In February this year, the government of Uganda guaranteed a loan of $379 million to Finasi, a private Italian company with dubious business dealings to construct a specialised hospital in Uganda. The project that has been mired in controversy is supposed to defray the $150 million that Ugandans reportedly spend travelling abroad to access treatment for non-communicable diseases and other specialized treatment like organ transplants which the current health infrastructure cannot adequately support.
The deal got a green light amid protestations from a section of lawmakers who urged government to upgrade existing health institutions instead. The national referral hospital has a capacity of 900 beds and would only need $9 million to upgrade, according to the Uganda Medical Association, while the Finasi hospital will have a capacity of 264.
Across Africa, corporations are undertaking grand infrastructural projects and supplanting the mandate of governments to provide public services like health, education, water and sanitation. The sheer size, scope and influence of corporations gives them immense power to disrupt governance and multilateralism as we know it. Some corporations now have more wealth than a number of countries in the world, making them credible and powerful players in the new world order. Did you know 69 of the richest 100 economic entities on the planet are corporations? For comparison, in 2011, Shell earned a total revenue of $484 billion, almost double Nigeria’s GDP which was $235 billion in 2011, and at the time Africa’s second largest economy.
This concentration of resources in the hands of corporations is not by accident. They have influenced national and international legal and policy frameworks in their favour, to facilitate them to abuse labour rights, destroy and displace entire communities from their land, and lessen their tax obligations to places where they conduct business. Corporations are bleeding the continent dry of critical resources required to finance the same public services they are investing in. According to the 2015 report of the Mbeki High Level Panel, Africa loses about $50 billion annually to illicit financial flows, the majority of which are due to tax evasion and avoidance. Indeed, Enrica Pinetti, Finasi’s proprietor is among those named in the Panama Papers on offshore finance industry, the cache of leaked documents that exposed the dealings of wealthy individuals with offshore accounts set up to avoid and evade paying taxes.
Srilatha Balitwala, a women’s rights advocate defines power as the capacity to determine who gets what, who does what, who decides what, and who sets the agenda. The concentration of wealth among corporations, owned by few, means that this power and this responsibility has been shifted to them, away from the state.
Corporations, whose sole mission is profit, therefore effectively have the discretion to decide what is “good” for citizens; who gets what resources and opportunities, whose labour gets exploited and who does what work, and what should be on the agenda.
For women and other marginalised groups with little social power, this does not bode well. The Finasi hospital project is just one example of how women and other marginalized groups’ access to critical social services like health will be curtailed. Despite the fact that Ugandan taxpayers are contributing to the construction of the hospital, they still have to pay to access it. And as with many Public-Private Partnerships, Ugandan taxpayers carry all the risks of the project while the investor is guaranteed to profit or remained unscathed, should the deal go awry.
The health sector is not the only place where women feel the brunt of corporations’ exploitation. Women make up the majority of workers in transnational companies where they predominate in low skill and largely unsafe working pursuits, from the garment industry, assembly plants, flower farms as flower pickers, and extractives where they use sheer will to break rocks apart. If women are in paid work, they are concentrated in vulnerable, low-paid, or undervalued jobs, earn less than men for work of equal value, and work longer hours with their paid and unpaid work combined.
Neo-liberal capitalism thrives on exploiting power imbalances and weak systems. Since women already have a low status in society, with many of them illiterate or low skilled, they make perfect fodder for abuse. Furthermore, they are disproportionately impacted by the detrimental socio-economic and environmental impacts caused by their operation, including loss of access to land and livelihoods. Considering that women make up the majority of tillers of land, this directly affects food security. Corporations have also been very active in fighting laws that would protect workers and in disrupting the formation of labour unions. For women whose collective bargaining power would rise with the formation of and joining of unions, this frustrates their efforts to demand for better working conditions and wages.
In Uganda, the president has publicly sided with investors saying that a minimum wage will raise the cost of doing business and will chase investors away. All across Africa, the mantra of “open for business” is being repeated to attract foreign direct investment, to the detriment of citizens, especially women and poor people. As governments compete to attract this investment, tax policies become the bargaining chip, with many African States trying to outcompete each other by offering the lowest tax benefits possible. This has a ripple effect of shrinking revenues for social projects on which women greatly rely, shifting the burden of taxes to commodities like soap and cooking oil on which women usually spend their wages, and increasing reliance on debt financing which takes away critical resources for public services. In Uganda, debt financing is the second top item on the 2019/2020 budget, outpacing the amount allocated to health.
The social contract as envisioned between citizen and nation state is broken.
Governments and corporate interests are now inseparable which requires a rethinking around how feminists on the continent challenge power for gender justice. From bodily autonomy and health rights, to political participation and access to education, to all other freedoms we fight for daily, the trail leads back to who controls resources. And that is where we should take our fight.
A feminist approach that challenges the current economic model–which promises growth and progress yet favors huge multinational corporations and concentrates wealth in the hands of a few global elites, is needed now more than ever. Because to leave corporations whose only interest is profit at whatever cost, to decide on human rights and gender justice is like leaving a fox to guard the chicken house.
Leah Eryenyu is an African feminist with interest in macro-economic policy focusing on decent work for women, and corporate accountability particularly on tax justice. She is the Research, Advocacy and Movement Building Manager at Akina Mama wa Afrika.
Feature photo via Flickr