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Mali searches for a successor to socialism to revive its economy

At a stall in front of the post office in Bamako, a man named Mamadou sells post cards, newspapers, and stationery -- and occasionally writes letters for illiterate clients. He speaks English and French fluently. Asked why someone so well educated was selling post cards, Mamadou answers with a lesson in the economics of this famine-troubled West African state.

"If I had a university degree, the best job I could get with the government would be at about $150 a month."

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Mamadou has only a secondary education, though he has studied in Ghana. The best job he could get would be in the post office.

"I would never own a house if I still worked for the government. Here I put away at least $10 a day. After 10 years, I own two houses, one worth $16,000, one worth $8,000."

The more expensive house even has electricity and running water, luxuries in hard-pressed Mali.

Mali is poor, with few exploitable resources. In a good year, exports of cotton, cattle, dried fish, peanuts, and handwoven cloth amount to about $100 million. Prices for Mali's exports are low. Transportation costs are high, because the country is landlocked, with limited access to foreign markets. It is also one of the Sahel countries worst hit by the famines that have troubled this area since 1968.

It was not always this way. Precolonial Mali was one of the few African regions with an urban civilization. Its traders exchanged salt, fish, cattle, cotton, and leather goods for the products of the forest area. But growth during the colonial period was very limited, and, except for peanuts and cotton, focused on the same products.

Independence brought to power the socialist Union Soudanaise of Modibo Keita. The Union Soudanaise was convinced that with hard work, Mali could compensate for its limited natural resources. The new leaders built the country's first factories and drew up ambitious development plans, but they ran afoul of opposition from both peasants and traders. Peasants were hostile to efforts to force them to farm collectively; traders, to restrictions on free enterprise.

Mali's present leader, Moussa Traore, first came to power in a military coup in 1968. The sole survivor of the group that effected the coup, he is not considered an inspiring leader, but he has tenaciously held onto his power, heading off various plots and coup attempts. His regime lacks Mr. Keita's faith in socialism. It is, however, concerned about unemployment. When he took power , Mr. Traore inherited an economy dominated by 31 state corporations.

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Traore expects those 31 corporations to provide jobs. A textile factory built by the Chinese for 1,500 workers now employs 3,000. Factory managers who try to trim the payroll can end up out of a job themselves. In particular, the government is determined to keep the educated off the street, guaranteeing jobs to graduates of all higher schools. But, the expansion of these schools reflected the optimism of the early years, and today there is simply not enough money.

One result is that government employees are paid very low salaries, starting at about $45 a month and rising to less than $300 a month at the top. Europeans in Bamako talk of Malians who are too proud to accept dinner invitations because they cannot reciprocate.

Various government departments often lack the money to buy supplies. As a result, employees are without the material or the equipment to do the job for which they were trained.

Foreign aid can complicate things. The French, for example, have just built a beautiful new museum. Unfortunately, the electric bill for the new museum will take almost the whole of the old museum's budget. There are no extra funds in the kitty. Paychecks often come two or three months late, simply because the treasury is empty.

One result is a lot of petty corruption. On a 500 kilometer (310-mile) trip to central Mali, we were stopped nearly 30 times. Most of the roadblocks had a legitimate purpose -- the police checking out papers or customs looking for smuggled goods -- but most of those manning the roadblocks were paid off -- which is why they were on the road.

Also, morale is low. Foreigners are peppered with questions about jobs in and visas to their home countries. Many people in various social classes want to leave. Immigration to France is increasingly difficult, but there is a regular stream going to the wealthier African countries -- Libya, Ivory Coast, and Gabon.

The government's options are very limited. In 1978 and again in 1980, oil imports cost more than the income from all exports. As it is, gas is often rationed. Both government departments and international agencies stockpile gasoline in various provincial centers.

The Sahel zone has become a major priority for a wide variety of aid-givers. Mali currently receives about $200 million a year from the West alone -- more than is collected in taxes. It is only the aid that permits Mali to import the goods it needs, though the country also receives considerable aid from China and the Soviet Union.

Its dependence on aid gives the donor nations a lot of clout. The country's conservative fiscal policies are largely the result of conditions imposed by France in return for French support of the Malian franc. Mali is expected to return soon to the West African franc zone, which will integrate it more completely into a series of French-dominated economic institutions.

Acting collectively, the donors have insisted that Mali close down or reform the state corporations, almost all of which are losing money. Twenty of the 31 are to be closed or sold to private interests within the next four years. Despite Mali's poverty, it has a class of very enterprising traders, some of whom can mobilize considerable amounts of capital. The donors have also been concerned with agriculture. The state marketing agency, the Malian Organization for Agricultural Production, has in theory a monopoly on the marketing of rice and millet, the staple foods. In fact, it lacks the resources to enforce that monopoly and it is used simply to provide cheap grain for hard-pressed city dwellers.

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