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Cameroonians Have Mixed Feelings Over Debt Relief

Cameroon is hoping to qualify for partial debt relief under a program sponsored by the International Monetary Fund for heavily indebted countries. However, the process has sparked debate over required reforms, and whether debt forgiveness will change anything in the long run.

At a busy intersection in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, government workers hail run down taxis at the end of the work day. As the cabs slow down, potential clients shout out a destination and a price they are willing to pay.

The taxi drivers either agree to the price and stop, or drive on in search of someone willing to pay more. It is a system that has been around as long as anyone can remember.

But, recently, says taxi driver Soban Petro, it's gotten harder to get by. He says his fuel costs have gone up, but his clients do not want to pay more.

"It was 350, 350 francs 'til now," said Soban Petro. "It is up to 525 francs."

Mr. Petro's current difficulties are at least partly the result of a new program created by donor countries and institutions, that they hope will solve many of Africa's problems in the long run.

In 1996, the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, and the World Bank created the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. The aim was to ensure that no poor country would face a debt burden it was incapable of managing.

In order to be included in the program, countries must have a proven track record of reform, and come up with a poverty reduction strategy.

In 2006, Cameroon hopes to qualify for partial debt relief under the IMF/World Bank initiative. But the required reforms, like an end to fixed prices on fuel, have made some Cameroonians, like taxi driver Mr. Petro, angry.

Financial consultant Penda Ekoka, though he thinks many of the reforms will be beneficial, says there has been little effort made to convince the people.

"Is it imposed by the government, or is it imposed by some external pressure? This is the real question," said Penda Ekoka. "The thing has to be part of a whole dynamic of trying to correct the economic situation in Cameroon. For many years now, Cameroonians have not been in a position actually to perceive that most of those reforms have been beneficial to them."

Cameroon is consistently ranked among the world's most corrupt nations by watchdog group Transparency International. Mr. Ekoka says many Cameroonians feel that previous IMF and World Bank initiatives calling for increased privatization have only served to line the pockets of a tiny elite.

He says much of the debt that Cameroon has incurred in the past is due to the poor handling of that money by the country's politicians.

"If this debt is canceled, does the process that conducted our leaders to this situation has disappeared?" he asked.

The changes in attitude needed to keep Cameroon from slipping into another cycle of debt, Mr. Ekoka says, must come from within.

"I don't think that they need the World Bank or the IMF to teach a normal government what to do with its own people," continued Penda Ekoka. "Is there any need for someone to come teach a government that your main job is to get the standard of living of people improved? Why does it have to be taught to governments in Africa?"

It will likely take years to know whether debt relief proves successful in Cameroon. Freeing up government funds now spent on servicing the external debt, could someday be used to build schools and hospitals.

But, at least for now, Cameroonians like taxi driver Soban Petro are having trouble seeing past the current hardships associated with higher fuel prices.

"I can't do anything," he said. "I buy a liter [of gasoline] at 525 francs. I cannot run 10 meters with it. If there is a way they can just cut the price down, I will be happy."

Estimates from 2004 put Cameroon's debt at around $8.5 billion, or nearly a third of its gross domestic product.