This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only.
Last Wednesday, in fact pick any day, in the capital of a small country in Central Africa, a student was about to take a Latin exam, three young lawyers were talking in an office, a boy was drinking water from a public fountain and a public servant was answering the visitor’s question by telling him that he had no data on what he wanted to know. What do such random actions have in common? For one, none of them was doing what he seemed to be doing; also, the cause of their actions was very far from where they were taking place; and finally, their consequences, just as their own acts and lives, were out of their control. Maybe by chance they also had in common that they took place in a small Central-African country where a lot of oil has recently been discovered.
The civil servant said that he had no data to answer a simply formulated question: is the income obtained from oil extraction reflected in the national public budget? His response, delivered with an expression of fear while he was making sure that nobody around was listening to this conversation, was first that he did not know, and later that the person who would know was not available. This took place in the Public Relations and Information Department Office of this country’s PNUD, a UN organization, in a developing country that seems to be floating on a pool of oil similar or maybe larger than that of Kuwait. Since the organization responsible for knowing the answer could not respond, the visitor’s only resort was attempting to find out the answer on his own. In a case like this, nothing is better than a stroll around the city.
He knew that there probably existed as much oil as was suggested. This was self-evident, there is data to prove it. The city in question has doubled in size in a few months. It can be divided into two halves of equal extension separated by less than three kilometers. In one half there are 50,000 inhabitants. In the other, barely 500. The difference in population per square meter derives from the fact that in the first half there live the original inhabitants, together with some foreign old-timers, while the people who work in the oil business, the newly arrived foreigners who come from the most powerful country in the planet, live on the other side. That the latter live in one-family houses separated by large green spaces, protected by various security measures, communicated by paved roads with street lights, and that they have all kinds of services available is striking when one knows that in most of the other half the sewers run free on the streets carrying infectious waters, the roads are not paved but filled with mud, the houses are made largely of plywood and zinc-plank roofs that burn under the scorching sun, that the average house for eight people has two and a half rooms, and that there are no public services such as garbage collection, public transportation or any such thing.
The visitor thought that, should the income from oil be reflected on public accounts, wealth would be visible in other economic areas. The best building in the city is the site of a great bank. Seating near the entrance, the visitor was watching how some foreigners and very few natives entered. Curiously enough, the vast majority of the latter only go in because they have to clean the floors, watch the entrances or are the drivers of the former. On the other hand, the foreigners who go to the city’s only hospital do go to work; they are doctors and medical personnel who cooperate with this country. The patients are only natives, since the foreigners go back to their country when they need medical care. The hospital, unlike the bank, is gravely affected by power outages since, although there is a generator, nobody has bothered to turn it on since the day it was bought with international aid funds.
However, as long as the locals don’t become sick, maybe they can have fun, that is, by checking in one of the new hotels proliferating in the city or by riding the luxury cars running on the streets. That, thought the visitor, would be a way to verify that oil dividends are reaching the entire population. With this in mind he stood at the entrance of one of the hotels. Again, the natives who enter do it to clean the rooms, to serve food or to take care of the garden. This is not shocking if you take into account that the price of a single room per night is equal to the average monthly salary of many people there. The incessant traffic of luxurious cars does, however, affect all of the city’s inhabitants. Foreigners or their autochthonous drivers drive them, the natives dodge them, children and elders fear them, since they are not used to living surrounded by cars on paved roads with traffic lights, much less with traffic jams, and don’t manage this intense road activity very well.
Suddenly the visitor sees a public fountain, a most simple block of cement with an even humbler spout. A boy drinks, another one waits, a girl carries a plastic container and another one a bucket. Here is, finally, a modest but evident contribution derived from the oil business. Well not quite; a more attentive look reveals an inscription by the author whose work palliates the inexistence of running potable water: "Fountain No. 5, Terrasa City Hall, Spain." He continues down the street and finds the same thing a little further "Fountain No. 7, Alcorcón City Hall, Spain." And he continues finding them. Who has convinced these city halls that the government of the country in question does not have the resources to provide even a simple spout out of its own pocket? What do we understand by international cooperation: paying some of the public services bills so that private pockets can place the country’s money in safe heavens abroad? Why is it that the most foreign-indebted countries, the ones with higher poverty rates enjoying more international cooperation and financial aid, are governed by dictators and have their upper classes settled, together with their money, in the richest and most developed countries?
The sight of streets covered in mud, the filth of residual water running out in the open, garbage scattered everywhere, the absence of sidewalks barely lit by scarce street lights, the lack of public transportation, banks, road signs or leisure spaces, not to mention libraries, civic centers, book stores, not a sign of urban or any other planning,makes one think that the 500,000 crude oil barrels that are pumped daily (that is assuming that it is not one million barrels, since there are no official figures) in a country with a population below 500,000, do not remain in the country even for a minute; instead they leave the country to enrich someone else.
That is why the visitor went in search of a different kind of information: what happened to human rights in this place? In the building that hosts the Human Rights Center, he is received by three people, three chairs and a table comprising all the furniture. When asked what they do there, they answer "little so far" since they have no electric outlets or telephone lines and, clearly, without any funding, they can only look at the future hoping for better times.
The visitor does not give credit to this display of good will and ingenuity, so he heads for the site of the Lawyers Guild in order to obtain more information; maybe by chance it is financed by the Madrid Lawyers Guild. What he sees is a piece of empty real estate with a placard explaining just such association. No trace of anything else. >From there, he walks to the Palace of Justice to find out that it has electricity but no phone that is a phone line, since they do have the appliance and that the most modern piece of equipment available is a mechanical typewriter.
It seems, then, that the moment has arrived for the formulation of the first law of national economy in Africa: the largest the natural wealth of a country, the lower is the probability that its population is going to enjoy it. Angola and old Zaire are only two egregious examples of this law. The second law states that the larger the foreign intervention in an African country, mainly via international cooperation, the lower the probability of a sustained development.
Unfortunately, although protagonists themselves, not even the few university students in this country can perceive this. That is why that student was making huge efforts to pass a subject that is forgotten and relegated to a few specialized centers of higher education in the West, without suspecting that he will never be able to make use of what he has learned, unless it is to exclaim, as the classics did: Homo homini lupus.
Agustín Velloso Santisteban teaches at the UNED in Madrid. He can be reached at: email@example.com