At the Boulangerie Dyvano in Yaoundé, Cameroon, you have to get up early to be sure of getting fresh bread.
Evidently I wasn’t early enough when I visited last week. Had I been, a loaf would have cost 125 Central African Francs – about 15p. If you want an avocado with it from a stall on the street outside, or a bunch of short, intensely sweet bananas, you’ll need another seventy-five francs.
This may seem like peanuts (also in copious supply, heaped on sellers’ trays at every street junction in the city). But in a place where half of all households make less than 2000 CFCA a day – feeding, clothing, educating and caring for an entire family on less than £2 a day - just paying for breakfast becomes a serious outlay. A bag of sugar in some places costs half an average family’s entire daily income. Amidst apparent abundance, one in three Cameroonian children is malnourished to the point of stunting their physical growth and development.
There’s no magic bullet for this West African stereotype of hunger amidst plenty. But people are beginning to look for new solutions in surprising places.
The UN’s food rights champion, Olivier de Schutter, has just finished a visit to the country, and his end-of-trip briefing, released on Tuesday, has caused something of a stir. He’s asked a surprising question: given Cameroon’s enormous agricultural and forestry wealth, why is some big agribusiness here taxed at such a tiny rate? For instance, two multinational companies, according to the Rapporteur’s report – one part of a US agribusiness, the other a subsidiary of a French industrial conglomerate - have been given 99-year land concessions for plantations producing highly profitable palm oil. Yet they’re only required, the Rapporteur says, to pay as little as half a dollar per hectare annually for their concessions – a fiftieth of the royalties that other companies have to pay for the right to use the forest resources of such land, and a ninth of what the government charges Cameroonians just to cut wood 'on foot'.
This raises serious questions about the access of communities who have used such land for years to farm, forage and hunt – essential to keeping their families fed, as ActionAid’s biofuels campaign points out.
It also begs another question: why can’t Cameroon raise meaningful revenues from big agribusiness, and use the money to ensure that everyone in Cameroon has enough to eat? Particularly when, the Rapporteur claims, some of these companies are not only enjoying rock-bottom tax and royalty charges, but also seeking to avoid even these shrunken tax bills:
"Cameroon benefits from agro-climatic conditions uniquely suitable for palm oil operations…In these conditions, it’s hard to understand why Cameroon doesn’t seek to benefit more from the exploitation of resources whose value is captured by foreign companies who repatriate their profits out of the country and who practice financial engineering and/or tax avoidance to minimize their tax bills, notably by manipulating transfer pricing with subsidiaries based in tax havens".
Profit-shifting from developing countries into tax havens is exactly the type of tax dodging that ActionAid has been exposing, and which unfortunately the UK government has just made easier through a new tax loophole in this year’s budget. We didn’t succeed, this time round, in stopping the loophole. But this is a long-term struggle, and we’re not on our own. I’m privileged to be here in Yaoundé learning from a group of extraordinary activists and advocates from nine Francophone African countries. United by the same conviction as the UN Rapporteur, we’ve been sharing plans and ideas for linking up campaigns for ‘tax justice’ across West Africa, in the UK and beyond.
As we grow, our campaigning is working. In response to the pressure created by ActionAid’s 2010 investigation of a UK multinationals dodging tax in Africa, this week twenty-six African countries are meeting in South Africa to sign the new legal instruments they need to jointly investigate such multinationals – "the biggest tax treaty ratification of its kind undertaken anywhere in the world". Where big businesses are keeping people hungry, they’re under pressure from governments, citizens, even in the usually polite diplomatic world of the UN. And that’s one step closer to making sure that the only reason people can’t buy bread at the Boulangerie Dyvano is because, like me, they didn’t get out of bed in time.