Whose data and development is it, anyway?


THREE years ago protests broke out in Dakar, Senegal. Led by a majority of young people, these protests were against the continued use of the CFA Franc, a France-backed currency used by some countries in both Central and West Africa. The basis of the protest was that CFA appears to benefit France and a handful of African elites while the majority of Africans who use the currency are struggling to make ends meet.

CFA originally translated to ‘Colonies francaises d’Afrique’ or, in English, French Colonies of Africa before it changed to, ‘Communaute francaise d’Afrique’- French Communities of Africa. Currently, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo make up the eight West African countries who use the currency. Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon form the Central Africa bloc that uses the currency. This CFA emanates, of course, from the establishment of the French Zone (FZ), which came into effect as France rapidly granted numerous colonies independence in the wake of growing resistance in countries such as Algeria, for example and global defeats such as those encountered at Dien Bien Phu.

About the French Zone, academics such as Nicolas van de Walle have observed that “the FZ’s economic structures after independence promoted a specific political economy, with patterns of accumulation and redistribution that produced clear winners and losers and favoured a distinctive consumption model. State elites established ruling coalitions in each of the countries of the Zone on the basis of this political economy.” As it turns out, the winner is always France and the handful of African elites used to defend the use of the currency, and the losers are always the people in the countries listed above who thought independence would usher in an era of political freedom and economic prosperity.

The idea of the CFA franc was to turn it into “the functional equivalent of French francs on world money markets, although they are not in fact traded there. When reserves are positive, each central Bank is required to keep at least 65 per cent of its foreign currency reserves in French francs deposited in the operations account. When reserves are negative, convertibility is supported through the use of overdraft facilities on the same account. This means, in theory, that the French Treasury will cover any balance of payments deficits these countries develop,” de Walle writes. Of course, after France joined the Eurozone, the CFA franc was pegged against the Euro.

“In addition,” he continues, “membership in the Zone provide state elites with some key political advantages. One is the valuable added autonomy they have enjoyed vis-a-vis international banks and the ‘evil sisters’, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, despite their often dismal economic record. France has often been instrumental in softening the conditionality of those institutions by interceding on behalf of African states and by providing infusions of capital into their economies at key times.” To be sure, de Walle was writing the above in 1991, and it was not until 2017 that one of the biggest resistances to use of the CFA franc was demonstrated by young people in West Africa, some of whom faced arrest, jail and harassment by authorities for their actions.

In 2019, there came in a ‘new’ currency that is highly-contested in Africa, and although it has no monetary attachment, it is quite valuable. Data has become an all-important tool to measure progress, or lack thereof, and thus make case either for or against chosen developmental trajectories.

IF Data is the currency of this century that must drive development, then one cannot help but be conscious of how reporting of such a valuable currency can also mirror racial prejudice, dishonesty and – quite frankly – colonial hangovers. Progressive African governments, such as that of Rwanda, must not allow themselves to be distracted by being drawn into debates and discussions with people who cared less at the height of the genocide against the Tutsi, and who now seek to masquerade as global torchbearers for development. Rwanda must stick to its own path, strengthen what is working and build a better life for future generations.

The French Zone, like many things imperialist, is in decline. In July 2019, several West African heads of state met in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to discuss their exit from the CFA franc and introduce the ECO, a currency which ECOWAS seeks to launch in 2020. It has been a long time coming and there was resistance. If the currency, data and development choices being made are for the benefit of Africans, then Africa is finally on the right track!

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