Ghana: Harvesting the Fruits of Austerity. AFRICA'S ECONOMIC CHALLENGE

GABRIEL DEWOR is a tractor driver without a tractor. A former employee of the Ministry of Agriculture, he is one of the thousands of government workers laid off since Ghana agreed to take the International Monetary Fund's prescribed dose of economic reform in 1983. Part of the restructuring included cutting the size of its civil service.

In a drive to return labor to the countryside, Mr. Dewor received, in addition to a one-time payment equivalent to about $200, a piece of land near the town of Asutuare. Unfortunately, it is within an area that has been opened up for cultivation under an irrigation project specifically designed for mechanized farming. And Mr. Dewor cannot afford to buy or rent a tractor.

The military government of Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings is into its eighth year of office and its seventh under a structural adjustment program financed by the World Bank, the IMF, and international donors. It has not flinched from the path of economic austerity, and the World Bank how holds Ghana up as the model for its policy in Africa and the one country where structural adjustment can be seen to be working.

With economic growth of 5 percent annually for the last five years, some analysts claim that Ghana is reaping the benefits of the program.

If statistics were his staple crop, Dewor might well agree. But, with his prosperity dependent upon eking a living from hard-to-till, heavy clay soil, he tends to be skeptical of the future.

Indeed, the town of Asutuare and its surroundings are a breeding ground for skepticism. The town prospered in the late 1960s, when it was chosen as the site for a national sugar refinery. To help gear the nation toward self-sufficiency in this essential commodity, a multimillion dollar project was launched. Nine thousand acres of farmland were irrigated for producing sugar cane.

After 10 years, however, the project had collapsed, for the land had never been suitable for the farming of sugar cane in the first place. The refinery struggled on by producing alcohol - from imported Cuban sugar, thereby supporting the very trade it was intended to replace. It finally shut down completely last January.

Asutuare is a stark reminder of visions gone wrong. The designer town of housing estates for staff and management, set in the slopes of the rocky Shia hills, is run through with decay. The glass canopies of street lights hang broken; wires are torn; wrecks of family cars rust outside crumbling houses. And at the gate of the refinery a lone security guard struggles against slumber.

Now, however, Ghana is experiencing a renewed surge of development interest. Four billion dollars have been pledged by over 40 donor agencies since 1983. And redeployed Ghanaians such as Dewor are seeking to make the best of the country's new economic blueprint.

He and others have formed a cooperative which meets in a dilapidated house adjacent to the refinery. Discussions center on how its members are going to survive in an environment of industrial and agricultural decay and transformation. They have recognized the problem as the unavailability of tractors and the inaccessibility of credit.

Part of the area is farmed under the auspices of a government body, the Irrigation Development Authority, which has five tractors. Because of its own requirements, it is unable to rent out the machines to farmers early enough in the season before rains swamp the land.

The deputy chief executive of the Irrigation Development Authority, Wabena Wiafe, believes that efforts should be made ``to encourage a private tractor pool.''

What tractors there are at present in private hands are both old and in high demand. The price of a replacement being in excess of $15,000, the cost of a single tractor is 50 times the national annual per capita income.

The redeployed workers have approached banks for credit, but as the treasurer of the cooperative, Samuel Robertson, explains: ``They want to see some crop in the field before they lend you money.''

The government has promised relief, Mr. Robertson says, but ``We don't know the truth in it.... We shall be happy if they implement it, but we still don't know.''

Meanwhile, the personal problems mount up. The farmers have resorted to borrowing money from the market women who then insist that they sell the produce through them at a reduced rate. Their lay-off pay, however, is long since gone, and the workers find that, with the fields ill-kept, what crop they have managed to sow is ravaged by vermin.

The redeployees are walking a financial tightrope with unsteady feet, and the consequences could be disastrous. In the yard of the house lay Kofidu Robertson, the ailing son of the treasurer. Under a government cost-recovery strategy, Ghanaians must pay toward their medical expenses. But since Kofidu's father already owes the hospital money, he is reluctant to take the boy in for further treatment.

Despite these tribulations, Dewor and many of his neighbors have faith in their ability to thrive in their restructured lives if they can get access to credit.

When Dewor states their case, his words correspond to the greater reality of a nation struggling to come to terms with the world economic order: ``If we get the inputs ... there is hope. If we don't, we are going to collapse.''

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