You Can't Eat Flowers
issue 214 - December 1990
and empty stomachs
The World Bank has often paid lip service to the
cause of women. So what effect have its policies had on the
women of Jamaica? Joan Ross Frankson finds out.
The cartoon story of Mamma's misfortunes that illustrates this article did the rounds in the poorer areas of Jamaica last year. It is crudely put together but deeply felt - Mamma's experience is typical of what has happened to the lives of ordinary women since Jamaica first fell victim to the structural adjustment medicine of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Back in 1977, Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley signed a $74 million emergency loan agreement with the IMF. The following year the World Bank jumped in, demanding that the Government favour exports over domestic needs in exchange for loans to the Jamaica Public Service Company and the Sugar Industry Authority.
Since then the Jamaican dollar has plummeted and adjustment policies have turned the government deficit into a surplus. No doubt this is sweet music to World Bank ears. But for the vast majority of Jamaicans the bankers' policies have meant a sharp and painful decline in living standards.
Nearly a third of the island's households are led by women and another 60 per cent rely heavily on women's income. The World Bank fails to take these key facts into account - yet at the same time its policies only work by relying on women's time and labour.
Cutbacks in health and education and the near collapse of the local garment industry have pushed a large number of women onto the streets. But the export industry has not absorbed them. Officially the female unemployment rate is 26 per cent. But for those between 16 and 25 it's more like 70 per cent.
Women like Junie gather every morning outside the gate to Kingston's Free Trade Zone, hoping to get lucky. After standing for nearly six hours, she emerges tired but hopeful. 'Only a few have got through since I came at eight this morning,' she sighs. 'I can't take any more of the crowd. I'll come back tomorrow.
'Our special focus on women in development seeks to expand economic opportunities, while easing their burden In securing food,water and health services for their families.'
WORLD BANK PRESIDENT BARBER CONABLE, 1990
Workers in the Free Trade Zone are classified as unskilled so their wages are low - even though most are using in their jobs the sewing skills they have already acquired from their mothers and grandmothers. A 1988 survey found that two-thirds of them took home less than $10 a week, after taxes and deductions. Fully 70 per cent had to work overtime to make enough to survive and 80 per cent were single mothers like Debbie.
Debbie has one child and her baby's father assists her with school fees. She earns about $30 fortnightly. 'When it comes time for my draw down, I put it into the Credit Union and try to keep it for utility bills. But I'm always behind. Sometimes I have to do without light or water or gas and beg my neighbours until I can catch up.'
A lot of Debbie's 'free' time is spent on trying to stretch her dollars. 'I go to the market with a few dollars to buy essentials like seasoning, callaloo (greens) and the cheapest fruits. I go later in the day when the prices are lower; I check prices and haggle. It takes a lot of energy.
Inside the factories, poor working conditions are compounded by having to chase ever-increasing production targets in order to make a little more than the basic wage. Mondays to Saturdays, Joyce works at a Free Trade Zone factory. On Sundays, she earns five dollars washing and ironing. She supports her two children and her mother. Massive increases in the cost of basic drugs hit Joyce hard. 'It costs about $18 a week to fill my mother's prescription. I never know where the money is coming from.'
While the cost of health care has soared, the service itself has declined sharply as a result of the severe government cuts insisted on by the World Bank. Take the experience of Carlene, a 19-year old who had her first child at Jamaica's only specialist obstetrics hospital, Victoria Jubilee. Days later, when I interview her, Carlene is still in profound shock. All she can do is regard her baby boy with blank, lustreless eyes.
'I was bawling out "Nurse, nurse". Then I felt the baby's head and I made up my mind: if it's death, it's just death. So I pushed and the baby was born. Then we just lay there and waited. A long time after, the nurse came and cut the cord.'
Photo: Peter Stalker
Carlene's case is not unique. Of the 40 or so daily births at Victoria Jubilee, more than half are unattended. Matron Roslyn Flash has been at Victoria Jubilee for 30 years. 'I have never seen things so bad.' The cuts in the health service have come at just the wrong time. As farmers produce for export there is less food available for local people. And as nutritional standards have fallen, health problems have increased. According to a 1985 study, nearly 15 per cent of children under five suffer from malnutrition. The result? Measles and previously eradicated diseases like malaria and typhoid have bounced back, putting more pressure on the system - and the nation's Mammas.
Education is in the same boat. With nothing in their stomachs, it's hard for children to concentrate and learn. Many don't make it to school at all. A good gauge is the number of school-age children cleaning windscreens at traffic lights during the day. Teachers are also leaving the system in droves with the resignation rate running as high as 30 per cent a year. As teaching standards have fallen so too has the performance of students. Only 30 per cent of those who wrote Caribbean Examination Council exams in 1989 passed - a new low.
Emigration - now 30-40,000 people a year - is a main avenue of escape for nurses and teachers who can get a visa to the US or Canada. Others have joined the burgeoning 'informal sector' which has risen from just over 5,000 in 1972 to more than 300,000 people today.
For 'higglers' (women street vendors) who travel to Panama, Miami or Curaçao to buy goods for sale back home, the complaint is taxes. After 15 years as a higgler Letilda complains: 'Customs duties are so high it's as if you are buying the goods twice. And if you bring back a little present for the children, they charge you for that too. We're not criminals. We can hardly survive on what we earn. I think they should tax the big people more. They're the ones who benefit from all the foreign loans.'
So far the women of Jamaica are coping with the moral and social decay that structural adjustment has brought - the brunt of which they bear. But they are also fighting back.
Recently, housemaids, assisted by the Bureau of Women's Affairs, have begun to organize a trade union for themselves. And women in the Free Trade Zone have also demonstrated on several occasions, forcing the Government to investigate their working conditions. Another group of unemployed sisters has started an urban farm deep in the heart of a Kingston ghetto. And over 60 of the island's estimated 120 women's groups have formed an umbrella organization for greater unity.
By imposing structural adjustment policies on Jamaica the World Bank and its IMF partner have reversed the old rule about women and children being saved first. In this harsh new ocean there are no lifeboats - and women and children must simply sink or swim.
Joan Ross Frankson is a Jamaican journalist working with the Sistren theatre collective.
In the mid-1970s, I spent a lot of time around the World Bank's Washington headquarters. This wasn't as difficult to do as it is today. Nobody was threatening to bomb the offices, much less steal documents. It wasn't a bad place to be either. They paid glorified photocopiers as research assistants and you could get a full, roast-beef lunch for $1.75.
In any event, back then the Bank was in its heyday. Bob McNamara had just left the Pentagon and was turning the Bank into a $10-billion-a-year lending outfit. And the 'think tanks' on Massachusetts Avenue were making it out to be the saviour of the development set. New sectors - education, health, rural and urban development - were being emphasized. This supposedly meant more money for the poor - without, of course, diverting any from all the academics, consultants (like myself), contractors and bureaucrats who worked in and around the major aid institutions.
Something, however, was wrong. For all the new talk about poor people, there didn't appear to be a lot of respect for them. Or at least it didn't seem to be important to listen to what they had to say - to hear about what they were doing, what they needed and what was being done to them. With so much money to spend, so many problems to solve, such great responsibilities to shoulder, there was no time for such mundane pursuits.
My colleagues and I started getting out 'in the field', working with the few risk-takers on the Bank staff to demonstrate how to build on what people were actually doing. Everywhere we found evidence of Bank-supported projects that had been imposed on the poor; governments and implementing agencies that couldn't give a damn about intended beneficiaries; too much money being pushed too fast into projects that were too big, with too many foreign consultants and contractors.
It was during this era that the Bank co-authored a high-profile study called Redistribution with Growth. In a critical review, an Indian journalist reputed to have previous ties to the Bank accused the institution of helping 'retrograde regimes' increase the power of the wealthy and worsen income distribution. The Bank, he wrote, had always considered those who promoted distributive goals as 'idiots or, worse, dangerous subversives'. Now it was arrogantly instructing the rest of us on the roots of global suffering. He suggested a new title: 'How the World Bank Came to Discover Poverty'.
All this came rushing back to me the other day when I received my copy of the Bank's latest World Development Report. I knew the Bank was concerned about deflecting mounting criticism of the disastrous structural adjustment programs it has been pushing on debt-strapped Third World countries. But I wasn't prepared for what greeted me.
The word 'POVERTY' jumped off the cover in capital letters, against a dramatic black background. Had the Bank, in tact, rediscovered poverty? Was it telling us that it had somehow lost its bearings over the years, that it had forgotten that there were poor people out there, that the 'magic of the market' worked miracles only for the rich and for corporations looking for cheap labor, ready resources and new markets?
I read 143 tedious pages searching for some sign of mea culpa, some indication that the Bank understood its contribution - especially during the 1980s - to world poverty. But not a trace of it. Instead the Bank is again instructing its critics - those idiots and subversives who know nothing about economics - on poverty and what to do about it. One of the main discoveries seems to be that investing in human capital is a good thing.
This revelation comes from the same people who have insisted on slashing health and education budgets, food subsidies, wages and jobs around the world. The same people who told us that economic 'adjustment' would take only a couple of years and who originally gave little thought to its impact on the poor.
Even today the Bank insists that countries in the South compete against one another for Northern markets that are essentially closed to them. it hectors them to produce goods that sell in world markets at rock-bottom prices. And it forces them to ravage their environment and allow their poor to go hungry in pursuit of this dead-end export strategy.
The new World Development Report shows that the mistakes of the past decade are still unrecognized. The recipe for the 1990s? More adjustment. That's the bottom line of the 'Poverty Report', all frills removed.
Should we - should the poor - have expected any more? Not from these guys. Not from an institution that, rather than listening to the poor, takes its cues from the money markets and investment bankers in London, New York and Washington.
After all, where better to learn the art of creating poverty?
Doug Hellinger is Managing Director of the Development Group for Alternative Policies