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Account from a consultant to the World Bank
How a decision of the World Bank once more nearly caused a famine
by Eric Toussaint
29 January 2007

Peter Griffiths, a British economist is given a 4 months mission starting from September 1986 by the government of Sierra Leone. His official mission is to make recommendations about the food security policy of the country.

From the first day of his mission, he is introduced to the authorized representative of the World Bank in the country, who informs him, that in reality, he is requested to demonstrate that the government must give up public control of rice imports, suppress subsidies on rice sold on the national market, leave all imports to private investors and leave the market free to determine the price at which rice will be sold.

First observation: the World Bank does not respect the sovereignty of the government who hired the consultant and attempts to dictate him the conclusions of his report.

What is Sierra Leone’s alimentary situation?

Rice is the country’s staple food; half the rice consumed is produced by local farmers, the other half is imported by the government since local supply is insufficient.
A great part of the population is undernourished: the Sierra Leonese people consume on average less than 2000 calories per day.
Half the calories consumed are obtained by rice, the other half by vegetal oil and animal fat.
Meat supplies only 1%, fish 2%, milk 1%. The life standard of the Sierra Leonese is extremely low in spite of the fact that they live in a country favored by nature: quite rainy (very different from Sahel), good soil and very important wealth of the subsoil (diamonds and precious metals). The country is ideally situated from the international travel communications viewpoint since it is the location of the African continent the nearest to south America and is a necessary passage for ships coming from the far east and going around the cape of good hope.

Income revenues are extremely low: the salary of most public civil servants hardly allows them to buy sufficient rice necessary to survive. They must look for other food sources to complement their nevertheless insufficient food supply.

Diamond diggers are underpaid and undernourished: they receive 5 to 15 dollars per diamond worth at least 10 times that at the price of rough diamonds on the world market.

Farmers hardly manage to feed themselves since the revenues they get from cocoa, coffee and rice production are insufficient.

The World Bank’s way of thinking

1 ) We must devaluate the currency so as to make exportations of coffee, cocoa, and diamond more competitive on the world market.
The parity of the national currency, the Leone, must be fixed by the market, the exchange rate must be left floating.

2) The rice production is insufficient because the price of rice on the domestic market is too low. Local farmers have no incentive to increase their production since at the going market price, rice growing is not profitable. According to the World Bank, the price of rice is artificially low because of subsidized rice imports by the government.

3) For the World Bank, the solution is simple: if the government no longer subsidizes the price of rice and no longer imports 50% of consumed rice in the country, the price of rice will go up, local rice producers will be enticed to raise production because they will be able to sell it at a profitable price.

To bring an extra argument to the withdrawal of public control over imports, the World Bank, seconded by the FAO, declares that a great part of government-imported rice is not consumed in the country. The local FAO in charge declares that 50% of subsidized imported rice is fraudulently re-exported to neighboring Guinea and Liberia.

First remarks in contradiction with the World Bank :
The World Bank refuses to consider the issue of the purchasing power of the inhabitants of Sierra Leone. If the government of Sierra Leone voluntarily keeps the price of rice at a low level through subsidies, it is because of the low purchasing power of the citizens of its citizens.

If the price of rice was raised without an equally proportional rise of the purchasing power (through indexation on the cost of life), the already insufficient consumer base would only diminish. Indeed, the rice farmers in Sierra Leone will only be able to find a buyer at a price ensuring good cost effectiveness if the revenue of rice consumers allow them to buy the rice at that price. Therefore, any economical policy which refuses to adopt measures to truly raise the purchasing power is bound to fail.

As we shall see later, the policy dictated by the World Bank would have led Sierra Leone straight to disaster: a famine of the outmost magnitude.

While consultant Peter Griffiths is still analyzing the real situation, trying to understand the behavior of the farmers and trying to measure the importance of the fraud and the corruption (which allows him to prove that, contrary to what the World Bank says, less than a tenth of imported rice is re-exported in a fraudulent way abroad), the World Bank, without waiting for his conclusions, pushes ahead and manages to convince the government of Sierra Leone to apply the desired measures.

On Tuesday October 9th 1986, Peter Griffiths is informed by the ministry who employs him, that an agreement was made between the World Bank and the government. In return for its submission to the demands of the World Bank, the government receives a 5 million dollars loan.

The government accepts that the price of rice be determined by the market. Starting January 1st 1987, the private sector will import and fix the sale’s price of rice on the national market. All government subsidies to reduce the price of rice will be dropped at that date. The government will only import the rice necessary to public servants (starting with policemen and soldiers) of hospitals, schools and prisons. The government commits itself to import a maximum of 20 000 tons yearly, i.e.: 8 times less than previously. The government will guarantee the existence of a strategic reserve of a maximum volume of 20 000 tons of rice, which corresponds to 3 weeks of consumption to the scale of the country.

Peter Griffiths is shocked; he is convinced that this decision, if carried out, will inevitably lead to a food shortage which will cause the death of 250 000 to 500 000 inhabitants of Sierra-Leone.

Peter Griffiths bases his conviction on the following analysis: the currency depreciation, which has been recommended by the World Bank a few months earlier, has had the consequence that Sierra Leonese capitalists have moved their money abroad to the safety of stronger currencies.

The dozen capitalists likely to import rice in place of the government have been contacted by Peter Griffiths who asked them whether they had any intent to do it.

All answered negatively for the following reasons: the order of a complete shipment of rice from Asia represents a huge investment: a shipment of 10 000 tons of rice requires about 2.4 million dollars. But, once unloaded from the ship and carried to local markets, rice can only be sold in depreciated national currency.

Capitalists find that such undertaking is too risky since they are not sure to obtain a proper return on investment, and even less certain to make a juicy profit. In fact, even if they manage to sell the whole shipload of rice at a sufficiently high price, all they will have in their hands is a large amount of national currency. To regain their investment and turn a profit, they will have to exchange them for dollars at a good rate, which is not in the least guaranteed since the exchange rate is floating.

Sierra-Leoneses capitalists make another observation. They consider as highly likely that the raise of the price of rice will cause riots and they think that they will be the target of the wrath of the people. In this case, their belongings and themselves would be in danger and they do not see why they should take such a risk.

Furthermore they believe that the government, confronted to popular unrest, will be compelled to back up, and not only lower the price of rice, but also impose new controls on currency exchange, which means that they will not be able to convert their gains into dollars or any other strong currency, causing them an extra loss.

The alternate scenario isn’t any more encouraging: the price of rice could end up being so high that the Sierra-Leoneses will not be able to buy the entire imported stock. Great quantities of rice would end up without a buyer.
One last reason is advanced: the majority of capitalists in Sierra Leone are of Lebanese origin and, in case of riots, their entire community could be at risk.

Practical consequence: if the government no longer imports rice (except for the public service) and if no Sierra Leonese capitalist take its place, the country will quickly face a rice shortage - since national production does not satisfy the demand. A famine will follow. And since a great part of the population is undernourished, the death toll will be between 250 000 and 500 000 persons before help can even arrive.

Explanation: Peter Griffiths checked the time it takes for a shipment of 10 000 tons of rice to reach Sierra-Leone. In normal times, one should count 3 months: 1 month for the order to become effective and 2 months for shipping and dispatching - the rice usually comes from Thailand.

We are mid-October 1986. The government, in application of the agreement of the World Bank has not ordered any new shipment of rice (except for public services). The total available reserves will allow to hold out until the month of January.

If the private sector, as everything leads to believe, does not order any rice shipment, the country will face a rice shortage as early as mid-January and people will begin to die in the urban centers and in the areas where no rice is grown. Local farmers hardly have any rice reserves available to put on the market.

Supposing that, confronted to the seriousness of the situation, the government decides at the end of January, to disregard its agreement with the World Bank and order rice, we still will have to wait another 2 months for the arrival of a large enough shipment - and only if we succeed in buying and loading the rice directly in Rotterdam or in the USA (at a much higher price than the one we usually get from Thailand). Or else we shall have to wait another months if the rice has to come from East Asia. In the best of instances (2 months delay), 250 000 people would die. In the worst of instances (3 months delay), 500 000 would die.

Peter Griffiths decides then to circumvent the World Bank and alerts the government to the looming famine. He offers recommendations to soften the most dramatic impacts of the measures dictated by the World Bank. His efforts will eventually succeed: after weeks of hesitation, the government - fearing riots and starvation - decides not to respect certain clauses of the agreement with the World Bank and maintain its rice imports. Starvation is eventually avoided.

Interest of Peter Griffiths’ book:

This book describes in a simple and rigorous way the behaviors and analysis criterias of some leaders of the World Bank, of the FAO, of government leaders and wealthy people from the countries of the South, not to forget the expatriates (specifically international contractors and public servants of multilateral organizations), a behavior which is assessed without concessions. The author has first hand experience and testifies that what he narrates has really happened before his eyes. He has merely modified the name of protagonists and changed some details in order to avoid endangering certain witnesses, prevent lawsuits and make the story more intelligible to the non-expert reader.

One does not need to be an economist to understand this book. Nevertheless, at the end of the book the reader has certainly acquired some useful economical knowledge. The present story is set in Sierra Leone but anyone involved in development issues regarding the South, will readily tell you that this could have happened anywhere else in the Third world.

Critical remarks

The author who is sincerely convinced of the necessity to adopt adequate policies to ensure food security is nevertheless confined within a traditional frame of thought that is strongly influenced by neo-classicist economy. His analysis does not go far enough in the interpretation of the causes of the dramatic situation that he describes with a real empathy.

Therefore, he is unable to suggest long-term alternatives to the policies of the World Bank. And it is this limitation that has allowed him to keep working as an international consultant for the World Bank. The reader will thus not find in this book any proposal allowing to escape from the dominant logic.


The policies analyzed in this book, although enacted in the 1980’s remain largely valid now. This book is thus useful for people, in the South as well as in the North, who try to understand the situations faced by developing countries.

Let us hope that this book published in 2003 in English [1] will be available in other languages in the near future.

Translation from French by Raoul de Néverlée ; Proofreading by Gregoire Seither - Coorditrad

Footnotes :

[1Peter Griffiths, The Economist’s Tale: A Consultant Encounters Hunger and the World Bank, Zedbooks, 2003, 252 pp.

Eric Toussaint

is a historian and political scientist who completed his Ph.D. at the universities of Paris VIII and Liège, is the spokesperson of the CADTM International, and sits on the Scientific Council of ATTAC France.
He is the author of Debt System (Haymarket books, Chicago, 2019), Bankocracy (2015); The Life and Crimes of an Exemplary Man (2014); Glance in the Rear View Mirror. Neoliberal Ideology From its Origins to the Present, Haymarket books, Chicago, 2012 (see here), etc.
See his bibliography:
He co-authored World debt figures 2015 with Pierre Gottiniaux, Daniel Munevar and Antonio Sanabria (2015); and with Damien Millet Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank: Sixty Questions, Sixty Answers, Monthly Review Books, New York, 2010. He was the scientific coordinator of the Greek Truth Commission on Public Debt from April 2015 to November 2015.