One meal, five ingredients and five reasons why subsidies do not work

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The Independent Online

Every lunchtime, millions of people in Senegal sit down to eat their national dish of thieboudienne - a combination of rice, fish and tomatoes.

The simple meal consists of five staple ingredients, all of which are abundant in the west African state. But local producers of all five ingredients are being driven out of their livelihoods by the dumping of cheaper, subsidised imports from Europe and the US.

Senegalese farmers do not have the machinery or technology to compete on an equal footing. It means that countries such as Senegal are being trapped in a vicious circle, where cheap imports are driving people out of business, into poverty, and making them more reliant on foreign aid.

Thieboudienne (pronounced cheb-oo-chen) is made up of rice, tomatoes, fish, onions and groundnut oil. Three quarters of Senegal's 10 million people depend on farming for a living, with fish the top export. Fishing also provides 600,000 people with employment - but those jobs are now under threat.

With no money for its schools and hospitals, the Senegalese government sold the rights last year to its fish-rich waters in the Atlantic to the European Union. There are concerns that the fishing rights were sold off in return for guarantees on aid.

Local fisherman are supposed to have the exclusive rights to waters within six miles of the shore - but they say EU trawlers frequently flout this rule.Ibrahim Gueye, 21, a fisherman, said: "The fish are becoming more and more scarce. At one time we would only have to fish for a matter of hours. Now we often have to stay out for two or three days or longer. Some days we return from the sea with no fish at all."

Also, rice production is being stymied by subsidised imports from Asia and the US. Senegalese farmers do not get subsidies. A scheme which gave them free fertiliser was stopped after pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In the Senegal river valley, 240,000 hectares is earmarked for rice production, but only 10,000 hectares is being used because of the subsidies.

Mamadou Niang is a 36-year-old rice farmer with four children. His income last year was only enough to live on for five months, so he has had to start selling his goats to make ends meet. "I have been growing rice for 16 years, but I don't know how much longer I can do it," he said.

The local imam, listening to Mr Niang, said: "In our village, we are all like Mamadou."

As a state-run industry, groundnut oil prices were fixed and guaranteed by the government. But last year, the World Bank forced the industry to privatise, and cheaper imports of French sunflower oil undercut local producers.

Tomato growers are also being forced out of business, by cheaper Italian imports. South European tomato farmers receive annual subsidies of £250m a year from the EU.

Even onion production has become a problem in Senegal. Locally grown onions are of good quality, while the imports from Holland are often rejects from European supermarkets. But the Dutch goods have flooded the market and are eclipsing local competition.

One in four people in Senegal lives on less than $1 a day. According to Oxfam, for every US dollar of aid given to developing countries, they in effect lose two dollars in unfair trade.

Andrew Pendleton, of Christian Aid, said: "The problem is that these people are not being taught, encouraged or allowed to compete in an equal market. This is a recipe for disaster for tens of thousands of Senegalese producers.

"Rich countries, including the British Government, say developing nations like Senegal need 'free and fair trade' to lift them out of poverty. But at the moment poor countries are being forced to open up their markets to imports - many of which come from countries where producers are paid huge subsidies - while being prevented from supporting their own industry and agriculture."

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