• U.S.

Business: The Poor Suffer the Most

5 minute read

In Dacca, Bangladesh, eager buyers crowd around empty tanks to wait for deliveries of scarce and costly kerosene. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzanians line up for hours for deliveries of sugar and other basic necessities that are hopelessly delayed, partly because there is little gasoline for trucks. Gas is rationed; service stations are closed three days a week; and President Julius Nyerere urges his Cabinet members to ride bicycles to work. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian cab drivers crowd the streets and snarl traffic during a three-day strike to protest a 58% rise in gasoline prices. Meanwhile, riots break out in the Dominican Republic, and three people are killed after gas prices jump for the third time in a year. Says Colombia’s President Julio Ayala: “One OPEC price rise is equal to ten subversive blows.”

So it goes throughout the Third World. Just as ordinary inflation bites deepest among poor people, the petro-squeeze hurts the yearning, less developed countries (LDCS) most of all. They can afford the painful pinch of rocketing costs for energy and petroleum-based products such as fertilizers and other chemicals much less than affluent industrial nations can. Climbing oil costs consume precious foreign exchange, make it harder to buy farm equipment or factory machinery, and curb development spending on agriculture, industry, education and health.

Laments Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s Vice President: “Higher oil prices mean there is less for everything else.” The LDCs will also suffer a decline in demand for their exports as the industrialized countries fall into recession.

But not all the Third World countries bear quite the same burden. While scarcely in the OPEC league, Argentina, Peru, Malaysia and some others can supply most energy needs from their own reserves. At the other extreme, countries such as Sudan, Chad and Bangladesh, among others, are so poor that the shortage of funds to buy oil is just one more lack on a long list of basic needs.

It is the energy-deficient advanced developing countries, such as Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan and Kenya, that are in the worst shape. They set out to emulate the industrial nations and eagerly replaced their oxen with tractors and generators. Now they are paying the price of a 1600% rise in OPEC prices since 1970; they cannot do without oil but cannot afford to buy it. Admits an official of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization: “The guy who was en lightened enough to follow our advice to buy machinery and fertilizer is in a bind, while the farmer who kept his water buffalo is in much better shape.”

The developing countries’ oil-import bill jumped from $4 billion in 1972 to about $44 billion this year, and some have-not nations are openly complaining about OPEC. The worsening crisis over crude prices may create an ideological dilemma for Third World leaders like Tanzania’s Nyerere who were originally strong supporters of commodity cartels.

Cutting back on consumption is not enough. Tanzania uses roughly half as much petroleum as in 1972, but its oil bill has risen 900%, and now eats up half of all earnings from the country’s exports. Complains Rodrigo Carazo, President of Costa Rica: “Our 1972 oil needs cost $11.8 million. Our 1979 needs will cost at least $103 million. The barrel of oil that we could buy in exchange for 57 Ibs. of bananas or 3 Ibs. of coffee in 1972 now costs us 440 Ibs. of bananas or 24 Ibs. of coffee.”

Just as a homeowner struggling with heating bills may turn to his bank for help, the have-not nations are hefty borrowers. Their loans from Western banks and international aid authorities have surged to a dangerously high $300 billion, and are expected to rise some $60 billion next year. The LDCs may be about to run out of credit to cover their bare requirements. Bankers are becoming increasingly cautious now that payments on their Iranian loans are in question, and they are under pressure to diversify their lending.

Economic expansion, which depends on cheap fuel, is slowing almost everywhere. Taiwan’s growth has declined from 12% last year to 8%, and South Korea’s from 12.5% to 6%. Oil-fueled inflation is raging. Taiwan’s wholesale prices rose 3.5% last year, but are expected to jump 16% this year; at least ten points of the total are directly attributable to increased energy costs. Many Third World leaders echo Kenya’s Kibaki: “We have had to postpone vitally needed development projects. We are not importing any nonessentials.”

Instead, some nations are returning to preindustrial methods. Over the past few months, the price of tractors in rural Thailand has fallen 20% as fuel has become scarce and expensive. Prices of water buffaloes, which do not consume diesel fuel but do produce free fertilizer, have soared. Some Thai officials are rather relieved that their bureaucratic bungling has stalled the pace of industrialization. Says one official: “If we had been more successful, Thailand would be in much bigger trouble today.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com