April 9, 2007
The phrase “buy-local” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Guyanese of a certain age – those who lived through the last regime's programme of the same name, which was tied to the “banning” of many foreign products that the local one was supposed to replace.
There has been a bit of cavilling over the term “banning” by those who insist that items were not actually banned – it was just that the scarce foreign currencies were not released to import those items. But this argument has proven a bit too refined for the man-in-the street and “buy-local” has remained linked to the scarcity of favoured items such as “dhall” and flour.
The idea behind the “buy-local” programme, however, was essentially sound. Guyana was a poor country and we needed to increase our rate of savings as a nation so as to facilitate investments that could provide the take-off momentum necessary for sustained economic growth. The money that was being spent on the above-mentioned goods and others such as sardines and apples could have been better spent on capital goods that would provide jobs – and wages - for Guyanese.
The wages would have given them the wherewithal to purchase more local goods and boost employment in that sector as investors and producers rushed to satisfy the increased demand. All around, there was to be created a virtuous circle of increased production, savings and growth of the economy.
We believe that we threw out the baby with the bathwater when the programme failed. The failure was not in the buy-local thrust but rather in the effective ban on what were considered essential items. We remain a poor country that is in dire need of employment, especially for the youths streaming out of our refurbished schools. We should have woken up by now to the fact that foreign investors are not going to suddenly start breaking down our doors. Our local entrepreneurial class needs to be encouraged and facilitated.
We believe that a buy-local programme can play a catalytic role in this process of investment and job creation.
However, we have to learn from the missteps of our first foray. First and foremost there can be no “banning” – de-facto or otherwise – of any items. Under the present dispensation of our adherence to the liberalisation policies of the Washington Consensus, this move is quite unlikely but it should be stated up front.
After all, most economic decisions are based on psychological decisions of both the producer and the consumer, and their minds therefore must be put at rest.
But if there is to be no banning, then the local products will have to prove themselves as good as, if not better, than the items they will seek to replace. We cannot undo the fact that our people have become even more accustomed to the high quality of the foreign producers and we will have to rise to the occasion. This will help our economy overall as we tighten our standards to match international ones.
Take the easiest products that can kick-off a buy-local programme – vegetables and other agricultural products. Our present packaging of the same, by and large, is simply non-existent. In many instances, products are simply strewn on unsanitary bags on roadsides. This will not do.
We note the commendable efforts of the government, recently, under the energetic new Minister of Agriculture to open packaging plants in all the three counties. This is a good start but the effort must not only be geared for the export market: the local market itself must be groomed to demand the more sanitary products.
This will increase the demand for packaging facilities and reduce the unit costs even for the exporters.
Then there is the matter of sustained and consistent supplies for purchasers. For a buy-local programme to succeed we cannot force the new convert to return to the foreign product because the local one is not unavailable or is not up to standard. This has been the bugbear of all substitution programmes.
All in all, the time is ripe for the government, the citizenry and the business community to join hands and kick off a healthy buy-local programme.