Hunger and poverty spread as economy shrinks
Aubyn Hill, Financial Gleaner Columnist
The economic conditions in the country are now biting deeply into people's stomachs, health and their personal pride. I had interactions with two different persons recently - one an ageing widow and the other a fourth-year student at the University of Technology - that brought home the heart-piercing pain and the erosion of personal dignity that poverty, born of a no-growth and shrinking economy, is dumping on Jamaicans.
The widow is a person I have know from childhood and she engaged me in a private conversation at a funeral, which I attended recently in the country.
The furtive, conspiratorial secrecy of the tone of her voice as she pulled me aside told me that she had a need that would pain her to share.
She and her husband were simple honest farmers, and a few years ago, death took him from her. She struggles with the farm, since her children had no interest and moved away. Farming in her area, as has happened elsewhere in the country, has come upon hard times and her cash crops have failed. Her sotto voce request to me was to help her buy medicines, since she has no money to go to the pharmacy.
Knowing her family as I do for so long, and feeling the need mingled with tormenting shame, I had no choice but to offer to help. She would never, under normal circumstances, ask me or anyone else for a handout. This was a steep social and emotional climb down for this proud countrywoman who had been self-sufficient all her life. It was heartbreaking for me to even receive the request from her.
If I had any doubt about the urgency of the need, early on the Monday morning after the weekend funeral, she was on the telephone to remind me of my promise to help. I suspect that some portion of that little financial help which I sent to her was to buy food to eat.
Hunger and need of student
These days, hunger is not limited to ageing widows; young educated students are facing the same need. Just last week, a member of my immediate family was called by a fourth-year student of UTech and was told that the student had been without food for a while, was really starving, and had nothing to eat. My family member went and bought some groceries and brought them with a chicken cooked in our home to the needy student. When I was told of the incident, need and response I was deeply moved emotionally.
I am now also convinced more than ever that our country, Jamaica, must move from economic stagnancy, political under- and non-performing, costly, inefficient and ineffective governments, and private-sector obsequiousness and fear, to one that seeks to produce economic growth and wealth for its citizens. We in Jamaica must take stated and quantifiable steps to reduce poverty.
Those who think I'm taking two real but unscientific samples to extrapolate the incidence of poverty across the country, look around you at the multiplied number of beggars in the city and rural areas. More poignantly, take note of many who would hate to be considered to be among the rank of beggars who are forced to beg. People are losing jobs, bills are piling up daily, banks and other lenders want security, and persons from all strata of society are running out of cash.
If you doubt that scenario about cash shortage, ask the big consumer houses how their sales have been. They will invariably tell you their sales are down - in some cases, quite significantly. Consumers are short of cash.
Pork glut means no cash and suffering
Recently, I had reason to speak to some pork farmers in Trelawny. They told me a sorry tale of a serious oversupply of pork products in the local market, leading to what they claim to be a glut. These farmers are unable to sell their pigs and are incurring costs for feed and care, which they know they will be unable to recoup.
Pig farmers are a fairly well organised bunch but, unlike chicken farmers, they lack the very tight commercial arrangements with processors which will almost guarantee them a profit if they produce to the plans agreed with the processors. The looser pork arrangements also allow pork farmers to sometimes skip their commitments to processors when market prices are in the farmers' favour.
These days, swine farmers are taking measures to convert pig carcasses into corned pork in order to hold the product until higher prices return. These farmers are falling behind in paying their bills and some are finding it hard to support their families.
The Government cannot enter the pig-growing and pork-selling activities. However, they can take steps to help regulate arrangements to reduce the glut. While imports have been cut, some farmers feel that imports can still be reduced. The authorities could also work with pig farmers and processors to promote pork more aggressively as a suitable protein.
Denmark leads all countries as the highest per capita consumer of pork - more than twice the per capita consumption in the United States and Singapore, and almost twice the consumption in China. Jamaica's per capita consumption is estimated at close to being off the bottom of the charts. Especially in these hard times, pork consumption could be a very useful protein alternative to those who are progressively shorter and shorter of cash.
The twin problem of hunger and poverty is moving up the social hierarchy. Many are still ashamed to disclose their need and their near destitution. More are being forced into the open by hunger, mounting bills and absolutely no cash in the kitty. Many entrepreneurs with small and/or new businesses are on the brink of failure and bankruptcy because fewer people can buy their products or services.
Focused economic growth through reduction in energy costs, a much more efficient and less costly Government, a revamped knowledge economy with rapid government divestments, are some of the steps needed to move us away from this pervasive, progressing poverty.
Aubyn Hill is the CEO of Corporate Strategies Limited and was an international banker for more than 25 years.Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @HillAubynFacebook: Facebook.com/ Corporate.Strategies