On Buying Local and Feeding, Clothing and Housing Ourselves: Old, Old Message, New Messenger
By Cecilia McAlmont
July 5, 2002
Can you name the year and identify the politician?
1. A campaign to buy local has a lot of meaning. It gives to our people more self respect, self-reliance and a better feeling that you are supporting various foods and other industries.
2. When you buy something that is foreign, you are taking the bread out of the mouths of those Guyanese who produce the local substitutes. When we produce our own food, we create employment for our people.
3. Producers must ensure that only commodities of the highest quality are placed on the market.
4. Don't put anything on the market if it does not meet high standards.
The statements above were made nearly three decades apart within the context of a buy local campaign. Clearly the messages are the same. Only the messengers are different. The purpose of this article is to look at the Buy Local campaigns of the 1960s, 70s and currently evaluate the reasons why the message remained largely unheard.
In a radio broadcast to the nation, just nine months after Guyana had gained political independence, then Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham, urged Guyanese to change our taste and buy local so as to concentrate in helping in the production of local alternatives and products or "we go down the drain." He intimated that newly independent Guyana was moving towards serious balance-of-payments problems. He stated that we were living beyond our means by spending more money on purchases of goods from abroad than we were earning from sales of our local produce in overseas markets. He explained that by selling our products abroad, we build up our credit in overseas banks. However, if those funds were frittered away in buying things, which could be produced locally, then we would be unable to purchase priority goods like heavy machinery needed to push the development programme. He conceded the difficulty some people may have in changing their taste but insisted that it was absolutely necessary if we were to survive and not have to face a crisis shortly. He posited that even if the local alternative was "somewhat inferior, it was the price we had to pay for independence and economic progress." He warned that if our balance-of-payments position deteriorated, the whole economy and the whole country was going to suffer, the Development Programme was going to be affected and Guyana was not going to be creditworthy. As a consequence he stated that a number of things were not going to be purchased and there was going to be unemployment.
The writer of an article in the Sunday Chronicle, January 29, 1967 in supporting the buy local campaign, decried the Guyanese preference for sardines, salmon and a host of other "embalmed" foods as against the fresh fruit and green vegetables which were almost always available. He saw this as an attempt "to keep up with the Joneses" by packing shopping bags with items which carry labels from across the Atlantic and around the world. He declared that this would still be imprudent even if our export figures were as high as our imports, and the country's financial resources did not need as much husbanding as the present time demanded. He conceded that habits took a lot of killing and that taste buds were not easily appeased by substitutes regarded in the outset as being infiltratory. He felt that nonetheless, "self at the national level very often must be immolated in the far-reaching interest of the entirety." He concluded by suggesting that whenever possible we should make every effort to ensure that the money spent was not providing employment and fat profits for others in countries much more developed than ours. Instead it should be used to make our economy truly viable and our hard won independence really meaningful.
Now, more than three decades later, all of this has a familiar ring. The message is basically the same. Only the messengers are different. Nowadays, messages in the same vein are as likely to be delivered by members of the private sector and the business community as from the politicians in power.
By 1969, the campaign to persuade Guyanese to buy local and change our taste to appreciate goods that were locally produced grew in intensity. In March 1969, Prime Minister Burnham launched a Sell Local campaign. In addressing the gathering, which included distributors and manufacturers, he appealed to their sense of nationhood and belonging to assist themselves, other sectors and government to get rid of "old stultified prejudices". He also appealed to their sense of selflessness asking them to sell local produce in the interest of the country, to give our people some dignity, to help the unemployed to find employment in the interest of building a sounder and better economy. The Prime Minister stressed that although a Buy Local campaign had been going on for some time, there was no point in urging people to buy local unless distributors cooperated by displaying, selling, advertising and pushing locally produced goods. He mentioned at least two advertisements, which stressed the imported content of the products. He contended that such advertisements spelt the death knell of the Buy Local campaign and pandered to the Colonial mentality.
Almost similar sentiments were attributed to the late President, Dr Cheddi Jagan. In a commentary in the Guyana Chronicle, October 1998, at the observance of agriculture month, it was stated that the late president was concerned by the importation trends he witnessed. It continued that on almost all his tours to communities, Dr Jagan would urge Guyanese to support local food production and thereby give Guyanese jobs. It continued that he once expressed outrage that one business venture had imported a container of fresh flowers (these foreign flowers could now be purchased in many flower shops throughout the city). He also chided shopkeepers for displaying imported items to advantage while relegating cheaper but equally good quality local items to the floor.
This latter point was made forcefully by Mr Mohammed Khan, proprietor of M.F.K. Trading who is in the forefront of encouraging Guyanese to buy local and support small entrepreneurs. He too decried the habit of many larger supermarkets of relegating locally manufactured products to their bottom shelves or on a few shelves by themselves. In his business, local products are displayed right next to their imported counterparts and sometimes in larger quantities and varieties.
After 1969, factors other than the reluctance of businessmen to display local products advantageously and promote them more aggressively began to cloud the message of the Buy Local campaign. Like so much else in Guyana, the campaign was affected by our polarised politics. The Sell Local phase of the campaign was launched in March 1969, just three months after the bitterly fought December 1968 elections during which the government was accused of serious malpractices. As a result of that election, the PNC gained 55.8% of the total votes cast thus finalising the divorce from that marriage of convenience with the United Force. Now armed with what it saw as a definitive mandate from the Guyanese people, the government embarked on pushing its policies more aggressively. The manner in which it now marketed the Sell Local, Buy Local campaign changed markedly.
In pushing the earlier campaign, the Prime Minister and other government officials had appealed to the Guyanese sense of nationalism and patriotism. The Buy Local campaign was linked to the quest for food self-sufficiency which was in turn equated with the achievement of economic growth and national security. The tone was persuasive, appealing and conciliatory. The message was still the same but now the tone was harsh almost dictatorial, often insensitive almost verging on being insulting. The Guyanese people were accused of having "a saltfish mentality" for preferring salted cod, sardines and salmon. It was baldly stated, "psychologically, we are still hampered by our colonial complex. We still believe, as we have been taught to believe, that what is imported, especially from England, is better than what is Guyanese." Given the fact that a significant percentage of the Guyanese public was suspicious even resentful of the messenger, the unfortunate tone and the mode of delivery of that message, served to obscure its timeliness and relevance.
Over the next two years, the Buy Local, Sell Local campaign became an integral part of the ideology of "cooperative socialism" and of the thrust to "Feed, Clothe and House" the nation by 1976 as set out in the First Development Plan of 1972. This new policy was outlined by Prime Minister Forbes Burnham in the National Assembly during the 1972 budget debate. That debate took place in December 1971 against the background of a series of cataclysmic changes in the world economy. The most important of these was the decision of the United States of America to suspend the convertibility of dollars into gold and to impose a 10% surcharge on a long list of commodities entering the United States. This decision had far-reaching effects on both developed and developing countries especially on small economies like Guyana's.
The focus of the next article will be on the "Feed, Clothe and House" the nation drive and its aftermath in the right of changing national and international circumstances.
In the last article, the rationale behind and the nature of the buy local campaigns of 1967 and 1969 were examined and some of the reasons for their limited successes discussed. The focus of this article is on its successor, the more comprehensive plan to Feed, Clothe and House the Nation (FCH) in the five-year period 1972 - 1976 and the aftermath in the light of significantly different national and international economic circumstances.
The announcement of the decision to Feed, Clothe and House the nation between 1972 and 1976 was the final step in what the then Minister of Finance, Mr. Desmond Hoyte, in his 1972 budget presentation in the National Assembly in December 1971 called a “grand design”. This started with government’s deliberate policy of domestic resource mobilisation and economic self-reliance. This in its turn had come swiftly on the heels of the adoption of a socialist ideology and the determination to own and control the country’s resources as an integral part of “cooperative socialism.” This was a necessary prelude to the FCH programme which would help to make us “masters of our own destiny” through the self reliance and independence it would inculcate. The Finance Minister in his budget speech, justified government’s policy of domestic resource mobilisation and economic self-reliance. He pointed to the continued deterioration of the position of the developing countries in the world economy - a declining share of world trade, the growth of the external debt burden and the sharp contraction of the flow of resources from developed to developing countries. This on the heels of the US government’s suspension of the convertibility of the US dollar which plunged the international monetary system into chaos, ironically, at a time when the United Nations Second Development Decade had just been announced.
The Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham, in his speech to the National Assembly posited that the crisis in the world economy emphasised the need for Guyanese to strengthen our economy by increasing the level of our production and to be more dependent on ourselves for further development. To this end, government had a set of specific strategies for the FCH programme. In respect of feeding ourselves the strategy was to encourage the production of local substitutes.
This production was to be assisted by, in some cases, partial, in other cases absolute restrictions on some of the goods which were imported. It would also give protection to people who produced locally and hence provided employment. In respect of clothing ourselves, he admitted the impossibility of this happening in one or even two years, but a start would be made through the setting up of a textile mill to produce cotton fabric and then integrating backwards and producing raw cotton as well. In respect of housing ourselves, he indicated that while we had timber and clay, the government would find finance for fittings and for training people in the building trade. He admitted that even when the goals of FCH had been achieved, Guyana would not be in a position to produce every commodity which was needed and would have to, to a considerable degree, provide the necessary capital formation for its own development, one way or the other. In sum, feeding, clothing and housing the nation was to be achieved through the tried and for the most part discredited method of Import Substitution Industrialisation.
In what Hans Singer described as the "Golden Years of the 1950’s and 1960’s” capital accumulation as the main source of economic growth, to be achieved through the medium of Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI) was the development strategy of choice by many developing countries. Guyana like many other developing countries pursued ISI based on protection, as a conscious national development strategy, to stimulate employment, alleviate balance of payment constraints and secure the benefits of technical progress. Like many developing countries, Guyana chose technically "market based" ISI, that is, the importation of investment goods to produce consumer goods for the domestic market. However, Guyana rather than import investment goods to produce consumer goods, chose to protect local producers by restricting or completely banning the importation of items which could be produced locally even before they had started being produced. Often items which could not be produced locally, but which had become an integral part of the day-to-day existence were also restricted. Items like flour, split peas and white potatoes consumed a significant percentage of the food import bill but because they were consumed in larger quantities by Guyanese who were not traditionally supporters of the government, they were seen as racially and politically motivated. This ultimately had a significant negative effect on the FCH programme.
Unfortunately, other Guyanese also came to associate the FCH programme with import restrictions. The result was significant capital flight rather than a saving of foreign exchange.
It is interesting to note that Guyana chose to use ISI as the mechanism to achieve its goal in the decade of the 1970’s when there was a paradigm shift as to what constituted development. This stemmed from what Singer described as the disillusionment due to increasing evidence that the rapid growth of GNP could be combined with increasing unemployment and underemployment, increasing poverty and also increasing inequality of income distribution. This led to the shift of employment as a major objective and eventually the search for and emphasis on "appropriate" technology. The decade also saw the emergence of the strategy of "redistribution with growth" and ultimately the promotion of the poverty-oriented "basic needs strategy." These strategies were the opposite of the basically neo-classical ISI. In Guyana, while pursuing ISI, attempts were also made to find 'appropriate’ technologies as part of the strategy to "make the small man, a real man." Ultimately, neither of the two goals was achieved but this was as much as a result of internal inadequacies and external constraints, the most significant of which were the oil shocks of 1972/3 and 1979/80.
However, whatever its inadequacies significant efforts were made to help the small man especially in the field of food preservation and processing. Today, there is a generation of Guyanese who regularly eat "salt fish" but have never seen salted cod and who enjoy black cake without a single foreign preserved fruit. Many Guyanese now make a comfortable living from these two areas.
The Third Development Plan 1976-1980, called the ‘Food Five Year plan" was introduced in 1976. Its strategies were similar. One of the most significant declarations of the Minister of Agriculture was they envisaged the active participation of people in the programme. He felt that Guyanese should not be spectators in the development process but active participants and true workers.
He insisted that they should believe in the programme and demonstrate loyalty.
Ironically no such appeal was made to the business community or the private sector. In fact, one of the significant weaknesses of the FCH thrust was a marginalisation of the private sector. Indeed the success of ISI was, by its very nature, premised on the significant involvement of the private sector and private investment and fairly limited involvement of government. Exactly the opposite happened in Guyana.
The call to feed, clothe and house ourselves was discredited by the problems of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and was put firmly on the back burner in our return to the free market system. Over the last ten years in particular, eating foreign foods has become the norm and buying as many foreign foods as possible now a status symbol. In an editorial in the Guyana Chronicle, October 1998, it was stated that the potential of Guyana becoming the bread-basket of the Caribbean was beginning to have a hollow ring “in the light of the reckless importation gone mad behaviour of the moneyed businessman and their ostentatious shopper-clients whose traditional love of Guyanese food has been replaced by a yen for frozen American blueberry pie and scalloped potato fries."
In the previous article, mention was made of the attempts of the late President, Dr Cheddi Jagan and his wife, also in her capacity as President, to preach the message to Buy Local. They were both inadequate messengers. Over three decades ago by their silence they tacitly encouraged significant numbers of Guyanese to ignore and reject the message because of the misdeeds of the messenger. The message was also muted because to aggressively push a Buy Local campaign would most definitely have been and still will be regarded as being politically incorrect. It is within this context that the efforts of a few members of the business community must be viewed. The messenger might be new, but the message though pertinent will still largely be ignored.