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15.01.2007 Mali

Mali film puts West's blueprint for Africa on trial

By Reuters
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Africa's poorest are even worse off than they were a quarter of a century ago and despite years of debt relief, humanitarian aid and the goodwill of fund-raising rock stars, the West is to blame.

So say the witnesses who line up to testify against Western financial institutions in "Bamako,” a scathing film by Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako, due to be released in Britain and the United States next month.

The plot is simple. Mostly poor Africans who have had no say in how their economies are run plead their case against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, accusing them of imposing rules that have kept their nations mired in misery.

Set in the dusty courtyard of his father's family compound in Mali's capital Bamako, Sissako's fantasy trial gives a voice to the voiceless, those who have felt the effects of measures imposed by Western economists but have had no easy way to reply.

“It's not so much about identifying who is guilty as denouncing the fact that the fate of hundreds of millions of people has been sealed by policies decided outside their universe,” Sissako says on the Website

It would be easy to dismiss this as a theatrical gesture by an intellectual blaming his continent's ills on outsiders.

But what makes Sissako's film compelling is that his roll-call of witnesses are not actors but real local people, including a would-be illegal migrant, an elderly villager and a former minister.

One of the first, Madou Keita, is among thousands of young Africans who have undertaken epic journeys across desert and sea to try to get into “fortress Europe” and find work. Keita's bid failed when he was shot at by Algerian guards in the Sahara.

Former Malian culture minister Aminata Traore also takes the stand, a local hero in Bamako after she employed Malian craftsmen to renovate one of the sprawling city's dirt-strewn neighborhoods in a bid to demonstrate Africa could help itself.

“The world is certainly open to whites but it is not open to blacks,” she says in her impassioned, unscripted testimony.

The film, which opened in West Africa this month after premiering at the 2006 Cannes film festival, takes its broadest swipe at the “structural adjustment programmes” championed by the World Bank and IMF during the world recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The programmes set conditions such as cutting social expenditure and privatising state-owned enterprises in return for more loans.

Critics say such measures cost badly needed jobs, profited only Western companies and left education and public health sorely underfunded.

It may only be a fictional trial, but the arguments highlight a fatalistic sense felt by many Africans that the continent is a perpetual victim, once of the slave trade and colonisation, then of the Cold War and now globalisation.

It is a debate which arouses strong emotions.

Robert Calderisi, a development expert who spent much of his 30-year career at the World Bank and professes a passion for Africa, argues that a “spiral of pride, anger, poverty and self pity” has kept it behind the rest of the world.