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Fresh Air for Guinea-Bissau: A Country in Search of Prosperity

This article, written by Silvia Arjona Martín, was originally published on the AECOS website with the title “Fresh Air for Guinea-Bissau” [es] on 26 August 2013.

The limited ability of Guinea-Bissau to provide for its inhabitants as the country undergoes a political transition following the latest coup d'etat on 12 April 2012 is making daily life uncomfortable and difficult for the vast majority of its 1.6 million people.

Cadija Mané, a sociologist specialising in human rights, tears up and her voice trembles as she explains the situation that the people of Guinea-Bissau are experiencing:

¡Es vergonzoso, miserable y lamentable que vayamos a cumplir 40 años de independencia y vivamos en un país en el que no podemos soñar!

It's disgraceful, miserable and pathetic that we're going to celebrate 40 years of independence and we live in a country where we cannot dream!

Living in a country where primary basic services, such as electricity and drinking water, are constantly lacking in people's homes is not easy. It can be seen everywhere: hospitals without the necessary technical material and staffing, schools without well-trained teachers, food shortages in more rural areas, violations of women's rights, intimidation and a lack of freedom of expression, corruption, drug trafficking, no communications system, etc.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) places Guinea-Bissau, a small country located between Senegal and Guinea Conakry, in the 176th position out of 186 countries. If we add to this the fact that life expectancy at birth is 48 years old, the gross national product is 1,042 dollars per capita (constant 2005 international dollars), and the primary school dropout rate stands at 88 percent, amongst other statistics, we are able to get a vague idea of the living conditions offered by the country.

In the capital Bissau, these conditions are less visible, with the exception of the potholed, dirt streets, rubbish littering every corner – including around the Presidential Palace itself – and the absolute darkness which covers the city as soon as the sun sets.

It is more evident in rural areas, where the shortages are more pronounced and where financial difficulties in purchasing food are beginning to increase in significance, above all following this year's fall in prices for the production of cashew nuts, the most important source of income in the country.

One of the streets in the centre of Bissau. Photo by Silvia Arjona

One of the streets in the centre of the capital, Bissau. Photo by Silvia Arjona

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Guinea-Bissau is currently experiencing a significant food shortage, which could be affecting some 260,000 people in the interior of the country, as a result of poor agricultural production and the political instability which the country is undergoing.

It is perhaps for this reason that Fernando Delfín da Silva, Minister of Foreign Business, Cooperation and Communities of the current transition government, considers the guaranteeing of food security to be a political priority. From his large office in the Palace of the Government of Bissau, Da Silva worriedly explains the situation, calling in some way upon the international community:

Desde que comenzamos el ciclo de castaña de cajú, hace muchos años, las personas intercambiaban cajú con arroz. Así, un kilo de arroz era igual a un kilo de cajú. Hoy, por el contrario, con un kilo de arroz compras tres de castaña de cajú, lo que significa que hay un deterioro del cambio, un problema serio para el que necesitamos apoyo

Since we began the cycle of cashew nuts, many years ago, people exchanged cashew nuts for rice. In this way, a kilo of rice was equal to a kilo of cashew nuts. Today, on the contrary, with a kilo of rice you can buy three kilos of cashew nuts, which means that there has been a decrease in the exchange rate, a serious problem which we need help with.

The lack of companies processing not only cashews, of which more than 200,000 tons are exported each year, as well as others which the country produces, is one of the key causes of Guinea-Bissau's limited development. Da Silva emphasises that the key is in processing: 

Tenemos que transformar nuestros productos agrícolas. Sin eso, no tendremos buenas carreteras ni buenas escuelas ni buenos centros hospitalarios ni buenas instituciones públicas. Es urgente cambiar y transformar el modelo económico ya que el que tenemos crea pobreza en lugar de combatirla. Y no es muy difícil. Transformando eso, en cuatro o cinco años Guinea-Bissau podría reducir bastante los índices de pobreza y crear casi 20.000 puestos de trabajo. ¡Y todo sin utilizar una tecnología sofisticada ni complicada!

We must process our agricultural products. Without this, we will not have good roads, good schools, good hospitals or good public institutions. The economic model must be urgently changed and transformed, as the one which we have now creates poverty instead of fighting it. And it is not very difficult. By changing this, in four or five years Guinea-Bissau could significantly reduce its poverty levels and create almost 20,000 jobs. And all of this without using sophisticated or complicated technology!

He is convinced that this is the change which the country must pursue in order to reach a level of human, economic and social development which will provide a better quality of life for its inhabitants.

In the second part of the article, we will learn about the vision of the young people's collective Movement for Citizen Action, which was created in the last year to provide a response to popular indignation

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