Mali sinks beneath debt and sand

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The Independent Online
THE millions spent in Birmingham would go a long way in Mali, one of the countries whose outstretched hand was spurned by the leaders of the G8 this weekend. Yet its people stand to gain nothing from the decisions of the rich world's leaders.

It is one of the hottest countries in the world. It is also one of the poorest. A man has an average life expectancy of 43, two thirds of its people have no access to clean water and almost 80 per cent of its women are illiterate.

On average, the people of Mali have less than 50p a day to live on - and yet each of them owes about pounds 205, in theory, to the world's richest nations.

Mali is a country of featureless desert in which the sands of the Sahara creep at a speed of about 20 miles per year into land that once sustained agriculture or livestock. Aid workers in Bamako, the capital, when I was last there a decade ago, had grand schemes of digging 35,000 wells across the country, with trees planted around them to fix the soil.

Such notions have long been abandoned in the face of the economic reform programme the country introduced at the behest of the IMF in 1996.

Now, growth is up, inflation is down and IMF officials describe increases in agricultural and mining productivity as robust and vigorous.

All this may make Mali eligible for HIPC debt relief as early as 1999, according to World Bank Officials. Yet Mali remains in dire poverty, and, ten years on, those 35,000 wells have not been dug. An Oxfam programme at present underway will help some 400,000 people with livestock renewal, training of vets and building of water and agricultural services. The sum spent by the G8 on their weekend summit could have extended that work to reach another 3.6 million people.

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