New Internationalist

The Big Question

Issue 389

How life is improving… The new pumps that have made collecting water less burdensome… Proof is in the debt-relief pudding…

Pump it up! The pump outside Ousmane’s concession, one of many in the village that have given much easier access to water. The child on the far left is playing with a mini-computer game.

‘Ten years ago I would have walked to this meeting but I came here on a bike,’ says the woman in the front row of the assembly, laughing. ‘Maybe in 10 years’ time I’ll come on a mobilette.’ It’s certainly true that 10 years ago women and girls were rarely to be seen on bicycles – and 20 years ago they were the exclusive province of men, who are now more likely to have a mobilette or scooter.

I am participating in a big meeting called by the local NGO, Dakupa, to which representatives from villages all around the province of Boulgou have come (see page 20 for more on Dakupa).

It is the kind of meeting that I kept trying and failing to bring together 10 years ago and is a heaven-sent opportunity to ask them the Big Question that underlies my whole visit: ‘Is life better than it was 10 years ago?’

The myriad answers volunteered seem to add up to a resounding ‘yes’. ‘There are many more pumps now – we don’t have to carry water so far… There are latrines in the villages now… People understand much more about hygiene… More children can go to school, and especially more girls… More of us can read and write in our own language… We can phone our relatives abroad instead of having to wait for a letter… Women couldn’t have sat here with men in a meeting like this 10 years ago… There are more clinics in the villages.’

The same is true over the whole period of my visit. I am consistently asking people the same question: ‘Is life better or worse than it was 10 years ago?’ And the answer is always the same: it is better. Collectively, socially, life seems to have improved to an extent that I would never have expected.

Take water. One of the most enduring images in the film we made in the village 20 years ago showed our heroine, Zenabou, carrying on her head a huge metal basin of water from the well and then pouring it into a calabash with unerring grace. Collecting water was an arduous and time-consuming business for all the women of the village at that time. It had to be hauled up from the well in buckets and the metal bowl gradually filled. When the bowl was eventually full it was so heavy that it needed two people to lift it and balance it on the head – I know, because I tried it myself and found it impossible. There could then be a long journey back from the well, since reliable water-points were few and far between – and this might have to be repeated four times or more to render all the water necessary for washing and cooking.

Ten years ago the position was little better, though there was a communal pump, which is both easier to use than a well and less susceptible to contamination. But water was still fetched in the same way, and we photographed Mariama’s daughter Aseta pouring water from a metal bowl in exactly the same way as Zenabou had in the film.

‘I am here to bring you fraternal greetings from a country that covers 274,000 square kilometres and whose seven million children, women and men refuse henceforth to die from ignorance, hunger and thirst.’ - Thomas Sankara, to the UN General Assembly in October 1984..

But now the situation is truly transformed. In 2002, in a tie-up between the Burkinabè Ministry of Environment and Water and a German NGO, all the families in Sabtenga were offered the chance to have a pump sunk beside their concession. Zenabou and Adama proudly show me not only their family pump but also the ownership papers related to it, which show clearly that they are responsible for its upkeep whenever it needs repair. There was a catch: each concession had to contribute 150,000 francs (around $270) towards the cost.

Compared to the benefits, the cost may seem relatively small and was clearly subsidized. But in a subsistence farming community $270 is a vast sum, one that it was impossible for many village households to find, including that of Mariama and Issa.

Even so, water is much more easily available to all, since even those concessions that could not afford their own pump now rent access to their nearest neighbour’s water supply at a rate of 5 francs a day or 150 francs (27 cents) a month. The hours of heavy work spent carrying water to and fro are now more or less gone – as the photograph shows, water is generally now gathered at the pump in plastic bidons or jerrycans, which are then carried back home on a donkey cart.

In the fierce climate of the Sahel you appreciate every drop of water. It was one of the first lessons I learned in the village 20 years ago. If you are going to have to replace any water you use by hauling it back from the well, you make damned sure every drop counts. There is probably no single intervention that could make a bigger practical improvement in everyday life than this one of giving people ready access to pump water.

Sanitation is another of the basic improvements mentioned at the Dakupa assembly that I certainly hoped to see in Sabtenga this time around, remembering all too well my trips to the fields in search of whatever limited cover a prickly bush could afford. As it is, the only latrines in the village remain those at the clinic and the school. But, even here, good news is on the horizon: Dakupa’s rolling programme of latrine installation is supposed to be reaching Sabtenga at around the same time as you receive this issue of the magazine, with the aim of providing one for each concession.

The most heartening thing about the manifest improvements in the village’s collective life is that they have been in the basic needs areas that matter most. To my surprise, this seems to be true even in terms of high-profile ‘international’ money.

The village not only has a new maternity clinic but also the three new classrooms that its school had so desperately needed for so long (see pages 14 & 16). These were built, I am told, by villagers, out of debt-relief money.

Though this is encouraging news, the background to it is worth investigating. The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative on debt has been in operation since 1996 under the aegis of the IMF and the World Bank. It was designed to head off international pressure for complete debt forgiveness.

There are all kinds of problems with it. Countries already in desperate straits had to wait years before qualifying for any relief. In order to qualify, they had to jump through myriad hoops that involved subjecting their economy and society to the dogmatic free-market prescriptions of the Washington-based institutions – wholesale privatization of state-run industries, for example, and removing controls on the operations of transnational corporations.

In the case of Burkina Faso, one of the IMF’s most obedient students, this meant, as of 2004, that 26 companies had been privatized and 16 liquidated. Burkina’s National Institute of Economic and Social Development (an independent think-tank) believes that this has increased poverty because companies were privatized too quickly and no measures were taken to compensate for any negative effects. It cites the example of Flex Faso, a fruit and vegetable export company, which used to provide a market for thousands of farmers but since privatization has shrunk drastically. Farmers who used to sell to it were unable to find other buyers and were forced to sell their goods at knock-down prices.1

On the more positive side, a respectable proportion of debt relief is supposed to be channelled into boosting the ‘access of the poor to basic social services’. Burkina’s first tranche of HIPC money in 2000-02 was 55.8 billion francs ($100 million). Of this, 33 per cent was supposed to be spent on health and 34 per cent on basic education. No-one doubts that extra money has gone into health and education as a result – not just from the debt relief itself (which is relatively tiny, given the scale of the problem) but also from the other international funds which HIPC approval then unlocks (in this case from the EU, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Japan and UNICEF). In 2001, as a result, the Government managed to build 241 schools, 24 dispensaries and 72 maternity clinics.2

If you are going to have to replace any water you use by hauling it back from the well, you make damned sure every drop counts

Sabtenga’s new classrooms and maternity clinic have emerged from this opaque national/international process. It is hard to say whether the HIPC balance sheet for the country as a whole has been positive or negative. What is clear, however, is that this particular village has benefited.

And what those new buildings prove is that money spent on health and education rather than on servicing old debts can make a swift and practical difference to people’s lives, even in villages like this, far from the metropolis or the eye of the mainstream media. I’d say we must be grateful for small mercies – except that, to the village, the new classrooms and maternity clinic are very large mercies indeed.

  2. ‘PRSP assessment in Burkina Faso’, IREC for the European Network on Debt & Development and Diakonia, Jan 2003,

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This article was originally published in issue 389

New Internationalist Magazine issue 389
Issue 389

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