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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’Afrique éreintée par la hausse des prix

by Vincent Defait

Africa Drained by the Rising Cost of Living

Translated Tuesday 15 April 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Violent protests have broken out in different countries on the continent where inflation hits the poorest populations hardest.

Abidjan (Ivory Coast) from our special correspondent

Since yesterday Burkina-Faso, the smallest county in West Africa, has been on strike. The cause is the high cost of living. Trade unions, first among them the General Labour Confederacy of Burkina-Faso (GTTB), demand pay rises and above all significant cuts in basic foods prices: rice, millet, maize, beans, salt, sugar, milk… More surprising still, the Ivory Coast, though a rich country amongst poor countries, had its own demonstrations last week too. The strong-fisted police crackdown resulted in two being killed.

In West Africa, where wages, more often than not, are all spent on food, the rise in food prices is making itself most cruelly felt in families who are forced to go without certain foods. But demonstrations also have governments rocking, even though governments’ response to them varies: slogans are directly targeted at the heads of state and they often open out on to other demands. In Burkina-Faso for example unions yesterday were marching against the “high cost of living, corruption, fraud and impunity”.

Over the last months, violent, often harshly suppressed demonstrations have taken place in several West African countries (Burkina, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroon). In Burkina-Faso some political and trade union leaders have been held in jail since the first eruption of protest in late February.

As a rule, authorities keep prices down by cutting tariffs and taxes like VAT, which drains public finances. Measures of that kind were taken last week in the Ivory Coast that should cost the State some 5.8 billion CFA francs. In view of the fact that the country these days can hardly pay its public employees, these measures are liable to produce disastrous effects before long.

“In that kind of urgency, priority should be given to welfare plans, so as to provide economic aid and food relief to the urban poor in particular,” said Daniel Sellen, interim delegate of the World Bank in the Ivory Coast. “The government’s recipe for keeping prices down has disastrous effects because it is liable to cause shortages in food production,” he added.

It goes without saying that Daniel Sellen did not mention the responsibility of international financial institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund). And yet the WB and IMF have been pressuring Southern countries into developing export-oriented investment crops in order to ensure the repayment of their several debts. The subsequent drastic decline of subsistence farming on which the countries’ agricultural self-sufficiency depends is now making its grievous consequences only too clearly felt.

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