The surrealism of poverty

Ian on Sunday
Stabroek News
July 29, 2001

There is an ancient saying, I think from Nigeria: "Poverty is madness". It explains a lot which seems inexplicable in our world today.

Poverty indeed is madness - and not only in the sense of madmen and madwomen roaming the streets naked or, more seriously, with rocks and hammers clenched in hand and anger in their hearts against all humanity.

Poverty is madness in the larger sense that poverty leads to situations which ordinarily would seem crazy but come to seem quite normal in poverty-stricken economies.

Which country, for instance, unless it was forced by desperate circumstances, would think of submitting to the agonizing, self-inflicted disciplines which go by the name of IMF "conditionalities?" None, of course, but in the end beggars really cannot be choosers even if what is chosen is a sort of madness. "To return to sanity one must choose madness."

Surrealism, which by one definition is madness made to seem ordinary, quickly invades poor societies. We know about that. Who does not recall the famous threat by the old GEC to cut off power from customers for not paying bills which GEC had not sent out. Drizzles cause floods and amidst floods water shortages

abound. Surrealism grows. Guyanese seek a better life in death-haunted Botswana.

We should never forget that it was currency devaluation which caused major surrealism, "madness made to seem ordinary." Soon nothing became more surrealistic than levels of remuneration: monthly pensions that buy a couple of pounds of chicken; executives in top positions after 30 years paid less in real terms than they received as junior clerks at the start of their careers. Major currency depreciation is the greatest fraud that can ever be perpetrated on the general population of any nation. But, surrealistically, it is a crime which penalises only the victim.

Perception quickly becomes corrupted regarding what is reasonable remuneration. What was reasonable pay in Guyana converted to US dollars 25 years ago is still thought of now as amounting to a king's ransom. And what is no more than a very ordinary wage abroad is still considered to be what a "millionaire" gets here now.

This is not an exaggeration. The Council of Europe, for instance, sets what they call a "decency" threshold. This is the income level below which, the Council reckons, nobody can live "decently." The level they set as far back as 1990 was 178.91 pound sterling or US$332 per week and the Economist then recorded with concern that the number of Britons who lived below this "decency" level had risen to 10 million. Well, here, of course, that "decent" income comes to over $3 million per year, and 95% of Guyanese (and 100% of public servants) would fall well below the "decency" line. This is where the major surrealism begins.

Major salary surrealism creeps in because Guyana in its economic and other relations must relate to the rest of the world. The Government has to adopt an outward looking development strategy which rightly and necessarily brings Guyana into much closer contact with the norms and realities of other countries. But observe, therefore, what is bound to happen.

The public purse of Guyana cannot afford - at present levels of production and therefore of public income - to pay even its most senior people in official positions more than what in reality is a pittance compared to what the job-holder would now get if he went elsewhere. Unfortunately this inescapable fact of Guyanese life is exaggerated by the incomprehensible tendency which still exists to define very ordinary pay as "super salary."

A number of developments flow from this as sure as night surrealistically follows night. Even the most senior people, and especially the best qualified and most ambitious, leave in droves. Dr. Jagan's saintlike "dollar a year" idealism never applied to more than a very few nor did such idealism last long. So, in desperation, various stratagems are adopted. One is to make appointments outside the normal categories and scales so that special terms can be implemented without "creating precedent." If taken as far as it could easily go this might lead to marvelously

surrealistic situations in which some Ministries or agencies could be staffed from top to bottom with "advisors" and "consultants" of one sort or another while all the official positions fall vacant.

Another strategy is to go the divestment route with the hope that in the privatized enterprises public rates of pay can be scrapped and remuneration lifted to levels which will halt the outflow and keep and attract the right calibre Guyanese. If that route is pursued then, of course, the bankruptcy option comes into play and in place of surrealistically low pay may come no pay atall. But that is the name of that particular game.

Meanwhile, major surrealism continues to arise. For one reason or another - generally, again, our old friend "creating an unacceptable precedent" - the best Guyanese will not be paid even a barely competitive wage and so will leave, only to be replaced of necessity by expatriates on secondment who are paid ten times more than the Guyanese they replace!

So do the contortions caused by poverty amount to madness. It hasn't happened yet, as far as I know, but when it happens that Guyanese who have previously gone abroad return on expatriate terms to replace Guyanese who now have to leave because they stayed at home on local terms than we will indeed have arrived at surrealism piled on surrealism!