Seychelles Catch-22: poor, but too rich for aid

In a world still struggling with a stubborn recession, the Seychelles has to have one of the most unusual problems of any country: It is too successful.

To add insult to irony, the Seychellois feel they are being penalized, not encouraged and applauded, for their economic successes. It is enough to make Sey-chelles government officials wring their hands and mutter in frustration. And they do.

''Why,'' they ask with a note of incredulity in their voices, ''are we not seen as a model for others?''

The paradox is that the Seychelles is not nearly wealthy enough to be regarded as a developed nation. At the same time, the Seychelles, lush tropical islands some 1,300 miles off the east coast of Africa with a per capita income exceeding $1,000, is doing too well to qualify for large dollops of foreign aid.

Instead, foreign aid to the Seychelles has actually been reduced by as much as 70 percent in real terms.

The Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland) have cut their aid to the Seychelles. Their reason: ''You're too rich.''

Two countries in Africa have been dropped from development programs of the United Nations Development Program. One is oil-rich Gabon. The other is the Seychelles.

''But we have nothing but our efficient and pragmatic approach to the economy ,'' insists Giovinella Gonthier, the country's youthful ambassador to the United Nations. She points out that everyone is fed, the telephones work, and the toilets flush.

''There are no (foreign) incentives for doing well. We don't have ambassadors all over the world. We work hard. Our people live simply. We don't go in for building big monuments. Our President still lives in the same house he lived in before. Yet we're not taken as a positive role model.''

The Spartan approach may have something to do with the fact that the Seychelles economy is one of the healthiest in Africa. Exotic flora found nowhere else in the world, quiet lagoons, and sandy beaches washed by the warm Indian Ocean could be another persuasive argument. Tourism is the country's big business, and revenues have shot up 16 percent in the last year.

Among the attractions: Aldabra Island, the world's largest uninhabited atoll, boasts thousands more giant tortoises than do the famed Galapagos Islands off Ecuador. And the Seychelles is one of the few African countries that has not imposed foreign currency controls.

The Seychelles tourist industry reached its peak at the end of the 1970s. But tourists began packing their bags after a bungled coup in 1981 by South African-backed mercenaries. Although the coup failed, the physical damage done to the airport, where the attempted coup was foiled, and the loss to the tourist industry amounted to $100 million - twice the country's annual budget.

But the country's minister of foreign affairs and planning, Maxime Ferrari, rejects news reports that the tourist industry was badly hit and the large hotels are up for sale. In a joint interview with Ambassador Gonthier, Dr. Ferrari said: ''The Coral Sand is not up for sale. The Reef Hotel is not up for sale. The Equator is not up for sale.''

Although they are angry about the attempt to unseat President Albert Rene, the Seychelles has freed six mercenaries who were captured in their country.

''We are one of the few countries in Africa,'' Ferrari says, ''which has never executed anyone since becoming independent. . . . We don't have any death cells.''

These claims of humanitarian actions, however, are at odds with the findings of Freedom House, an organization that monitors human rights. In its 1983 survey the Seychelles rates only a 6 (on a scale of 1 to 7, with a 7 meaning the lowest level of political and civil liberties).

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