BRAZZAVILLE, 8 July (IRIN) - The Republic of Congo, considered a middle-income country in the 1980s, has slipped below that bar and now grapples with poverty affecting 70 percent of its three million people, says the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Most Congolese live on less than two US dollars a day and Gabriel Malonga, 61, is one of them. This former employee of the Caisse de retraite des functionaires (the state pension fund for civil servants) is the father of 11 children.
"My pension can only be used to feed my children - it is too small and does not enable me to invest," he said. "If I were a tenant I would have been kicked out."
The state, too, is poor: it does not provide public transport, a sufficient or steady electricity supply, or decent health services. According UNDP, infant mortality has stood at 100 per 1,000 births since the 1990s, but after independence in 1960 and through the 1980s, at most only half that number of babies died.
The health system is overwhelmed. The international charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)-Holland, says that in Kindamba zone in the war-torn southern region of Pool, just three health workers serve 25,000 people. The prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS, which the Health Ministry says is the second greatest cause of death after malaria, stands at 4.2 percent.
Production of electrical power is grossly insufficient. The country has just two dams: at Djoue, on the southern outskirts of Brazzaville; and Moukoukoulou, in the department of Bouenza, southwest of the capital. Djoue has a daily power output capacity of 15 megawatts to serve Brazzaville residents, whereas consumption needs are 75 megawatts a day, according to the state-owned power utility, Société Nationale d'Electricité. The firm has to import from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Electrical pumps drive the water system supplying 51 percent of urban residents and 45 percent of rural folk who have access to services, according to the UNDP's Human Development Report for 2004. When there is no electricity, there is no water supply.
Hunger gnawed at the stomachs of 32 percent of the people in 2002, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. FAO Director General Jacques Diouf told IRIN in February that although the situation had improved; Congo - located in a tropical rainforest - still imported 100 billion francs (US $18 million) worth of food each year.
The country's $8.57-billion external debt places a seemingly unbearable burden on it, despite being the fourth largest producer of crude oil in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, Congo is not among the 14 African candidates for debt write-off by the G8 countries.
"Recipients [of the debt write-off] are those which have set up development programmes that enabled them to enjoy high economic growth rates and fight poverty," said James Ngalebaye, a Brazzaville-based economist and specialist in growth and development.
Congo's external earnings come primarily from oil and wood, which are supposed to fuel the economy. The government has projected growth of 9 percent for 2005 on the back of oil prices currently at $55 to $60 a barrel. So, on the face of it, the country should be able to finance infrastructural development, lift people out of poverty and set the nation on the path to post-war economic development.
Dan Ghura, head of the Africa Division at the IMF mission in the Congo, said in May, "If Congo manages to grow at this rate, it would be one of highest attained in the world."
However, according to Ngalebaye, so far this growth outlook has been a mirage. "It is a growth without employment, development, freedom; the macroeconomic performances are at the expense of the fundamental and pressing needs of the majority of the population."
The government has allocated just 3.7 percent of its 2005 budget to ease poverty, and plans to release 50 billion francs ($9 million) to cover the salary arrears of state employees, student scholarships, pensions, and payments to the employees of defunct state firms.
Ghura commented that with the high oil prices, the government should now increase the budget, which it had initially based on earnings of $23 a barrel. He and Ngalebaye agreed that the expected windfall from higher oil prices should be channelled into poverty alleviation programmes.
If, on average, the Gross Domestic Product of 3.6 percent, and over 2 percent rate of poverty registered from 2000 to 2004 continued, Ngalebaye said, "At this rate the number of people living below the poverty line in 2009 - when the next presidential elections are due - would reach 75 percent."
He said the current level of poverty was reflected in the country's life expectancy rate of 47 years, with one-third of the inhabitants likely to die before reaching their 40th birthday.
The government has concluded a triennial poverty reduction programme (2004-2007) with the IMF, containing a series of measures with which Congo comply in order to qualify for the Fund's Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative, giving it access to the eligibility list for debt write-offs.
Among the measures are strengthening transparency mechanisms in the oil sector; alleviating poverty; restoring public finances; and allowing audits by institutions, such as the African Development Bank (ADB).
Congo has already obtained a ?24 million ($28.7 million) French subsidy to repay the debt owed to the ADB; oil producer Norway has also made a grant of 5.7 billion francs ($10 million), with part of the grant to be used in poverty reduction progammes.
Ngalebaye said the cancellation of Congo's foreign debt would not, in itself, wipe out poverty if no development strategies we re in place.
"On the contrary, with the current state of things, a cancellation of the debt will still make poor families poorer - our country is strangled by a debt which, to a large extent, derives from political choices imposed from outside that are ill-informed of the essential needs of the population," he said.
"To tell the truth, our country lacks a real development and debt alleviation strategy," he added.
Despite its position as one of Africa's leading oil producers, the country is mired in debt, which is likely to keep people like Gabriel Malongo in poverty.
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