Saturday, June 5, 2010

Roads? Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads!

Mali is one of the best examples of what Oxford economist Paul Collier would categorize as a “non-developing country”; after half a century of the government pushing for industrialization, a thorough IMF structural adjustment overhaul and a steady flow of World Bank development loans and NGO grants, Mali’s GDP now stands at $8.8 billion and has been growing at an average rate of 4.7 percent over the past ten years. This might sound like a fairly decent growth rate, but if you consider that the GDP of this nation of 13 million people is less than half of Michael Bloomberg’s net worth of $18 billion, as far as nations go Mali’s $8.8 billion amounts to peanuts. And when you consider that Mali’s population of 13 million has also been growing 3 percent annually, GDP per capita has only been growing around 1.7 percent per year. And since such a disproportionate amount of these final goods are being bought and sold in the cities, and even in the cities at least 30 percent of the masses are absolutely unemployed and can hardly even buy cheap staple foods, and the vast majority of the rural population is barely eking out a living in the subsistence agricultural economy, that 1.7 percent annual GDP growth per capita really only represents growth in the wealth of the small urban elite. So yes, Mali’s economy is in fact growing – but it is only growing for the handful of bankers and bus drivers and cell phone dealers and government employees who have any money to begin with; meanwhile the rural peasants are reaping smaller harvests, the urban poor are able to purchase less food, and malnutrition and even starvation are becoming increasingly common. Such a trend of nominal financial expansion fueled by growing public indebtedness and deepening inequality surely represents growth in the amount of money changing hands, but it can hardly be described as economic development.

Collier would explain that there is a rational geographical explanation for why Mali’s economy is going nowhere fast, because it is a “land-locked country with bad neighbors”; that the Malian people conduct such little trade because man-made barriers preclude exports to foreign markets. If you look at a map of the region, you should be able to understand how the Niger River has served as the primary trade route between Bamako, Ségou, Mopti, Timbuktu and Gao for more than a millennium – the waterway has been such a vital artery that in Bambara it is known as Joliba, or “the Big Blood”. And likewise, the river should serve as the natural trade route for contemporary Malians to transport cotton, peanuts and shea butter from Bamako up through the northern provinces of Mali, down through Niger, Benin and Nigeria to Port Harcourt and cargo freighters bound for the markets of the world.

But downstream from Timbuktu, the Niger River flows through politically unstable territory prone to unchecked banditry, and even if Malian goods make it all the way to the coast the Nigerian customs agents demand egregiously high bribes in exchange for export licenses. The next best alternative would be to truck Malian goods across Côte d’Ivoire to the seaport at Abidjan – but overland transportation is significantly more expensive, the rebel militias in Northern Côte d’Ivoire demand hefty extortion fees from all vehicles traveling through their territory, and the port in Abidjan is manned by equally corrupt kleptomaniacs. The port in Accra is arguably the most efficient and professionally-manned in all of Africa - but there is no Malian-Ghanaian border so that would require paying customs duties twice. Senegal is relatively stable and bribery at the Dakar seaport is somewhat less rampant – but anything grown in Mali is also grown locally in Senegal and can be trucked to the port of Dakar much cheaper, so Malians have to slash the prices of their own goods in order to compete. Altogether, completely unnecessary transportation costs and institutionalized bribery jack up the cost of running an export-oriented business to such an extent that it is quite challenging for anyone in Mali to sell their goods abroad and make a profit. Even though there are foreign consumers who do want to buy Malian cotton, peanuts and shea butter, with such constrained access to foreign outlets these wares stay to glut brackish domestic markets where the prices of locally-produced goods remain depressingly low.

Another cause of Mali’s economic stagnation which Collier failed to acknowledge is that the same factors which hinder a “land-locked country with bad neighbors” from participating in the global economy – political instability, insufficient trade routes, institutionalized bribery, graft, embezzlement and outright theft – also play a major role in stifling domestic commerce. Despite being fellow citizens of the same country, the Bamakois urban elite, the Malinke gold miners in Kayes, the Senaful cotton farmers of Sikasso, the cliff-dwelling Dogon of the central plateau, and the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara Desert represent distinct markets effectively more segmented than the nation-states of Europe. And the separateness of the various markets of Mali is not predestined by geography or ethnicity; it is directly related to more human factors like the fact that the 23rd largest country in the world has only 18,709 kilometers of roads – less than Jamaica, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.

Part of the transportation problem in Mali exists, of course, in the complete and utter lack of physical infrastructure. There is a modest network of one-lane paved roads known as le guidron connecting the major cities, and there are some decent one-lane dirt roads connecting some of the larger market towns… and that’s about it. In the region of Ségou in which I live, there is a guidron that goes from Bamako to the city of Ségou, down to Bla and San, then up to Mopti and the Northern provinces; there are also two guidrons from Bla and San which converge in the city of Koutiala in the next province South. An equivalent would be if Ohio had a one-lane paved road from Cleveland to Toledo, a second paved road from Toledo to Cincinnati, a third from Cincinnati through Columbus to Cleveland, and the only routes to Akron or Canton or Youngstown were made out of dirt.

Unless it happens to be situated along one of the roads between cities or market towns, a rural village in Mali is effectively isolated from the national economy because there is probably no route to the nearest car-worthy road that can be honestly classified as a “road” in its own right. When I bike to visit my friend in the village of Zamblala 40 kilometers away, I’m going down a mountain biking trail over gullies, through sand traps and around ditches which is only distinguishable from the rest of the scrubland in that other people have traveled this way in the past. Some sections of the “road” from Sanadougou to Zamblala are so completely identical to the rest of the expanse of sun-baked mud that I have to know to go South at the big termite mound and Southwest from the old baobab tree towards the pile of rocks. Parts of the “road” to Zamblala are so narrow and it makes such sharp turns that I couldn’t even drive down it with my late Jeep Wrangler – it is only accessible by bicycle, motorcycle, donkey or foot.

That doesn’t mean that people from Zamblala don’t come to Sanadougou to do business. They do. On Sanadougou’s market every sixth day, Zamblalakaw tie a few chickens to their handlebars or pack a satchel of however many onions they have to spare and bike the nonexistent “road”. Since there is no car that services this little village, what they can sell at Sanadougou’s market is limited to that which won’t be damaged en route – usual market mainstays like tomatoes, mangoes or bananas can only be sold at home. So though the soils and the climate are identical, due to the lack of transportation infrastructure Zamblala’s economy is considerably more oriented towards autarkic subsistence and less towards commerce than the economy of Sanadougou only 40 k away.

And when I speak of commerce among rural agricultural communities, I refer to an exchange so miniscule that American readers might wonder why people even bother. When a Fatimata from the neighboring village of N’jesu ties a satchel of peanuts, balances it on her head and spends the morning walking the 16 kilometers down the “road” to the Sanadougou market, she really only has a window of two to three hours to sell her peanuts before she has to spend all afternoon walking home. And I emphasize that in an agricultural community where everybody has been growing more or less the same crops for generations, the market is flooded with surpluses of the same products that everyone is trying to sell to people who already make these same things themselves. If she’s lucky, after a busy day hawking at market Fatimata will have sold 150 francs (~38 cents) worth of peanuts – enough to buy a box of tea and a small bag of sugar, and then she has to walk the 16 kilometers back the cow path to N’jesu before nightfall. In a rural Minianka village, most people like Fatimata partake in such incipient trade only once every six days.

Sanadougou is a rural market town serviced by a significant dirt road that is relatively well-maintained and large enough that the trucks from the textile company CMDT can come to buy the cotton farmers’ harvest and bring it back to their mill in Koutiala. Sanadougou’s farmers benefit from these roads as they provide the infrastructure necessary for them to sell a cash crop. Farmers come to Sanadougou from smaller villages by donkey cart over the little dirt paths...

... and at the Sanadougou market CMDT agents weigh and buy all of the cotton so the can fill the storage containers carried back to Koutiala by truck. Hence the improved dirt road from the guidron to Koutiala to Sanadougou develops the commercial economy of the market town, and this economic expansion allows global capitalism to at least penetrate the economies of villages like Zamblala and N'jesu.

As consumers, Sanadougoukaw benefit from the improved dirt roads in that they can buy things that no one makes locally; tea, sugar, instant coffee, plastic cups and bowls, black marketed Goodwill clothing, bootleg “medicine” from China and Nigeria, ginger, green peppers, plantains and bread. But local producers who came to market on foot or bicycle now have to compete with vendors from Koutiala selling the same tomatoes, mangoes, onions, cucumbers, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, etc. that they sell – only they were grown in the more fertile Sikasso region which means that the imported goods are generally larger, richer, and overall superior products to what is grown locally. The net result is a form of domestic mercantilism in that rural farmers earn their modest monetary income by selling their cash crops to urban industrialists, and these cash crop farmers spend all of their money on urban merchants’ cheap manufactured goods – only the most miniscule commerce is conducted between rural villages.

Would economic activity expand and diversify if USAID were to swoop in and pave the road from Sanadougo to Koutiala? Or even the cow paths from Zamblala and N’jesu to Sanadougou? There would be some more money in circulation in the area if USAID were to hire local men to do all of the menial labor – but more than likely they would hire a contractor from Bamako with one of the few steamrollers in this country, and contractors almost always come with their own team of workers. And maybe motorcyclists would be able to drive a bit more efficiently and save ever so slightly on their gas bills. But other than that it is difficult to see how paving the way to rural backwaters is going to carry much economic benefit; road construction per se does not guarantee the arrival of more customers unless it allows for bigger and better vehicles to ship new products that they are willing to buy, fresh blacktop does not necessarily mean that more vendors are going to travel to a particular market with more variety and quality of goods unless there actually exists demand for those goods at the end of that road.

The relationship between economic growth and road construction is not at all like that between the chicken and the egg – economic growth must come first, for there is no way for the benefits of road construction to outweigh the costs otherwise. And those new roads must continue to generate additional economic activity and tax revenues indefinitely, because roads must be regularly maintained in order to remain functional. In this harsh climate which alternates between extreme heat and extreme dryness to torrential rains, a paved road that is never re-tarred will develop pockmarks which develop into potholes and the entire mass of blacktop will crumble into black pebbles and dust in less than 10 years.

So a road cannot just be a one-time cadeau from a foreign NGO, it needs to be necessary infrastructure whose regular upkeep can be justified in the annual budget of the cash-strapped Ministère de l’Équipement et des Transports in order to be sustainable. And the le Ministère de l’Équipement et des Transports is never going to be able to finance road construction and regular maintenance until le Ministère de l’Économie et des Finances receives a greater regular flow of cash into its coffers, and that is not going to happen until the commercial portion of the Malian economy finally experiences sustained growth. Only then will the state be able to recognize the trade routes which facilitate that new economic activity and allocate its scarce resources towards infrastructural development.

The government’s construction of new car and truck-worthy roads would facilitate the more efficient transport of goods to and from rural markets like Sanadougou; nevertheless, Ségou province is a relatively flat and traversable part of Mali where the construction of a road is at least a feasible endeavor – this cannot be said in other regions. The Dogons purposefully established their oldest villages on top of cliffs only accessible by exhausting, hours-long hikes through steep, narrow boulder passes so that they would not have to defend themselves from Fulani warriors on horseback or camelback. Improving transportation is particularly daunting in Dogon Country because this tribe deliberately chose to settle in locations as isolated as possible from the rest of the human population, where road construction is downright impossible. Some Tuareg communities roving in the middle of the Northern desert are so far from the nearest gas station that they can only be reached by camel caravans. And it would be a futile effort to pave roads in the Tuaregs’ desert where the sand dunes can migrate up to 100 meters every year – these people have spent millennia wandering in the desert precisely because they have cornered the Sahara trade routes without any formal transportation infrastructure.

If deficiencies in transportation are standing in the way of economic development and yet roads do not by themselves facilitate more commerce, what else can the government of Mali do to aid the free flow of goods in this country? For starters, the State could strengthen public integrity laws, conduct self-policing sting operations and fire all of those who are caught breaking the laws in order to root out corruption in the gendarmerie.

You see, the government could pave every road, street, bike trail and cow path from Kayes to Taoudenni, but moving goods from the country to the town and from the town to urban markets is still going to remain prohibitively expensive for farmers to participate in the market economy so long as the transport companies are free to gouge their customers as they please. There are laws on the books which regulate trucking and bussing operations, but they carry as much force as the Soviet Constitution so long as the owner of an offending vehicle can flash a wad of bills in front of an unscrupulous gendarme and drive away scot free.

A market town like Sanadougou is the final destination for some country produce, but it serves its most important function in the national Malian economy as a regional hub for rural goods to make their way to the cities. Farmers don’t stand to earn much selling food to other farmers who have food of their own but very little money, but they have the potential to make considerable profits if they can move their goods to the cities where all of those bankers and government employees and cell phone dealers and mill workers live who have to buy their food with their salaries and wages. Urbanites don’t just buy tea and sugar – they even have to buy peanuts and their staple cereals of millet and rice. And a Sanadougou farmer cannot transport 100 kilograms of peanuts 60 kilometers down the road to Koutiala by bicycle – he has to go by car.

There are two cars in Sanadougou; one car belongs to the Commandant who never drives it but keeps it propped up on blocks to flaunt his wealth before his houseguests, the other is driven every day by the “mobilitigi” Issa Sogoba as the most profitable business in the entire Commune. It is a 38-year-old German delivery van that was originally intended to carry two people and a small load of cargo; if this van could have been used in Germany for human transport (and it most certainly would not have) maybe it could have had seats for a maximum of 9 passengers. Issa Sogoba installed four rows of five 12-inch seats so that if one person sits shotgun and another sits with their legs around the stick shift they can sell seats for 22 passengers. I must emphasize that these 12-inch seats are only as wide as seats for small children and they run only 12 inches up the passengers’ backs; it is literally impossible for five grown adults to sit in this row with their backs alongside the seat, so when the car is at maximum capacity – and it almost always is – everyone has to sit at an angle with their arms interlocking and their shoulders in each others’ faces.

The only product that a Malian mobilitigi is selling is movement from point A to point B; timeliness, efficiency, safety and comfort are dismissed as unaffordable luxuries. The engine on the Sanadougou car can only ignite if the car is already moving, so Issa begins each journey with his apprentices and all of the male passengers pushing the overloaded van to a start. There are no functional breaks, so Issa can only stop the car by letting his foot off the gas and coasting to a halt. There are no seatbelts. The tires are so bald that there are no longer any visible treads – but that doesn’t prevent Issa from careening down potholed dirt roads at 60 miles an hour. The windshield is shattered into a hundred pieces but by some stroke of luck it hasn’t fallen yet. The driver’s side-view mirror no longer exists. There is no muffler and the tailpipe belches out plumes of black smoke. By all standards of common sense and Malian law, it is a danger to society for anyone to drive this car and no one should ever be allowed to charge people to ride in it.

But that doesn’t stop Issa from transporting the farmers and goods of Sanadougou and its tributary villages to markets in the nearby cities. Almost everyone riding in Issa’s car is going to the city to sell their wares, so the roof is so overloaded with sacks of millet and rice and peanuts that it tips noticeably to one side or the other. And Issa’s two apprentices are sitting with the sacks of peanuts on the roof so they can load and unload cargo over the course of the ride. Sometimes they carry a 25th and 26th passenger who sits with the apprentices on the roof, and a 27th and 28th stand on the rear bumper holding onto a ladder for support. And the passengers in Issa’s car are also traveling to market breastfeeding their babies, with their chickens pecking at people’s feet, and their goats tied to the roof where they urinate on whoever is sitting by the window. And on trips home from the city Issa often brings a drum of gasoline which he crams in the back – all but guaranteeing that if the car were rear-ended with any amount of force that at least the 22 human passengers with seats would be trapped in a fiery inferno.

Usually Issa’s car simply does not work because the fan belt dates from the early 1970s so every time it tears Issa stops for 40 minutes to melt it back together with a cigarette lighter. Given the fact that fan belts are available for purchase in every city to which he drives, it is somewhat amazing that Issa has never bothered to purchase a new one. But there is no pressing need to spend money on replacing broken parts when the old ones can be stitched into temporary semi-functionality indefinitely. After all, every other Malian transport company also sells tickets to vans and buses with 30-year-old engines that unambiguously do not work, so spending revenues on anything but bare-bone maintenance is considered an uncompetitive business practice. There is not even any incentive for chauffeurs like Issa to improve their services, because Malian customers are perfectly accustomed to waiting on the side of the blacktopped road for 2 hours in the 116 degree sun – they’re not going to complain, because they’ve never known any reality other than one in which buses routinely break down. Besides, a rural transport provider like Issa Sogoba faces no pressure to make his car more efficient or to otherwise reduce his fares, because he enjoys a perfect monopoly over the Sanadougou market.

I recently sat down with Issa to crunch the numbers of his business, and the results demonstrate just how profitable it is to run a transport company with zero competition and zero regulation. Issa bought his fifth-hand car in 1994 for 3 million CFA (~$6,000) – which was by any measure an act of highway robbery, though since no one in Mali could possibly save that much money he financed the purchase by taking out a loan from Kafo Jiginew on the terms that it be paid back in one year at 15 percent interest – which any objective analyst would classify as clear-cut usury. So I actually have some sympathy for the man in that he is a victim of an exploitative banking industry, and the rates that he charges were perfectly justifiable in light of the terms of his original loan.

In order to make 3,450,000 CFA so that he could pay off his loan within a year, Issa set his standard of filling his car with at least 22 passengers and their cargo on any leg of the journey. If one man is traveling to Koutiala with 4 sheep to sell at market, he pays 1,500 francs for his own fare and 250 for each of his sheep. Or if that passenger is bringing 2 sacks of peanuts, he has to pay 1,000 francs for each sack. Issa transports a disproportionate amount of goods in relation to passengers, however, because a lot of people in Sanadougou have prearranged sales with customers in Koutiala and only have to pay to send their goods. In all, Issa makes an average of 45,000 CFA in revenues on a typical trip to Koutiala. He pays for 10,000 francs worth of gasoline, and his two apprentices make 1,000 each day for loading and unloading cargo; this day’s operating costs total 12,000 francs. Thus on an average Wednesday – Koutiala’s market day – Issa makes 33,000 francs (~$66) in profits.

Fares, gas prices and apprentice earnings differ according to the distance traveled each day. On Monday Issa drives to the San market and makes a profit of 40,000 francs (~$80). On Tuesday he drives to Yangasso and makes 35,000 francs (~$70). Thursday he goes to Bla and makes 28,000 francs (~$58). Friday he drives all the way to Bamako and drives back on Saturday to make a whopping 46,000 francs (~$94). The commercial economy of Sanadougou largely depends on Issa’s transport services, so this schedule is carried out more or less indefinitely every week over the course of the year; when Issa himself cannot work because he is sick or has to attend a wedding or a funeral, one of his apprentices assumes driving responsibilities.

Over the course of a year, Issa Sogoba’s transport business takes in 14,820,000 CFA (~$29,640) in revenues, he pays the apprentices 624,000 CFA (~$1,248) for their labor, he pays 4,914,000 CFA (~$9,828) for gas. Issa does not pay for the cost of maintenance because his brother Yahya is the town mechanic and services the family business for free. And he does not pay for replacement parts unless the engine literally cannot turn on; Issa told me that the most he pays for parts in a given year is 2 million CFA (~$4,000). During the first year this business was running he had an additional expense in pay off his loan to Kafo Jiginew plus the usurious interest rate to the tune of 3,450,000 CFA (~$6,900), but he has not had to pay for debt services since 1995.

So in an average year, Issa makes a profit of approximately 7,282,000 CFA (~$14,564) – this is by far the most lucrative enterprise in the entire Commune of Sanadougou. These profits of approximately 7,282,000 francs represent Issa Sogoba’s pre-tax income; after the Commandant, the Mayor and the two doctors, the mobilitigi is the richest man in a population of 16,000. In comparison, Issa makes more than 10 times per capita GDP in this country - which now hovers around 550,000 CFA (~$1,100); since the monetary income is disproportionately weighted in the cities, Issa's immense income is even more immense compared to the subsistence and tangentially-commercial farmers in a rural town like Sanadougou.

Issa Sogoba’s profits, however, can only be honestly evaluated in relation to the costs borne by his customers; i.e. the farmers of Sanadougou. If Amadou the millet farmer were to travel to the Koutiala market to sell his 4 sheep, he pays 1,500 francs for his own fare and 250 for each sheep. If these sheep look meaty and demand for sheep is high – say, as Muslim families prepare for the Eid al-Adha feast – Amadou could sell each of his 4 sheep for 40,000 francs (~$80) and his transport costs of 4,000 francs (~$8) only cut out 2.5 percent of his revenues. But if Amadou only sells 2 of his sheep and he has to pay for their fare back to Sanadougou, or he sells all of his sheep in the months after Eid al-Adha when demand is low, then transport costs up to 6 percent of his total revenues. If Amadou sells none of his sheep, then he just lost 5,000 francs. This might not sound like a lot, but in an economy where that sale of his best sheep might account for the entirety of his monetary income that year, 4,000 to 5,000 francs for a trip to market and back is no insignificant deal of money - with that sum he could buy a pair of mosquito nets, among other things.

And the 4,000 to 5,000 francs that Amadou has to pay for a trip to the Koutiala market only count as the nominal costs of transportation. If Issa’s car breaks down and Amadou has to spend an August afternoon waiting on the side of the road for someone to bike down with new engine parts, Amadou just lost a good chunk of hours when he could have been working out in the millet fields. If Issa is speeding like a madman as usual, slips on a patch of sand and can’t slow down because he has no breaks, the car might crash into a baobab tree, all of Amadou’s sheep might get killed and Amadou himself might sustain debilitating neck injuries which put him out of the labor force for the rest of the year. This is not a society where people sue for pain and suffering. When it comes to safety, Amadou the customer assumes all of the risk and all of the cost of potential injury to himself and loss of goods and Issa the mobilitigi only stands to lose a little bit of profits – even if he were to crash his car into a baobab tree, it would be a safe bet that Issa would be selling seats in his van again within a week.

Furthermore, if Issa gets caught by the gendarme checkpoints driving a car that violates every single regulation on the books, the cost of fines or bribery do not serve as an incentive for him improve the quality of his services because he doesn’t pay for them – that expense falls upon his passengers. When unscrupulous mobilitigis get nabbed for driving a car filled to 250 percent the maximum occupancy with a cracked windshield, without side view mirrors without a license, it is a standard practice in Mali for the apprentice to go down and tell every passenger to cough up “their share” of the bribe so the gendarme will let them pass. Depending on the severity of the offense and their ability to pay, passengers are told to give as much as 2,000 francs each. And without hesitation or complaint, Malian passengers simply do what they’re told and comply like cows marching toward the slaughterhouse – paying bribes is accepted as a routine expense of traveling down le guidron to the big city market. If Amadou the millet farmer would usually pay 4,000 francs in transport costs to sell his sheep at market, then institutionalized bribery raises those transport costs by as much as 50 percent. But in real terms Malian passengers have to pay three times for transport; they pay the mobilitigi once for the nominal fare, they assume all of the risk and cost of injury inherent in traveling in such hazardous deathtraps, and even though it is the mobilitigi who is breaking the law by not paying for new tires or breaks it is their passengers who pay for the fines and bribes. The people willingly pay for the unscrupulous mobilitigis to fuck them twice - and if they get nabbed by a corrupt gendarme, they pay to get fucked three times.

I avoid motor vehicular transport in this country when I can, but whenever I have no choice but to suffer with my adopted countrymen sitting in sub-human conditions and the car gets stopped and the inevitable shakedown falls, I ask my fellow travelers why they put up with such bullshit. The responses I get are quite Stoic; “C’est comme ça” or “Nous n’avons pas un choix”. Perhaps this is a cultural thing and patriarchal Malians are more accustomed to obeying their social superiors, perhaps 80 years of colonialism and 30 years of homegrown dictatorship have robbed people of any semblance of dignity and self-esteem. Two millennia ago such attitudes might have been considered virtuous, but in this day of free will, free markets and democratic self-government it breaks my heart to watch as grown adults just grin and bear it while they’re being cheated and exploited.

And when it happens to me, the storm clouds in my head erupt into pitch black fury. Maybe it’s because my hippie parents taught me to think of myself as a unique snowflake. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a society where people are encouraged to criticize the way things are so that we can remedy existing problems and pave the way for a better future. Maybe it’s because I come from a nation whose values were forged in the fires of dissent, protest and a Revolutionary War, a nation whose modern regulatory regime was conceived by a Populist movement that demanded protection from the price-gouging railroad trusts, a nation that honored the body of Rosa Parks with the same pomp as only the greatest of presidents in the Capitol Rotunda because she refused to give up her seat and move to the back of a bus.

But my style of rebellion has less in common with the moral majesty of Rosa Parks than the brazen vernacular of New York. When I'm on a bus, we get stopped for safety infractions and the apprentice tells me to cough up 2,000 francs to bribe the gendarmes, I raise my middle finger and tell him to perform the unspeakable on various farm animals. If he asks again, I dig my feet in further and tell him to perform even more creative and more obscene actions on those livestock. Eventually the apprentice realizes that the more he asks me to pay for bribes the more I am going to instill an image of him sodomizing a donkey into the minds of my fellow passengers, so he backs down and moves on.

Every time I put on such a show the rest of the passengers watch in bewildered astonishment. They’re used to paying these bribes week after week. They’ve never heard someone stand up to the mobilitigi before. It’s never occurred to them that they have the power to say “No” - and that refusing to acquiesce with the status quo is the first step to changing it.

Transport costs might lessen and more commerce might flow if the Malian government were to build more paved roads. But bringing goods to market would become even more affordable if the Malian government were to regulate their own law enforcement agents who are tasked with regulating the transportation industry in order to facilitate more commerce and economic growth. The underdevelopment of this economy is a scandal, and the blame lays no small part in the hands of those gendarmes who allow these modern day robber barons to flout the law with impunity in exchange for illicit enrichment.

In the meantime, Malian farmers have to learn to stand up for themselves. They have to organize so that every single passenger refuses to pay for bribes and chauffeurs themselves have to pay the penalty when they break the law. And the farmers have to learn to speak up to their transport providers and demand that they improve the quality of their services. If rural mobilitigis do not change their ways and begin to adequately maintain their cars, enteprising farmers should pool their money, take out loans and start their own competing businesses that break the local monopolies so that there is an incentive to improve services and reduce the price of transportation. And villagers of all stripes need to get into the habit of bringing their valid grievances to the traditional gerontocracy, the offices of la Mairie et le Commandant. Only when the compelling force of the State is exercised to protect the interests of the farmer over the exploitation of the middleman will the rural masses be able to break out of mere subsistence and participate in the modern commercial economy.


Averill Strasser said...


We provided funds for 2 of your PCPP projects. I understand from Pilar that there are some aspects of the PCPP process that concern you.

I will be in Washington next week talking to the PCPP people. Can you send me an email at and let me know your thoughts?


Averill Strasser
Water Charity

Anonymous said...

damn, great rundown on the whole roads issue.

Anonymous said...

The addition of a "trailer" could increase his profits, allowing more goods to be transported without much additional cost or wear and tear on the main vehicle. The trailer could be as simple as the wagon being pulled in another photo.