New Internationalist

Sap Is Really Sapping Us.

Issue 257

new internationalist
issue 257 - July 1994

Picking mung beans in Kenya: SAPs add to African women's burden in field and home.
BETTY PRESS / PANOS PICTURES
SAP is really sapping us
The World Bank still trumpets claims that its economic
prescriptions for Africa are working. Ordinary people right across
the continent can supply them with evidence to the contrary.
Ayesha Imam makes their case.

The women in Kauyan Kulle, a small village in northern Nigeria, used to have a savings club. Each would contribute a regular sum and in rotation someone would keep the pot to spend – on their businesses, on wedding ceremonies, on food or clothes for their children. About seven years ago they stopped and haven’t been able to start again. ‘We don’t do it now because it causes trouble among friends,’ says one of the women, Hajara. ‘People can’t afford the stake regularly any more and the savings group breaks down before everyone has had their turn to keep the pot.’ The stake used to be one naira (about five cents) a week.

They’ve virtually stopped going to the clinic from Kauyan Kulle too. It isn’t that they don’t value health care. The Kauyan Kulle community association provided the materials and the labour and built a dispensary in the village. But the Government didn’t fulfill its promise to provide a trained worker to run the dispensary and to supply basic medicines. And it’s too hard to walk the 13 kilometres to the road with a sick child on your back, take a bus the rest of the way to the nearest clinic that is open – and then, after queuing for hours because the clinic is understaffed, find that even aspirins cannot be provided because of cutbacks on ‘unproductive social services’. And after that you must still walk back home, child on back, and look after the family.

Both of these are consequences of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) which Nigeria has been implementing at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank since 1986. The architects of SAP see the crisis in Africa as one of production. At its simplest, this thesis holds that African governments have been mismanaging their economies: not producing sufficient goods (whether of primary materials or industrial manufacture) to sell or export in order to pay for their expenditure on imports and social services (not to mention their debt repayments).

Thus put, the solution to the crisis is also simple: a SAP. This would cut government spending, especially on ‘unproductive’ social services; privatize public-sector enterprises; devalue currencies so that imports are expensive and exports are cheap, thus aiming to promote domestic investment and increase export earnings.

Everybody knew that this would be difficult. The World Bank explained that ‘in many developing countries a period of painful macro-economic adjustment was unavoidable’. In order to make this solution more palatable, relatively low-interest loans were promised through the IMF and the World Bank to those countries agreeing to accept SAPs. Furthermore loans from other sources (from Northern governments or from private banks) have increasingly been made conditional upon the acceptance of SAPs. As a result SAPs have been accepted and implemented in practically every country in Africa.

Unfortunately the accuracy of the initial diagnosis is doubtful. The terms of trade for almost all primary products, like coffee or cocoa (on which most African countries are dependent as export commodities), have been deteriorating constantly. And it is this dependence on raw commodities which is the main problem, not the amount of goods produced or grown. This is an historical legacy which derives not from the mismanagement of present states, but rather from the deliberate policies of the colonial rulers of Africa. During the colonial period, much of Africa (South Africa apart) was actually de-industrialized and resources that might have been used as capital to industrialize were siphoned off to the colonizers’ homeland.

Nonetheless it seemed at first as though SAPs might work. Naana, a small farmer in southern Ghana, found she was receiving higher prices for her cocoa when marketing boards and other restrictions were lifted and she was able to sell her crops directly. Consequently she increased production – as did many other cocoa farmers. However, since then there has been a glut and the price of cocoa has dropped on the world market. In addition, Naana and the other farmers still have to buy clothes and food, seed and fertilizer, pay school fees and so on. With inflation running in double figures, the devaluation of the cedi, the removal of price restrictions and the increase in education and health costs (all part of SAP), she has found that the gains from the earlier high cocoa prices have been wiped out and she is even worse off than before. Similar stories can be told for producers of other primary agricultural products all over Africa.

The initial diagnosis of the crisis as one of insufficient production was dubious, but there is little doubt that the recommended cure has become part of the problem itself. In most countries in Africa, SAPs have not led to increases in production or investment or to an improved balance of payments. In fact, according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa, production has decreased over the decade since SAPs have been implemented. Investment as a proportion of GDP has fallen too. Budget deficits have grown and a greater proportion of export-earned money is now used solely to service debts.

Far from improving conditions SAPs have compounded the crisis. The results are dramatic. The general standard of living has fallen. There have been painfully deep cuts in the provision of health, education and other social services and in the subsidies on basic necessities. Unemployment has increased through retrenchments from the public sector and from businesses closed down for lack of foreign exchange to import necessary inputs. All this has been accompanied by high rates of inflation; and by further polarization as the very rich have got richer while all other income-groups have lost out.

Even for highly skilled professionals life has become much harder under SAP. Oloko is a university lecturer in Uganda who also takes on (better paying) research consultancies. His wife, Joy, is a nurse. In addition she runs a dressmaking concern. Just the same, they are finding it hard to pay the school fees of their three children and have cut down on meat and other expensive high-protein foods.

It is even worse for less qualified workers. The construction industry was one of the first to feel the effects of recession and retrenchment. Iyabo’s husband, Hassan, lost his job and has not been able to get another. For a while the whole household was dependent on what she brought in from her market stall in the Nigerian city of Ibadan, selling cloth. Now their elder daughter has dropped out of school and sells fried beancakes. And Hassan sells vegetables in another part of the market. But many of Hassan’s former co-workers, as well as those retrenched from factories which are closing down or reducing production, are trying the same sorts of things in the informal sector. So profit margins are ever slimmer while costs are higher and higher for renting market stalls and kiosks. So still Iyabo and Hassan can’t make ends meet, despite eating less, taking the children out of school, buying fewer clothes, and relying on faith when they get ill instead of going to the clinic.

These sorts of things are occurring all over Africa. Already high, rates of malnutrition, infant mortality, maternal mortality and sickness rates have increased significantly in the past few years. For example, a joint study by UNICEF, the Federal Office of Statistics and the Federal Ministry of Health in Nigeria showed that over the years since structural adjustment policies began, the proportion of infants with low birthweights had increased by 10 per cent and the proportion of malnourished under-fives had increased by 14 per cent. In addition, in six years the percentage of children under five who were moderately to severely malnourished (malnourished to the point of permanent stunting) had increased by 13 per cent to one-third of all children. Even if conditions do improve, these children will never recover from their malnutrition. And those children, disproportionately girls, who, like Iyabo’s daughter, have had to leave school, are unlikely ever to have a chance to acquire education and skills later. The future of a whole generation of African children has been put at risk.

The strains of SAPs are not shared equally. Children are more susceptible because of their physical vulnerability. So are the poor, who lack resources to fall back on. And women are vulnerable because they lack power, have few resources of their own and are disadvantaged by the gender division of labour. SAPs advocate the transfer of costs from the public sector to the private market-ruled sector. This means effectively from paid to unpaid sectors and from the state to households – in other words to women. Thus, for example, the reduction in health services means that the sick must be cared for (attended, cleaned up after, cooked and served meals and medicine) by mothers, sisters and aunts, rather than by paid workers in hospitals. Higher food prices have meant a switch to cheaper or unprocessed foods which require longer preparation time before consumption – work which has also fallen to women. Extra hours of work are thus added to women’s working day, with consequent extra fatigue and health stress.

In urban Nigeria, for instance, Zuwaqu and Baiya decided to grow sorghum in their yard to cut down on having to buy increasingly expensive processed grain. For Baiya this means that on top of her job as a clerk, she not only helps Zuwaqu with the planting, weeding and harvesting but also has to do all the threshing, winnowing and grinding of the sorghum before starting to cook. As she says ‘I get very tired’.

Similarly, in rural Zambia, Shimwaayi’s mother was very ill and Shimwaayi had to look after her. Since men refuse to do ‘women’s work’ and her daughters are very young, she did not get any help at all. Nor could she get anyone to help her with the planting. Consequently, Shimwaayi was not only exhausted by the end of the season but she had not been able to do the planting properly, so her harvest was small and she and her children went even hungrier.

SAPs have failed in Africa even on the IMF and World Bank’s own narrow terms of economic and budgetary performance. They have resulted in the increased physical vulnerability of people (especially of children, the poor and women) to malnutrition, fatigue and disease. These horrific physical effects of structural adjustment have led the UN Economic Commission for Africa to express its fear of the ‘real danger of a systemic break-down’. In Nigeria we put it more succinctly: ‘SAP is really sapping us’.

Ayesha Imam is a Nigerian social-science researcher and lecturer currently working in Dakar, Senegal.

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