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IMF chief’s worry about Niger strikes chord among the poor

A girl stands outside a hut in Niger's capital Niamey June 10, 2012. Niger, with its sand-choked alleys, crumbling mud huts and crippling poverty, is a world away from Athens, Europe's cradle of Western civilisation. So when IMF chief Christine Lagarde said recently she was more worried about the plight of deprived youngsters in Niger than the people of Athens - causing uproar in debt-racked Greece - she earned some fans in this remote pocket of the Sahel.

Richard Valdmanis/Reuters

The village of Ouallam in Niger, with its sand-choked alleys, crumbling mud huts and crippling poverty, is a world away from Athens, Europe's cradle of Western civilisation.

So when International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said recently she was more worried about the plight of deprived youngsters in Niger than the people of Athens – causing uproar in debt-racked Greece – she earned some fans in this remote pocket of the Sahel.

"We are the people that Mrs. Lagarde is talking about," said Daoudou Adamou Illiassou, a 23-year-old student in Ouallam, as he pored over his books and papers in the shade of a mud wall to escape the searing midday heat. "Here, we lack everything."

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It's not often the planet's most powerful financial institution wins praise in the struggling Third World, where IMF recipes of belt-tightening have sometimes earned it a reputation from critics as a heartless tool of U.S.-led capitalism.

Just as Ms. Lagarde's comments jarred in Athens, they struck a chord in Niger, where life's basics – food, health, education – have to be wrest from a crushingly harsh, unforgiving reality.

Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, has received some $390-million (U.S.) of IMF support since 1984, in exchange for applying the fund's recipes, including public spending cuts.

That compares with nearly $29-billion disbursed by the IMF to Greece since its economic crisis began a few years ago. The IMF said in March it had approved another €28-billion ($36.5-billion) to assist Greece.

Failed rains last year left Niger and neighbouring Sahel countries, including war-torn Mali, with another food emergency. UK-based aid group Oxfam estimates 18 million people in the region will be impacted by the food crisis this season.

In recent years, tens of thousands of Africans have risked their lives in dangerous desert crossings and arduous sea journeys in open boats to try to reach Europe, and the attraction remains. "It is good what [Ms. Lagarde] said, it is significant," said Maazou Lawali, the outgoing secretary general of the Niger University Student Union in Niamey. "For many of us, just getting to Greece would be paradise."

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