we fund them enough to work, the systems can work.
… All these low cost, informal education schools or systems, don't really need qualified teachers. As long as you can basically read off a tab, you can stand in front of a class and take a class, right? But education is more than that. The pedagogy of teaching and what a teacher does with, and for children really matters. And I think a public system that works, can speak to each other, can speak to different parts of the system and make sure that citizens are well taken care of.
Do We and Should We Care about African Billionaires?
Nabil: [00:17:36] … Do you think enough or as much attention is paid to the extraction that takes place within countries? For example, the rising billionaire class that we see on the African continent. Sometimes some of the conversations that Max and I have had for example, is, do we care enough about African billionaires as we do about global billionaires? Or is that not where the conversation needs to be?
Crystal: [00:18:35] It definitely needs to have a conversation, but I think there's a careful balance in terms of not diverting public attention to African billionaires. And you have to remember race/class as well in the inequality conversation, right?
African billionaires will never reach the type of white billionaire. Let's be honest. Oxfam is really great at putting the numbers, but forgive me if I'm wrong, but I think Dangote is like 100 and something in the list of global billionaires. The fact that you're African means that you're completely locked out of certain spaces and certain avenues of money, whether those avenues are right or wrong. … I can't stop thinking, it doesn't matter what you do. You will never get to that point. You will never get to the top 10 billionaires in the world.
And so even within the inequality, there is an inequality, if you know what I mean. And how dangerous it is to begin to turn the lens on individual African billionaires when we're trying to fight a system that is globally corrupt … The idea of billionaires, anywhere, should not exist. Overlay that with race and gender as well. As an African woman, there is no way you would ever get to the type of billionaire in the US or Europe, or global north in general.
… It's the same with the conversations around corruption. Yes, we have a huge, huge problem of corruption, but if you put the corrupt numbers against what gets lost in a global, unequal economic landscape, it's a pittance. And so, the work has to be done in terms of transparency and anti-corruption work, definitely. However, a big conversation must be had about a global economic divide and unequal space, basically.
Corruption vs. Illicit Financial Flows
Max: [00:20:58] That's a classic kind of global stereotype about Africa. ... Would you even put corruption in the top three problems? And do you think Africa has a corruption problem that's somehow of a different order to other parts of the world?
Crystal: [00:21:13] It is a massive issue because we're so close to it. But if you stand back, the bigger problem of a global economic governance system that was working against the continent, I think is a much bigger issue.
If you look at the anti-corruption index, the transparency index and look at the world's most corrupt countries, ... most of the time they will fall in the global south. But if you look at the illicit financial flows maps, and look at where large sums of money through illicit financial flows in tax havens are situated, it's a complete opposite, but all of those are in the global north, right?
And so, I question, if it's just an issue of the politics of narrative and the power of language to call it corruption here, but through illicit financial flows, which in itself as a terminology is very abstract and lofty for most people, but it's really theft.
… And if you put those two side by side, only 5% of what Africa loses to illicit financial flows is through corruption. For example, 65% is through commercial activity and that begins to paint a different picture. And so … the role of the words that we choose to use has an impact on the way we see things and the fight that we have.
So, sitting in Kenya, being a citizen of Kenya, definitely corruption is a huge issue because it's immediate. It's here. It's tangible. It's accessible in a way that I can understand it. In terms of how much is being taken out of our economy or not allowed to be in our economy, that's a much bigger issue and that's more global. But, you know, it's easier to attack what you can see, but slowly I think the conversation and engagements around how we explain these things is changing and hopefully people begin to see things differently. …
What should We Do Better?
Nabil: [00:24:45] … Crystal, I wanted to end with something I picked up from the research we were doing just ahead of speaking to you. A couple of years ago, Oxfam released a report on inequality and Africa. And there's a picture on Twitter of us presenting that report in South Africa, to folks at the World Economic Forum (WEF).
And it was interesting to see. I sent you this just before the interview. And you say in your tweet, "this really isn't good enough team Oxfam". Crystal, I know we're friends and we're able to speak on a level. Your advice to us as Oxfam, but also the sector. What should we be doing better to truly be in solidarity with movements fighting economic justice on this continent?
Crystal: [00:25:52] (Jokingly) I tweet a lot. And then sometimes I forget that people read this stuff.
I think the first thing is to recognize your privilege and your power. Recognize that you can never be and will never be a national civil society organization. There's a different role for organizations like Oxfam. There's a different role in making sure that you hold doors open into spaces that other people, other civil society organizations, activists, citizens are not able to reach.
It's keeping those doors open to be able to provide space in spaces that you can have space and voice for people who are usually, most likely, most times left unheard, invisible and unseen. But in these spaces, the policies that they create, the frameworks that they create have such a direct impact on the lives of the people who are not able to be in those spaces.
And so, it's knowing that you cannot be the voice. It's knowing that there are people who can speak for themselves. It's knowing that inclusion is expensive. It's knowing that this is not just a job for so, so many people. This is about the quality of life. For themselves, for their families, for their communities, for their countries, for their region, for their continent.
And I think it's not being in competition with organizations, activists, individuals that are fighting for their countries, for their community, for their people; but being able to support them in ways that make sense for them. And being able to listen a whole lot more to them and not deciding what help they need and how they need it. …
Nabil: [00:27:38] I'm sure Crystal many people will be listening to that answer very, very carefully. So, thank you. And thank you for being honest as well. And I think that advice is being taken on board and has been taken on board, especially about realizing the role that we need to play. … Keep with those tweets as well. They need to be heard.
Max: [00:28:00] That's great, Crystal. Well, thank you very much and thanks for a fantastic interview. Really appreciate it. Great admirer of your work and just some amazing, fascinating discussions.
Crystal: [00:28:18] Thanks. Thanks Max, Thanks Nabil.
Nabil: [00:31:29] Guys, we're trying to do something different on equals. Thank you very, very much for joining us. We're trying to share the stories that aren't being heard. Do tweet, do share the episode, your favorite quotes. We've got some cracking episodes coming up on aid, on supermarkets and their power in global supply chains.
If you’re joining us on EQUALS for the first time, tune in to our earlier interviews – from talking with award-winning journalist Gary Younge on what we can learn from MLK Jr on how to fight inequality, to best-selling author Anand Giridharadas on whether we need billionaires, and from Turkish author Ece Temelkuran on beating fascism, and climate activist Hindou Ibrahim on nature, to IMF Chief Kristalina Georgieva on what comes after the pandemic, and Zambian music artist PilAto on the power of music.
Elizabeth Njambi is the Producer of the EQUALS Podcast. She also manages the EQUALS Blog. She’s a Kenyan Advocate passionate about access to justice: Founder and CEO of Wakili.sha Initiative and Co-host of the Wakili.sha Podcast.