WASHINGTON — Like the country he represents in Washington, Mali’s Ambassador Abdoulaye Diop is tall, robust and has a powerful presence. He is gentle, affable and cultured.
Roughly twice the size of Texas, Mali is West Africa’s largest country. Once a great empire at the crossroads of trade, Mali slumbered in the shadow of its splendid historic cities like Timbuktu and Djenné for a hundred years. But, in the last decade, Mali has emerged as the African democracy.
For 23 years, the former French colony suffocated under the dictatorship of Moussa Traoré. In 1991, Gen. Amadou Toumani Touré deposed the dictator in a bloodless coup d’etat. Gen. Touré broke military junta traditions, and within 14 months steered the country to its first multiparty elections. He did not seek the presidency.
Alpha Oumar Konaré, Mali’s first democratically elected president, served his maximum two five-year terms, as the constitution prescribes, and stepped down in 2002. Gen. Touré was sworn in as the new president. Very popular, he ran without a political party and won 64 percent of the vote. He is the godfather of Africa’s democracy.
Twelve years after they embraced democracy, Malians increasingly enjoy a full range of human rights. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2003, there were no reports of arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life, politically motivated disappearances, torture or political prisoners in Mali. This is an impressive record by any First-World standards.
Still, corruption poses a great challenge to the rising democracy. “Mali is an example of democratic success, but democracy is a never-ending process,” says Rafael Ouattara, Mali Resident Director for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. “Corruption reduces the benefits of the government’s efforts to effectively manage the country.”
The government has stepped up its campaign against mismanagement of the public good.
“No other African country has fought corruption like Mali,” says Pascal Kambale, counsel for the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C. “The Ministry of Justice has undertaken an ambitious legal reform program to bring about transparency. Mali does not only need legal expertise; the international community should lend greater financial assistance to guarantee this program’s success.”
Unlike Ambassador Diop, who stands tall on firm ground, Mali’s democracy is built on a foundation of sand. With a per capita gross domestic product of $300, Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries. Sixty-four percent of the country’s 11 million inhabitants live in poverty. The democratic giant has a 54 percent illiteracy rate and a very high 2.4 percent population growth rate. A weak economy threatens to spoil the democratic gains.
“We have big choices to make,” Diop explains. “Mali is strategically situated at the crossroads in the sub-(Saharan)region, but we are a landlocked country in desperate need of a solid infrastructure. Our roads and airports require immediate attention.”
Mali’s economy depends on agriculture. Under the right conditions, the country could be West Africa’s breadbasket. Of Mali’s 1 million hectares of fertile land, only 50,000 are exploited. It is Africa’s largest cotton producer with an output of 600,000 metric tons in 2003. Yet Mali has no textile industry and processes only 1 percent of its cotton consumption. The country boasts 9 million cattle and 16 million sheep and goats, but does not export a single pound of meat due to the lack of infrastructure.
“We need substantial private investment in order to create a critical mass for development,” Diop said. “We are committed to democracy. But 80 percent of Malians live in the rural areas and have limited access to education, healthcare and safe drinking water. People are frustrated. ‘Is this democracy?’ They often ask.”
Ouattara agrees. “Democratic conquests come in increments,” he said. “There is a permanent need for the civic education of the population. Democracy and poverty do not make good bedfellows. Malians need to see an improvement in their standard of living soon.”
Unfortunately for Malians, the biggest threat to their democracy comes from the United States and the European Union. U.S. and EU cotton subsidies condemn West African cotton growing countries to poverty.
Cotton producers in Spain and Greece receive around $700 million from the EU through a ceiling price support mechanism, according to South Centre, an Intergovernmental Organization of Developing Countries headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2001-02, Spanish cotton producers received support corresponding to 180 percent of global prices and Greek producers 160 percent.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between August 1999 and July 2003, U.S. cotton farmers received $12.4 billion in subsidies and generated $13.9 billion in total production. The subsidy amounted to 89.5 percent. That is, the U.S. government gave an additional 89.5 cents to an American cotton producer for every dollar earned.
Because they are so heavily subsidized, American farmers overproduce cotton and then dump it on the world market, causing the collapse of prices. In 2001-2, for instance, these farmers received $4.4 billion in subsidies from the U.S. Treasury for a price guarantee of $0.70 per pound. The world market price was $0.42 per pound.
Millions of Malian farmers who have only five acres of cotton and live on less than $1 per person per day cannot compete with American farmers who cultivate around 1,000 acres of cotton.
“Subsidies hurt our economy,” says Ambassador Diop. “Price fluctuations make our farmers poorer and endanger our democracy. America and Europe say they want to fight poverty and support democracy. We believe in ‘trade, not aid’ like the Americans say. We are asking for a level playing field: We would like the U.S. and EU to play by the same rules as every other actor in the market.”
The United States and the European Union are members of the World Trade Organization, and their subsidy policies run against its free market and fair trade regime. “In 2001, we received $37 million from USAID to help our farmers, but we still lost $42 million because of subsidies,” Diop adds. “That’s 1.7 percent of Mali’s gross national product, or 8 percent of its income in exports.”
Mali is the real test for U.S. and EU support for democracy in Africa. Democracy does not grow on poverty. Without economic fertilizers it will wither. The United States and the European Union should treat Mali as they would any other democracy in the world — as a partner.