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World View: Poverty entrenchment

"Poverty eradication" programmes in Africa only act to further entrench manufactured poverty

In Africa it has become imperatively fashionable for governments to embark upon "Poverty Eradication" programmes. It is an initiative forced upon them, as usual, by the World Bank and the IMF. And the rapidity with which the programme is gaining momentum is so great that it will be no surprise to see, in the foreseeable future, ministries being created to take charge of Poverty Eradication.

What is "Poverty Eradication"?
It is a term that the "experts" at the IMF/World Bank drawing rooms coined to add to two earlier terms – "Poverty Reduction" and "Poverty Alleviation". In spite of the semantic differences of the three terms, they are meant to be one and the same and as such they are used interchangeably. By these terms the "experts" in the West and their cronies in the South simply mean helping the poor and vulnerable in society to get out of their poverty. To achieve this goal, they adopt a three-dimensional strategy. In the first place there is what they call "capacity building". This concerns efforts at reaching out to the poor and sensitising them on their poverty. It stems from an arrogantly elitist and childishly paternalistic notion that the poor do not know that they are poor or why they are poor. So they sink huge sums into organising seminars and workshops during which they try to let the poor "realise their potentials". But that the organisers are mere parrots repeating their masters' voice is clearly discerned through the hollow and meaningless phrases they use anywhere in Africa that they meet – "civil society"'; "grassroots groups"; "gender equality"; "empowerment"; "awareness", etc.

The second strategy they use is what they call their "social service window". Under this category such "social services" as erecting waiting sheds at village clinics and health centres; constructing dwarf-walled sheds to be used as classrooms; organising the villagers to dig pits to bury rubbish; periodic clean-up campaigns in and around the market or church or mosque etc, and are what they pursue.

The third component of poverty eradication programmes involves the provision of small-scale loans which they euphemistically call "grants" to groups or individuals. It takes two forms: in cash or in kind. The latter is realised through the provision, on credit, of a milling machine; a kiln (for pottery); a tractor or ploughing services and provision of imported seeds for those in agriculture; or providing biogas facilities to provide household fuel for lighting and cooking, etc.

The kitten gift
There is a popular parable among the Dagbamba of northern Ghana which is similar to the story of the Trojan Horse. A man wanted to help out a friend who was going through hard times. He gave the poor fellow a kitten so he could sell it when it grew up. The poor man was very happy with the gift but it did not take any length of time for him to realise that the gift was after all a curse. He used whatever little money that came his way to buy milk for the kitten while he himself kept starving.

The poverty reduction/alleviation/eradication scheme tells a similar tale. In the first place the amount of cash and material devoted to the programme is usually appallingly infinitesimal. On the individual level, the amount of money loaned out to a person is always not enough to start a viable business. As such the money soon evaporates into thin air and the beneficiary is now left with the more burdensome task of repaying the loan. I saw this kind of situation myself when as an elected member of the municipal parliament in Tamale (Ghana) in the early 1990s, I organised the women of my constituency into a group. A NGO (the 31st December Women's Movement) in collaboration with a financial institution in town, approached us with the aim of granting our women soft loans under the Poverty Eradication Scheme. The funds came from IFAD. Ten of our women were to benefit from the programme. However the NGO who were our benefactors would only assist us on condition that the tenth person was one of them (the NGO). Our women agreed. The amount per head was fifty thousand cedis, about US$70.00 at the time.

The whole programme ended with some of the beneficiaries being threatened with court action. None of them benefited from the project.

In Gambia it was recently reported that the micro finance officer, Mr Mohammed Jammeh, boasted that the Social Development Fund which is responsible for poverty alleviation had disbursed 3,022,275 dalasis to 6,129 individuals between 199 and October 2001. This means that on average each person received less than 500 cedis, the equivalent of about $30. How can one start a business with less than $30?

The story is equally grim with groups or associations who are assisted collectively. Here the funding agencies normally make these groups to contribute an initial amount to which the benefactors add whatever they have to dispose of. The total amount is then used to set up the project – usually kilns for pottery; looms for weaving projects; food processing projects; ploughing services or even tractors, land, imported seeds (cowpea, cotton, cashew, etc). In most cases women are the beneficiaries or target groups. Contrary to the initial hopes that are whipped up by the donors, a good lot of these projects end up as white elephants. Those that get going usually benefit only the leadership of the target groups and the officials of the implementing agencies. But most often than not petty squabbles arise and eventually the projects collapse.

Competitive markets
Even where a few projects manage to see the light of day, their relative successes are negated by the capitalist globalisation of production and distribution of products. Needless to say the end products of these poor, mostly rural, folk have to compete against goods dumped cheaply from the West. Here again the case of the women at the Nalung Weaving Project in Tamale reveals a lot. These women were trained to weave material for smocks. After the training they were sold looms on credit. Their main input for their business was thread which they could only buy from the capital, Accra, about 500km away. Two problems soon arose. First to sell at a price that would enable them to cover the cost of production meant that no-one would buy as it was seen to be rather exorbitant. Secondly the quality of the thread used, which was even imported, was of an inferior quality and consequently the cloth woven was far inferior to the type produced by the traditional weavers. Added to these was the presence, in the markets, of relatively very cheap second-hand clothes from the West.

In Gambia there is something similar taking place, at the Bakau Women's Horticultural Project. These women toil morning and evening and produce vegetables. They all harvest at the same time and so prices are very low as a result of glut. Even the onions and shallots they produce are shunned in favour of onions from the Netherlands. No wonder therefore that the women keep marking time economically. As for those who are into cash crops such as cashew, cotton, cowpea, groundnuts etc, the least said about them, the better, considering the pitifully disadvantaged bargaining power of the producers of primary products (in the poor countries) under the current capitalist world economic arrangement.

Wasted energies
One other factor which needs highlighting in this hoax of poverty eradication is the magnitude of human resources deliberately channelled into such unproductive, in fact retrogressive work. Millions of people world-wide are enticed into taking part in this futile venture. Having been made poor by the system, the people, like a drowning man who will cling to a straw, keep flocking to the system only, each time, to be hoodwinked. But more agonising is the fact that people who champion this global ruse are the elite who, most often than not, know they are engaged in an activity which is worthless to the target groups. These elite are the staff of government ministries and agencies (NGOs). They pilfer items and embezzle funds meant for the projects in addition to their bloated salaries. In short they are used as willing tools in the entrenchment of poverty.

Ending poverty
Experts of development studies are often heard saying that "the poor will always be with us". That may be why we see the phrases "poverty alleviation"; "poverty reduction" and "poverty eradication" as being the same. Their confused use of terms gives expression to the real nature of the capitalist system – a system of legalised deceit and thievery.

But even what the sentence quoted above, tries to conceal is the fact that these poor that we have with us are growing in number and intensity. As more and more people join the class of the poor, the poverty grows worse and worse. In other words, global poverty is increasing both horizontally and vertically. All this, in spite of the alienation/reduction/eradication propaganda.

Poverty is caused by the unjust economic order prevailing in the world today. The wealth and resources of this world – land, factories, transport and communication, etc – are owned and controlled by a few people, who use these resources to make more wealth. They majority own nothing but their ability to produce. They are therefore forced to work for the few idle owners. These workers are paid wages just enough to keep them alive in order to continue to work.

As long as such production relations persist, more and more people will continue to join the ranks of the poor. For just as the IMF and the World Bank and the West give loans to poor countries in order to get them more into economic crisis, so do the peanuts these institutions trickle down as loans to poor women and groups only serve to deepen their poverty.

The only choice lies in a radical change in the ownership and control of the world's wealth and resources. There must be collective rather than today's minority ownership. Control over social wealth must be democratic with all having an equal say in the management, production and distribution of the products of human labour. Under such a system, everybody gets involved in determining what to produce; takes an active part in the production process; and finally has a free and equal access to goods and services. It is only then that poverty will be eradicated (not even alleviated nor reduced – empty phrases). Then there will be no room for some to have more than they need whilst others have less than they need. Attaining such a society is our collective responsibility.