Saturday, July 26, 2008

Feeling the Global Economic Strains in one Corner of Bénin

The high price of gas, global food shortage, and the American “recession” are all threads describing some of the present global economic condition. It’s been interesting and sobering to see how some of these trends have been playing out locally in my corner of Bénin.

The Drop in the Dollar’s Value has brought sudden and unforeseen problems for many government and NGO-supported programs that rely to some extent on American money. For example, I am working with a local NGO on a shea butter project which receives much of its financing from an American fund. Since the project was launched a year ago, however, the Dollar has weakened, effectively lowering the purchasing power of our funds, which most be converted to the Beninese currency to be used. As a result, we can now only afford to buy two of the three shea-butter processing machines we had planned for and ordered (one for each of the three womens groups we are working with). This shortage of machines, in turn, has threatened to cause stresses in the project: progress was halted as we ran around looking for other options, project donors became impatient, the local government was put in a tight spot as we petitioned it for supplemental funds, and discord among the 3 women’s groups/project beneficiaries was foreseeable as one group (at leasty for the time being) will be evidently be short-changed a machine that was promised to them.

The High Price in Gas also causes problems in and around Nikki. While Nikki is less than 20 miles from the border of Nigeria, Africa’s leading producer of crude, there is a chronic shortage in the supply of [legally-sold] gasoline in the town, as in Benin in general. As result, our town’s power—supplied by generators—has been cut regularly from 8 in the morning till sundown. And everyone feels the effects of this and right where it hurts. NGOs and government offices cannot write their reports and artisans and businessmen of all kinds must either invest in a gas generators or else (in the more likely case) put off their work until sundown. This is neither profitable nor necessarily safe for most folks: one Sodeur I have been working with complained to me that working welding after dark is not at all good for his eyes, even with the safety goggles he wears.

The Cost of Living is driven up also by the high price of gas as transportation costs augment the price of goods. Production costs go up as well, for items such as locally produces flours, which rely on gas powered mills for their processing. The global food shortage, itself partially spurred by the cost of oil (and fertilizer) has also reared its head in Nikki. My comfortable stipend here cushions and desensitizes me a bit to the effects I feel by such a shortage (you’d do better asking your average farmer here how he is coping). I'm not convinced yet of what many locals are telling me: that the recent increase in the price of local foods are just a seasonal thing (for things like rice, yams, peanut butter, or soy cheese). When the harvest arrives they may be surprised that prices don't drop back down in historic manner. Prices of imported goods such as dried milk and canned and packaged goods have certainly risen over the last months.

To ease the effects of the high cost of living I’ve heard that the World Bank has given some financial assistance to Bénin, along with other African nations, and that the national government has tried to ease the burden of the poor by subsidizing what it deems as “basic” consumer goods. I’m told also that fertilizer is to be distributed to farmers to improve this year’s crop yields. However, slow decision making, profiteering commerçants and food traders, and inefficient distribution systems slow or effectively blocks the impact of these state interventions at the rural level.