All across Guyana, the poor are setting up little trays, ice coolers and tents at road corners and on parapets. They are selling anything, which they feel will provide them with an income to help take care of their families.
The hustle is on. Poor people are struggling to survive. They have mouths to feed at home.
Jobs in the formal sector are scarce. And even in the government, too many of the vacancies are being filled without a competitive process. Jobs are being handed out to cronies, family and friends.
The poor always suffer in such circumstances. And as such, they have been forced to return to something which was quite prevalent in the 1980’s when the economy hit rock bottom and when job losses in the state sector was so acute that the unemployed took to the road corners and pavements selling mints, chewing gum and cigarettes just in order to survive.
Poverty was so high then that begging was not an option. People had so little for themselves that there was little left to help others
The national symbol in those ‘hard guava days’ became a vending tray. Poor people, men and women, sat all day in the baking sun hoping to make a few sales so that they earn a few dollars to can put something on their tables for their children.
No one should wish a return to those hard times. But there are signs at present that the poor once again are being left behind while middle class pen pushers in government offices, many of whom owe their fat salaries to cronyism, can wine and dine in the finest local restaurants, send their children to private schools and jet off to Miami on American Airlines to shop.
While the fat bureaucrats are enjoying the good life, the poor are risking their lives selling frozen water from ice coolers at street corners. Bread and fruit stands are being erected on residential bridges. This is happening in every town and village without exception.
The struggles of the poor are real. Jobs are simply not there. Poor people are forced into vending on street corners and roadsides to vend just to put food on the table.
Over the past few years, the cooked dog food, consisting of scraps of leftover meat cooked in large quantities of low-grade rice, became a burgeoning industry. The dog food market is now saturated. There is glut of dog food vendors and their sales are diminishing because of the competition from each other.
The latest trend is the vending of bottled water at major street junctions. This is a business, which puts the vendors’ lives at risk but it is a risk, which the poor feel they have to take in order to survive.
The government will continue to delude themselves into thinking that all this vending represents the vibrancy of self-employment and small businesses. They should do a survey and speak to those involved. Only then will they realise how tough things are for the poor.
Government’s economic model, like the so-called Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) of 30 years ago, is not working. The contraction of the economy from 1973 and the corresponding retrenchments and import restrictions saw many poor people taking to artisanal professions and to vending in order to survive.
Young artisans took old tin cups and made all manner of appliances, including stoves, which they offered for sale on the pavements. The then government saw this as a case of the poor showcasing their skills.
When the ERP liberalisation was launched, it wiped out the market for the goods of these craftsmen, who then had no choice but to go into the interior where they battled malaria, spent months prospecting and mining for gold and then spent most of their hard-earned earnings at the shops and brothels in interior landings. Many of them are broke today.
The economic model, which has been pursued since the end of the ERP may have reduced absolute poverty. But it has also intensified the gap between the rich and the poor.
The solution of the government is to expand the size of the government, rather than energize the private sector to increase demand for the goods and services, which the poor can produce.
Today, the state sector is a drain on public finances and is stagnating private enterprise. The pen pushers who live off the taxes of the poor can go the fast food joints, bars and cafes and spend thousands of dollars on unhealthy food and drink, while the desperate poor have to hustle with their trays to earn a dollar.
The prospects of oil will not change the fortunes of the poor. It will continue to feed a parasitic bureaucratic class, allow the rich to get richer and put more distance between the rich and the poor.
What Guyana needs is not only a political solution. Guyana needs an economic solution. It needs a pro-poor government.
Shared government will not bring any respite to the poor. The PNCR and the PPP are both peas in the same pod. Both pursue liberal economic policies, which lie at the heart of the problems of the poor.
The WPA, the Alliance For Change and all the new parties are no different. They offer no new economic model but instead the same old discredited neo-liberal approach, which is turning Guyana into a nation of roadside vendors.
There is no hope for the poor from the established political order. Their tragedy is that vending has never lifted the poor classes out of poverty and never will. The poor therefore will get poorer.
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