Sat outside a coffee shop on a mild autumn morning, the financial crisis was addressed in succinct terms, “we survived the 80s, we’ll survive this”. Ireland came through the 80s, and the 50s and the 30s – there is nothing new or unprecedented about a recession, which was coming anyway when the property bubble burst. There are not a few people in the world who would happily accept a standard of living comparable to Ireland in the 1930s. They would see the lifestyle described in Angela’s Ashes as great progress. They would leap at the opportunity to be in a country which had a per capita GDP that was 60% of the European Community average, as was the case in Ireland in the 1980s.
Memories of a quarter of a century ago come back with grimness now – dereliction and decay, roads filled with potholes, ill equipped hospitals, Travellers living under tarpaulins on country roadsides, smuggling runs from Northern Ireland, confiscatory rates of tax, the list could go on – yet it was infinitely better than is the life of most people in sub-Saharan Africa today.
Our friend Clement, an Anglican priest who has studied here for a year, returns to his home in Burundi next week. The life of that country is unimaginable for us, the per capita GDP is $300 per annum. It means people are living on a dollar a day. In our house a dollar would not be enough to buy the daily copy of the Irish Times. A pint of beer in Dublin would cost most of a week’s income in Burundi.
The CIA – World Factbook expresses the reality of Burundi in prosaic terms:
Burundi is a landlocked, resource-poor country with an underdeveloped manufacturing sector. The economy is predominantly agricultural with more than 90% of the population dependent on subsistence agriculture. Economic growth depends on coffee and tea exports, which account for 90% of foreign exchange earnings. The ability to pay for imports, therefore, rests primarily on weather conditions and international coffee and tea prices. The Tutsi minority, 14% of the population, dominates the government and the coffee trade at the expense of the Hutu majority, 85% of the population. An ethnic-based war that lasted for over a decade resulted in more than 200,000 deaths, forced more than 48,000 refugees into Tanzania, and displaced 140,000 others internally. Only one in two children go to school, and approximately one in 15 adults has HIV/AIDS. Food, medicine, and electricity remain in short supply. Burundi’s GDP grew around 5% annually in 2006-07. Political stability and the end of the civil war have improved aid flows and economic activity has increased, but underlying weaknesses – a high poverty rate, poor education rates, a weak legal system, and low administrative capacity – risk undermining planned economic reforms. Burundi will continue to remain heavily dependent on aid from bilateral and multilateral donors; the delay of funds after a corruption scandal cut off bilateral aid in 2007 reduced government’s revenues and its ability to pay salaries.
Yet Clement returns to his home and church and diocese with cheer and enthusiasm. He jokes that his house is smaller than the hallway of our new Rectory. He contemplates his return to ministry in one of the world’s poorest countries – it ranks 167th out of 177 nations in the UN rankings – with an irrepressible faith.
Our newspapers may be filled with pictures of distraught traders in stock exchanges around the world, but we have little idea of what a crisis really means. How many people would trade places with Clement?