Preview: Mozambique’s Growth Not Benefitting Its Poorest

BY Ray Suarez  November 22, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT

Mozambique is one of the world’s poorest countries, grappling with high rates of poverty, HIV and malnutrition. But this coastal nation is also one of sub-Saharan Africa’s star performers, posting steady economic growth year after year.

We explore this dichotomy in the first installment of our three-part series from Mozambique — starting on Monday’s NewsHour broadcast. Watch a preview below and read a Reporter’s Notebook from Ray Suarez. Look for our reports later this week on the health challenges Mozambique is facing.

Read a Reporter’s Notebook from Suarez’s trip to Mozambique:

It snuck up on me, really. I had been in the rural areas of southern Mozambique, on Africa’s southeastern coast for several days, and suddenly realized what I hadn’t seen.

Donkeys.
Horses.
Oxen.

Sandwiched between South Africa and Tanzania on the Indian Ocean coast, Mozambique has a similar topography, plant life and coastal ecology to its neighbors. Working animals are a common sight in KwaZulu-Natal, to Mozambique’s south, and in southern Tanzania, on Mozambique’s northern border.

I asked an economist from an international NGO about this observation, and a local journalist in the capital, Maputo. They both said many farm families in Mozambique face poverty so dire that working animals are a luxury.

In small towns, in farming villages, in the marketplaces of the capital, it was commonplace to see wiry, sinewy Mozambicans groaning under the weight of enormous loads, pulling carts loaded with goods for sale or deliveries to nearby businesses. While the rest of the world is moving away from economic lives that rely heavily on the strength of a human’s back and shoulders, they are still vital in Mozambique.

Outside Maputo, hugging train tracks on one side and a drainage ditch on another, a slum stretches into the distance. It is buzzing with activity… haggling, metal bashing, sewing, sorting, weighing… metal goods, clothing, food, and piles of plastic junk from across Asia. Somehow combs, slippers, toys, picture frames, you name it, wash up in tremendous profusion in the marketplaces of the world’s poorest countries. They represent a little luxury, something that isn’t an absolute necessity that can still be had for a tiny price.

How tiny? The Mozambican currency, the metical, is worth less than three cents. Economic life in this country is lived so close to the edge, at such a tiny scale, that a bad day on the job doesn’t mean inconvenience: It means you don’t eat unless you borrow money for food.

The central government already gets half its annual revenue from foreign aid and now finds its modest resources more and more devoted to subsidies to keep the prices of consumer staples low. When the government announced it was reducing, or eliminating the subsidies on items like gasoline, rice, and cooking oil, earlier this year there were riots in the streets.

Security forces cracked down on the rioters in a way that shocked Mozambicans. The riots stopped when the government backed off on its plans to cut back heavily on the subsidies. The people we spoke with in rural and urban areas spoke with real distress about how they could not afford the higher costs, and could not raise the prices for their labor, or the commodities they sell.

How does a country like this break out?

Part of Mozambique’s answers had been to spend higher percentages of the national budget on health and education than many poor countries. This is the kind of investment that pays off in quiet and subtle ways in the near term, and in big and important ways in the long term. You might want to keep your fingers crossed that the country can keep that commitment until it pays off. Healthier children are healthier students, and become better workers. They in turn raise healthier children, who can capitalize on the gains of their parents’ generation.

But it’s so hard for a place like Mozambique to reach the economic equivalent of “escape velocity” and break free of its serious limitations. Individual families have to be more confident their children will live before they have fewer of them. They have to believe there’s a point to sacrificing labor in order to keep their boys and girls in more years of school.

For today, it’s so hard to see a way out. You can’t fix just one thing, you have to fix a lot of things–malnutrition, childhood disease, access to clean water, economic opportunity. It’s a set of problems that feed and exacerbate each other.

I hope you’ll take a look at the photos, the reports, and other content here on the NewsHour website as our series airs this week. And as always, if you can’t catch the broadcast you can watch all of my reports here online.