Lyn Gerry (redlyn@loop.com)
Wed, 1 Oct 1997 09:18:31 +0000

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A small Kenyan village that enjoyed relative prosperity only a decade ago now faces food insecurity and unemployment, thanks to World Bank policies.

By Pireh Otieno

Just a decade ago, women in Wagwe, a small village in western Kenya, were successful fish mongers. Being the sole distributors of Omena (Daggers) and Mbuta (Nile Perch), they were a vital linkage between the local fishermen and surrounding markets.

Per capita fish consumption in this village, situated along the shores of Lake Victoria, was approximately 60% of the total catch in Awana, the main village beach. Hunger, unemployment and general economic vulnerability, the often-used tags to describe rural households, were remote here until the World Bank/IMF-inspired and religiously tutored structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) began to take their toll.

'I was able to buy food and clothes for my six children, pay school fees for two of them in the local secondary school, and even save a little from my business. Today, things have changed. Even buying enough food for my family is a problem... I'm almost out of business,' says Anyango, a renowned village fishmonger and sole bread-winner for her family after the death of her husband two decades ago. Her story provides a striking illustration of the negative effects of SAPs in many formerly food-secure villages in this region.

Until the early 1990s, the people in this village depended primarily on fishing for their survival, the majority working as fishermen and fishmongers. However, two trends, directly associated with the neoliberal policies championed by the two Bretton Woods institutions, have since taken root, threatening food security and diverting most traditional jobs away from the locals.

First, fish processing firms have introduced large trawlers into the lake, displacing local fishermen and distributors from their traditional occupation. Second, per capita fish consumption in the village has slumped. For example, experts approximate that out of the total catch in Lake Victoria, as much as 95% is being taken by the fish processors, leaving the difference for domestic consumption.

One would ask what these export-led growth strategies have got to do with World Bank policies. The Bank sees the problem with African economies as one of production. The basic premise of its argument is that African governments have been mismanaging their economies: not producing sufficient goods to sell or export in order to pay for their expenditure on imports, social services and more important, debt repayments. As a result, they have accumulated huge balance-of-payment deficits.

SAPs therefore evolved substantially around the perception of the role of the state in the economy and the subsequent promotion of the private sector as the new engine of development. The programmes were designed to address a wide range of obstacles to economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although the African problem demands cross-sectoral and inter-disciplinary rethinking, the Bank finds consolation in simple economics - what is the point, for example, of producing a ton of maize if the same capital and labour resources can produce, say, enough fish to cover the import costs of six tons of maize? According to the Bank, there is no point at all.

There are two problems with this argument. First, powerful domestic commercial interests and foreign firms dominate export trade, having immense control over raw material extraction, processing, distribution and marketing. This displaces smallholder producers without enough capital and other necessary logistics required to access export markets.

Second, it is true that the foreign exchange generated from exports might facilitate an increase in food imports. But it does not follow that this will enhance the displaced rural households' access to available food supplies. Put precisely, food systems structured around powerful vested interests do not have a good track record in feeding people. The experience of the people of Wagwe village illustrates these problems.

'These large trawlers sail into our fishing grounds, destroy our nets, catch all the fish and sail away. In the past, we caught a lot of omena and mbuta, and the local fishmongers distributed the catch to the local markets and fish processing firms in Kisumu and Nairobi. Today, these firms avoid us and undertake these jobs themselves,' says Ochieng, a local fisherman. The threat to local employment is real here.

Food security is undermined in two main ways. First, the once popular and affordable fish (dagger and Nile perch) is getting out of the reach of the local consumers. This, in essence, reflects the very nature of the market economy preached by the Bank. When access to food depends upon money, poorer people are inevitably excluded from food markets.

Second, the fish processing firms respond to market signals rather than human needs. For example, as more and more villagers were pushed into poverty, fish frames - what remains after filleting - became a basic household meal. Many villagers bought the frames from the firms and sold them in nearby markets.

'The firms have abandoned us. They sell all the (fish) frames to fishmeal processors who offer a higher price than ourselves. They are not concerned about our well-being. Their role is to meet effective demand - demand backed by purchasing power,' says Akinyi, a local fishmonger who recently abandoned her trade.

Far from enhancing local food systems, the IMF/World Bank neoliberal policies ensure that food trade takes place between people who are already adequately fed. Presently, over 80% of fish frames are directed towards the animal foodstuffs market rather than human consumption. It is therefore not an exaggeration to argue that food trade has little or nothing to do with sustainable food security.

In the name of foreign exchange earnings, these policies reinforce the very structure of poverty behind food insecurity and unemployment, eroding the capacity of local communities to produce their own food or to purchase it - sapping the once well-fed and hardworking rural communities.

It is hard to quibble with the philosophy underpinning the Bank's market-oriented policies. Improved management of the economy would enhance the productive capacity of borrower countries thereby helping to reduce their balance-of-payment deficits. What remains unclear is the Bank's argument that the poor may benefit from its harsh adjustment measures in the long run.. When it is the very life of the poor being sacrificed for adjustment, there is no long term.

Moreover, when these measures turn the once-'rich' (according to our standards) households into a miserably dependent lot, one is reminded of the biblical promise of a 'better life' in a world to come. If it comes. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Pireh Otieno is a contributor to Bank Watch Africa. The above article first appeared in the June 1997 issue of the magazine (Volume 5 No. 2, 'A People Sapped - How World Bank policies cause food insecurity and unemployment in a Kenyan village).

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