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new internationalist
issue 213 - November 1990



Indians question the mega-projects

Aid helps the donor and the recipient. So runs the conventional wisdom. The recipient gets what they need and the donor gets the jobs to provide it.

Whether India - traditionally the biggest recipient of British aid - gets what it needs depends upon which way you experience it. Take as an example one of the largest projects, the Rihand power station in eastern India.

The supply of electricity is fundamental to economic growth. Shortages can put a brake on development. But things look different to Haraq, a tribal farmer who lost three acres of land to the smokestack. 'The authorities will not give me a penny for my land,' he said, He has no land deeds. As many as 116 other people are in the same position. Even some who do have deeds are still waiting for compensation. Outside the site offices local people queue for jobs that were promised to each family. The promises have remained just promises.

Many Indians criticize the highly centralized energy programme as inappropriate. Rihand belongs to a cluster of US power stations which, when the lights are switched on, will have the highest concentration of power generation in the world. Environmentalists are concerned that every day Rihand alone will deposit 10,000 tonnes of toxic ash into the environment. Seepage into the reservoir is already killing fish on which local livelihoods depend.

British companies are the main beneficiaries of the aid programme. In fact, Northern Engineering Industries, who are building Rihand, have received more aid than any other company - £47 million ($89 million) in subsidies. A total of 2,600 British companies have profited.

India's own highly capable power industry is suffering from slim order books when all around foreign companies, backed by aid, are erecting smokestacks. 'The British have not bought a nail from India,' said a former Indian civil servant. 'Even stone chips - simple pebbles - for the water-treatment plant have been imported.' For years to come India will be buying spare parts from abroad.

Environmentalist Darryl D'Monte is calling for big technology to be supplemented by smaller schemes. Of course the country needs electricity. But conservation measures could actually meet the shortfall in supply expected by planners. Money could then be ploughed into smaller projects which create jobs, meet the needs of local people and conserve the environment.

Steve Percy



New Nigerian bank deals with the poor

The shining white paint of the one-storey building seems out of place in Ajegunle, a slum suburb on the outskirts of Lagos. 'People's Bank of Nigeria' proclaims the entrance to the first 'poor people's bank' in the country.

'I need 500 naira ($60) to buy equipment to complete a job I'm doing,' says carpenter Mustapha Sanusi, jostling for a place in the queue for application forms. A commercial bank had turned down his application for a loan because he could not provide collateral and besides, the money he needed was 'too small'.

Providing loans without interest, the People's Bank is a grassroots financial institution owned by the Government and targeted at the poorest Nigerians who live below the poverty line. They have borne the greater part of the burden of the economic Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) started by the Babangida military government in 1986. The results have been currency devaluation (by 80 per cent) and inflation, with the minimum wage remaining at its pre-SAP level of 125 naira ($16) a month,

Against this backdrop, the People's Bank is seen as a godsend for poor Nigerians. Tai Solarin, an outspoken critic of the Government who has been appointed the Bank's Chairperson, is happy that 'the Government has realized that structures operating in the country have not served the purpose of the ordinary people'.

Some critics question its sustainability and others view it as a sop to pacify the poor. A major criticism of the scheme is that the maximum lending figure of $255 is too low to help many small-scale businesses. Still, the sums being disbursed have clearly helped many and the Government hopes to extend the lending ceiling in coming years.

There have been few repayment defaults. 'Poor people are more honest than the rich,' asserts Bola Ajibola, Attorney General and Minister of Justice.

To obtain a loan, applicants must belong to a professional or trade group of 15 people. The group passes on to the Bank names of members eligible for a loan. It acts as an informal guarantor, as its other members will not receive any loans until the beneficiary pays back on schedule.

So far, the People's Bank has lent two million dollars to 9,000 artisans, small-scale farmers and businesspeople. President Babangida has approved an extra $25 million for its activities, The Bank plans to establish 170 new branches in 1990 alone. Its success has attracted the attention of the African Development Bank, which plans to inject funds into it.

Kingsley Moghalu / Newslink Africa



New hope
New river blindness drug for West Africa

RIVER blindness - known medically as onchocerciasis- is one of the most important causes of blindness in rural areas of West Africa. It is transmitted by a blackfly which breeds in rivers and passes on minute parasitic worms from other infected humans. These organisms can live for many years inside the body causing intense itching and other symptoms, including eventual blindness. Because of the disease whole communities have had to leave fertile riverside villages and resettle in more arid areas.

The most effective way of combatting river blindness until fairly recently was by spraying the breeding grounds with insecticide, a process which will continue for several years yet. But recently the news has been much better. Tests of the drug ivermectin in Liberia have shown that not only does it stop the progress of the disease in infected individuals, it also reduces its rate of transmission.

Belgian-born Dr Michel Pacque, who first carried out tests of ivermectin with workers in a rubber plantation in Liberia several years ago, is now taking up an appointment as consultant for Sight Savers (Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind) in West Africa with the task of organizing regular supplies. He will be based in Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Dr Pacque's job will be to initiate and plan programmes for distributing ivermectin first in Mali, then in Guinea and Sierra Leone and later in other West African countries, including Nigeria. He will be working with national governments and voluntary agencies in the region.

Most of the countries concerned will need a radically reorganized system for delivering primary health care. Getting trained people to remote villages to administer the drug every year often along tracks churned up by the rain - will be a formidable task. The potential rewards could be considerable, but as with all new drugs it will be some time before it is clear that practical difficulties can be overcome and results justify early optimism.

Sight Savers



Tanzania's monster cassava

Cassava: big, tough saviour.
Steve Weston

LUKAS Safarimoja stumbled on a strange cassava plant while out hunting 36 years ago. Now in his eighties, he is worried that he will die before fellow Tanzanians appreciate the enormity of his discovery.

'This kind of cassava produces 20 times as much food as an ordinary one,' Safarimoja says proudly. Standing beside one of the giant tubers, its massive arms radiating out from a bulbous centre, he is dwarfed by its tallest limb. For seven years, Safarimoja kept track of the cassava, transplanting it to various places as he lived a nomadic hunting life. It was not until 1961, when he settled in a village, that he realized just how big it could grow.

One acre of Safarimoja's variety yields as much food as 15 acres of ordinary cassava, says village agricultural officer Kombo Ahmed. Cassava is normally tolerant of a range of soil types, but this variety has proved more drought resistant than usual, The villagers of Visiga call Safarimoja 'The Saviour' because they credit his discovery with saving them from hunger.

'It is imperative that the nation should undertake detailed research into this cassava. It could mean a solution to the food shortages Tanzania always faces,' says Ahmed.

Michael Mashelle, regional agriculture and livestock development officer, says that although his department knows about the giant cassava, it has no funds for research. But Mashelle emphasizes the value of cassava to Tanzania and Africa as a whole, noting that it provides more than half the calorie needs of 200 million Africans.

The variety discovered by Safarimoja has been dubbed 'mkukumkuku' - 'by force' -because its massive size makes it difficult to uproot. This feature, Safarimoja says, helps prevent theft: even wart-hogs find making off with it a challenge.

Lucas Lukumbo/ Panos Features



Oh America!
US stalls on greenhouse gases

At the summit of the Group of Seven (G7) most powerful industrial countries in Houston, the leaders called on developing countries to reduce the destruction of tropical forests, But they were unable to commit themselves to cutting their own industries' emission of gases that threaten the world's climatic balance.

Annie Roncerel from the Climate Action Network pointed out that 'Creating carbon sinks in developing countries through forestry programmes, without reducing carbon-dioxide emissions in their own countries at the same time, is the wrong signal from the G7 countries. This means the G7 are not willing to make their economies environmentally sustainable.'

The harshest criticisms were aimed at US President George Bush and not only from environmentalists. In a pre-summit letter sent to other G7 leaders in June, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had proposed internationally binding regulations with radical measures to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. But at the summit Bush and US officials successfully scuttled these efforts.

White House Chief of Staff John Sununu objected on the grounds that a reduction in gas emissions would freeze US economic growth. He insisted that focussing on human activities to fight global warming was misguided because '96 per cent of carbon dioxide that flows into the atmosphere comes from natural sources'. Environmentalists likened Sununu's statement to former President Reagan's 1980 remark that air pollution was caused by trees.

Many European countries have agreed on national gas-reduction targets, leaving the US isolated in its refusal to cut its emissions.

Jan Laurens Brinkhorst, environmental director for the European Community (EC), noted that the US produces 25 per cent of the world's carbon-dioxide emissions compared to 13 per cent from all 12 EC nations, which together have an economy about equal to the US in size. As an example of US energy inefficiency, he said he had spent more time going to and from meetings during the Houston summit than in the meetings themselves.

Khor Kok Peng / Third World Network Features

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New Internationalist issue 213 magazine cover This article is from the November 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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