New Internationalist

Mean Streets

Issue 287

Mean streets
MARC SCHLOSSMAN / PANOS PICTURES

Mean streets
Mozambique has broken free of war for the first time in a generation.
But the West's insistence on free-market economics is plunging it
into another pit of violence, as Mark Whitaker reports.
 
I recently came to know Maputo Central Hospital all too well. Not that I was ill: it was just that I kept coming across victims of the violent crime that’s leading Maputo – until recently one of Africa’s safer and more relaxed cities – to be mentioned in the same breath as notoriously dangerous Nairobi. On my second day there I was being driven to an appointment by the local journalist who was translating for me. He was listening to the news on his car radio when he suddenly pulled over and said we had to go to the hospital. He’d just learned that a friend of his, a well-known news photographer, had been shot and gravely wounded the previous night. We found Armando Munguambe in a small, stiflingly hot room. Though obviously in terrible pain from a bullet lodged in his abdomen, he told us what had happened.

‘I was going home from work about nine o’clock with my camera bag over my shoulder. I noticed two men following me. They didn’t say anything to me. One of them just opened fire and hit me in the shoulder. I fell over and saw the other one coming for me with a knife. I grabbed him, and tried to use him as a shield. He was shouting to his colleague to kill me. The man with the gun shot me again, and got me in the stomach. Maybe they thought I was dead. They picked up the cameras and ran off. No-one came out of their houses to help...’

Two days later I was back in the hospital – this time to visit my translator. He hadn’t been shot but he was just as much a victim of violent crime. It’s become too risky to stop at a red light in Maputo after dark. He hadn’t; and a horrendous crash had left him with a fractured skull and a punctured liver. When I left Mozambique 10 days later he was still on the danger list.

Some blame Maputo’s sudden crisis of violent crime on the arrival of organized gangs from South Africa. Some blame a police force that’s too badly paid not to get in on the act. Others make an obvious connection between the thousands of demobilized soldiers from Mozambique’s civil war who still have guns but don’t have jobs.

But the country’s Attorney-General looks deeper than this and sees criminality as a consequence of a too-rapid transition to a market economy; one that’s corroded values as well as cost jobs.

‘We need to see the increase in crime in the context of the big changes that have taken place in our society,’ says Dr Sinai Nhatitima. ‘People are becoming more materialistic. The policy of privatization has caused a big wave of unemployment and some people are having to find alternative ways to survive.’

The privatization policy is one of many that have been imposed on Mozambique by the IMF and the World Bank as ‘conditions’ the country must fulfil if it is to continue to receive loans. And Dr Nhatitima gets as close as is publicly possible to blaming the international financial institutions for causing the new violence. ‘The international community must help us achieve a balance,’ he says carefully, ‘so our economy develops without people choosing criminality’.

Most members of Mozambique’s government don’t find it easy to answer questions about what’s happening to their country two years after remarkably successful multi-party elections. The problem is that the trumpet they have to blow – about economic growth and stabilizing inflation – isn’t their own. It’s got a very prominent ‘Made in Washington DC’ stamp on it.

According to one of the country’s leading economists, Carlos Castel-Branco, the tragedy of present-day Mozambique is that a freely elected government – in which so much hope had been invested – has been reduced to a headless chicken, rushing around madly, meeting one IMF or World Bank condition after another, with no time to develop an economic strategy of its own.

Cash in hand. But selling lager imported from South Africa is not going to help Mozambique's own industries to rebuild.
PAUL SMITH /
PANOS PICTURES

That Mozambique did have its own economic strategy after independence from Portugal in 1975 is obvious from the street names in Maputo. Mao has an avenue named after him; so do Lenin, Marx, Engels and Ho Chi Minh. Even Kim Il Sung isn’t left out of this lexicon of communism’s past.

But from the early 1980s Mozambique’s experiment in socialism was systematically destabilized by a guerrilla army, Renamo, funded by apartheid South Africa and fêted in Ronald Reagan’s White House. It blew up bridges and mined roads; and it targeted the real successes of socialism, the rural schools and clinics. The economy was brought to its knees and, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Mozambican Government decided it had no option but to make a sudden and complete U-turn. It turned straight onto an economic highway of IMF construction whose destination, the road signs clearly indicated, was Market Economy via strict monetary control, free trade and privatization.

And what of the devastations of war, what of the children without schools, the villages without clinics? They’ll have to wait, said the IMF. We can’t rebuild: we can only correct the mistakes of a state-controlled economy. The majority of the Mozambican people are still waiting; and they’re poorer now than they were at the end of the war.

Conditionality is a relationship of power – and a country that’s as poor as post-war Mozambique, and as dependent on aid, has had little choice but to do what it’s told. The World Bank’s representative in Maputo, Roberto Chavez, has no problem with this.

‘The conditions allow us to monitor whether we feel the Government is moving in the right direction,’ he says baldly. ‘If it didn’t meet these conditions then we would reduce our programme to a very basic one.’

The Bank, which has over a billion dollars invested in Mozambique, has no scruples about using its muscle to get its own way. It insists, for example, that any government protection for the cashew-nut industry in the form of an export tax be rapidly phased out. Last year the Government, together with cashew producers and exporters, came up with its own rather slower timetable for this. The Bank vetoed it, threatening to pull all its loans to small- and medium-scale enterprises.

I visited a cashew-processing plant that’s operating at a fifth of its capacity: its owner, Kekobar Patel, thinks that liberalizing trade before domestic industry has had a chance to recover and rebuild is ‘an absurd policy for Mozambique’. He believes the cashew factories will simply have to close down and is amazed that Western economists can get away with preaching liberalization here while not insisting on the same in their own countries. The entrepreneur’s view backs up that of a Maputo journalist: that this will go down in history as ‘the first transition to capitalism that the capitalists didn’t want’.

Maybe such high-handedness would be acceptable if the Bank and the IMF had a track record of getting things right. But they don’t, especially in Africa. And one policy that certainly does not seem to be paying off is the rush to privatization in a Mozambique that lacks domestic capital. It looks good on paper: ‘Over 300 enterprises privatized!’ shouts the Government publicity machine.

The reality is rather different. I saw one former factory that now houses a Pentecostal congregation; another where the eight remaining workers have nothing to do but clean the empty building. Some 100,000 workers – 25 per cent of the industrial workforce – have lost their jobs as a result of privatization. ‘I think we could have done it better,’ is all the World Bank can say in its own defence.

The IMF and the World Bank like to present a joint front to the world: sibling organizations with different routes to the same goal. Maybe; but Mozambique reveals the tension between the IMF’s programme of monetary and fiscal ‘stabilization’ and the Bank’s commitment to ‘development’.

The Bank, for example, is insisting on a less corrupt, more efficient customs service. But that would mean customs officials being paid a living wage and the IMF won’t allow that, saying it would be inflationary and a precedent for other public-sector workers. Similarly the Bank wants to build new schools but insists that the Government stumps up some of the cash. The IMF won’t allow the Government to release the funds...

Though he strongly denies it, rumour has it that the Bank’s Chavez was involved behind the scenes in an unprecedented protest last year when leading donor countries – led by the Dutch – protested to the IMF that it was strangling at birth any signs of new life in Mozambique’s economy.

More recently the donors have been protesting to the Mozambican Government – about crime and safety after the murders in Maputo of aid workers from Switzerland and Spain. But the protests lack conviction. They can’t say it publicly, but the private view of many donor-country diplomats is that the rich world can’t have it both ways. They can’t get up in arms about crime when they know crime is itself a consequence of economic and monetary policies that have failed to address people’s real needs.

As Anglican vicar Father Matsinghe puts it: ‘It was logical for people to expect that life would get better after the peace agreement and the elections, that people would be able to buy food and eat. But that’s not happening. The poor are just disillusioned.’

So maybe all the work and expense that the international community put into bringing peace and democracy to the world’s poorest country is being undone by the same community’s imposition of a profoundly inappropriate economic strategy. There might be ‘economic growth’ in Mozambique; but there certainly isn’t much ‘human development’.

British journalist Mark Whitaker has been reporting on Mozambique for BBC Radio’s File On Four.

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