FOR years, Cameroon politicians and farmers alike used the same worn-out phrase to explain their troubles: ``C'est la crise economique,'' or ``It's the economic crisis.''
But during the last year in the West African country, another word with the same tone of frustration has come into vogue: devaluation. It's in the newspaper headlines and the lyrics of Cameroonian music. It's the subject of political squabbles and small talk.
Just over a year ago, the CFA franc, a currency used in 14 French-speaking African countries, was devalued for the first time since its 1948 creation. The 50 percent devaluation was part of a plan the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommended to spur export-led growth and reverse deepening poverty in a region beset with a financial crisis. Improvement was expected within a year.
So far, devaluation has been a mixed blessing. It has raised growth and export production in the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali, and even Cameroon. But Cameroon, Senegal, Niger, Gabon and other countries have suffered inflation, increased poverty, scattered strikes, and growing civil unrest. Despite the worsening economic and social crisis, ruling elites continue to resist the democratic reform some observers expected to sweep Africa in the 1990s.
In Cameroon, opposition parties continue pressing for constitutional reform to limit presidential powers. In December, opposition party members boycotted or walked out of constitutional discussions proposed by President Paul Biya, whose 1992 reelection was considered flawed during the country's first multiparty elections since independence.
``There is no confidence at all,'' says John Fru Ndi, the country's most prominent opposition leader. ``It can only be restored when people vote, before they entrust the economy and their taxes into the hands of government.''
Exports have increased 150 percent in the past year. Yet, devaluation has been tough for many of the 12 million residents. Despite abundant natural resources, the country has long teetered near economic collapse. The past decade has been particularly difficult for people living in the CFA zone.
``The poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer,'' says Christopher Fowon, a young shop clerk in Buea, in the southwestern highlands where tea, banana, and rubber plantations abound. ``Devaluation has an impact everywhere, right from the farmer in the village. We pay high to obtain less.''
``People are struggling to feed their families,'' says Calvin Gouet, the Cameroon representative of the African Development Bank, a regional development bank.
Costs of basic goods such as rice, flour, meat, palm oil, kerosene, sugar, and salt jumped about 40 percent, the highest inflation rate in the CFA zone. And imported goods such as medicine and school books and supplies for children rose beyond the reach of many families. As a result, fewer families send children to school or seek medical care, particularly in rural areas.
``Right now you go into any hospital and it's like you're out on the street, there's nothing,'' says Donald Trottier, executive director of CARE, a nonprofit development organization that works in Cameroon and other third-world countries.
Some development organizations criticize the World Bank and IMF for long emphasizing export-led growth. That policy, critics say, does not benefit Africa's poor or rural majority. Food output, health and education services have declined.
``It's the same-old tired plan they've used around the world, but it won't work in Africa,'' says Lisa McGowan, an economist at Development Gap, a Washington public-policy group. ``Exports take very scarce resources and concentrate them in a sector that does not serve the rural and the poor.'' World Bank and IMF officials say that poverty reduction is a primary objective but can only happen in countries that implement substantial economic and fiscal reform: liberalization of trade and investment, privatization of inefficient state-owned industry, and increased health and education spending.
Because Cameroon initially lagged behind in those areas, international loan payments were suspended in June. But the country's status will soon be reevaluated. To soften the blow after devaluation in CFA countries, the IMF and World Bank provided $3.2 billion in easy-term loans for toughened structural adjustment programs and France canceled $4.3 billion of debt.
But many agree that devaluation of the CFA, still pegged to the French franc, was necessary. Though a boom in oil, cocoa, coffee, and other export products in the 1970s and early '80s led to expansion, commodity prices fell while governments maintained bloated civil-service sectors.