* Even obtaining life’s basics is hard in impoverished Sahel
* Pilloried in Greece, IMF chief’s words ring true in Niger
* Rich in undersoil resources, Niger suffers drought, hunger
* Debt-hit “Fortress Europe” still draws African migrants
By Richard Valdmanis
OUALLAM, Niger, June 14 (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 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.
“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.”
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 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.
Leading away from Illiassou is a dirt path to a sand lot where he and dozens of other students crowded during the school year, sheltered from the sun and violent windstorms by nothing more than a grass hut on a frame of wooden sticks.
Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, has received some $390 million 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 euros to assist Greece.
Failed rains last year left Niger and neighbouring Sahel countries, including war-torn Mali, with another food emergency. U.K.-based aid group Oxfam estimates 18 million people in the region will be impacted by the food crisis this season.
Nevertheless, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou says his aid-dependent state will record the second fastest growth in Sub-Saharan Africa this year, a projected 15 percent, thanks to its increasing uranium and oil production.
In contrast, the 215 billion euro Greek economy is expected to contract by 5.0 to 5.3 percent this year, based on recent central bank and OECD forecasts.
Even as Europe reels under the debt crisis, with harsh austerity and high unemployment squeezing several of its members, for many needy Africans the northern continent still glitters as a potential opportunity to find a better life.
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 “Fortress Europe”. Migration bids continue, despite Europe’s current travails.
“It is good what (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.”
Lagarde ignited public anger in Greece ahead of a June 17 election there when she declared in an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper last month she thought Niger’s underprivileged young “need even more help than the people in Athens.”
“I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time,” she said, going on to recommend sternly that the Greeks should pay their taxes.
With Greece mired in its worst economic crisis since World War Two, one that has seen thousands lose their jobs and homes, the IMF chief drew fire from figures across the spectrum of Greek politics, who called the comparison unfair and callous.
But while recession-hit Greeks may fret over taxes, social benefits and retirement support worries, preoccupations in Ouallam focus on more basic, immediate needs.
Education officials there say that, besides a lack of infrastructure and learning materials plaguing the district, frequent food shortages and crop failures are among the biggest challenges to providing local children with an education.
“When a child doesn’t have food to eat, he can’t go to school,” said Mahamadou Hamidou Niandou, director of education for the department of Ouallam. He said 5,000 of his students, or one in nine, had dropped out this year for lack of food.
Ouallam district teacher Chiradjo Gazere thinks Lagarde has her priorities right.
“In Greece, their problem is artificial, it is related to how they managed their finances within the capitalist system. Here, we have no food. This is a real problem,” he said.
At Ouallam’s fly-blown market, sides of mutton hang on hooks over wood fires and stalls sell a meager offering of vegetables, fruit and water - prized items in the midst of miles of inhospitable heat and sand that stretch all around the village.
Locals say the climate is changing rapidly, with rains coming later and ending sooner, allowing the desert to encroach.
Ouallam is located in Niger’s poorest region of Tillaberry. It lies along a road between Niger’s capital Niamey and rebel-occupied northern Mali, where the increased presence of al Qaeda-linked fighters is raising the spectre of violent militant Islam, ringing alarm bells in the region and the West.
Two Canadian diplomats were kidnapped on this road and held for four months in an abduction claimed by al Qaeda. Travelling beyond Ouallam toward the rebel-held Malian town of Gao, past camps of Malian refugees, requires an armed escort.
Many of the students who dropped out in Ouallam have fled with their families to the capital Niamey, living in makeshift camps on vacant land, working odd jobs for $10 or $20 a month.
In one such camp in the Koira Kano neighbourhood of Niamey, more than a dozen school-age children milled about in the shade of their rough shelters. One 10-year-old girl said she had been washing dishes for $10 a month since dropping out of school, but had since lost that job, leaving her searching for more work.
Asked about the problems of Greece, one mother, Salmou Oumarou, said: “Yes, there are problems everywhere, but here the problems are worse. We are fighting just to stay alive,” She was making $20 month as a cleaner, supporting her four children.
Bruised by a storm of criticism, Lagarde has since said she regrets that her comments caused offense in Greece. An IMF official said she was seeking to put Greece’s troubles into a broader perspective, not to belittle them.
But she has reiterated the importance of Greeks paying their taxes, because of the high rate of evasion there.
“An important part of this effort is that everyone should carry their fair share of the burden, especially the most priviledged and especially in terms of paying taxes,” she said in a Facebook posting on May 26.
Even on the edge of the Sahara, the taxman cometh.
“They come every morning,” a shopkeeper who identified himself as Abdoul told Reuters in Ouallam, saying collectors for the local precinct visited shop and market stall keepers daily. He said he wasn’t sure how the collected money was spent.
Government-level corruption has been a major concern in Niger, and was seen as a central reason behind a 2010 military coup that toppled President Mahamadou Tandja. Niger’s recently elected President Issoufou has promised to clean up graft.
Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Niger 134th on a list of 182 countries in 2011, with Greece ranked 80th. Countries ranked at the bottom of the list are believed to have the most corrupt governments.
For Djinia Maman, 40, and her six children, living under a tarp amid straw huts lined with plastic in the Koira Kano camp, financial comparisons and rankings are meaningless in the face of the ineluctable reality of just getting by day-to-day.
Her husband has left to find work in Cotonou, the coastal capital of neighbouring Benin.
“There was not enough food where we were, and so we came here ... When we are able to find enough food to feed the children, they will be able to go back to school,” she said.