whistleblower accused World Bank Of Causing Famine

Sharon B. Kayser
whistleblower accused World Bank Of Causing Famine
Tue Sep 2 08:57:22 2003

The World Bank and the whistleblower

Consultant Peter Griffiths had a choice: speak up against World Bank action in Sierra Leone and prevent a famine, or be silent and save his career. He tells what he did

Sunday August 31, 2003
The Observer

The white man's graveyard, they used to call it. By the time I worked there, it was the black man's graveyard: a baby had only an even chance of surviving until it was five. Malaria and hunger were the big killers.
I was there to do something about it, advising the Sierra Leone government on the economics of food policy. They had tried to get along with no policy, and the effects were obvious. I was starting from scratch, trying to catch up in four months.

I started by talking to, or rather listening to, everyone I could find who had anything to do with food or agriculture. There was the Ministry of Agriculture, my client, of course, starting with the Minister and the Permanent Secretary and my contact man, the Director of Agriculture, and ending up with the people working in the farming areas. Then there were the central bank, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Commerce and the state-owned companies.

I saw foreign aid projects in Freetown and in the countryside. There were the big rice traders, operating out of cramped, dark warehouses in the bazaar. I squatted in the markets watching the women haggling over price before selling a cupful of rice, and I slipped in a question between one customer and another. I spoke to consumers, and to farmers in the field.

It was only possible to speak to so many people in such a short time because the telephone system had broken down and one was not expected to make an appointment. Even with a senior civil servant, I just knocked and walked in. What did they think when I did this? 'It is another foreign consultant here to waste my time. I have spoken to five already this week. I give them all information, but nothing ever happens.'

But many of them thought: 'Who is this white man, to tell us what to do? I have a better degree than him, my Master's is from Oxford. Also I have worked in Sierra Leone for 15 years, and know all about it, but this is his first visit. But he is paid more for one day than I am paid for two years. In fact his hotel bill for one day is my salary for a year.'

The potential was there for a hostile interview and a complete lack of co-operation. But depth interviewing is my key professional skill, and within a few minutes I had them talking away, telling me much the same as they had told other consultants. A few well-placed questions got them thinking more deeply, analysing their experience to find answers to questions they had never thought of asking, and telling me things they did not know they knew. Some even volunteered information about corruption, politics and inter-ministerial rivalries.

And all the time they were getting the message that here at last was a consultant who was really interested, who respected their knowledge and experience and who wrote it all down. I hoped so anyway, as this might mean that they read my report and acted on it.

I was getting different perspectives on the food situation. Inconsistencies stood out, and it became obvious that some people were lying, some were suppressing part of the picture, and some just did not know. And I found that a handful of urban myths strongly influenced their views. The information started to come together into a coherent whole.

Then I made a routine visit to the Director of Planning, and he handed me the minutes of a meeting between a World Bank team and the Ministry of Commerce. It was the text of a formal agreement between the World Bank and the government. The government had agreed to stop all government imports of food immediately, and leave future imports to the private sector. They had also agreed to stop subsidising food.

I thought about it. How could they cut the subsidies? Already the people in the streets were hungry. There were no fat people. Babies were pot-bellied with hunger, and on the verge of death. Removing the 25 per cent subsidy would mean that people died. In the past, removing food subsidies had caused serious rioting, but I suspected that they were too lethargic with hunger to riot now.

Stopping government imports was a major step, as the imports of rice, the staple food, came to half the country's rice consumption. The World Bank evidently expected the private sector to take over immediately, but this was a serious move, changing the whole marketing system overnight.

Most serious of all, the World Bank seemed to have forgotten that it and the IMF had forced Sierra Leone to float its exchange rate seven months earlier. The leone had collapsed to a tenth of its previous value against the dollar. The rice now on the market had been bought at the old rate. Any new rice would cost at least 10 times as much in the markets. And wages had not gone up. If the people could not afford to buy enough rice at today's price, they certainly would not be able to buy rice in the future, at 10 times the price.

Nor could I see traders importing rice that they could not sell. I visited them to check. Not a hope.

The conclusion was inescapable. Imports that the Government had already paid for would continue to arrive over the next four months. There would then be no more imports of the staple food. Freetown and the urban areas relied entirely on imported rice, so starvation would start immediately. Perhaps a third of a million people would die.

From the work I had done, I could see this. I doubted if it was obvious to anyone else. This meant that I was the only person who could persuade anyone to abandon the agreement. If I spoke up, something might be done. If I did not, famine was inevitable.

But first I wanted to know why such an odd agreement had been signed. Why had the World Bank team not thought to consult the Ministry of Agriculture before making an agreement with such wide implications to the sector? Why had they not consulted me when my project was funded by the World Bank?

What was the logic behind the agreement? I could only think that it was just part of the World Bank's policy of imposing an extreme Reaganite free market policy on every country in the world (except the US). Bank staff in each sector were trying to impose it in their sector, even when other sectors had made no progress. The staff got their brownie points for getting states to adopt the free market. Countries were told that they would get no aid or loans if they did not.

And this explained why Sierra Leone accepted the agreement. They were absolutely broke. Also they had seen what the international community had done to Ghana when it would not do as it was told.

All this meant that there would be an awful lot of pressure on me to keep my mouth shut. The staff in the international organisations and aid agencies are under a lot of pressure to meet targets. These may be getting countries to adopt new policies, or to disburse ?X million in aid. If they do not meet their targets they do not get promotion and they may lose their jobs.

They are ferocious if any of the consultants they employ stop them meeting their targets. If a consultant shows that a project is an ecological disaster, or quite uneconomic, they are not going to disburse the target amount. They will fire him before he submits his report if they can, they may reject his report on specious grounds, but if they do accept it they will never employ him again.

I have been at the receiving end of this, as most consultants have. It is serious, as there are not a lot of employers in the aid business. Yet here I was in a position where I was thinking of ruining a staff member's career. Not only was I trying to get the government to publicly go back on an agreement - which would be far worse than not signing the agreement in the first place - but I would have to show that the staff member must have been completely incompetent to propose it.

Relations with the government were no more promising. Third World governments frequently fire consultants, saying that they are incompetent or that they cannot get on with the locals. The real reason is usually that they are about to expose corruption, or the misuse of aid money.

What I was about to do was more serious. It would mean causing a row between the government and the World Bank; it would mean very bad relationships between the government and some staff members. The country could not afford this. Would it be better for 'the government' or 'the state' to get rid of me and let a famine start rather than spoil this relationship? Nobody important would die.

A lot of individuals stood to make money from a famine. Anybody who buys or sells grain gets a personal commission. People in the aid organisations, politicians, senior civil servants and marketing board officials would lose these commissions if I spoke up. But the big money comes, not from this, but from controlling food in a famine situation, when people will pay any money they have just to stay alive for another month or two. Again, very powerful people would want me to shut up.

No, I was not being alarmist. I knew - everybody in the aid industry knew - that only five years earlier Steve Lombard had prevented a famine in Tanzania. He had had to put all he had into this, tapping all his contacts around the world, because officials refused to act. The Tanzanians insisted that the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation fire him. FAO, the World Bank and the aid community did nothing to protect him. He was indignant, furious, betrayed. Over the next three years he drank himself to death.

The same could happen to me. The Minister, the Permanent Secretary, the Director, and probably a lot of other officials could have me sent out on the next plane. The World Bank was financing my project, and could fire me instantly. If they chose to smear me, all the other aid agencies in the country could blacklist me. So too would the international consultancy firms.

My career could vanish overnight. A lot of competent aid workers have suddenly found themselves in this position. The only people who did not have any power to damage my career were the people of Sierra Leone.

I remembered the people who built their career in the CIA on the fact that they happened to be on holiday during the Bay of Pigs debacle and so were not implicated. My best career move would be to fall ill and go back to England. They would have forgotten about me by the time the famine hit.

I didn't though. I fought it through, quietly and discreetly, but effectively. Government acted, but it was a damned near-run thing.

? Peter Griffiths is an international aid worker who has worked in 30 countries for the World Bank, FAO, UN Development Project, European Union, Asian Development Bank and national aid organisations. His book on trying to stop the famine in Sierra Leone - The Economist's Tale: a consultant encounters hunger and the World Bank - is published by Zed Books and can be bought online at www.zedbooks.demon.co.uk  or at bookshops.
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