new internationalist
issue 320 - January-February 2000


I heard the grass(roots) singing
by Roberto Rubio-Fabian

Maria Eugenia rose to her feet in the packed hall and stared straight ahead, her weathered face a picture of tense composure. The young Salvadorean woman had travelled for 16 hours by bus over pitted mountain roads to tell her story. More than 300 people in the room listened attentively.

‘Once my family had a market for our goods,’ Maria explained. ‘We campesinos could sell our crops and our handicrafts; we were able to make a living. But now we have to compete against cheap goods coming into the country. And we can’t afford the high interest rates the banks charge. It’s too expensive to send our kids to school and the Government is cutting back on other services too. We are barely able to cover our costs and I don’t know how much longer we can hang on.’

Heads around the room nod in agreement, each person recognizes a fragment of their own life. Maria’s story is commonplace in this tiny Central American country. Thousands more of her fellow citizens could tell a similar tale. Economic-adjustment policies imposed by the international financial agencies have made each day a bitter struggle for survival for El Salvador’s rural majority.

For nearly two decades the economic policies that shape the lives of the Majority World have been prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But in all that time no-one has bothered to ask the people paying the price of ‘adjustment’ what they think.

Now that’s changed. In 1997 the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative (SAPRI) was negotiated with World Bank President James Wolfensohn by some of the world’s sternest critics of structural adjustment. The idea was to look at the impact of those policies on ten countries across four continents.

SAPRI has given a broad range of citizens’ groups a legitimacy that civil society has never before enjoyed. Perhaps most important, it has sparked the creation of national networks of peasants’ and women’s groups, small-business owners, urban workers and farmers. Members of this global network provide a channel for ordinary citizens to talk about the effects of adjustment programmes on their lives, their communities and their economies. One stumbling block: the Bank has yet to create a mechanism for integrating the grassroots feedback into policy.

But from Bangladesh to Ghana the stories of ordinary citizens have shown that local knowledge is the key to producing sound proposals for healthier, more just economies. After all, if economic policies make life worse for the poor, are they really worth having?

Roberto Rubio-Fabian is Executive Director of the National Development Foundation of El Salvador (FUNDE) and is Latin America Regional Co-ordinator of the SAPRI network (SAPRIN).

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