Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Solutrea pulls out of Jamaica telecom sector

An interesting story that has been brewing in Jamaica during July came to another critical point yesterday, as Solutrea Jamaica Ltd (formerly Biscom), decided to pull out its investment in Jamaica's telecom sector (see report in Jamaica Gleaner). Solutrea had been granted recently a licence to become a new player in the mobile phone market. Concerns had been raised about the company's integrity as a result of its failure to pay a fee, by a specified due date. Mr. Keith Walker, CEO of Solutrea, reportedly said that 'politicisation' and harsh comments in the media had caused company shareholders to conclude that the timing of its Jamaica project was not favourable. The company had been due to make investments of some US$50 million. It had been granted a mobile licence effective June 1 this year, and was due to pay a fee of J$500 million (about US$7.5 million, or BS$15 million) by end-June. Reportes indicate that the payment was made, but in mid-July, and the government decided to revoke the licence.The company will return the licence and the government is expected to return all the money paid so far by Solutrea.

Jamaica's Cabinet ordered an enquiry into the affair, and Technology Minister Phillip Paulwell has been under pressure to resign, amid questions regarding conditions for granting the licence and possible conflicts of interest. Remember that Jamaica is in the run-up to general elections, so this affair is likely to find itself high in the political rhetoric that will flow in coming weeks. The opposition party has indicated it will release its findings on the affair.

Mr. Walker is reportedly based in Barbados, so it will be interesting to see what fall out occurs there.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Bus crash in St. Joseph

Late on Sunday morning, a coach crashed into a wall, on Joy Road, at Joe's River, St. Joseph, on the way to the Party Monarch Finals. Six people died and some 37 were injured as a result of the crash. In a small country like Barbados, an event like this is rightly seen as a national tragedy, and many people will today be sympathizing with the families and friends who lost loved ones. I send them all my condolences.

Road accidents have become all too common place in Jamaica, where driving is very fast and often aggressive (see report from 2006 in The Jamaica Gleaner as an example). There, the death toll in a year is around a frighteningly high 300. In addition, the number of injured is very high. Both developments are alarming health officials. I wrote before about some of the tendencies I have seen that are moving Bajans in this direction (see Barbados on the brink ). It's a common cost of fast development. Barbados is made up mainly of narrow roads, and some of the driving that I have seen is totally out of keeping with an essentially rural environment, with vehicles being driven more like racing cars, especially buses. I am not pointing a finger of blame on anyone, but many in Barbados will know the image to which I am referring. We will all await the investigation, which will come after this event. My hope is that Barbadians learn from the spread of this problem in other Caribbean countries and work hard to avoid such tragedies becoming common place.

Those who wish to follow the news actively can do that through the two local blogs, which have become more like online news sources, Barbados Free Press and Barbados Underground.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Caring for old people

The lady who lives with and looks after my father as a permanent home help suggested to me this Sunday morning that I write that "Jamaica still has a soft spot for old people". I have wanted to write about my father for a long time, so with this inspiration, here is a brief account of how his life has changed.

My father is 78 and suffered a stroke 9 months ago. Fortunately, those around him at the time were alert enough to realise what had happened and managed to get him to a local hospital. He was then transferred quickly to the university hospital. He had to spend several weeks in hospital. He lost the ability to eat and drink, as well as the movement on the left side of his body. He had to be fed by drip initially, then his throat had to relearn gradually how to control fluids and solids, while he was being fed by others. He could not perform his toilet functions himself and needed a bed pan and bed baths. He underwent tests to try to determine the cause of the stroke, and determine if an operation was needed to deal with some blockage of blood circulation. The tests did not indicate any clear immediate cause of the stroke, so no more operations. He began physiotherapy to try to regain use of the right side of his body. After two weeks in hospital, he was allowed to return home.

Hospital treatment had been at the university hospital in Kingston, and was facilitated by a good team of cardiologists and other doctors, including a cousin, who is a neurosurgeon at that hospital. Home is in the parish of Manchester. Facilities there are not as sophisticated as in Kingston. But, my father is now back in familiar surroundings, including the loving care of people living with him and his neighbours.

He is now on the long, slow road to recovery. What does that mean? His life over the past 8 months has regained some of its essential elements. For years, he had been going to exercise classes regularly with many other seniors. He had been doing yoga for about 20 years, and also aerobics. He walked every day, going to market taking the route across a golf course. All of that has stopped. Instead, he has a physiotherapist visit him three times a week for an hour and they do battle as he tries to regain strength and movement. His left leg has some limited movement, but is very weak. After many months with little use, the legs are relearning the art of walking. So, with his 4-pronged stick, he makes a slow trek from him bedroom to the dining room, or to the bathroom. He can feed himself, and his once very good appetite is again in evidence. He can get himself into a shower, and get bathed. He can use a toilet. When I make one of my periodic visits to Jamaica, I try to increase the regularity of his exercises. So, with his willingness, we get back to some of his yoga stretches, and use small weights to get back some strength in his arms and legs. Those of us who are in good health or have never suffered injury find it hard to fathom how we lose the ability to do physical things very quickly and how hard is the process of retraining the body.

Most of his support comes from those living with my father and family and friends who visit or talk with him on a regular basis. His mind is still quite sharp. Confusion sets in occasionally, but that's not a surprise at his age. But he likes the stimulus of visitors and the chats he has. I also think that he likes to be "difficult" sometime so that he can engage in arguments, falling back tired when it looks like he has lost a point! For sure, he's no fool! He loves to hear the voices of his granddaughters. My three year old daughter came with me to Jamaica and spent Easter with her Grandpa, and her concern about his "sore knees and fingers" was very touching as she massaged his legs and hands.

His physiotherapist is one of the gentlest, and most patient young ladies I have ever met. If every person who needs her type of assistance can find someone so willing and kind, then they are blessed.

What all of this shows is that those who fall ill and begin a process of recovery, especially the old, depend more on others than ever before. We have some systems that help too. Stroke and heart conditions are on the increase, and in the Caribbean as across majority black populations there appears to be a startlingly higher prevalence than amongst the white population. In the US, the facilities available are really overwhelming. Here in the Caribbean, we are more limited. We have no special rehab units for stroke victims, for example. In Barbados, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Barbados is making efforts to educate the general population and support those with heart conditions and stroke suffers. Their offices are worth a visit (including to see people using the facilities to exercise and rehabilitate) and they deserve more financial and volunteer support. The Heart Foundation of Jamaica is making similar efforts. Both have to rely heavily on fund raising efforts, and it's surprising how hard it can be to raise funds!

After his monthly check up in Kingston this week, the day after I arrived in Jamaica, my father and I went to a local restaurant, with his driver and home help. He walked slowly into the restaurant (it took about 10 minutes), and we waited patiently to get and eat our steamed fish. He needed the bathroom, so he took the slow walk there, with help. Then we were ready to leave and get back in the car. A young girl, working at the restaurant, put her face into his and said: "I wish my grand father was alive, even if he was as sick as you, sir, so that I could help him." She was almost in tears as she spoke. We were all struck by her words and the importance of what she was saying. It does not need elaboration.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Election time...in Jamaica

Spending a few days in Jamaica right now is interesting. Many things about Caribbean life are similar across the islands, but some things are very different. One of the similarities is how our politicians try to show themselves to be like "ordinary" people at election time. For us that has to be more than kissing babies. In Jamaica's case, PM Portia Simpson-Miller is always ready to dance on stage at a rally. Opposition leader, Bruce Golding, can be seen sympathizing with a local person's plight.

One of the differences is the presence of political violence around election time. Jamaica will have national elections on August 27, and in the long run in to that date, much of the focus is on whether politically related violence can be kept in check. The parties have signed a Code of Conduct, and we will have to see if that makes any real difference. In the early days, it's clear that there will be violence. The reactions of the parties' spokesmen to any event highlight the animosity that is always there between the ruling People's National Party (PNP) and the oppostion Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Charges of "liar" come forward very fast. The police have so far come forward with robust responses and statements warning that they will not tolerate attempts to intimidate by residents' blocking access to communities. Reports indicate some candidates have been shot at, and investigations are underway. Graffiti slogans have been daubed on constituency offices (though in one case, the local JLP has arranged for this to removed from PNP property). Grand promises are coming, so too is the need to clarify "misunderstandings", such as the JLP's position on reducing the police force's working week to 40 hours.

So far, the newspapers have found many other things to continue to report besides electioneering events. On television, the evening news seem to focus more on the election-related town meetings, possibily because these look spectacular (with PNP rallies decked in orange and yellow, and PLP rallies decked out in green). The TV electioneering sound bites are not very illuminating. However, some of the studio analysis is really very good, and there is a lesson here for any of the Caribbean countries: the moderator really could keep control of the guests, and they in turn showed good moderation in their desire to hog the lime light and throw accusations. So far, there have been no proposals for a CNN/YouTube debate by the party leaders or candidates, as happened this past week in the USA, but in the Internet age, nothing like this can be ruled out once it has been made possible.

Where Jamaica seems to be following the US is in spending increasing amounts on elections (one estimate indicates that this could reach J$600 million, about US$9 million). Legitimate concerns are raised in this region about who finances politicians, and what influence this can have on outcomes. We do not have the strong limitations on party financing, as in the UK or US (where even with such limits one sees many abuses).

The organization of the elections will be another major issue, and so far measures to ensure secret voting, avoid vote abuse, and minimize intimidation seem to have been well thought out and being put in place properly. That is one of the benefits of having enough time to organize the elections.

Superstition always has its place in Caribbean life. The "magic" of 7s is at play in the Jamaican elections, starting with the choice of date. All eyes watch keenly as any other plays on 7 occur.

I will keep following events when I get back to Barbados, hoping that the violence does not erupt on anything like the worst levels that Jamaica has seen in the past. For others who wish to follow from a distance a good site is Jamaica Elections 2007. It contains profiles of all constituencies, a daily news digest of election coverage, photographs and cartoons (from which I have drawn).

Friday, July 20, 2007

What you need to know about dining, accommodation, and activities

I found three very interesting sites, each covering topics on which I had been tempted to try to start another blog. One, Barbados Restaurants, covers eating places in Barbados (such as my wife's favourite ice cream shop), and has weekly updates, including information on closures. This is a very good comparison with the recently published Zagat Guide on Barbados, and has been going for considerably longer. It does not have a rating system, but says very clearly if a restaurant has merit or not. It also has pictures of all the places, which a major step up from Zagat (see link).

A companion blog is Barbados Accommodations, which similarly surveys many of the islands hotels, guests houses etc. It even has an entry for a yet-to-open Courtyard Marriott, Barbados, to be located in the Garrison area of Hastings. No entry has yet been made for the to-be-constructed Four Seasons, though I heard some Chinese (oops) whispers that a posting will be made soon.

Thirdly, there is a blog on Barbados Activities. This is far more diverse, and could cover anywhere and anything that happens in Barbados. It was interesting to see some postings about the recent Barbados open squash tournament alongside entries for places like Jumbies, and the beautiful Andromeda Botanical Gardens.

These blogs are very well presented, informative, easy on the eye and well worth regular visits.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Barbadian economists need to make themselves heard

The Barbados Economic Society's July 2007 newsletter gave me a welcome surprise. In an editorial, Harold Codrington (a senior official at the central bank), calls on his fellow economists to get up and get involved. I am heartily surprised because I commented to one of the eminent Barbadian economists on the University faculty several months ago that I was really dismayed that so many issues that called out for the kind of analysis economists can offer seemed to be going on with no contribution from the profession. Mr. Codrington uses the fact that the Society will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2008 to launch an appeal:

"The BES must not be allowed to go the way of the dodo bird. The Society needs a few good men and women to help it regain its former glory and chart a course for the future. Here is a call for all economists to join the society and make a contribution."

What is good is that he does not shrink from point the finger directly at what might have been the causes of the society's slipping from sight and possibly losing relevance. The recent loss of momentum has been caused by "an abundance of Central Bank economists on the Executive", "shifting priorities by its members", and "simple lack of interest by many economists". He adds that "Since the voice of the BES is no longer heard on the burning issues, much uninformed commentary goes unchallenged. The public’s interest is being undermined whenever this happens since it does not have a full slate of information on which to base its decisions." I could not agree more with his conclusions. But the causes he cites are very interesting.

Is the prevalence of central bank economists a barrier because they cannot express themselves freely on issues that may be at the heart of government policy? If priorities are shifting, what are economists doing that is more important that seeking to participate in debate on national issues? Have they sought to satisfy themselves with having papers published and attending conferences of their peers, but perhaps not putting research effort into issues that have any relevance to most of their fellow citizens? Most troubling, if economists have lost interest why should that be? Were they upset that no one accepted their views? Were they being harassed or threatened for speaking out?

I had heard that Barbadian economists tended to take partisan positions in the past. This is not a major surprise; finding economic support for political beliefs is very much part of how most countries work. Indeed, the partisanship should enrich the discussion. However, the expressions should be allowed to happen freely and the general public should be able to see past the partisan views. Maybe that is difficult in Barbados.

I saw that Mr. Codrington's appeal was reported in The Nation today. This may be a good spur to the profession to get up and get involved. There are many reasons why those who have had a training in economics should put their analysis at our disposal. It is particularly important to use that education to help others better understand the main issues. It's not economists alone who need to do this, but at this particular time, I feel the economists have a special role to play in setting out the issues that are shaping the Barbadian and Caribbean economies.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A story to watch: What will happen to Shane Brathwaite?

Shane Brathwaite is Barbados' latest hero. In Ostrava, Czech Republic, this 17 year old produced a new personal best record of 6261 points, and became not only Barbados’ first World Youth champion but his country’s first ever athletics gold medal winner in a global competition at any level. He has understandably begun to receive the recognition that such a feat deserves. I read in today's papers that he was met by a large crowd at the airport and driven away in a limosine. But that's where the concern starts, because already the major issue is whether he will continue to be treasured and be able to compete and develop his talents to the highest level. The cost of trying to pursue his sport are very high.

His story should be an interesting contrast to that of Rihanna, who is currently Barbados' "shining star". I don't know which of them Barbadians will feel more associated with, and for whom the average person will feel more needs to be done. Will this young man's success and obvious talent translate into more than a "flash in the pan". I would hope that at least one substantial local sponsor would see it as worthwhile to plan to bank roll this young man's success. Yes, he may deservedly get an athletics scholarship to a university in the USA. But he should also see from now that the necessary financial pieces that would help his success are quickly put into place. He could gain some financial success on the athletic tours but his combination of sports does not feature often--it's really to the major national, regional, and international events. But this would be more likely if he had stunning skill in one of his disciplines.

If a country really values its heroes, they should not have to struggle to fulfill their potential. But, it's also often the case that the "heroes" are only there for a short while. This young man should be a celebrity, but he is unlikely to be seen that way. And the way that things are, if he is not seen as a celebrity, he will quickly become a "nearly was".

In coming months and years, it will be interesting to read more about the Shane Brathwaite story. Let's celebrate his amazing success--initially for Barbados, but also again as an example of astonishing Caribbean talent. Let's hope that one of his countrymen (personal or corporate) quickly stands up to say that they want to be financially supportive of his athletic prowess. He has a hard road to travel and it's a long way to go. Well done, Shane and good luck!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Time to reflect

I have really struggled the past few days to figure out about what I SHOULD write on this blog. There are always topics about which I COULD write, but I made a personal decision a few weeks ago to only write when I felt moved by something, whether personal or of wider social interest. So, why the difficulty in writing?

Part of the problem comes from a focus on other things, which means that developing a theme can be hard. I have decided to set aside a part of my short "working" day (basically, the mornings when children are not around at home, or some workman is not due to visit to deal with something) to do other things. One of these other things is to teach myself how to play the piano. So for the past five weeks I have conscientiously practised for an hour. At first, my hands hurt, but that has lessened, and it's satisfying for tunes to come from the piano, even if they are simple ditties like "London Bridge is Falling Down". Pieces that are more challenging are starting to sound right, but the challenge will always be to sustain this effort. My hope is that if thing continue to go well, I can at least help Rhian with her music whether she opts for piano, guitar, violin, or djembe drum. She's been funny, sitting at the piano and learning how to use her fingers on the keyboard. She "sings" along to her own version of some popular nursery rhymes!

I was also side-tracked a little by the Grand Slam tennis at Wimbledon, though the persistent rain meant that I really did not spend a lot of time watching matches. Also, I was damaged knee ligaments playing tennis and the pain and immobility that caused put my mind into another place. Thankfully, the damage is not as severe as I feared and I have to be patient about getting back into something vigorous like tennis. So, I have tried to do more swimming; not my favorite sport, but good to do. That has paid off too in other ways, with Rhian actually mastering how to swim while breathing rather than swimming underwater and holding her breath.

Another aspect has been that I decided to stand back from trying to write every day about things in Barbados, but continue to think about the issues unfolding here, and see if some of the topics and views going through my head were also shared by others who appear to be blogging often. With too many "voices" saying the same thing, there can be a tendency to not be heard. I have also spent more time thinking about some other subjects for my other blog, "Caribbean Comment".

As far as Barbados itself is concerned, most eyes have turned to the constantly unfolding saga that is the BS&T merger/take over. Many of the parties interested directly have now jumped into the media themselves, presumably to make their points better. Trading in the shares was suspended for the second time yesterday, after several trades led to "excessive" movement in the price; the Barbados Stock Exchange limits daily prices movements to 10 percent, and this was exceeded as the price of the shares moved from BS$5.50 to B$7.32 over several days. A local consortium has admitted that it bought two of the blocks of shares traded during this period, and the price movement is consistent with their indication of a willingness to buy BS&T shares at BS$7.50 each (see The Nation, July 12).

The more I look at Barbados, the more I am struck by a sense of parochialism, and "Caribbean" ways of doing things. We seem to see the world in what can be very odd terms, and we organize ourselves and resolve issues in a particular way. The BS&T saga is a case in point, where mergers and acquisitions are arriving in people's consciousness like a new invention. In my other blog, I have touched on how the process of eductating the population in the realities of development is a process that seems to have not taken place, which means that many developments that are part and parcel of certain kinds of economic progress have been left as the province of "experts" only.

Many comparisons are made with the paths taken by other countries of similar size, but I feel without sufficient real assessment or understanding that the outcomes for, say Singapore, reflect radically different approaches to economic and social development. I wont expand on that here, but just go back to a debate I heard on "Down to Brass Tacks" earlier this week. A caller stated that he thought that Barbados was overcrowded and his "evidence" was the long waits for hospital treatment, limitations in public transport, etc. The moderator, Tony Marshall, asked if the caller knew the size of Singapore; the caller did not. When it was pointed out that Singapore is about the same physical area as Barbados, but with a population of some 4-5 million, the caller went silent knowing that with the 280,000 or so who live on this island his view on overcrowding was nonsensical. The moderator posed questions about why Barbadians did not want to venture into high rise living. He also touched on the point that Barbadians need to think more about whether they are ready to change the way that they do things, e.g., accepting shift work systems.

The question scratched the surface of what should be a very interesting discussion, and they are not touching issues that are new for any country. Questions about work ethics, about social organization and development, about what kinds of investment are sought and attracted to a location, are part of a debate that should have occurred and be going on about "the vision" for a country. Economists are not the only group of thinkers who have good arguments on these subjects, though in this region they seem to have led the charge, especially when elevated to positions of power. (It's almost an insult for an MP to charge that another MP is "not an economist".) These questions are pare of an enormous discussion area, which touches not just about the Caribbean, but easily includes any country or region that is supposedly seeking to move from a state of absolute poverty and economic instability, to a position of greater wealth and economic progress. I am not setting out a thesis here and now. Some of these questions are coming out in Barbados in a piecemeal fashion now as various problem issues surface, but I wonder to what extent a real debate is going on. This is not easy territory on which to stand, and for politicians and those who have significant economic power it may be far too dangerous if one does not really have any grand vision to share.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The proof of the pudding

It was only a matter of time before I had to give my readers food for thought on the vexing issue of Barbados' favorite dish, pudding and souse. I had first come across eastern Caribbean souse as a boy, when an aunt of mine married a Grenadian. I disliked it because I really have no stomach for pig's trotters, ears, tongue, or other parts like that. I like my pork plain and lean. Chops, loin, roasted leg, all fine, even delicious. When the subject of eating pudding and souse came up with some Bajans a few days ago, I was glad to bad mouth this "dish". In fact, I dished up some serious bad mouthing. But over the weekend, I ended up somewhere with these same people, who introduce me to what I have to believe is gourmet pudding and souse. Now? I am eating some very sweet humble pie. This thing is GOOD, GOOD, GOOD! The secret to this change of heart? Leave out the "features".

Let me back up, because pudding and souse needs some explanation. The traditional recipe goes something like this (see Government of Barbados recipe). The pudding is made from the intestines of the pig which are stuffed with highly seasoned sweet potato. The souse is boiled pig's head or feet served with a cold pickle of onion, cucumbers, limes, parsley and hot and sweet peppers. And that is the souse I knew. Now, head (and its parts) and feet are called "features". They are mainly gelatenous when cooked and when served cold fall fast to the bottom of my list of favourite food. The traditional "blood" pudding is no longer often made with intestines, but just with the sweet potato, steamed and served as a solid ball. So, feature-less souse, using well cooked and pickled pork loin, plus sweet potato pudding is the dish that I had set in front of me around late morning last Saturday.

So, truth is, when I hear Bajans start to talk excitedly about the Friday-Saturday ritual of eating pudding and souse, I am going to pay good attention to find out where they think are the best places. I have already learned that pudding and souse heated in a frying pan the next day, with a little oil and the pudding sliced so that it crisps on the outside is a great Sunday morning breakfast! Am I being brain washed?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

No Apple iPhones here!

It's just three days since the Apple iPhone went on sale and while a large part of the USA is pondering life with this new toy, we in Barbados can bask in the sun and also the knowledge that we cannot yet buy this gadget of all gadgets on the island. In the meantime, we can amuse ourselves by seeing all the things that the iPhone can do (really?). If the iPhone can do all of the things in the video and also be a telephone, then I will sell most of my possessions.

Clearly, there are some desparate people out there. A quick browse on eBay shows that some are looking to cash in wickedly on the madness to get a new iPhone. One seller is asking US$21 million! Another seller has bidders willing to pay nearly US$2000 for a iPhone.

Barbados is already going through a period of angst about the use of portable phones for lewd purposes by school children and I wouldn't be surprised if someone proposed banning imports of the iPhone. Look for heightened security at the airport.

Meantime, lay back and enjoy a stress-free Sunday nap.