One person, one economist, can get a government to change its policy. I have done it. Often. It is what I do for a living. My book, The Economist's Tale (Zed Books) shows one case where I did it. This time, I stopped a famine.
The White Man's Graveyard, they used to call Sierra Leone. It was the Black Man's Graveyard when I worked there. Half the children born died of hunger and disease before they were five. Life expectancy was the lowest for any country in the world.
I hoped I could do something about it. I had come from England as a consultant to do an economic analysis of food policy in four months. I was starting from scratch, as this was one of the few countries in the world with no agricultural economics and marketing department.
Economics is about people, so I started by listening to people. First there were the courtesy visits to my employers, the Minister of Agriculture, the Permanent Secretary and the Director of Agricultural Planning. This was my attempt to find out the hidden agenda for my study, what they really wanted but would not put on paper. Then I spoke to everyone I could find working on agriculture; people in the Ministry of Agriculture, in the Ministry of Commerce, in the Central Bank; the foreign aid projects in Freetown and up country; the rice wholesalers in their dark warehouses behind the bazaar, and the market women squatting on the floor, bags of rice in front of them, bargaining with customers before measuring out a cup-full or two of rice the farmers in the paddy fields and the consumers in the streets and markets.
I must have spoken to well over two hundred people in the first two months. It would have been impossible in Britain, of course - it would have taken six months even to make the appointments. However, Sierra Leone's telephone system had collapsed since independence, so nobody expected appointments. Instead I would knock on the door of a civil servant and say, "Hello! I am Peter Griffiths. I am doing a study of food policy for the Ministry of Agriculture. Can you help me please?"
Their faces showed their thoughts "Oh no! Not another consultant. I spoke to two yesterday, three the day before. I must have spoken to a thousand over the last ten years. I tell them all the same thing, and they put it in their reports, but nothing ever happens."
Beneath this, better hidden, was another thought, "What is this white man doing, telling us how to run our country? I have the same degrees as him. I did my master's at Oxford. And I have worked here for ten years and I know everything about the country. What he pays for one night in the Bintumani Hotel is what I am paid in a whole year. He gets more pay in one day than I get in three years."
But they are a polite people, and they asked me to sit down. The underlying hostility made interviewing difficult, but depth interviewing is one of my professional skills. We exchanged pleasantries, and within five minutes they were telling me the same story they told all consultants. Within twenty minutes they were telling me things they did not realize they knew - and they did indeed have a lot of experience. Within forty minutes some of them were telling me about the politics within the Ministry and between Ministries. They told me what corruption was going on. Every person I spoke to gave me a different angle, a different perspective and the inconsistencies and gaps started to show. The big picture started to come together.
But I was not interviewing just for information. I was trying to get people into the state of mind that they would read my final report when I wrote it, and read it appreciatively. I was trying to show them that I was highly intelligent and that I understood what was really going on in the country. I did this by keeping my mouth shut, listening carefully and respectfully to what they said, and writing it down.
At the same time I was collecting reports and statistics. My experience of other countries was that there should be dozens of highly relevant reports, but I could only find a handful here. The statistics were appalling. For example, there were two statistical studies on food production. They disagreed by 80 per cent on the total area planted to rice, and by 60 per cent on the yield per hectare even though they used the identical methodology. There were no reliable figures at all on most of the economy.
I had to resort to detective work. Making sense of the statistical and other information was rather like doing a crossword puzzle. No bit of information had any credibility until there were several cross confirmations. Even then, the credibility grew as the cross confirmations were themselves confirmed by down confirmations. Some of the key information turned out to be things like seeing Japanese rice on sale in a village market, and asking a stevedore how much rice had been unloaded from a ship.
By the end of the first month I felt I was the only person who had a broad picture of the food situation in the country, though there were still lots of gaps and loose ends. I had talked to people from the Minister down. I had talked to people who were experts in different parts of the market. I had any statistics that were available. Everything was starting to come into a coherent model.
Then, I visited the Director of Agricultural planning for a routine chat. As I left, he handed me a paper, the minutes of a meeting between a World Bank team and the Ministry of Commerce.
I read it incredulously. It was a formal agreement that the Government of Sierra Leone would immediately stop importing food - and this in a country where Government imported half its staple food. The Government would also stop subsidizing food - when a quick look round the streets made it obvious that very few people were getting enough to eat even when food was subsidized. Government was also forbidden to keep a stockpile. Nothing I had read or heard could give any support for this, but neither the World Bank nor the Ministry of Commerce appeared to have made any effort to base their Agreement on logic or analysis. Neither of them had consulted the Ministry of Agriculture, which was responsible for food production, or me, the only person with the responsibility for examining food policy.
I sat down and did my analysis. The country was importing half its staple food, rice. People could not buy enough to live on at the subsidized price, so it could be argued that removing the present 25 per cent subsidy would push prices beyond the means of half the population. But the reality was much worse than this. Over the last year, the leone's value had collapsed against the dollar to a tenth of its previous level. The rice currently on sale in the markets had been bought when the leone was strong. Any new rice imports would have to be paid for with a very weak leone. This meant that any new imports would have to be sold in the markets at more than ten times today's price in leones. But wages and salaries had not gone up, so nobody would be able to buy unsubsidized rice. And this obviously meant that no private trader would import rice that they could not sell. I visited them all to check and they told me vehemently that they would not touch rice imports with a bargepole.
The unavoidable conclusion was that when present stocks ran out, in four months time, there would be no imports. The country people would keep the rice they grew, so there would be no rice at all for the urban population. Starvation would start immediately. How many people would die before emergency aid could be arranged? Quarter of a million? Half a million?
I knew what was going to happen. I doubted if anybody else did. Certainly nobody else had the broad picture. If I did not act, there would certainly be a famine. Even if I did act, though, it was unlikely that I could change things.
Before I did anything, though, I tried to work out what I was up against. Why had the World Bank imposed this Agreement on Sierra Leone? Obviously because it was part of its general policy to push an extreme free market policy on the world. If an academic sitting in a university in the west makes enough unrealistic assumptions, he can prove that an economy works most efficiently when there is no government intervention, when there is a perfectly free market. A couple of maverick economists convinced Regan and Thatcher that this was grounds for action. The action plan included getting countries to float their foreign exchange markets, get rid of subsidies, get rid of state companies and marketing boards, dismantle controls over markets and prices, and deregulate etc. etc. Some of these actions would have been very valuable as a part of a carefully planned and structured reform of a sector or industry, but as a nostrum that can be applied everywhere without thought, they were disastrous.
The organization was committed to this policy, and it put pressure on their staff to show that they were making countries adopt it. Any staff member who did not succeed in this would find that their career suffered, and they might lose their jobs. So the staff made it clear that any country that wanted a grant or loan would have to be seen to adopt this policy. They also made it clear to consultants that they would have to support this policy if they wanted to be employed by the World Bank.
Each staff member, each group was trying to get the policy implemented before the others. While there was some obscure theoretical justification for the general application of the free market, there was none for a piecemeal application, in this case applying it just to two parts of the agricultural and food sector, those that happened to be under the control of the Ministry of Commerce. It is rather as though one decided that a car would run better with a bigger engine, a different gearbox, a different suspension, and bigger wheels, and one compromised by only putting on a large right front wheel. It would run into the first lamppost.
I was frightened at the reaction World Bank staff would have if I said that they had blundered. It was odds on that I would be fired on the spot. Aid officials may be nice guys committed to the Third World, but when it comes to the crunch, they have no compunction about firing any consultant who does not support their personal ends. I had recently got into big trouble for the relatively minor sin of saying that an international aid agency's pet project was grossly uneconomic: this meant that a desk officer would lose brownie points for not disbursing the target amount of loans. It was made clear to me that I would not work for that agency again.
The Government had done what the World Bank told them to, because they had no alternative. They were broke. Also they had seen what the international community had done to Ghana, just down the coast, when they did not toe the line. The Government had committed themselves to the Agreement, and they would not renege lightly. Like me, they did not know how World Bank officials would react if they were told that the Agreement was a disaster. It would certainly sour long-term relations between the Government and the Bank, even if, or especially if, the Bank was shown to have blundered. No, I could see that I would be an embarrassment to them.
Equally worrying was the knowledge that a lot of politicians, civil servants and marketing board officials stood to make money from a famine. Anyone who handles emergency aid in a famine situation can make enormous black market profits, at a time when people will pay all they have for enough rice to keep them alive for a month or two. Some of these people would be very upset if I spoke up. They only had to complain that I "could not get on with the locals" to get me sacked. It happens every day to aid workers who start to find out too much about corruption.
The threats were serious. Everyone in the aid business was well aware that only four years before Steve Lombard had been sacked from his FAO job in Tanzania after he prevented a famine. He was running an early warning project, and alerted the Ministry to the danger, so they could get food aid well before people started to go hungry. The Ministry sat on the information and did nothing. The food was running out and a famine situation was imminent, one where some people would make a lot of money. Steve got the information to the World Food Programme who told a very surprised President that a famine was imminent. He also leaked the information to the BBC World Service who told the Tanzanian people. Action was taken, just in time. The Tanzanians sacked Steve. FAO and the World Bank stood back and let them do it. A shocked Steve drank himself to death over the next three years.
Yes I was vulnerable. I was vulnerable because a lot of organizations had control over my future. The Minister, the Permanent Secretary, the Director, and probably a lot of other civil servants could have me sent out on the next plane. So could the World Bank, as they were paying my salary. I could not afford to upset the other aid agencies, as I was hoping to work for some of them in the future. Nor could I afford to get a reputation with the international consultancy firms as a troublemaker, because any future job with the aid agencies was likely to be through them. The only people I could afford to ignore were the people of Sierra Leone, the people who would starve.
From a career point of view, my optimum choice was to fake a backache and get flown home, leaving someone else to handle the famine when it hit.
I am squeamish though. I did act, quietly, politically and decisively. It meant putting my career on the line, though, and I have suffered for it. But I did convince the Government that the Agreement was a disaster, and they did renege on it. It was a damn near run thing though.
Peter Griffiths' book on this affair, The economist's tale: a consultant encounters hunger and the World Bank, is published by ZedBooks and can be bought online at www.griffithsspeaker.com. This article, which is reproduced with kind permission of the author, was first published as part of a review "How Economists Kill People" by Daniel Davies at the Crooked Timber weblog.