'Informal' economy keeps heads above water
JEREMY HARTLEY /
Development dollars are so scarce in Africa these days that, rather than setting up big initiatives to try and change things, planners are looking more at the initiatives that poor people come up with for themselves.
According to UN sources, 60 per cent of the labour force in Africa is employed in so-called ‘informal’ economic activities that are untaxed and otherwise ‘illegal’, and the sector is growing at an annual rate of 6.7 per cent. Despite years of painful restructuring, most African economies continue to flounder.
In Senegal a 50-per-cent currency devaluation aimed at boosting production and exports has resulted in soaring prices for necessities and has effectively doubled the country’s foreign debt.
Every year there are 100,000 more people looking for jobs in Senegal with only 2,000 new positions available, says World Bank economist Abdoulaye Seck. ‘What the other 98,000 are doing we really don’t know,’ he says, adding that statistics on them come largely from ‘researchers’ imaginations’.
What is known is that the money that is circulating amongst poor people is being reinvested into their communities. In Pikine, one of Dakar’s poor outer suburbs, petty traders have pooled resources and constructed a new market. Pikine’s mayor admits that such popular initiatives have created more infrastructural development in his municipality than his own administration.
People no longer expect much from the Government. Even where it does provide money, conditions are not improving, as evidenced by the falling rate of enrolment of children in state primary schools. But the reason for the drop is the growth in other schools funded by poor communities themselves, which have lower fees and where children are educated according to their communities’ needs. Instructors at these schools often go on expeditions to junkyards and dumps with their students to look for teaching tools such as bottle tops and drinking straws. According to research done by Adel Arab, an education specialist, 69 per cent of the newly literate children in Dakar have gone through community schools.
The new importance African governments are putting on the economic activities of the poor was underlined when the presidents of Senegal and Mali attended the opening of Ecopole, a centre where poor people can exchange their ideas, whether these are about opening their own factories or learning how to make oil lamps from spent light bulbs. The centre is the brainchild of ENDA, a local development network, and it aims to have its own radio station and internet site.
For all the economic activity of the poor – whether it be baskets woven from old plastic bags, shoes cobbled from used car tyres or lamps made from coke cans – a major headache for the Government is taxation. Any attempt to collect taxes will push people further towards ‘informal’ activities and away from the state. In several Dakar slums, the city government has stopped charging rents and taxes that people cannot afford, although it also no longer supplies services such as electricity or running water.
David Hecht/ ENDA News Service
Farming the cities
Agriculture is turning out to be the biggest industry in most of the world’s cities. According to a study published by the UN Development Programme, one in three of the world’s urban residents grows food. Urban agriculture provides an estimated 15 per cent of the world’s food. Governments and international development agencies are waking up to this fact and seeking to promote it. Health risks posed by sewage-fed crops have been overestimated in the past; the main concern now is heavy-metals contamination.
New Scientist, Vol 150 No 2034
In response to criticisms that House Republicans are sacrificing the environment to benefit their corporate funders, Newt Gingrich created the Republican Task Force on the Environment. Of the 81 members he’s appointed, 38 scored zero on the 1995 ratings of legislative support for the environment put out by the League of Conservation Voters. A further 19 scored below 15 per cent. Gingrich seems to be practising ‘affirmative action for the environmentally impaired’.
The Nation, Vol 262 No 19
Signs of the times
A survey of people in Australia, Germany, India, Japan, Britain and the US has found that the symbols for the multinationals McDonalds and Shell are more easily identified than the universal Christian symbol of the cross. Topping the recognizability league were the Olympic rings – correctly interpreted by 92 per cent. Lurking at the lower reaches was the UN symbol, recognized only by a paltry 36 per cent.
Link, No 2
Music for lovers
Ferenc Kovacs, an Hungarian joke-shop owner, sells a singing condom. It uses a microchip that tunes up as the condom is unrolled. ‘I have now taken out an international patent and am looking for a manufacturer,’ says Kovacs. In line with the country’s new-found democracy, there will be two tunes to choose from: ‘Arise Ye Workers’ (an old communist ditty) and ‘You Sweet Little Dumb-bell’.
In Britain the heads of ten of the country’s largest insurance companies have secretly met to explore ways for their industry to take over responsibilties from the welfare state. The group met at the request of the Conservative Government and discussed education, healthcare, legal costs, unemployment cover, pensions and long-term care.
Consumer bodies are deeply uneasy at this latest development in the Government’s dismantling of the welfare state. Sally Witcher, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, warns: ‘The greater the risk you are, the less likely you are to get cover and the more expensive the policies become... And you have to ask who is best placed to guarantee security. We say governments are.’
The Observer, 30th June 1996
Reproductive rights at risk in Mexico
Medical murderers’ was the only way in which Maria del Refugio Santana could express her anger against the staff that attended her 21-year-old daughter’s first delivery. Refused access on the grounds that her daughter was suffering from high blood pressure, after two days of pleading for a visit she was informed that her daughter had died from complications at birth.
According to Mexico City’s Women’s Health Network (Red por la Salud de las Mujeres del Distrito Federal), cases of neglect and malpractice within state hospitals and medical centres are widespread, but they are frequently swept aside by official bodies as being ‘anecdotal’. Mexico’s first-ever Tribunal for the Defence of Reproductive Rights, held at the end of May, transformed anecdote into formal public denunciation. Twenty-seven women recounted negligence and abuse they had suffered within the state social-security health services to a jury of government officials, legislators, civil organizations and the National Commission on Human Rights. The most frequent accusations were that women were fitted with contraceptive devices or sterilized with neither their permission nor knowledge, usually following a delivery or a miscarriage.
The National Committee for the Study of Maternal Mortality confirmed in 1993 that a staggering 60 per cent of maternal deaths in state hospitals was due to medical negligence. While there can be no justification for gynaecological interference and abuse based on the belief that there are too many people in the world, poor facilities and overworked staff may explain, in part, the lack of communication and neglect.
The Tribunal pressed for a system of appraisal and evaluation for doctors and medical staff as well as investigations into standards of training and supervision.
A senior medical practitioner from Mexico City’s Autonomous University said: ‘I have been practising for 26 years, and there is no official body to assess whether I am, or have been, competent at my job.’
For many such as Ruth Maria Ramirez Trejo the lack of proper medical attention has already had irreversible consequences. A hysterectomy was performed on her after her first child died at birth in a state hospital. At 19 she is sterile and blames both this and the death of her baby on medical incompetence.
Lisa Brown Mckenzie
NI reader Ian Fraser has sent us a copy of the Yorkshire Building Society’s June newsletter which has a feature on summer barbecues under the title ‘The Grilling Fields’. As Ian points out in a letter to the Chief Executive of Yorkshire Building Society: ‘If the YBS was to feature central heating as a home improvement in its magazine, would it be making flippant references to the Holocaust.... Just because the killing fields occurred on the other side of the world, in a south-east Asian, non-Western nation, is no excuse. It is not an issue of political correctness; it is an issue of racism.’
Bite on the iguana
Endangered 'Tree Chickens' farmed in Costa Rica
German biologist Dr Dagmar Werner is fighting to save the iguanas of Costa Rica – by encouraging people to eat them. They have been a valuable source of protein in various parts of Central and South America for 7,000 years and it is precisely because they taste so good – Costa Ricans call them Pollo de Palo, the ‘chicken of the trees’ – that they are endangered, despite government attempts to ban illegal hunting.
Werner, the brains behind an Iguana Park and breeding programme, hopes to save not only the endangered iguana, but parts of the tropical forest in which they live. Her aim is to persuade farmers to switch from cattle to iguanas. However harmless a herd of cows may appear, their hooves churn up what is left of forest ecosystems after slash-and-burn ranchers have cleared the trees. Iguanas, on the other hand, live and dine off trees. Studies by the Green Iguana Foundation, set up by Werner, show that the creatures can yield far more meat per hectare than cattle.
Werner believes that ‘once farmers see there’s money to be made, they’ll want to start breeding them’. But she is cautious. The Park supplies just enough for the Costa Rican market. ‘There is a danger,’ she warns, ‘that if we export we will create a market for poachers.’
She began her iguana project in Panama 13 years ago, but when the political climate there started to threaten funding in 1988, she took a lorry-load of 1,200 iguana across the border to Costa Rica. At her iguana farm, captive breeding increases the iguanas’ chances of survival by 20 times, as predators are their main threat. To help boost dwindling numbers in the wild, more than 25,000 have been released from the Park in the past few months.
When the chairperson of Tokyo’s Hotel New Otani died last June, they festooned the ballroom, invited thousands of guests and carried in his photo for his last official function: to promote hotel-based funerals. In Japan, businesses ranging from department stores to disposable-camera makers are trying to cash in on the funeral trade. It’s a growth industry, with the number of Japanese dying each year on the increase. The Japanese spend up to five million yen ($47,000) per funeral.
When graduate student Rikako Takahashi’s mother died, funeral-related advertising pamphlets clogged her mailbox. Memorial homes and gravestone makers hounded her by telephone with their ‘special offers’. Sales reps even followed up with home visits.
Now Koekisha, Japan’s biggest funeral-service company, is getting in on the act before the event. It has started sending sales reps to companies whose ageing executives may soon need a celebrity funeral.
Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol 159 No 22
Despite six years of a civil war (fresh fighting flared up in April) that has claimed more than 150,000 lives and displaced over 1.5 million people, suggestions that Liberia should become a UN trust territory have angered civilians and democratic organizations as well as the warlords. Obviously, when Dr James Jonah (above) – special representative of the UN Secretary-General for the country – put forward the idea he didn’t realize its irony in a state founded by released American slaves 150 years ago and named after their liberty.
Desmond King, Gemini
The European Headache Federation (no, we haven’t just invented the name) wants to launch a large study to gauge the link between over-the-counter painkiller misuse and chronic daily headache. They reckon that in the European Union alone the total cost each year for treatment and working days lost to headaches is more than $37 billion. The proposed research study would have a modest budget of $20,000, but drug companies are reluctant to fund even a pilot study, for obvious reasons. Only Glaxo Wellcome has offered some backing – but then it does not make over-the-counter analgesics. The EHF now plans to lobby research agencies such as the Medical Research Council, as well as the European Commission.
New Scientist, Vol 150 No 2033
With the capping of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the world’s tallest building is no longer Chicago’s Sears Tower. The twin towers were designed by an Argentine-born American architect and constructed by a Bangladeshi workforce – earning just a few dollars a day – directed by Australian foremen and German engineers. This is the first time since the gothic cathedrals were built that the world’s tallest building is not in the West.
Aliran Monthly, No 16 (3)
‘But don’t forget, the Gandhis kept Congress alive in 1984 and 1991 by dying.’
Indian political scientist Ashis Nandy, qualifying his comment that charismatic leaders
could revive the fortunes of the Congress Party.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996