In a ceremony echoing the grinding poverty evident here, Vice President George Bush on Saturday visited a decaying palace from Mali's French colonial era to sign an agreement giving $35.8 million in food and economic aid to this drought-parched nation.
The agreement was to be followed today by a second grant of $18 million aimed at helping Mali President Moussa Traore carry out potentially difficult reforms in the nation's state-controlled farm economy.
The signing took place in Mali's secretariat, one of the few usable structures in a vast, peeling complex of once-majestic buildings on a hill overlooking the capital city of Bamako. Traore, whom Bush met privately for an hour Saturday, moved long ago to a house in central Bamako.
Under the agreement, the United States will supply 60,300 tons of grain meal and dry milk to victims of the drought that has gripped most of northern Africa since 1983. The United States will also spend $6.6 million on a program to increase the harvests of Mali's small farmers, and another $4 million on loans to farmers for fertilizer and equipment.
Farm Output Stagnated
"Our most urgent mission is to prevent widespread starvation" in Mali, where drought and famine have hit millions living in the arid region bordering the Sahara, Bush said. But in the long run, he added, Mali's 7.5 million people can pull themselves out of poverty only by making fundamental changes in the state-managed economy.
Mali's farm output has stagnated since political leaders took control of agriculture and other basic industries after independence came in 1960. In recent years, Traore has closed some money-losing state businesses, called for the sale of the others to private investors, and taken steps toward easing controls over farmers, such as raising the prices paid for their crops. Still, Mali remains among the world's five poorest nations.
The poverty is painfully obvious in Bamako, by far the worst off of three North African capitals that Bush has toured in his eight-day swing through the drought region. Throughout town, crumbling colonial mansions butt against tin-roof huts filled with ragged children. Sewage regularly backs up into open, brick-lined troughs that line many city sidewalks.
In ceremonies Saturday, however, Mali officials expressed confidence that the latest influx of American aid will "give our relationship a new dimension in the interests of both our peoples," and in a briefing for reporters, U.S. officials said that Mali could become self-sufficient if a five-year economic plan ordered by Traore succeeds.
The $18-million grant to be announced today would ease the economic impact on Mali peasants as Traore gradually loosens controls over the farm economy--a move that almost certainly will cause food prices to rise.
M. Peter McPherson, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the grant is the first under a $500-million economic reform program directed at promoting changes in African economies.