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From Mali to Paris: Migration, Remittance and Cotton

The aftermath of Katrina is – understandably – squeezing coverage of international stories out of many US newspapers. Mubarak’s re-election might have been a good chance for newspapers and bloggers to talk about whether a Potemkin village election is better than no election at all. But it’s easy to understand how the close analysis of FEMA chief Mike Brown’s resume – leading to increased awareness of the national sporting crisis that is horse liposuction – would be more fun to report about than the future of democracy in the Middle East’s largest nation.

(By the way – the White House tells us that the elections – which had no international monitors, no debate between candidates, press reports that Mubarak purchased votes, and an embarrasingly low turnout – were “an important step toward holding fully free and fair competitive multi-party elections”, and that Mubarak should have worked out the kinks in the election process by parliamentary elections in November. In other news, pigs were recently seen flying over an icy patch of hell.)

Which makes it all the more impressive that the New York Times managed to run an insightful, intelligent piece today about Malian laborers in Paris, and the economic importance of remittance income. Taking a close look at the village of Somankindi, in western Mali, the story’s authors observe that money sent home from Somankindian workers in France has paid for wells, a health clinic and concrete-block houses that are much higher quality than in many rural Malian villages. There’s a fund in the village to pay travel expenses for promising young men to travel to France (usually overland, illegally, before crossing the Mediterranean to Marseilles), with the understanding that they’ll join a village association in France and commit to remitting much of their income to support their family and village.

(Tragically, not everyone makes it across the Mediterranean, as the BBC reminds us in a recent article about Eritrean immigrants drowning off the shores of Sicily.)

Recent deadly apartment fires have called attention to the lives of African workes in Paris – dozens of men sharing two-bedroom apartments in dilapidated apartment buildings in forgotten corners of the city. The Parisian city government is threatening to evict immigrants from at least 60 dangerous buildings – these evictions are likely to become deportations, as so many of the immigrants are in the country illegally. Thousands of Parisians marched recently to protest evictions and to lobby the government for better housing.

France’s restrictive immigration policies are part of the reason it ranks poorly in Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index, placing 15th of 21 donor nations – CGD points out that while France is good about accepting students from developing nations, they accept very few unskilled immigrants from developing nations through legal channels.

It’s worth asking why so many Malian immigrants are coming to France despite immigration barriers and poor living conditions. Part has to do with the colonial history of France in West Africa. Until recently, the currency of most francophone West African nations was tied directly to the French franc; extensive French investment in the region means that there’s a natural tendency to look towards France as a land of economic opportunity. (Language plays a role as well, as it’s easier to migrate to a nation where you can speak the dominant language. Malian immigrants would be advised to target semi-francophone Switzerland, which admits a disproprotionate number of unskilled workers from the developing world…)

But the base reason Malians are heading north is that there’s a lack of economic opportunity in Mali. And that’s partially due to cotton subsidies. Mali’s major export is cotton and national income is closely tied to fluctuations in global cotton prices. Mali’s government isn’t wealthy enough to subsidize cotton farmers. The US government is, and does, to the tune of $4 billion dollars a year. Oxfam Mali estimates that Malian farmers lost at least $43 million to US cotton subsidies… an unfortunate counterbalance to the $38 million in development aid the US gave to one of the world’s poorest nations.

Until countries like the US decide that it makes more sense to stop subsidizing 25,000 domestic farmers at the expense of tens of millions of African farmers, it only makes economic sense that the boys of Somankindi will keep making the journey north.

1 thought on “From Mali to Paris: Migration, Remittance and Cotton”

  1. I read the piece too. Your expansive commentary brought the issue into even better focus. One would wish the US Govt would see its long term interest in helping the Malians lift themselves up. But that, I image, is asking too much of human nature. Besides the fact of the US Govt not being a homogenous body, there is the domestic lobby to consider. The last would believe its welfare had suffered a blow by a 0.5% drop in income as much as the Malian farmer would think his or her welfare had been damaged by a 50% lost of income because of unfair subsidies to those he considers wealthy farmers in the West. When people look to defend their interest, they hardly ever stop to consider the relativity of their standpoint. Unless they are guided by a higher spirit of humanity, a spirit which religion unfortunately has so far failed to awaken and keep alive among many. One would wish the Malian people could redirect their efforts and resources elsewhere; or at least have their children become more educated to do so on their own. Alas for humanity! How easy is for us to talk about these issues, and how hard it is to put them into action! And how incongrous it is that those who seem to have the solutions are not the same people who have to face the problem on a daily basis?

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