Africa Should Be Wary of U.S. Propaganda on Intellectual Property

In his recent State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama highlighted the need to reduce inequality, widen access to health care and education, and create jobs in the United States. It is unfortunate that his administration’s foreign and trade policies threaten to undermine those very things for billions of people in the developing world. This is particularly so when it comes to trade.  For example, in several fora and in a range of ways, the U.S. is pushing agreements and encouraging countries to adopt laws that are much more restrictive than World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, and threaten to dramatically limit the ability of millions of people around the world to access affordable medicines.

For example, this week activists in Los Angeles have been protesting against the U.S. Trade Representative’s secret talks with negotiators from around the world aimed at establishing the so-called Trans Pacific Free Trade Agreement (TPP ), which could eventually include every Pacific Rim nation from Vietnam, Thailand, and Japan to Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Russia. Among other things, the TPP would include a radical expansion of patents that would shore up profits for Big Pharma and restrict affordable generic medicines.

It’s not only the U.S.—next week, after protracted and largely secretive negotiations, and despite unyielding protests, the European Community and India will likely make a deal on an FTA—a so-called Free Trade Agreement. Contrary to what the name suggests, it contains provisions that would further strengthen monopoly rights for pharmaceutical companies and limit India’s capacity to prioritize patient rights over patent rights, and supply the rest of the world with cheap generic medicines.

Along the same lines, the U.S., Japan, Australia, Switzerland, and several EU countries have already signed ACTA—the secretive  Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement—a proposed multilateral agreement which would establish a new international legal framework far more restrictive than currently exists under the WTO, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), or the United Nations. Have a look at this great little video to see what it means.

The U.S. has also been pushing many African countries to pass their own restrictive intellectual property legislation, again committing them to policies that are much more restrictive than what is currently permitted under TRIPS—the WTO agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights.  Some of this takes the form of so-called “anti-counterfeit” laws, which purport to protect consumers by outlawing fake products, but really apply heavy-handed solutions to problems best dealt with by other means (such as in the case of medicines, strengthening medicines regulatory authorities).

Now the U.S. Department of Commerce is organizing an Africa-wide intellectual property forum in Cape Town in early April. Again, this is presented as an effort to protect starving African artists and musicians from exploitation, or to promote African growth through innovation. But the agenda is all about IP strengthening and enforcement and not about stimulating innovation. There is no discussion planned of the risks that strict IP enforcement holds for health (limited access to generic drugs), agriculture (expensive genetically-modified seed), and education (access to educational resources), among many others. Africa has far, far more to lose than to gain from stricter IP regulation and enforcement—not least because the EU, U.S., and Japan own the vast majority of patents as this great visual shows.  And if African nations want to stimulate innovation, it is highly questionable whether patents are the right way to go. Intellectual property protection has never been shown to promote economic development in developing countries.

While many have rejoiced at the recent defeat of SOPA and PIPA, these other measures pose far more threat to the interests of ordinary people around the world—and because they’re being negotiated in secret, or through laws in a range of developing countries, they’re much harder to defeat.

Civil society organizations across the continent and the globe—from MSF to HealthGAP, to the Third World Network and librarians’ groups—are alarmed and outraged at the upcoming meeting and are mobilizing against it. We should all join forces with them.

Add your voice