Welcome to JP Melville's review, experience, and statement on foreign aid and the international development industry. A conservative faith in family. A love affair riding the riotous tensions between money, personal freedom, the majestic travesty of our specie's ecological footprint, and economic politics. Selected writing of both prose and poetry, anecdotal travel log to rhetorical essay, dating back from the 1980's to the present. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Get a Job, Man… Joining the Ranks of Occupy and 99%

Once upon a time, in two far away lands, several young men worked and paid their taxes.  Life was good.  Until one day, along came municipal amalgamation for one and structural adjustment for the others….
Despite my rather mobile life, I continue to consider Elora as home.  A little place in southern Ontario, Canada.  In a community of townships and villages, now collectively called Centre Wellington.  Of course, I haven’t actually lived in Elora for some time.  Not since 1994, give or take a few local migrations and an absence or two.  We first lived there in 1967.  Due to a downturn in our family finances, we moved a few kilometres away and lived a brief time in neighbouring Fergus.  Things turned a bit for the worse, so we then moved to Nichol Township, oddly, just adjacent and even closer to Elora.  My brother’s family and my sister’s still live there.  My mother passed away a while ago.
During that time I mostly worked and lived on a dairy goat farm in Pilkington, a neighbouring township.  I also worked on beef, pig, and horse farms.  A bit of construction.  It wasn’t all work.  Who hadn’t danced or had a few beers in Belwood or Arthur?  What else but a few too many beers on Friday night? And there was a university, just 20 kilometres away in Guelph.  Somehow, over 15 years, I squeeked out a couple of degrees.
I can proudly say that without Centre Wellington I would not be where I am today.  Working, living, raising a family in Ottawa, the nation’s capitol.  And doing it on well enough on two incomes, short term contracts, no pension, no expectations that the kids will be able to pay their way through university, and a nice hefty quarter million dollar mortgage to boot.  I am fifty.  Economically, somewhere about half the value of my parents when were my age, say in the 1970’s.
But I digress and have not told you about Benjamin or Sebastien or Simon.  Back in Benin, West Africa.  Check it out on a map.  Little place just to the west of Nigeria.  I met the fellows there when I was on a two year contract with a World Bank program in 1995. 
  Yip, there I was, me and my team of three, providing micro-credit loans to women, building small scale infrastructure like corn storage buildings, reconstructing dirt roads, and financing mini agriculture and food processing projects.  The goal?  Strengthening local economy and democratic institutions.  It was fun, building buildings, driving around in four wheel trucks, working with Voodoo sorcerers, watching the moon set over Lac Ahémé.  It was also a bit surreal.  At the same time that Benjamin and Simon and Sebastien and I ran around financing individuals or small, independent and isolated groups or no more than ten people, rooting around in backyards, and spending 80% of our time writing reports, the World Bank was also imposing economic policies on Benin that would greatly undermine its ability to govern itself.  The World Bank called this structural adjustment.
Back then in the 1990’s (and today), the World Bank, along with the Canadian and other governments, supported this idea called structural adjustment.  This meant that the Benin government would adopt economic policies that promote trade and production, or what is popularly known as the <free market>.  More realistically, structural adjustment meant that Benin would pay back its debtors (BIG banks). Such free market integration with the world economy would, it was said, create greater efficiencies in government administration and accelerate economic development.  In practice, what that meant was that, there in tiny Benin (population @ 5 million), privatisation would reign supreme: of the sea-port, airport, petroleum supplies, new big roads to the major cotton producing zones (which once upon a time grew corn <food>), and cutbacks in all areas of social services.  The little guys, joe schmoe and sally soo, your local neighbourhood peasant farmers, now competed against the big guys like Monsanto and Pioneer.
The logic behind structural adjustment claimed a link between greater economic efficiency, centralization of decision making, and general well being of the population. Certainly, very visible wealth was rapidly being accumulated at the economic and administrative centre of Benin - Cotonou.  Yet, since the imposition of structural adjustment (1989), average life expectancy and other health standards dropped.   By 1997, over two thousand men were laid off from the port at the beginning of the first year of structural adjustment.  University graduates had taken to driving motorcycle taxis and selling cassettes in the streets.  In Bopa, where I lived, four hours from the economic centre of Cotonou, cotton was harvested and sold at a loss that year, prices for corn the staple food had sky rocketed, and gasoline was no longer available at the only (government) station - the next was thirty kilometres away on mud roads.
I like this line:
<< These results did not lead to a better distribution of the fruits of growth and the programmes had negative social impacts. >>
(African Development Bank Group.  Benin. Structural Adjustment Programmes I, II, III. 19 November 2003.)

   That was all so many years ago.
Today, well, with a zillion West African youngsters waiting to find a place in the global economy… they can choose between an Arab Spring (yip!) or something different and nobody knows what.
None of this is to say that the process of structural adjustment was not efficient at some level.  There have been, after all, a remarkable increase in brand new Lexus LX and Lincoln Navigator and whatever-you-name-it in the really cool car markets.  Check ‘em out!
Now, back in the early 1990’s, back there in hometown Elora, Ontario, little old Canada, I was somewhat surprised to find myself caught up in some of the early winds of something slightly different: municipal amalgamation.  The news was that amalgamation was going to save us all a whole bunch of money.  Centralize decision making.  Centralize the pocket books.  Bingo… the joe schmoe and sally soo were going to be better off.  Less tax.  More efficient services.
Well… more like populist conservatism.  Local decision-making turned to regional decision-making turned to money concentrated in fewer decision-makers.  A swampy mess of bureaucrats between the decision-making and the decision-makers… and you and me.  So now you need a degree to figure out how to make a presentation to your elected municipal council.  You got five minutes to do it!  PowerPoint!  Goals!  Objectives! Action Points!
And the time off work.  And the money for the photocopies. And the credit card to pay for the new fangled parking meter.
Wow!  Thinking back to then!  Boy… think of it… I made $10 / hour digging holes in the ground in 1980.  Gas for my 1969 Ford half ton pickup was $0.17 a litre.  Today, thirty years later, I pay $10 / hour to have holes dug in the ground.  They (and I) pay $1.28 a litre for gas.
I think the baby bucksters from Benjamin, Simon, and Sebastien’s lot already have this one figured out.
            It is their Arab Spring.
            And my welcome to Occupy.

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