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Dirty dollars: how tattered US notes became the latest street hustle in Zimbabwe | Global development

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In time-honoured street hawker tradition, Kaitano Kasani is using charm and persuasion to get people to sell him their tattered US banknotes.

Kasani, 42, bellows through a megaphone as he walks through Glen Norah, a township in Harare, in the sweltering November heat.

“Bring all your old and torn notes. I have a good rate today. There is no other better deal in town,” Kasani shouts.

A woman brings a torn $20 note (£15) which Kasani inspects before handing her $15.

In Zimbabwe’s beleaguered economy, buying and selling half-shredded banknotes has become the latest hustle.

“Most of my clients are shocked that I actually buy such money. They love me for that,” says Kasani, showing a handful of filthy dollars which would be rejected in supermarkets or other businesses.

Zimbabweans are suspicious of banks and prefer to keep their money under pillows and beds. In previous crises, hyperinflation wiped out millions in savings, particularly in 2008. Now, there is a lack of favoured banknotes as they wear out faster than replacements come into circulation.

Shortages have led to the government telling banks and retailers not to reject old or worn US dollars, but many defy the order. A lack of exports means fewer new notes in circulation, and Zimbabweans are re-using increasingly grubby notes. Dealers either mend them or sell them on to others who will bribe or otherwise persuade senior bank officials to exchange large quantities.

“These torn notes are more valuable to me than new ones. These old notes, when taken to the bank, will be replaced at the same value, yet we would have bought them at nearly half the original value, depending on how bad they are,” says Kasani.

“All I need is the serial number and the necessary features for me to take.”

Kasani sells old notes to business people and other cash dealers at 80% profit.

His new business has sustained his four children after he lost his job in manufacturing two years ago.

“This is quite lucrative; I actually got some assets through this business. I was one of the first people to buy such money in Banket [north-west of Harare] and other surrounding areas. It is just that the trade is now flooded, so I may have to concentrate on other things,” he says.

The country decommissioned the Zimbabwean dollar after it was destabilised by protracted periods of hyperinflation. It was reintroduced in 2019 despite warnings from economists that the country did not have enough foreign reserves to sustain it. At that point transactions in US dollars were prohibited, but as cash shortages threatened business, the government backtracked to allow traders to accept the US currency again last year.

Now, shortages of small US dollar denominations are leading to a boom in torn notes dealers.

A currency trader counts his money in Harare
A currency trader counts his money in Harare. Shortages of small US dollar denominations have caused a boom in dealers trading torn notes. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

In central Harare, 36-year-old Munengami* keeps an eye out for plain-clothed police patrolling in a popular area for illegal trading. Dealers, some with babies strapped on their backs, endure constant run-ins with police, who have launched a campaign to remove illegal money changers.

A government crackdown blames traders for a plunge in the value of the Zimbabwean dollar. Money dealers say they are being scapegoated for the government’s economic failures.

“They know that we are not the problem here. We do not have the power to raise the exchange rates. Government needs to deal with those businessmen who flood the streets with local currency, which automatically reduces the value of the dollar,” says Munengami.

Zimbabwe’s vice-president, Constantino Chiwenga, has warned of harsh measures against traders, with the government setting up an intelligence unit to fish out “saboteurs” and “fraudsters”.

As the Zimbabwe dollar continues on a “death spiral”, losing ground against the US dollar, economists have called on the government to make the US dollar the only unit of exchange. But the finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, ruled that out.

“We cannot adopt the US dollar alone as the official currency. You were there before and there were queues at banks, huge foreign currency deficits and you had deflation. That was because of the US dollar,” he says. “It is not a good idea, and it will be suicidal to do so.”

Economist Clemence Machadu says the crackdown on illegal dealing is futile.

“The government is firefighting, and that explains why we really haven’t seen much of a change … We should get down to brass tacks and deal with root causes, which are really rooted in supply, and not symptoms of the problem,” says Machadu.

Inflation fell from 840% in July last year to 50% in August but has been sliding up again, to 54% in October according to the Zimbabwe national statistics agency (Zimstat).

A fruit and vegetable market in Harare
The government has warned of harsh measures against money dealers, but some argue it is ignoring the root cause of the issue. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

Carefully applying glue to a $20 note, Munengami explains how he makes a living.

“I am a teacher by profession and the day I converted my salary to US dollars and got $50 [£37], I knew there was no future for me in teaching,” says Munengami.

“I buy torn notes to sell to my clients. It is more profitable than forex [foreign exchange] vending since I determine the price. I sell these notes to shops and businesspeople, at 20% profit.”

A few yards from Munengami, Amina Banda, 34, does a deal with a man inside a parked SUV with her baby strapped on her back.

“I am always nervous that the police will arrest me, but this is how we operate on the streets. I do not trust anyone, so whenever a transaction happens, I always maintain a safe distance so I can escape. Sometimes, the police come in plain clothing disguising themselves,” she says.

“I have a family to feed so I have to stick to the streets.”

*Partial name used at the request of interviewee

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Belgium goes into three-week ‘lockdown light’

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Belgium is to go into a three-week ‘lockdown light’, following a meeting of federal and regional governments on Friday (26 November).

“We have to admit that we have been ambushed by the virus and that the situation is much more serious than we saw a few weeks ago”, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo told a lunchtime press conference.

De Croo added that “the pressure on our hospitals is seriously increasing and that the situation is not tenable. We have to action now.”

The Belgian concertation committee of federal and regional governments decided that social life will be restricted in a variety of ways for the next three weeks.

Nightclubs will be closed, and indoor concerts where people are not seated will be cancelled. This measure will go into effect on Monday (29 November).

Bars, restaurants and night-shops will need to close their doors at 11PM. The number of people on one table in restaurants will be restricted to six, except for families larger than six. These measures will go into effect on Saturday (27 November).

Private parties will be forbidden, with an exception for weddings and funerals. However, it is still allowed to have guests at home.

At work and school, on the other hand, there are no upgraded restrictions. The last committee decided that teleworking is mandatory four days a week, and that people can only go to the office one day a week.

Schools will remain open, as will universities.

De Croo reiterated that these “measures will only makes sense if everyone follows them.”

The committee decided to accelerate the vaccination campaign. Regional governments will organise test centres where people can get tested for free.

The committee decided to meet urgently after hospitals and doctors said they could no longer handle the situation. From 16 to 22 November, on average 16,100 people tested positive for Covid daily. On 22 November that number was already 25,365 .

Currently, 669 intensive-care beds are filled with Covid patients, well over the emergency threshold of 500, and in the worst-case scenario, 1,250 intensive-care beds, a maximum capacity, would be filled by Christmas.

Belgium has not been able to organise roll-out of the booster jab in time to prevent the fourth wave. De Croo announced that on Saturday (27 November) a plan will be made to accelerate the booster jab for every adult.

Before the Belgian governments met, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the bloc will take the initiative to block all air travels from Southern Africa, where a new variant of Covid-19 has been found.

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Interpol’s president: alleged torturer rises as symbol of UAE soft power | Global development

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Maj Gen Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi’s ascent through the ranks of the interior ministry in Abu Dhabi is associated with the United Arab Emirates’ transformation into a hi-tech surveillance state.

His personal achievements include a diploma in police management from the University of Cambridge, a doctorate in policing, security and community safety from London Metropolitan University and a medal of honour from Italy.

Now, in a big soft-power win for the UAE and its attempt to legitimise its policing methods internationally, he has been elected the president of the global policing organisation Interpol – to the dismay of human rights defenders.

Often photographed smiling, Raisi is the longstanding inspector general for the interior ministry, responsible for the supervision of detention centres and policing. Multiple former detainees accuse him of using this position to green-light abuses, including torture.

“Raisi’s rise to the Interpol presidency legitimises the role and conduct of security forces in the UAE,” said Matthew Hedges, a British academic and expert on the Emirates who was detained there for seven months on espionage charges. Hedges, who was eventually pardoned, says Raisi was responsible for his arrest and also oversaw the torture he says he suffered in detention.

“This translates to a green light for states to continue acting in a way that abuses accountability and human rights, legitimises the dilution of rule of law and emboldens authoritative and abusive systems of detention,” Hedges said. “This is really a warning to the international community that cross-border abuses can and will occur.”

The Gulf state has previously said Hedges was not subjected to any physical or psychological mistreatment during his detention. On Thursday its interior ministry heralded Raisi’s win as “recognition of the vital role of the UAE all over the world”.

“The UAE,” it said, “is now at the helm of this international organisation working in the fields of security and policing and will do its best to make the world a safer place.”

In an unusually public campaign for the role, Raisi boasted of technological transformations that overhauled policing and surveillance in the UAE. These included the introduction of iris and facial scanning technology, and the creation of the interior ministry’s first “general directorate of happiness”.

His domestic policing changes underpin Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s status as two of the world’s most surveilled cities. One system, called Falcon Eye, deploys thousands of cameras to monitor not just traffic violations but also “behavioural issues like public hygiene and incidents like people gathering in areas where they are not allowed to”, according to a report by the state news agency WAM.

The rise in surveillance has been accompanied by a crackdown on domestic criticism and dissent. Human Rights Watch has said: “The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government.”

Abdullah Alaoudh, from the Washington DC organisation Democracy for the Arab World Now, said the UAE had been applying a two-pronged approach epitomised by Raisi’s Interpol win: “Cracking down hard on every voice of dissent, while investing in public relations like lobbying, soft power, sports and entertainment.”

Christopher M Davidson, the author of a book on statecraft in the Middle East, described Raisi as an example of “high-performing technocratic members of UAE political society” who had found success under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“The key to the regime of Mohammed bin Zayed has been to get things done, to stamp out corruption. Despite all criticisms levelled at the UAE and Abu Dhabi today, it is a far less corrupt place than it was 15 years ago. These were the people entrusted to clean up ministries,” said Davidson.

Stamping out corruption has, at times, included arresting the wealthy and critics. Khadem al-Qubaisi, a former adviser to the royal family and a businessman who said he was “scapegoated” by the Abu Dhabi authorities for embezzling millions, is detained in Al Wathba prison. The prison, overseen by Raisi, also holds the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor.

Riyaadh Ebrahim, who spent more than a year in the prison, said he witnessed torture there. “There is wrongful imprisonment, no application of the rule of law. People are being persecuted for crimes they did not commit,” Ebrahim said. He said he was “totally appalled” by Raisi’s victory in the Interpol election race.

Davidson said the UAE was using its wealth and resources to buy reputational shortcuts on the international stage.

“Policing in the UAE still has its problems, but this is a way of saying to the world that [they] are credible and respectable,” he said. “Obtaining the presidency of Interpol symbolises moving in the right direction.”

Jalel Harchaoui from the Geneva-based organisation the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime said Raisi’s election highlighted the struggle between liberal and illiberal nations within international institutions such as Interpol, and was a victory for anti-democratic countries.

“On the surface, Abu Dhabi – thanks to excellent soft-power outreach – markets itself as a modern state, which happens to be a dependable friend to all the major western democracies,” he said. “In reality however, the Emiratis, whose governance style has been partly inspired by China’s strict form of authoritarianism, always campaign against liberalism and its key principles.”

A spokesperson for the UAE embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.

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France reminds Poland on law in Paris meeting

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French president Emmanuel Macron urged Polish president Mateusz Morawiecki to solve a rule-of-law dispute with the EU, while voicing solidarity on the Belarus migration crisis, in a meeting in Paris on Wednesday. Poland should “find a solution that safeguards the core values of the European Union”, Macron’s office said. Russian president Vladimir Putin told EU Council president Charles Michel by phone extra EU sanctions on Belarus would be “counterproductive”.

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