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Whose data and development is it, anyway?


Two years ago, almost to the date, protests broke out in Dakar, Senegal. Led by a majority of young people, these protests were against the continued use of the CFA Franc, a France-backed currency used by some countries in both Central and West Africa. The basis of the protest was that CFA appears to benefit France and a handful of African elites while the majority of Africans who use the currency are struggling to make ends meet.

CFA originally translated to ‘Colonies francaises d’Afrique’ or, in English, French Colonies of Africa before it changed to, ‘Communaute francaise d’Afrique’- French Communities of Africa. Currently, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo make up the eight West African countries that use the currency. Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon form the Central Africa bloc that uses the currency. This CFA emanates, of course, from the establishment of the French Zone (FZ), which came into effect as France rapidly granted numerous colonies independence in the wake of growing resistance in countries such Algeria, for example, and global defeats such as those encountered at Dien Bien Phu.

About the French Zone, academics such as Nicolas van de Walle have observed that “the FZ’s economic structures after independence promoted a specific political economy, with patterns of accumulation and redistribution that produced clear winners and losers and favoured a distinctive consumption model. State elites established ruling coalitions in each of the countries of the Zone on the basis of this political economy.” As it turns out, the winner is always France and a handful of African elites used to defend the use of the currency; the losers are always the people in the countries listed above who thought independence would usher in an era of political freedom and economic prosperity.

The idea of the CFA franc was to turn it into “the functional equivalent of French francs on world money markets, although they are not in fact traded there. When reserves are positive, each central Bank is required to keep at least 65 per cent of its foreign currency reserves in French francs deposited in the operations account. When reserves are negative, convertibility is supported through the use of overdraft facilities on the same account. This means, in theory, that the French Treasury will cover any balance of payments deficits these countries develop,” de Walle writes. Of course, after France joined the Eurozone, the CFA franc was pegged against the Euro.“In addition,” he continues, “membership in the Zone provides state elites with some key political advantages. One is the valuable added autonomy they have enjoyed vis-a-vis international banks and the ‘evil sisters’, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, despite their often dismal economic record. France has often been instrumental in softening the conditionality of those institutions by interceding on behalf of African states and by providing infusions of capital into their economies at key times.” To be sure, de Walle was writing the above in 1991, and it was not until 2017 that one of the biggest resistances to the use of the CFA franc was demonstrated by young people in West Africa, some of whom faced arrest, jail and harassment by authorities for their actions.

In 2019, there is a ‘new’ currency that is highly-contested in Africa, and although it has no monetary attachment, it is quite valuable. Data has become an all-important tool to measure progress, or lack thereof, and thus make case either for or against chosen developmental trajectories. Recently, the Financial Times led what appears to be an orchestrated campaign against Rwanda, accusing the country of falsifying and manipulating data on poverty eradication. In acres of column inches, the newspaper claims its “analysis of [Rwanda] government statistics has found that the data look to have been misrepresented on at least one occasion, casting doubt on both the strength of the proclaimed economic miracle and the integrity of Rwanda’s relationship with its biggest donor, [the World Bank]”.

The ‘analysis’ also relies on several discredited sources, some of whom have led failed electoral bids at the presidency. It is hardly a surprise why the FT turned to these sources; what they say snugly fits the position that has been adopted by mainstream international media and liberal elites – that a country like Rwanda should never be allowed to develop beyond the expectations and exceptions allowed by the West. Hence, any form of development or advancement that is not sanctioned by the West is most likely to face the kind of scrutiny that the FT and like-minded liberals devoted in yet another episode of tarnishing Rwanda’s image.

Rightfully, Uzziel Ndagijimana, Rwanda’s Minister of Finance and Economic Planning wrote to the FT and pointed out that its “readers have not been exposed to an honest debate on poverty data, but rather to a series of anonymous and baseless claims.” He added: “beyond statistics, Rwanda’s progress is plain for anyone to see. Rwanda is open to scrutiny and conversation with all who are interested in our journey of socio-economic transformation.” But the damage was already done.

t is unlikely that this is the last we see this kind of reporting from FT, and other mainstream Western press, followed by white liberal enthusiasm. Yet, if Data is the currency that must drive development in this century, then one cannot help but be conscious of how reporting of such a valuable currency can also mirror racial prejudice, dishonesty and – quite frankly – colonial hangovers. Progressive African governments, such as that of Rwanda, must not allow themselves to be distracted by being drawn into debates and discussions with people who cared less at the height of the genocide against the Tutsi, and who now seek to masquerade as global torchbearers for development. Rwanda must stick to its own path, strengthen what is working and build a better life for future generations.

The French Zone, like many things imperialist, is in decline. In July this year, several West African heads of state met in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to discuss their exit from the CFA franc and introduce the ECO, a currency which ECOWAS seeks to launch in 2020. It has been a long time coming but there will be resistance. If the currency, data and development choices being made are for the benefit of Africans, then Africa is finally on the right on track!

Twitter  @ali_naka

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