African Trade and the Gospel

When Congress finally passed and President Clinton signed the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) this May, a long-standing contentious trade debate ended on a whimper. The Washington Post, despite its substantial coverage of Congress, devoted less than two column inches to the story. Its key proponents continued to extol the great virtues of the act. African advocates, who had argued vociferously for passage and who had attacked those who did not agree, now spoke quietly that the bill might not be all they had hoped, but that it was a useful "first step." It might, they said, help the economies of some African nations.

You probably missed this debate altogether. Unless you are part of the textile or pharmaceutical industries, of have close links with Africa, or are active on economic justice issues, you likely heard nothing about this issue. And if you heard bits and pieces, they were unlikely to be riveting. Trade legislation isn’t that way.

But the debate over United States - African trade tells us something that we in the faith communities, grounded in a theology of justice and dignity, need to hear. I want to suggest three things: First, it is not anti-trade to speak of fair trade. Second, it is not blasphemy to suggest that many of the values underpinning today’s capitalism - a word we tend to avoid these days - are radically opposed to those at the heart of the gospel message. And third, it is not right to declare that the economic perspectives of the U.S. should be the standard for the rest of the world.

First, fair trade. We need ways to exchange goods and services. Excessively restrictive practices and, certainly, corruption that exist in some African nations work against trade and appropriate economic growth. But an agenda of unfettered free trade - which the U.S. presents as the singular answer for economic growth worldwide and was the basic rationale for the Africa trade bill - becomes a mockery when "freedom" means unhindered access of multinational corporations to African markets where fledgling African businesses are struggling to survive. The income of many multinationals exceeds the gross domestic product of many African nations! In that context, being "free to compete" is no freedom at all.

What is fair is to recognize the extreme contrasts between the economy of the United States and the economies of African nations, and to provide means by which African economies are truly strengthened by their trade relations with the U.S. AGOA’s aggressive answer was to press for African market access for U.S. goods while making a very modest and limited gesture at access of some African apparel to the U.S. When the Wall Street Journal wrote glowingly that the AGOA was "giving African access to the engines of the world economy, A they were simply wrong.

Second, capitalism and the gospel. This lively topic has been around for a long time. In the present context, what is critical is to contrast the gospel mandate for justice and human dignity for all people with an economic system whose inner logic is to place profit before people. It is, in a time of economic prosperity, simply unconscionable to impose upon an Africa that contains people living in extreme poverty, economic policies that undermine and indeed discourage such crucial public services as health and education, housing and sanitation. But the Africa trade bill followed this line, starting with a list of conditions for eligibility for AGOA’s limited benefits that sounded very much like structural adjustment.

Theologian Andrew Bradstock, writing recently in Church Times, spoke of a God "for whom life, especially the life of the vulnerable, is to be valued above everything." He went on: "Any ideology or system placing a lesser value on human life therefore dishonors God." Well said.

The common "wisdom" today is that the free market is to be unquestioned. However, capitalism is a human creation. Where capitalism fails to affirm human worth and address human need our faith compels us to challenge the agenda ordained by those who possess wealth.

Third, the U.S. as the standard. For all our gifts as a people, our compassion and generosity, our government can by stunningly arrogant in its international affairs. The fundamental message of AGOA, for example, was that if an African nation wanted to trade with us, they had to play by our rules. The bill contained constant references to Amarket-led economic growth," the Aprivate sector," and "economic reform," the latter a clear euphemism for the way the United States handles its economy. If an African nation failed to accept the U.S. approach, they were simply excluded.

Nowhere did we see signs of respect for the integrity of African nations to discern and implement economic policies appropriate to the needs of their people. If they tried to protect their modest industrial base from multinational corporations, they were wrong. If they tried to provide free health care and education for their people, they were wrong. If they sought to address out-of-control unemployment rates by employing people in the public sector, they were wrong. If, indeed, they tried to process some of their agricultural products themselves rather than exporting the raw product for process elsewhere, they were wrong (for reasons of tariffs and duties).

What the faith community can do

We in the faith community need to be a consistent voice - domestically and internationally - for economic policies that deny profit as the sole criteria and that uphold a vision of a social good that is concerned with quality of life.

We need to draw a sharp distinction between free trade and fair trade. Between Africa and the U.S., fair trade is that which is mutually beneficial, which is sensitive to community life, which respects the contrasts between African and U.S. economies, and which grants special concern for the most vulnerable. We need to appreciate that trade of any sort is not the sole answer if the social and economic hopes of Africa are to be realized. The U.S. must juxtapose a more thoughtful trade agenda with continuing development aid and debt relief, a cause virtually all of our faith communities have embraced. And lastly, we need to be active participants ourselves in economic decision-making, and to encourage active participation by African civil society. Empowering people to articulate their own vision for the community and nation is well-grounded in our theology; it is important for us to find was to heard ourselves, and to ensure that our African sisters and brothers be heard in forums where decisions are made.

I would like to think that the AGOA may yet prove to a be first step - a modest step, but a step nevertheless - toward economic relationships between Africa and the United States that embrace human values. The alternative remains very real: that through the AGOA specifically and the U.S. economic might in general, we would be using poverty in Africa to force our own ideological free market agenda against the African longing for genuine and pervasive economic social development.

Which way the decision goes will be decided by whether, say, pharmaceutical corporations prevail or whether voices such as ours, who approach these issues from the definition of a common good and who bring faith to bear upon human worth and dignity, are truly heard. The gospel is good news for the community, not a proclamation for individual ambition. My prayer is that we will find the courage to say this, and by so doing, proclaim that which is counter to the prevailing economic message. Poverty is not going to go away until we do.


The Rev. Dr. Leon Spencer, an Episcopal priest, is executive director of the ecumenical Washington Office on Africa. For more information on WOA, call them at 202-547-7503.

Letter to the Editor