In mid-1985, The Gambia introduced the Economic Recovery Program or ERP, a set of broad and far-reaching economic reforms affecting virtually all areas of economic activity, the like of whose impact had not been felt in the country since the introduction of the poll tax by the British colonial administration at the beginning of the century. Among other things, the reform floated the currency through the introduction of an interbank market so that just after six months the Dalasi went down by 12%. Meaning in practice that, for instance, an imported commodity that before was priced at D10 now went up to D22. It further led to the laying off of 28% of the government workers and froze the wages of those lucky to keep their jobs. All price control measures were abolished and prices of basic goods, utilities, petroleum and transportation raised sharply. Subsidies that kept down the prices of rice, fertilizers and pesticides were removed. Government revised its Public Investment Program, sold many of its assets and forced parastatals into signing so – called performance contracts. Major administrative reforms were introduced in the Ministry of Agriculture, the Central Bank and the Commercial Bank. In short the ERP was one of the most sweeping reforms ever attempted on the African continent.
Aided by large foreign aid flows, a return to normal levels of rainfall, a boost in the tourist industry and steady import prices, the economy stabilized after just about two years. Four years after its introduction, the GDP was again growing by over 4.5%. After this so – called success story, Gambian policy makers were in a mood of breast-beating and heaping of self-praises upon themselves. Although this attitude can be excused for a thirty – year old regime that had never succeeded in fully implementing any other project no matter how simple, the claim of a success story needed to be scrutinized pretty close in order to put it in its proper perspective.
For the first, it needs to be said that if anyone is to take credit for the so – called success of the ERP, it should be none other than the broad masses of Gambians, who patiently bore the heaviest weight of the unevenly distributed burden of the reforms. Elsewhere in Africa, lesser economic reforms had led to violent protests and upheavals in Senegal, Ghana, Liberia, Kenya, Zambia and Ivory Coast to name only some. But the Gambian masses remained loyal and suffered quietly through the whole process. One of the most important lessons to be drawn out of this is that as a people, Gambians, are matured enough to make the heaviest of sacrifices, surmount all difficulties and defy the greatest of pains to carry any economic reform program through if it indeed is a program that will not only bring growth but also genuine development for the whole nation.
The price of ERP “success”
The ERP stabilized the economy, improved the government’s finance and even brought some growth; but a close look at it and its consequence will reveal that it brought no development. In fact, if anything the reform program could be said to have effectively rolled back the little development that there was. Though the social and human cost of the ERP cannot be told in numbers and statistics alone because sociologists are yet to devise adequate methods of monitoring, numerating and quantifying the depth and scale of social poverty and misery, the vast majority of Gambians know through the hard realities of life that things have generally worsened since 1985. Worsening poverty and misery has been forcing more and more people out of villages to join the swelling numbers of the urban poor in the hopeless search for some means of survival. There they meet a socially hostile environment hardened by widespread unemployment, violent, criminality, rampant drug-abuse, prostitution and all the symptoms of a society in rapid dissolution. To further strengthen the picture of the chaos and damnation, nothing works properly in today’s Gambia: a national radio station that breaks down because of fuel shortage; irregular distributions in the supply of water and electricity; schools without furniture and teachers; hospitals without drugs and doctors; ambulances and police – vans that stand still in want of fuel, government offices in short of receipts, forms and other documents and so on and so forth.
Some of the more lasting structural disfigurements coming as a result of the ERP are the fanatic adoption of the policy of privatization of national property and the steady dismantling of the machinery of government; the emergence of the smuggler industry or the export trade as the most vital sector of the economy; and the unrestrained support to the tourist industry at the detriment of agriculture so that it has now become the major foreign currency earners. Apart from the terrible financial losses and bad economy that many of the privatizations involved, this policy tends to weaken the cohesive power of the state against growing tribalism and the other forces that are now threatening national unity. The smuggler industry provide a ready-made channel for international drugs trafficking and drug abuse, create an environment that favours the practice of various economic crimes and places the facts and future of the economy on very unpredictable and uncontrollable external factors, the fact that the ERP has helped boost the tourist industry to surpass agriculture as the main foreign currency earner has removed a significant politico – economic factor in the democratic life of our country. Because ground-nut cultivating farmers constituted the vast majority of citizens while providing the bulk of the country’s foreign exchange in earlier times, and could when they like, refuse to cultivate groundnuts, the so-called crop-strike, politicians were forced to listen or at least feign to listen to their voices, an unwritten but fundamental form of accountability was, in this way, maintained and provided a natural mechanism for democracy. With this new development politicians and the growing bureaucracy feel less obliged to listen to the voices of producers and hence the ERP has dealt a quiet but great blow to the Gambia’s democratic life.
With the ERP Gambian society lost its soul
It is by now clear for every Gambian to see that with the ERP Gambian society has lost a great deal of its soul. This is mainly because of the nature of the ERP’s ideological content and its hidden agenda. There is an underlying euro-centrist (a way of seeing everything European as right and proper) spirit running through the whole reform program that holds Gambia’s traditional value system, (its customs, traditions, way of thinking etc,) as partly responsible for the country’s economic backwardness. It stems from the entrenched racist and arrogant attitude of white western executive running the IMP, World Bank and other international financial bodies that tend to consider traditional African cultures as obstacle to economic growth and development. This way of thinking holds it that by shaking the country’s moral fiber and social fabric to the core, stripping it of all its traditional spirit of communal solidarity and family ties, individual Gambians who were before “lazy and over-dependent” would be shocked out of their mobility to start fending for themselves. This act of everyone fending for him or herself would ultimately create economic growth and development. The way to go about it was first by drastically cutting the size of the state. Since according to this same racist wisdom, Africans consider the state and the whole machinery of government as some kind of a “patronizing father” that spoils them by wasting funds on them, promoting their “lazy and unproductive existence” The next step was to initiate an intensified economic squeeze leading to hard times that will let loose a new ethics of selfishness and a dog-eat-dog mentality. Competition that is held as the holiest of virtues and that was one of the reform’s main instruments was so forcefully promoted that a culture of rat-racing competition soon became the fact of life.
The social consequences of such a policy have been devastating. In the face of growing economic pressures, the authority of the family as an institution weakened remarkably while the possibilities of substituting or alternative communal ties disappeared. Alienation and the sense of not belonging or being a party to anything escalated as unemployment kept winning over fresh layers of society and as more and more people were kept on the run for the disparate search for means of survival. The rate of violent crimes escalated, the abuse of drugs widespread and prostitution, whose mainstay is on the sacred tourist industry, grew to become a profession in its own right. Disease and other health problems spread even wider as government made drastic cuts on its pitiful spending on health and sanitation. Ever greater numbers of Gambian became impoverished and marginalized.
Though the notion of the “lazy African in need of an economic shock” by a streamlined “over – protective state” is at best only a myth, the task force assembled by the late Finance Minister Sheriff Sisay to put together the reform program in early 1985 based the whole preamble of the ERP on just this fallacious assumption. Though the method had been politico -economic, the main target of the IMF dictated structural adjustment programs and had been aimed at the very soul of African societies. It should therefore be not too surprising that the ERP has left our country’s social fabric and moral fiber in such a state of advanced dissolution.
True, with the ERP the country’s economy stabilized, inflation was reduced, shortages disappeared, GDP grew as it had not done since in the middle of the 1970s and some balance in government’s finance was restored. But not only was the price paid for all these too great and many of the damages done irrepairable, the capacity of the long-suffered Gambian masses to sacrifice as shown over past several years shows that more economic wonders could have been achieved if the country’s policy makers, had cleaner hands, clearer minds and a greater sense of their leadership responsibilities. It has already been shown that, counting out external and climatic factors, the economic crises of the mid – 1980s was the making, not of “lazy” Gambians in the agrarian and informal sectors of the economy, but the grabby politicians and top-civil servants in the public and formal sectors. Any overconsumption that can be spoken of can only be properly placed at the door-steps of the parasitic and luxurious consumption of the governing classes and their business associates in the private sector. And compared to the rest of Gambians, these were the people who sacrificed the least in order to carry through the reform program to its conclusion.
Therefore the real victors upon whose back the ERP was carried was not the rich and powerful in top government officers and their under-cover associates in business, but the broad masses of Gambians who suffered quietly through the whole process, farmers who tilled the land without subsidized farming seeds, fertilizers and subsistence loans; workers and labourers who either lost their jobs or were deprived of pay rises to meet galloping price rises but heroically refrained from industrial actions; the 28% retrenched workers who exercised maximum self-restrain while being pushed out to the harsh world of chronic unemployment and destitution; the masses of the urban poor, the unemployment, women and the poor and powerless. Not only have they and their likes been the mainstay of all African economies, the vast majority of Africa’s poor and powerless people who produce the wealth of their respective economies and bear the brunt of the heaviest burdens in times of crises, have been far from hordes of lazy paupers who just sit, hat in hand, waiting for dolls from the treasuries of governments.