The Economist’s Tale
by Peter Griffiths
What really happens when the World Bank imposes its policies on a country? This is an insider’s view of one aid-made crisis. Peter Griffiths was at the interface between government and the Bank. In this day-by-day account of a mission he undertook in Sierra Leone in 1986, he tells the story of how the World Bank, obsessed with the free market, imposed a secret agreement on the government, banning all government food imports or subsidies.
This is a rare and important portrait of the aid world that insiders will recognise, but of which the general public seldom gets a glimpse.
The Economist magazine said:
The Economist’s Tale: A Consultant Encounters Hunger and the World Bank does not mention Sierra Leone’s war, but is much more revealing of its causes [than the previous book reviewed]. An independent consultant, Mr Griffiths was sent to Sierra Leone by the World Bank shortly before the war began. Ostensibly, he had an open brief to report on the country’s food situation. In fact, as he soon discovered, the big-wigs in Washington had already forced Sierra Leone’s government to agree to stop importing rice, thus disbanding a corrupt state monopoly overnight. Mr Griffiths’s mission was to justify this pre ordained policy.
Though committed to market principles, Mr Griffiths was aghast. His research suggested that the government imported half the country’s staple food, and that, because of political instability and a plummeting economy, no businessmen would take on the job in the government’s place.
Mr Griffiths concludes that the World Bank’s policy will reap famine. True, it may eventually boost the income of local producers and retailers as intended; but not before most of them have starved to death.
Written in diary form, The Economist’s Tale is a lightly fictionalised account (to avoid libel, he has made up composite characters and changed names) of Mr Griffiths’ struggle to make the government defy the World Bank, preferably without getting himself sacked.
Sparkling in his role as a conscience-struck double agent, he fights intrigue and physical danger to triumph in the end. Along the way, he brilliantly elucidates the relationship between incompetence and corruption, in both Sierra Leone and the aid industry at large. The difference is that whereas most Sierra Leoneans have no choice but to lie or steal for personal advancement, most development economists and aid workers do have a choice. Whether they choose to exercise it is another matter.