Mali: A Case Study for Aid

The West African nation of Mali is one of the impoverished countries that could benefit from the debt relief proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Economic development has been slow in Mali, but with debt forgiveness its potential for growth is rife.

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One of the countries in line to benefit from debt cancellation at the G8 Summit is Mali, a large land-locked West African nation of 13 million people. It's also among the world's poorest. NPR's Ofeibia Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBIA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Mali is one of Africa's top cotton producers. It also has gold reserves, livestock, and with good rains and harvest, can feed itself. But the country's economic development has been stunted by a chronically high foreign trade deficit and crippling debt, leaving Mali heavily dependent on foreign aid.

(Soundbite of voices)

QUIST-ARCTON: In the courtyard of her traditionally constructed Hotel Komhum(ph), in the capital, Bamako, Aminata Dramane Traore said plans by the G8 leaders to write off more than $40 billion owed by 18 highly indebted nations, most of them African, are welcome but insufficient.

Ms. AMINATA DRAMANE TRAORE (Former Mali Government Official): They know exactly what to do if they want Africa to survive. It's not in terms of canceling the debt, external debt of 14 countries, but all Africa. It's in terms of a prize of raw material. They don't take us seriously. We should deal with the real problem.

QUIST-ARCTON: Aminata Dramane Traore, a writer and former minister of culture and tourism of Mali, has long campaigned for debt cancellation and much more for Africa on African terms.

Ms. TRAORE: The way it's working now, it's just bad for Africa. Even the ordinary people know that from one G8 to another summit, they have been promising a lot of things to Africa and they did do nothing. We want leaders of the rich countries to recognize, but actually they are expecting, they are pushing us to open while they are protecting their own market.

QUIST-ARCTON: She's discussing, among other issues, cotton, Mali's chief export commodity.

Ms. TRAORE: Africa has been impoverished. Africa is not poor.

QUIST-ARCTON: With existing subsidies for cotton farmers in the US and other farm subsidies within the European Union, she says local export prices are driven down, and because of that, Malians are suffering.

(Soundbite of goats)

QUIST-ARCTON: Fana, one of the main cotton-growing areas of Mali, lies about 80 miles east of the capital. Cotton farmer Konini Traore(ph) comes from nearby Walikala village(ph), with its handsome hand-built mud huts and cotton and millet fields beyond.

Mr. KONINI TRAORE (Cotton Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: With two wives and nine children, Konini Traore is busy trying to make ends meet after a disastrous season last year when it hardly rained and locusts invaded.

(Soundbite of hoeing)

QUIST-ARCTON: It's planting season again, and hoe in hand, Konini Traore is tending the green tufts of what he hopes will be his next harvest if the locusts stay away and the rains fall.

Mr. TRAORE: (Through Translator) Foreign farm subsidies of cotton really hurt us. It's a nightmare. Here in Mali, we need fair trade on equal terms. Aid is good but let them just pay me a fair price for my cotton.

(Soundbite of voices)

QUIST-ARCTON: Back in the capital, Bamako, traders are cleaning rice with giant wooden sieves and pouring it into sacks. At the local rice market, prices have shot up for this and other staple foods because of the drought in Mali. Rushing about her business and complaining about the price hikes in the market, homemaker Jeniba Omweba(ph) had just this to say to the G8 leaders.

Ms. JENIBA OMWEBA (Homemaker): (Through Translator) I just want to tell them that with a dollar, I used to be able to come to the market and buy enough food to feed my family, but now I need $3 to afford the same provisions. So all I can say is this. Could those leaders please do their very best for prices to come down so that we can live a decent life in dignity here in Mali? Thank you.

Ms. TRAORE: They don't respect us. We cannot continue to say `Thank you, thank you' to these leaders of the richest countries while they are sitting on our back.

QUIST-ARCTON: Aminata Dramane Traore spoke as she packed her bags for Scotland where she'll be watching on the sidelines as the G8 leaders negotiate. Africa shares in the responsibility for the continent's failure to develop, she said, but Africans, too, must be part of the discussion to make things better.

Ofeibia Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako.

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