The small country of Djibouti has become an important military hub in the Horn of Africa for the United States over the past several months.
Djibouti has allowed the U.S. to build a new command center, as thousands of U.S. troops gather there for the war on terrorism. In return Djibouti is hoping for economic assistance from the United States to help lift the country out of poverty.
After the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Djibouti was the first Arab League member country to call and offer condolences to U.S. President George W. Bush. The country's prime minister, Dileita Mohamed Dileita, says Djibouti was shocked by the attacks and wanted to help.
Mr. Dileita says Djibouti offered to assist the U.S. military to show its solidarity with the United States in the war against terror. He said the country has not asked the United States for any money in return for that assistance.
But if Djiboutian officials have not asked for financial help, they are very clear that Djibouti would gladly accept any help that is offered.
Ever since it gained independence in 1977 after more than a century of French colonial rule, this tiny, predominantly Muslim country of 600,000 people has struggled to break the cycle of poverty.
It remains poor primarily because, aside from salt, Djibouti has no natural resources it can utilize or export. There is little arable farming because the Djiboutian soil, composed mainly of volcanic rock, is one of the least productive in Africa. The country produces only about three percent of its food requirements. All other food and consumer goods must be imported, keeping costs high and barely affordable for most Djiboutians who earn just $420 a year.
The country has three assets: a modern Red Sea port, which served as a backup staging area for the U.S. military during the Gulf War, a railway that connects the country to its neighbor to the west, Ethiopia, and an international airport. But 80 percent of the country's income is generated by providing services for the French community in Djibouti, including more than 3,000 French soldiers. France also pays part of the salaries of Djibouti's civil servants and teachers.
Jorge Mejia, the director of the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, in Djibouti, says although France has been a generous donor, it does not contribute nearly enough to tackle the country's vast economic and social problems.
"Forty percent of the children are not at school and why: because of a lack of [supplies], a lack of trained personnel, a lack of materials. More importantly, most people are simply too poor to send their children to school," he said.
To make matters worse, the government in Djibouti has been alarmed by France's decision to begin reducing its troop presence here over the next several years to cut costs. That could mean even higher unemployment and millions of dollars in lost revenue for Djibouti. Western diplomats speculate one reason why the country has opened its doors to the U.S. military is that it needs U.S. help to fill the economic gap that will be left by the departing French troops.
In the past two years, the United States has substantially increased its financial aid to Djibouti, from $3 million in 2000 to nearly $9 million this year. But out of that $9 million, $3 million is strictly earmarked for upgrading Djibouti airport's security and air traffic control systems.
Djiboutians privately grumble that American aid is coming with conditions that have nothing to do with improving their lives. They also complain that U.S. soldiers in the capital, Djibouti City, keep to themselves and do not frequent the town's bars and restaurants like French soldiers do, depriving the city's service sector of much needed revenue.
Djiboutian government officials have been quick to downplay such complaints, saying that American aid in whatever form, is better than no aid at all.
The director of Djibouti's tourism office, Mohamed Abdillahi Wais, says the country has high hopes that the United States will bring stability to the region and help Djibouti develop an infrastructure that can attract foreign investors.
Mr. Wais shows a blueprint of a luxury resort he hopes will be built one day on nearby Moucha island in the Gulf of Tadjoura. His vision of the resort includes several five star hotels, golf courses and an airstrip for private jets.
"We think we have the potential. [Of course,] all of this is projected in case of peace in the region. Without peace, we can't do anything. If there is no peace, there is nothing. [That] is why we think what the Americans are doing now is good for all the world and also for Djibouti," he said.
One desperately poor Djiboutian, Abdi Mohamed, says although he is a Muslim with deep suspicions about the United States, he nonetheless believes America is key to Djibouti's economic future.
Inside a hot, windowless shack in Djibouti's slum district, Mr. Mohamed talks about finding a job that can help him send his three children to school. He has skills as an electrician, but he says he has never been hired to do more than a few days work a month for the past several years.
Mr. Mohamed says he hopes many Americans will come to Djibouti. If there are lots of soldiers, he says, they will need people to do various jobs and perhaps they will hire him full-time.