Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Peer review in Africa
African states signed up to Nepad have agreed to a peer-review mechanism that will allow African countries to judge the behaviour of fellow African states.

So, a positive development, indicative of a new spirit of self-help in Africa, and a genuine commitment to basic principles of good governance, or mere window dressing? The jury will probably be out on this one for a while but I do think that a few factors can be identified as crucial.

Firstly, how will the term "good governance" be defined? The report mentions that "good governance" will be defined in the African context. But what does this mean? To what extent will "Western" notions of good governance be relevant? Recall that the last time the spectre of African solutions to African problems was raised, it culminated in the South African Minister of Health recommending that AIDS sufferers ward off the evil virus by consuming African potatoes, garnished with garlic and olive oil.

Secondly, how will the criteria that are formulated be interpreted and applied? Here too, there is scope for abuse. Regarding Zimbabwe, South Africa has repeatedly argued in international forums, such as the Commonwealth, that the human rights situation in that country is improving, despite the fact that all indications have been to the contrary. If the principles formulated are applied in this manner, then clearly the peer-review system will go nowhere. This will be especially interesting in the case of countries such as Angola -- a new member -- where corruption is endemic.

Third, if these hurdles are cleared, will it matter? The report notes that no punitive measures will be attached to the Nepad standards of good governance that are formulated. The risk is that states will be mildly criticised, make vague promises to improve, and then won't do anything. After all, why should they?

Still, I don't wish to sound unduly pessimistic. These are, it is true, potential stumbling blocks. But, given that the process hasn't even begun to unfold, and does hold exciting promise, Nepad should be accorded the benefit of the doubt. For what its worth, Southern Cross will be watching.

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