Welcome

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.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

MAKE TODAY HISTORY - MAKE HISTORY TODAY

One of my blogging friends, the artist Ingrid Persaud (see Notes from a small rock and 14x21 blogs), is starting a project aiming to record an ordinary day, Tuesday, May 6, 2008, in the life of ordinary people in Barbados. If you are in Barbados on May 6 all you do is keep a diary of your day, between 600 -1000 words, and send it to her by email. It will function as a time capsule capturing for history what normal people did on that very normal day – what they wore, what they ate, where they went, what transport they used – just the stuff of a normal day. It is not about recording extraordinary events. The records will ultimately be available online for all to share. Keep a record of the day and send to: maketodayhistory@gmail.com. You can email it anytime between May 6 to 9, 2008. Please tell your family, colleagues and friends.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Can we be proud of our tourism?

I cannot think and act like a tourist from Europe or North America. I won't even try to imagine what they think when they visit Caribbean islands and countries. Whenever there are surveys they show that the tourists love the friendliness of Caribbean people and the relatively easy-going lifestyle that is possible. But what can tourists expect and what do they often find? I am going to concentrate my remarks on what I have seen since living in Barbados and visiting neighbouring islands in the past year.

Attractions. It's easy to see the attraction of vacations in The Caribbean: sun, sea, sand; often relaxed lifestyle; often relatively safe; lively music; different foods; exotic drinks; etc., especially during those periods when you have at home snow, ice, darkness, trees without leaves. Visitors may also find some easy sexual relations here. The Caribbean offers some other interesting attractions: historical sites (not many and not often well kept, but there); wonderful nature (an attraction for some to just visit to see flowers, plants, and wildlife that they have only read about or seen on TV, for others it adds to the relaxation to be able to hike in mountains or forests that have few other visitors and can offer wonderful spectacle). The latter is being developed in some of the mountainous islands such as Dominica and St. Lucia, and in the jungles of Guyana. The historical sites--forts, plantation houses, underwater wrecks--are a mixture, but often repay a visit and can rival many similar sights anywhere, and if one thinks of places like Belize as part of The Caribbean, there are some wonderful Mayan or Amerindian sites.

Service with a smile or even service at all? Well, that is a rarity, even in the large, branded, top-of-the-line hotels. I have stayed at a Four Seasons (Exuma, Bahamas--broadly a very pleasant experience, and the mosquitoes that often plague the island had gone on vacation) and one of the Preferred Hotels (The Landings, St. Lucia--mixed; the hotel is not yet complete, but there are plenty of staff they just seem to be not always on the ball); I have visited Sandy Lane, Barbados just during the afternoon (the hotel is too expensive for me to stay there, but I was pleased with the level of service I experienced on afternoon visits. Overall, my impression is that service is at best patchy. A facade of friendliness and efficiency, but often no more than a facade. Just coming from a weekend in St. Lucia, I had to smile when the gate keeper at the hotel offered me a "guest pass" for my vehicle as I was departing for the airport to return home; the previous two days he had waved at me as I tried to enter after I had to honk the horn to get his attention to open the gate. My family and I don't need flunkies, but if you offer me flunkies then get the flunk on. On three occasions, the golf buggy transport "offered on demand" took more than 20 minutes to arrive; I gave up waiting and walked, and told the front desk that "I was not impressed".

I have to admit that I find staff in Barbados associated with tourism to be masters of the "grouchy approach"--it may be an extension of the criticism of the island as having too many BPOs (business prevention officers). It starts and ends often enough at the airport. There is a certain surliness of the staff that is bordering on disrespect. "Take out your laptop", "Gimme your passport", other orders come reeling out, without those short but very friendly additions "Please" and "Thank you", even the overworked Americanism "Have a nice day" or "Enjoy your stay in the island" would help to offset the unwelcoming approach.

I read an article in The Barbados Advocate on April 19, by Nigel Wallace, entitled "Polite as...". It noted "I did not recognise just how much manners were really missing until my wife reprimanded me for entering a room of strangers without saying 'Good morning'...You must ... imagine my shock when I recognised that Barbadians don't really want polite. They want, more than anything, to be ignored so that they don't have to fumble over the words that have been forgotten somewhere around a decade ago." Mr. Wallace hits the nail squarely on the head. He feels that it's because of distractions that the courtesies have been forgotten to explain (in his words) "when someone who is paid to serve us fails miserably at their job". He argues that "somewhere along the line we have forgotten to demand courtesy and good manners on a day to day basis". I wish I could agree with that last point because if you try to demand them you are met with an even surlier glare, as happened to me when I went to park my car and was met with a ticket thrust into my hand, and when I said "Good morning" three times and waited for a reply each time, was told "What you, expec'? You wan' me to say 'Good morning' to you? You fin' me here". On leaving the airport last Friday, the LIAT gate attendant took my tickets, processed them, thrust out his hand with them back towards me and proceeded to discuss some partying issue with a colleague. "Hello," I said, "the passenger is over here". He looked back at me surprised to be reminded that we were in the midst of a transaction. (Those of us who live in Barbados can add to this all the behaviours we find in ordinary stores.)

My wife is of the view that if the base for tourists in Barbados was Americans, as it is in The Bahamas, then the industry here would have to get its act together fast because Americans are believed to demand a higher level of service. I think it needs more than a change of visitor source. There needs to be a receptiveness to training and a willingness to want to work in serving people. Whatever training is given is not producing an industry that would tempt me to come back. But Barbados has a lot of repeat visitors, albeit mainly from the UK. My wife feels that British tourists are not very discerning. I disagree to the extent that The Brits can go to Spain and have a great holiday, with less travel, and as much sand, sea, sex and alcohol as anywhere, and it's a cheap deal. Even so-called fine restaurants in Barbados make a hash of serving. At a recent dinner at one of Barbados' top restaurants on the south coast, the patrons at an adjacent table, who sounded American, had to raise with the manager that after an hour they had still not received their food. Why it took them an hour to complain I cannot understand--too much acceptance of island time? Within 15 minutes their meals arrived. A lot of people in that restaurant had not been doing their jobs.

Value for money? This is hard to define. When people travel on holiday they are often on a budget, but they are also ready to spend freely--it's vacation time, when you are supposed to relax and have fewer concerns. But that does not mean that you want to be gouged by every price you face, or feel that the scent of your cologne immediately starts the price rising as the cologne goes up in the air. I find it hard to understand why everything in Barbados is considerably dearer than almost anywhere else I travel. Certainly, it is a pleasant surprise to travel to a neighbouring island and find normal prices for food and drink. Perhaps many tourists are insulated from the problem in Barbados if they visit on all-inclusive packages, and can drink and eat to their hearts' content without shelling out another pound, Euro, Canadian or US dollar, unless they want to party in St. Lawrence Gap. However, enough tourists keep most of the tables filled in many of the restaurants here and the British, Canadians and Europeans perhaps have not had such sticker shock with the recent strength of the Pound, Canadian dollar and the Euro; Americans are probably shocked at how much their fixed dollar does not buy here.

Ease of travel. Poor us. We have to rely mainly on LIAT (about which I have written before and the plight of which many have expressed their hostile opinions--though for once, I can report a good experience with LIAT to and from St. Lucia, with on time service (even early take off and arrival) and our bags arriving within 10 minutes. So, on occasion their service can be alright. But apart from that, we are hampered in the islands because we cannot travel between places with ease and certainty, and the fares are not cheap. Although the fares costs differ the problems of interconnection are many whether travelling with LIAT, American Eagle and Air Jamaica. So, we have to endure long waiting times at airports in order to travel relatively short distances; can find ourselves spending an unscheduled night and day somewhere because of mechanical problems; or/and endure complications due to regulations about crew flying times. The inter-country services in The Caribbean are at best erratic, and at worst totally unreliable (even including the unannounced rerouting or cancellation of flights and the consequent dislocations that can cause for individual travellers). I cannot fix LIAT's problems; perhaps competition could, but it's a hard set of routes to work well and at a profit. The other problems we have to endure are a price for living in "paradise" with its relative isolation and many islands that want to act as separate countries.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), founded in 1989, with the merger of the Caribbean Tourism Association (founded in 1951) and the Caribbean Tourism Research and Development Center (founded in 1974). It is headquartered in Barbados, and has a mission objective to"create and manage the partnerships necessary to increase the purchase of travel to and within the Caribbean that results in sustainable economic and social benefits for our people". Their latest report (for 2005) indicated that "Caribbean tourism sector was continuing to hold its own”. The latest statistics for 2007 show an incomplete picture because reporting from member countries in patchy: data released in March 2008 show full year figures for only 18 (of 29) destinations but they give an impression of important declines in stopover visitors in some major markets (e.g. The Bahamas -5%, Puerto Rico - 7%, and Cuba -3%), with much of that in the winter (January-April) season. Barbados' stopovers rose 2% but some of this may reflect the benefits of Cricket World Cup. By contrast, one major market, Cancun, Mexico, saw stopovers rise 27%.

CTO is working with other organizations to help develop new tourist products, looking at economic and environmental sustainability, and exploiting the "wellness" attributes of the Caribbean, whether for true medical services or for spa treatments. But these initiatives will still have to look for success in a framework of difficult travel possibilities and a service culture that is really lacking in many respects.

I think we should feel disappointed about what we offer tourists. There are general problems in the hospitality we offer that come from the kind of people we are producing in general, with too little regard for manners, respect, politeness, etc.. The tourism industry can try to correct certain behaviour through good training programs but it may have a hard time if these are ingrained in the societies' common education and behaviour standards. We don't seem to have excellence as a platform on which we will build tourism: that's not an easy objective, but given our size and the competition, "just so" can't do for ever. It may seem quaint and fit the foreigners' image of us being "simple people" but it's not something we can sell.

I don't know of any research that has tried to evaluate the costs of travel dislocation in the region. The average business person cannot cope well with the jumbled offerings of the airlines. No amount of local pleading seems to change the basic situation. The tourists have to tolerate it. But I think we are all hurting.

On the aspect of hospitality and an industry based around it, I think we have a long way to go. It's always a shock to think that the basic need is something that we used to have as a point of pride in the region, politeness, friendliness and a real sense of consideration. Lots of things have changed in the region and we don't put our hand out and hearts into tasks the way we used to. We often don't see that service is not servitude and our history does not help in getting over that issue. There's a lot of social baggage to carry. Changing these things takes more than platitudes and we need more constructive criticism from visitors and from ourselves; those hearing the criticism need to take heed of it. People will tend to come to the region because of our climate and lifestyle, but as money becomes scarce we have to add to those attributes in a significant way: you can get sunshine in a lot of other places, and an easy going lifestyle is also available in a lot of places. So, we need to build on the other aspects of tourism.

Tourism has become the life blood of most of the Caribbean countries and it needs to be re-energized. The solutions are easy to see but they need action to be taken and taken soon.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bread prices rise. So does hot air.

So bread prices will rise by some 12 percent percent, with a basic loaf rising from B$4.55 to B$5.05 from April 28 (see report in The Nation). No surprise after local flour prices rose 30 percent two weeks ago (and it's the basic ingredient) and diesel prices were increased 76 percent last week (and the fuel is used in baking and transporting baked goods). The price of various goods will increase between 10-25 cents.

The debates will rage on about who will feel the pain and whether that could have been distributued better. One commentary yesterday, by Ezra Alleyne (see The Nation report), takes the current Democratic Labour Party (DLP) government to task for keeping its balanced budget commitment and with that raising diesel prices by 76 percent and gasolene prices by 25 percent, and reducing substantially the difference in favour of diesel between the costs of the fuels. The increases will affect many consumers with higher costs imposed on fishermen, food producers and distributors, operators of public transport vehicles. We all eat and we all need to move around, he contends. The previous Barbados Labour Party (BLP) government had absorbed more of the cost increase and not passed these on to the population, he contended. He also goes on to mention how the previous government had paid some B$20 million to civil servants as a one-off in 2005 when the cost of living rose over 5 percent; the government got back B$7 million in taxes. If the DLP had been prepared to follow its predecessor of running a budget deficit (that is having more spending than revenue) then life would be better for all, is the implication.

Political commentary is interesting. It is not neutral, like many arguments. Someone commented to me last week that Mr. Alleyne is a BLP supporter (actually the comment used a different noun, and it's interesting what comes up as the first article on a Google search--an unflattering commentary on that 2005 episode and Mr. Alleyne's commentary). Now that "support" comes out in the "analysis" and implications of fairness/unfairness. When the DLP aims to balance the budget, all you get is pain--no gain. BLP absorbs the costs, and that is seen as gain with little pain.

Interestingly, the IMF reports on the Barbadian economy showed that it had a balanced budget in 2006 and was looking to increase the deficit to 4 percent in 2007 (see IMF Public Information Notice). One economic commentator, Patrick Hoyos, however, has reminded us what the IMF said Barbados needed to do (see Broad Street Journal report) . In its 2007 annual consultation with Barbados it said that the pass-through of petroleum prices needed to take full effect:

“The mission also encouraged the authorities to increase the prices charged by major public enterprises, some of which have not been raised for several years. ... In particular, oil price increases would have to be fully passed on to consumers.” (Staff Report for the 2007 Article IV Consultation, page 11).

The report also states that:

“The January 2006 increase in domestic fuel prices implied almost a full pass-through of international oil price increases. However, the further increase in international prices since then has only partially been passed on.”

The IMF continued its call for Barbados to rein in its overall debt by exercising other options that would also raise, not lower, the cost of living:

“Fiscal consolidation is needed to bolster international reserves and reduce public debt. Announced policies are unlikely to achieve the government’s debt objective. ... The government has a range of options to achieve such savings, including reining in future projects, improving tax administration, raising VAT rates and reducing tax exemptions, and adjusting selected utility tariffs.” (Staff Report for the 2007 Article IV Consultation, page 14).

Changing the application of VAT remains an option to the government. So does targetting rebates to specific needy cases (the poor, or small business, or farmers), rather than taking the VAT off that much wider basket of goods as promised during the elections. So, to my mind the petrol price increases are dealing with but one important element of getting public finances onto a different footing. So, the jury is still out about what the overall budget picture will look like.

But packaging is important. Clearly, facing the budget realities of a country is something that has to be done with the levers of power in hand not from the luxury of oppostion. Also, economic circumstances change and how the government manages its budget is one of the keys to economic success. Deficits, surpluses, or balances in budgets have consequences. If you only think about today you will come to one impression but there is always something ahead. Without going into an economics tutorial, we can ask if everything seeming hunky-dory today means hunky-dory forever. It is legitimate to ask the question, if you spend more than you earn, and plan to borrow to cover the gap, who is going to pay that price and when? What happens if you cannot borrow? Tomorrow's generations do not necessarily want to be carrying the debt created today. In that sense, Mr. Alleyne's commentary is interesting in what it decides to leave unsaid.

The IMF's Regional Economic Outlook for the Western Hemisphere (see report) indicates that in 2007 "Caribbean countries' public sector debt burdens [were] very high". Barbados has in recent years had a better budget balance than Caribbean average, compared with Jamaica which has consistently been worse than average in recent years. That difference in budget performance has economic consequences that some would say are clear in terms of slower growth and higher inflation in Jamaica than in Barbados. The IMF goes on to say that the "region continues to stress its commitment to reducing debt levels further over the medium term". So, in that regard, the latest announcements by Barbados' PM suggest he is acting in a manner consistent with that commitment.

I have no political favourites with regard to Barbados' government but try to see things with a neutral's eye. I have no remit to be an economic commentator in Barbados and will leave that to others including Partick Hoyos. But I do wonder again what are Barbados' economists doing when these discussions are taking place. I again hear their silence and wonder why it is so deafening.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Chicken, my foot. Redux. No rice with that?

I wrote my little piece on the pending food crisis a bit too early in the sense that I had not read articles that came out yesterday. Now I know things are really serious. Rice is being rationed! Not in Africa or India, but in England (see report in The Times) and the heartlands of the USA (also reported in The Times). In Britain rice is being rationed by shopkeepers in Asian neighbourhoods to prevent hoarding; while in the US Wal-Mart has created a first--there has never been food rationing in the US. The restrictions are being imposed on retail and wholesale customers.

As one of the reports notes, world rice prices have more than doubled in the past year partly because countries such as China and India — whose economies are booming — are buying more food from abroad. Also, major rice producers banned exports to ensure that their own people could continue to afford to buy the staple: India, China, Vietnam and Egypt have all blocked exports and so demand for rice from countries such as the United States has increased.

But the crisis is having some worrying ripple effects. The United Nation's World Food Programme has seen its costs escalate by 40 percent (see Reuters report). The WFP is funded by donations and it has now put out bids for an extra US$755 million, up from a US$500 million estimate two months ago.

Both the World Bank (see BBC report) and the International Monetary Fund (see IMF website) are now reviewing how they can assist countries facing escalating food costs.

So do more than spare a thought this weekend as you heap another spoonful of rice on the plate. Those of us who have not had to live with rice as our main staple have never really understood what it means for the price or availability to be outside our reach. I experienced how each year it dislocated much of economic and social life in Guinea and now I see the crisis spreading and the results could be very nasty. People will fight over food.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chicken, my foot.

A few weeks after reports that people in Haiti rioted about the high cost of food and reports that in Egypt the army had been ordered to bake bread, the ramifications of a major international food crisis are just dawning on lots of ordinary people. Here in Barbados, people have just been struck by the news that local flour prices were increased 30 percent and now wait to see what impact that will have on bread prices and the cost of other baked goods. Gasolene and diesel prices were increased here last week and that too may soon start to factor into the prices of many food items. Well, no amount of exhortation will turn people into small farmers in a hurry and most countries now fell that part of the price of progress is for people to leave the land and growing food to those "unfortunates" who cannot leave the rural areas or who choose to stay and grow "herbs".

Funnily, I have a Bajan friend who now lives in England and she has been lauding it about how her garden is blooming marvelous. She's gone into planting potatoes ("spuds"); simple and filling. But she has also gone for the colour and some flowers.

But there's a lot more going on with food prices and how the world is responding. I'm a dabbler in financial markets and I know something (not much) about a few financial assets (stocks, shares, futures, options, etc.); I know a little about foreign exchange dealing. I listen to the commentary about commodity markets, and know that the price of oil and gold especially have a big bearing on what happens in a lot of markets. There has been almost a perfect relationship over the past year with the movement of crude oil prices and the value of the Euro against the US dollar. So, with oil prices at all time highs and hovering near US$120 a barrel it was no surprise that the value of the Euro rose to an all time high of over 1.60 to the dollar this week.

But I fell out of my dealing chair this morning, when I heard discussion about the market in chicken futures. Well I have found that there is a market in broiler futures--operating out of Tokyo. Sure, I knew about markets for various foods--wheat, sugar, coffee, cocoa, soy beans, pork bellies, cattle, lean hogs... But here was news for me. Who's driving these markets? McDonald's for one, with their menu of hamburgers and chicken sandwiches. But all of us with our seemingly growing appetites for processed foods. The world's largest chicken processor, Pilgrim's Pride, gained the most in almost three months in New York trading after Credit Suisse analysts said earnings will accelerate as poultry prices rise through 2009. But that is a market for the nice chicken pieces or whole chicken. So far, chicken's feet ("scratchers" or "steppers" as they are known in Barbados) remain unaffected by globalization. Pig's tails too remain near the bottom of financial market interests. Ironically, we also have cases where food stuffs cannot be sold or even given away. Last year it was a huge crop of tomatoes that caught the headlines; just this week an onion farmer spoke of difficulties in selling hundreds of bags of his produce, which were only sold after his plight was highlighted in the newspapers.

I read on Bloomsberg that "Pork features are pulling away from beef features." Trotting away, no doubt. Or is it hoofing it? My experience with pork features was merely that those were the parts that some people love in their pudding and souse--ears, snout, trotters, etc--the moving parts. The souse yuppies, go for lean meat--all that crunching with the munching is not for them.
So, high prices are here for a while. In Barbados, I see that one way of dealing with the escalating costs is to play foul. I read today that 50 turkeys, ready for market, were plucked from under their owner's nose--for an estimated loss of B$4,000---and I imagine are being made ready for gobbling right now. No need to wait for Christmas, or even American Thanksgiving. Can you believe that last year the same farmer had 200 pigs stolen? He has told food processors to look out for the thieves. I know most criminals are not that bright, but come on! This crime, known officially as praedial larceny, has been a long time scourge in Jamaica and Trinidad, and both countries now have laws trying to prevent the petty theft of crops and livestock.

I guess things will get more interesting as people find that they have to eat but can't afford the things to which they have become accustomed. Most children have no idea where food comes from except from a box or a tin. I suspect that many adults are not much better, thinking it comes from KFC, Burger King, or Mickey D's. The next few years will give a chance to relearn about how to produce food to eat. The situation will be more complicated as the world tries to get "green" by using food stuffs to make fuel. I remember how the English countryside was transformed into a sea of yellow as oil seed rape was sown to make cooking oil, and repleced wheat, barley, oats, etc. Now, we have the oil and nothing to cook in it. Instead of putting corn into your stomach you will be feeding it, in a sense, to your car. I wonder what the emissions will be like. Odourless, I hope.
I just love progress.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Twisted knickers

I have come to the conclusion that I am living in the land of twisted knickers. Not a place created by Jonathan Swift as a metaphor for angst about form over substance but a nation that has perhaps more than its fair share of people given air time or print space to grieve about the sky falling in because things just don't look right, or how they think right should look. We had the great hair debate. Knot again. Now, we have speculation about whether the way the PM dressed for a TV/radio press conference this means that his image is the message and that what he said was for nought. I won't spoil my weekend by engaging in a discussion on this. I quote below the reference and ask you to think that if any of the "great" people pictured are taken any less seriously because of how they dressed (in a studio or not), giving a speech on a major topic or not. I think most people living here have intelligence. At least the high literacy rates suggest they do. But some people seem to think that people can't think and need to have the auto-prompt on telling them when to laugh, cry and clap. That they cannot figure out sense from clap-trap because if the image isn't right then everything is wrong.

Here are the key points that raised my eyebrows. (See the full text of an article by Ezra Alleyne in the April 18, 2008 The Nation).

"The format and setting was wrong; Mr Thompson's dress did not "suit" the occasion, and the image received into the collective discomfort of many thousands of Barbadian homes, lacked the gravitas one usually associates with prime ministers speaking to the country on matters of high national concern. Style or manner of dress is an important messenger, speaking a language of its own. As in the case of a reputation, it can precede the wearer like a fasciculus [a slender bundle of anatomical fibers--my clarification] of bad tidings. An opened-neck tieless blue shirt, covered by a dark jacket, supported by a pair of trousers of a non-matching and lighter colour, creates the infertile ground in which political credibility dies a thousand quick deaths. The image thereby becomes the message."

Here below is the offending ragamuffin. I think the problems started when someone called him "David" in public; someone who had known him from childhood and for that offence should have been struck like Goliath. See my previous post on the PM's press conference.

Now, do you really think that Russia is any less of a world power or a weaker nuclear threat when you see President Putin in his staged "he-man" holiday picture? I remember working with a team of economists in Russia in the early 1990s and being kept waiting for several days to meet ministers and officials, whom we saw entering and leaving, but were told were "not in". In one meeting, when things were not going as our Russian hosts would like they reminded us that despite the fall of the Berlin Wall "Russia is still a nuclear power".

Does Apple sink into the ranks of obscure companies of the 20th-21st centuries because Steve Jobs always wears his "uniform" of black turtle neck sweater and jeans when he has major announcements to make? Just go junk that i-Pod and don't waste your time thinking that an i-Phone is anything less than phony

I used to think that Al Gore was a real thinker when he was US Vice President, but since he lost the election to George W. Bush and then discovered the environment, I have no respect for him. Look how he dresses when he talks to the world about global warming and the risks of climate change. Would you give a man like this a Nobel Prize?

Now, at least some of the world's important women political figures know how to dress properly and they are given the due consideration that befits their constant attention to high dress standards

Being a billionaire should not give you to right to dress anyway you like and think that your money is a reflection of the business sense you have. If you dressed better you would be richer. So, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, you should spend a few of those dollars on some good clothes. Disgrace!

Oh, lawdy! Weapons of mass destruction are going to be raining down on us all now. The President of the United States in an airforce bomber jacket and talking serious politics with the British Prime Minister (him with his hands tucked into his pants pocket like some wide boy)? They must be joshing, right. It's not possible that they have anything important to tell us about terrorism and the need for the western political alliance to hold together to get rid of this scourge. They only have control over our lives when they have on their suits, so at least for this moment, we were free people.

If that wasn't enough, how on earth could Tony Blair expect to stay on as PM in Britain after he was seen on television praising France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, wearing an outfit that defies description for its utter casualness. The fact that he was trying to (Sar) cozy up to the French by speaking their language only makes you wonder more what the man was thinking, and if in fact he had not already lost his marbles. For those who do not understand what he is saying, it includes some stuff about the importance of the British-French political alliance. But who's listening? (Watch the video and decide for yourself. Remember, this is a man who is a regular holiday maker in Barbados. You see where the rot sets in.) At least now that it is President Sarkozy, and he has his elegant, ex-model new wife, Carla Bruni, style and elegance will soon get back into politics and the world will be a better place with peace and plenty for all.




Well, President Clinton (the first and so far only) tried to be a man of the people and they say that he had way of putting you at ease--a personal touch even. But, that yellow shirt! Imagine that he earned US$ 31 million in speaking fees between 2001 and 2005 dressed like that. Put on a suit and your takings would triple. Bill 'em, Bill.

Back in 1999 there was a lovely story about politicians' attempts to make fashion statements. Reports from the presidential campaign then told of George W. Bush going from cowboy boots to black shoes so that he would look more serious, and Al Gore gave up shoes in favor of cowboy boots so he would appear less serious. Well, we know the outcome of the 2000 presidential elections. Need I say more?

Kenya's parliament had a major spat about dress code in 2003 (see BBC report). Several politicians created uproar when they dressed in traditional African robes and other forms of traditional attire, which were against the rules from the days of colonial rule. Do you think that Kenya would have had the political upheaval they have had recently if these politicians, including Raila Odinga, had never gone out of suits?

Does it matter what you wear? You can read some views (see article) and I will let you decide.

It's a dog's life.

When I go to Brighton's Farmers Market early on a Saturday morning I expect to have at least an hour of quite stimulating conversation and a few revelations while I eat my fried fish cutter (with pepper and shaddobenny) and drink my cappuccino. The stimulus comes naturally from the food but gets spiced up by my expanding group of bright people that I meet in Barbados: we are none of us intellectual duds, in fact very much the opposite. Revelations come because we know and see many things in our various lives and that comes out in conversation. But, we are humans and are often fairly clueless about many real world things. This includes the animal kingdom, and owning a pet does not change that. In the same way, many of us are clueless about raising children and having them does not alter that either.

Today I was enthralled by a conversation about the sexual habits of a male dog. Briefly, one of my blogger friends was lamenting what her Jack had been up to. Or was it up too? Jack had taken a fancy to a nice piece of household furniture, and somehow felt that with enough effort he could produce an offspring that would be the perfect blend of him and a sofa. I guess that at a distance a sofa, with its sleek long body and four legs, could look like a big dog, and size is no challenge in these matters. But from up close, the poor dog still did not know that it was not a female dog he was about to mount? Now, "Get off the chair, dog!" has a new take.

Well, though I have owned female dogs, I never had a male. I learned more about them this afternoon. See a blog that puts it all plainly for dog owners (Swank Pets Dog Blog), in a no-nonsense post entitled Understanding Your Dog’s Sex Life). In a few words, dogs are sex addicts and to quote the blog cited "If you have a male dog, I’m sure you’ve seen him running around the dog park trying to hump every thing and everybody!" Well, I don't; but I have. While a female dog gets on average a three week heat cycle only every six months, the "Jacks" of the dog world need to keep in training. I was even once a target of desire for a male dog when I visited a friend's house, and male dogs seem to love to target guests (males or females); and little dogs are sometimes very persistent with their overtures.

Now, I imagine that my friend chose her dog's name before she knew how inapt it could turn out to be. If this pooch was to have his way, so to speak, we could end up with new meanings for jack-in-the-box. We already know that a jack is used for lifting a heavy body a short distance: the picture shows one interesting interpretation of that lifting at work. We also know that "Jack" is a common nickname for John, and the connotations of that latter word could easily fit with my friend's pooch, or with any dog for that matter.

As my friend lived in England for a long time I wonder if she will rename her mutt Union Jack. Anyway, I am going to leave it there as I know one "jack" phrase that could really fit, and this is a family-friendly blog, so I will leave you to read the list (see link) at your leisure. So, I'm jacking it in.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fraud everywhere? What do we do?

A friend and I have been having discussions about frauds in the region--particularly surrounding Jamaica's so-called "unregulated investment schemes". In that regard a case is pending against possible fraud by Cash Plus and its found, Carlos Hill, who before his foray into this venture in Jamaica in 2002 had previously done a bit of jail time (10 years) for another series of frauds in the US. However, my eyes had hit upon a series of major "corporate" frauds--meaning by organized groups or companies--as I scour the newspapers in recent months. Here are a few cases from the UK and USA.

Britain's Office of Fair Trading names 112 building firms in bid-rigging scandal, [April 2008] alleging that they participated in cartel-type activity in bidding for thousands of public sector construction contracts, worth £3 billion, including tenders for schools, universities and hospitals (see report in The Times).

Severn Trent (a water company) admits fraud and fined £35.8m, [April 2008] after Britain's Serious Fraud Office brought charges alleging that the company manipulated water leakage data in its annual reports to the regulator in 2001 and 2002 (see report in the The Times). This was a first for a regulated utility company. The same report notes that in February 2008, the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) confirmed that it had fined Southern Water a total of £20.3 million for backdating letters to customers and deliberately misleading regulators.

Mortgage fraud is funding terrorism, say police [March 2008] (see
report in The Times): An intelligence report by the Association of Chief Police Officers said that terrorists and criminals are conning British banks out of £700 million a year to help to finance their illegal activities, alleging that organised crime groups used mortgage fraud to generate income and launder money from the proceeds of their operations, such as drugs, human trafficking and prostitution.Fraudsters can con lenders out of money by using corrupt surveyors to issue false valuations. This allows them to apply for a loan that is larger than the value of the property. On a larger scale, solicitors can assist criminals to secure mortgages illegally. The buy-to-let market is particularly vulnerable to mortgage fraud, whether through new-build apartment complexes or large-scale renovation projects. [I highlight some respected professional practioners who apparently support these frauds.]

Largest health care fraud in US, (see US Department of Justice report): HCA Inc. (formerly known as Columbia/HCA and HCA - The Healthcare Company) agreed to pay the United States US$ 631 million in civil penalties and damages arising from false claims the government alleged it submitted to Medicare and other federal health programs.

My reading of local papers in Barbados and Jamaica has located very few cases of what could be referred to as corporate fraud. I have seen more cases with allegations against individuals. Barbados' PM recently stated that price gouging exists in Barbados and I wait to see if this statement unfolds into any form of legal action against companies. Some have commented on the recent fine imposed of PriceSmart (a shopping club), for selling chicken wings at a huge margin above the regulated price, and being fined B$3,000 for that. As someone mentioned yesterday on the radio, that seemed like a slap in the face for the consumer. We often read of allegations against high ranking politicians, misappropriating state funds. For example:

Antiguans learned ([2002] that for years government officials treated the state insurance fund, the Medical Benefits Scheme like a personal checking account. Instead of paying for medical services, evidence shows that money deducted from workers' salaries went for lavish parties, foreign travel for government cronies, kickbacks to the program's accountant, cosmetic surgery overseas for officials and even toys for the children of fund administrators. Add to this that in the midst of the public outcry, the government issued an astonishing statement revealing that since 1978 it had failed to contribute the equivalent of 120 million Eastern Caribbean dollars, or US$ 48 million to the insurance fund to cover government workers' salaries. (see report). During the case there were also allegations of rigged bidding for supplying government, and of government ministers awarding contracts to their associates.

We can often find cases of Caribbean individuals (in or of the islands) being involved in frauds, such as the current case against Barbadian, Seibert Phillips, executive director of the Evelyn Douglin Centre, Brooklyn NY, which works with children and adults suffering from mental disabilities, who is suspected of giving a friend a US$ 250 000 "no-show" job; and allowing a close relative to run up almost US$20,000 in petrol charges on the centre's credit card; making illegal political campaign contributions to a member of the New York State Assembly; and using the agency's funds on an array of high-priced items, ranging from luxury automobiles and flat screen television sets to travel for himself and staffers (see report in The Nation).

Advance fee (or "419" or "Nigerian") scams also seem to be prevalent in the region. [The 419 refers to the relevant section in the Nigerian Penal Code that deals with fraud, and many of them originated in that countryin the early 1980s as the oil-based economy declined. Several unemployed university students first used this scam as a means of manipulating business visitors interested in shady deals in the Nigerian oil sector before targeting businessmen in the west, and later the wider population.] The fraud usually involves a scammer (often claiming to be a high ranking official) offering his victim a large amount of money. In order to access the money, the victim must pay a fee in advance. And then another fee because something has gone wrong. And then another one … until he/she realizes it is a scam. Most of us are aware of these scams through spam or unwanted e-mail solicitations (Ironically, my work e-mail address cannot filter these out and I get on average about 20 such solicitiations a day. I've won the UK National Lottery about 5 times today already. My private e-mail addresses recognize and trash such messages. I hope my employer is not in cahoots.) Despite publicity and warnings about advance fee scams, estimates are that US$ 100 million is scammed every year from Americans alone. (For more details of what this scam can look like and the terms used see the Crimes of Persuasion site. There is a daunting list of possibilities.)

Caribbean countries do not have large diverse economies that would allow a wide range of shady tricks to dupe people. Our sense of familiarity with each other does open the door to certain kinds of confidence tricks, as may be happening with pyramid schemes in Jamaica. We also lack some of the widespread private sector systems that would allow for the kind of scams operated by corporations as reported in the UK and US. We have large public sectors (major employers and contractors) and often see monopoly suppliers or only a few suppliers in the private sector. This facilitates certain corrupt practices between the public and private sectors through rigged bidding, and preferences in awarding contracts and procurement, or other forms of misappropriation of public funds. Our regulatory bodies tend to be weak and underresourced. We also have a legal system that has not adapted well to changing economic and social realities. Politicians tend to be held in awe and are often not challenged as much as they should be to account properly for what they and the administrations they run do.

Scope for ripping off and being ripped off exists everywhere. We take certain kinds of "abuse" without much real protest in most of the region--not just corruption and fraud. Most of the people in most of the region's countries show little tendency to react--Haiti is an exception, where people rioted last weekend over food price increases; it is a very poor country with a long history of violent civil strife. In Barbados, the protests about rises in flour and petrol prices has been largely verbal; it's a wealthier country known for its conservatism. In Jamaica (where murder rates are amongst the world's highest), individuals are more likely to attack each other for transgressions but leave corprorations and government alone, so no surprise that investors with Cash Plus calmly stand around wondering if they will ever see their money again. Certainly, people have shown little tendency to act in the region. But we are not so different from people elsewhere when it comes to responding to acts that cause us personal loss. In the US, those who suffered from the sub-prime mortgage crisis are mainly hoping for some kind of government help so that they can hold on to their homes. Those who sold the loans fraudulently are mainly gone into the wind. Some who helped finance the deals are faltering and the eventual costs are mounting.

So, we seem to be in about the same state as people in bigger countries and economies. We get taken for a ride and we tend to accept it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Barbados' PM speaks with the people

Barbados' PM did what I think is a first, by holding a "press conference" on radio and TV, with three "senior media" persons, helping to set the agenda for the discussion in the studios of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation. The media professionals were quick to jump on the PM not delivering on pre-election promises: "Did you flatter to deceive?" one asked. The PM has not done all that he said his government would in 100 days. Well, surprise! Reality shows that things are not so easy as they seem when you are not responsible when you actually have to do something sensible, workable, and fair.

First, I would applaud the approach of not just giving a stiff speech in a "state of the nation" style. It's not quite like what Jamaica's PM, Bruce Golding, is doing with his weekly "call-in" show, but it suggests a sense of coming down to talk with the people. I would, however, go back to asking why people think that the only worthwhile questions come from the media professionals. There are several learned local analysts who could have made up a panel to pose some very broad and tough questions. Anyway, someone should reflect on that for next time.

Second, in terms of content, I took away several important points:

Cost of living:

Price gouging exists big time in Barbados, and if those enterprises which are protected do not give good service and value for money, the government will remove the protection and open up the market to wider competition. The PM cited how certain basic goods could be landed in other nearby Caribbean islands for much less than in Barbados and the only reason why was that the enterprises concerned were "ripping off" the people. He also mentioned that there was a time when local supermarkets seemed able to provide goods at affordable prices: many of the supermarkets are now gone and prices have become very unaffordable.

A lot of recent price increases are imported, coming largely from the rise of commodities (rice, flour, and crude oil, especially). This has caused food riots in many places, including neighbouring Haiti last weekend. Crude oil price rises have been meteoric recently: prices touched record levels of US$ 112 a barrel, and international traders talk about US$ 120 being "inevitable". There's a double whammy here. The US$ falls on the exchange markets and that raises the price many commodities (including metals like gold, which has already sailed above US$ 1000 an ounce, but since tapered back). People also look for a way to protect themselves from inflation ("hedging") and buy ahead using things like oil futures and their prices also rise.) So, domestic petrol prices need to rise just to reflect the higher world market price.

The price of petroleum products has to increase. Current prices were based on crude oil at US$ 65 a barrel, and carried a subsidy. Do the maths. So, the PM wants people to wake up to the new reality, noting that the subsidies on petroleum products were costing B$8 million per month. So, from midnight Monday gasolene prices would rise by about 25 percent (to B$ 2.67 a litre).
[Diesel would rise from B$1.46 per litre to B$2.57 and kerosene from B$1.37 per litre to $1.51. From today, Liquid Petroleum Gas 100-pound cylinders move from B$144.75 to B$188.15, the 25-pound cylinders increase from B$38.76 to B$49.63, while the widely-used 20-pound cylinders goes from B$31.01 to B$39.70. To soften the blows measures would be introduced in the coming Budget to help manufacturers, farmers, fishermen, public transport operators and the poor.] Despite all the reporting of world events, many people are still "shocked" and "surprised" with such an increase.

The PM also mentioned flour (where local producer prices just went up 30 percent), and cement. Both have become "essentials" in many developing countries. Flour is the input of many basics like bread, and that says it all. Cement goes into buildings and when the country has a boom in construction, both private residential and private commercial, the sting of higher prices is felt quickly.

Governance and accountability:

The PM danced a bit, but essentially said there is a "code of conduct" for MPs and his Cabinet works from the existing "rules book". I think he knows that what he promised ahead of the election is not satisfied by that. He said that there is an independent commission looking at the issues and there will be an obligation for MPs to declare their assets. But....the codes must not discourage people from wanting to participate in public life.

He then turned on the moderators, by asking why the need for such a code should be limited to public officials. Why not a similar code for the private sector? A long silence passed.

He did defend his right to remove the speech writer used by the previous PM. He added that there had been a lost sense of right and wrong under the previous government, and the use of public money for charity (e.g., paying pensions to someone who was not covered) was not defensible. He did not go too deeply into what the new government was unearthing about usses of public funds, but we are hearing rumblings. He also added that courtesy demanded that "political appointees" under a previous administration should tender their resignations when a new administration came into power.

Energy usage:

We need to save energy, but I heard nothing concrete in terms of policy proposals, except that the PM wants inputs from as wide a base as possible so everyone is encouraged to help "brain storm" with each other to come up with ideas on energy saving. I would suggest we do that huddled around a fire, but that is probably energy wasteful and would add carbon emissions.

There was not much real debate during the press conference, but plenty of that will come on the radio, in the streets and homes in coming days. There was also that peculiar sense that the questioners gave that problems were not there before the government was elected after the January 15 election. That is the shallowness that bothers me sometimes, without having any partisan notions. There is the disservice of not properly setting the scene or context. In the end, someone like the PM has to say, the subsidised petrol prices should have risen some time ago, and then it sounds like a defensive comment.

So, a refreshing foray into a new approach to democracy? At first blush, yes. But I wait to see if the strong words on anti-competitive behaviour will really turn into something tangible. The money in many pockets is already stretched. Hopefully, people won't have to go on rampages for the price gouging to stop.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fraud?

I try to see in the same way things that are essentially the same. So, I'm going to try to do that with some events that may appear to be different and which, as a result, seem to get different reactions. But are they essentially different?

Fraud is defined as "intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right" or "an act of deceiving or misrepresenting". So, let's look at some recent examples, some regional others in the much wider world. As some are the subject of court proceedings I won't go beyond stating some of the relevant reports seen recently.

Kern Spencer blinded by Cuban light bulbs? (see previous post on this blog).

Was Bear Stearns' collapse just a bad market event? With a lot of red ink still to flow on the outcome of the US subprime mortgage market collapse, a prominent investment bank, Bear Stearns, collapsed several weeks ago. At least one prominent investor is going to court with claims of fraud (see report): a US billionaire accuses the company and employees of duping him and his wife into buying 150,000 shares of the struggling brokerage's stock -- including 100,000 shares on March 14, the day that federal officials first intervened to keep the firm from tumbling into bankruptcy. On March 14, Bear stock was plummeting from US$ 57 to US$ 30 amid rumors that it might fail. Two days later Bear agreed to an emergency buyout by JPMorgan Chase & Co. at US$ 2 a share, a price later raised to about US$ 10. But it was not all bad news as some large hedge funds, betting that Bear would collapse, made millions of US dollars from it (see Wall Street Journal article). On April 3, A US Senate Banking Commission questioned senior officials from the US Federal Reserve, the Securities Exchange Commission, and the CEOs of Bear Stearns and JPMorgan Chase. On April 10, one US Senator asked for an investigation into possible insider trading (see report), requesting that the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission investigate stock trading prior to the deal with JPMorgan Chase', and the role of short selling in the collapse of Bear: trading in Bear shares spiked in the days before the buyout.

Was General Electric engineering something? Just two days ago General Electric reported a 6% drop in first-quarter net profit -- largely over trouble in its financial-services businesses -- and cutting its 2008 earnings outlook (see report). It was GE's first major downward earnings revision for years. Consequences? GE shares fell nearly 13%; GE's plunge erased US$ 55 billion from its stock-market value; the major US stock indexes fell more than 2%. Reason? On a conference call with investors, Chief Executive Jeff Immelt put the blame for the miss squarely on Bear Stearns. The 13% stock decline was the largest for GE since the stock market crash of 1987. Mr. Immelt, who had repeated the 2008 forecast on March 13 and called it "in the bag'' in December, blamed the lower earnings on the collapse in credit markets. He said "We had planned for an environment that was going to be challenging...[but] after the Bear Stearns event, we experienced an extraordinary disruption in our ability to complete asset sales and incurred marks of impairments and this was something that we clearly didn't see until the end of the quarter." Credible?

Is Cash Plus now cash minus? Jamaica's so-called "alternative investment schemes" have been taken up vigorously as possible sources of quick riches. But, this week Carlos Hill and his Cash Plus group continued a rapid fall from grace and Mr. Hill was arrested (see report) on suspicion that he and others defrauded billions of Jamaican dollars from lenders to the failed alternative investment club Cash Plus Limited (see report). Some J$ 4 billion of investors’ monies cannot be accounted for. The police action came a day after it was announced by Cash Plus’ court-approved co-interim receivership manager, Kevin Bandoian, that Cash Plus would not be able to make good on its promise to start making repayments to its approximately 40,000 lenders by April 14, as Carlos Hill was unable to secure the necessary funding or “access enough liquidity”. Cash Plus amassed a large pool of lenders with its promise of a 10 per cent monthly return on monies loaned to the company. A brief recent history:

2002: Cash Plus Ltd, led by Carlos Hill, started operations in Jamaica.
May 2007: Purchased the Hilton Kingston hotel.
July 2007: Acquired Drax Hall Estates, St Ann.
September 2007: Became sponsors of the National Premier League football. The Financial Services Commission (FSC) issued cease-and-desist orders on Cash Plus, its CEO, Carlos Hill, and Kahlil Harris.
February 2008: Cash Plus announced plans to resume payments of monthly returns by March 31, but indicated that this was contingent on FSC approval.
March 2008: Cash Plus says it is unable to resume payments on March 31 and gave an April 14 date for resumption; court appointed receiver/manager.
April 9: Court-appointed receiver/manager announces that Cash Plus is broke.
April 10: Carlos Hill arrested.

Eliot Spitzer forgot to include himself in his fight for moral rectitude? (See previous blog post.) As attorney general, he prosecuted cases relating to corporate white-collar crimes, securities and internet fraud, and notably pursued cases against companies involved in computer chip price fixing and investment bank stock price inflation (see an interesting article on the basis of his success in fighting Wall Street).

Plucking money from the public in Barbados? Local Bajan "shopping club", PriceSmart, admitted it had overpriced chicken wings last year (see report). In March this year, they were ordered to pay B$ 3,000 cost in seven days or a representative will spend two years in jail. (But do some arithmetic. They sold the chicken at B$ 17.28 per kilo--a retail price greater than $5.36 per kilo--that's a B$ 11.92 per kilo excess, so the fine represents the sale of about 250 kilos. Sounds like they are licking their fingers at getting off so lightly.) The company claimed that it had no plans to cheat the Barbadian public. Their lawyer argued it was an honest mistake based on what the company thought was the "honest and proper fulfilment of the order they placed". So, the company got a little sting, but the customers had been well filleted.

There are regulators or "gate keepers" who have been set up to try to control behaviour in certain areas and they work to different degrees of effectiveness. They have to have facts before they can deal with frauds. But even with facts they can sometimes be unable or unwilling to act. They are usually unable to deal with all the possible misdeeds in the area they cover.

There are also the individuals who are the perpetrators: they should know what they are doing. But few are willing to own up to fraud until they are caught and unequivocally found guilty.

There are the "customers" who take risks knowingly or unknowingly (if they are investors) or seek normal service (if they are shoppers), and then suffer losses. There may be mechanisms to allow them to get back some or all of what they lost, but maybe not. Should they look to blame someone? We tend to get extremely angry when we hear of the frauds and then the losers get nothing back. Do they all deserve sympathy? My view is that if you take a risk then you need to deal with its two sides--the risk and the reward--you can't have your cake and eat it. If you were going about your normal business (like shopping) you deserve a lot of sympathy; this should be clear and more so if the fraud was something like selling spolied or contaminated food as "fresh" or mislabelling medicine and putting people's lives at risk.

Every interaction between people has the potential for fraud or deception. I would not fall into the false sense of security that comes from thinking that somehow there are areas immune from this. Even those in well-established and respected organizations that are supposed to uphold the moral flag at its highest, such as the Anglican and Catholic churches have been guilty of much fraud and deception (especially financial and sexual). I remember with deep unease and really much bitterness the sense of being personally hacked when in the mid-1990s I learned that the very church where I worshipped was now the home of a major embezzeller, when Ellen Cooke, the wife of the rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, McLean, Virginia, and who was national treasurer was accused of and later sentenced for misappropriating US$ 2.2 million of Episcopal Church funds for her personal use (to buy mainly jewelry and a house, see report). I felt hacked both by her own acts as by the apparent blind eye her husband, my rector, must have turned, and her subsequent attempts to claim that "sexism" faced at Church headquarters made her do it". The courts ignored that and sentenced her to five years in jail. The rector resigned. The church congregation, which included several US Congressmen and Colin Powell, was emotionally destroyed.

My personal sense of betrayal is as deep when I hear of athletes in sports that I love and in which I participated being found out to be "drug cheats". Fortunately for me so far, none of my childhood sporting heroes has yet fallen on this needle. But you have to feel for the rest of the US relay team who may lose their gold medals because of Marion Jones' doping convinction (see report)--they have so far refused to give them up--and can taste the added mixed anguish of Jamaica's relay team and some other 30 or so athletes who stand to benefit from any medal reallocation. International Olympic Committee executive board has just held meetings to decide on this.

Somewhere along the way fraud comes from greed, which will always will be one of the seven deadly sins. I don't know how you stop people being greedy.

Zimbabwe. Things are normal!

I have been struggling for a couple of weeks over how to express my feelings about the current non-outcome from Zimbabwe's presidential elections on March 29. Phrases such as "vote fiasco" have already been used (see latest CNN report). I tried to explain to a good and learned friend how Africans in general were not going to see the decline of a leader and just accept that as we would in the Caribbean. He told me I was full of ****! I also knew that African political leaders would not come out and condemn any part of the process. I did not speak to my friend again on this because I knew what he would say.

So, no surprise that once again, political leaders in southern Africa have convened a summit meeting to discuss Zimbabwe--this time the electoral stalemate. The Southern African Development Community (which could be shortened to SAD Community), a regional bloc of 14 nations, also implicitly acknowledged reports that Zimbabwe's governing party had sponsored violent attacks on opposition supporters since the election on March 29 by urging the government to ensure that a runoff, if needed, will be held “in a secure environment.” Their conclusion today offered what has been called "a weak declaration that appealed for a quick release of the results and the conclusion that the country is not in crisis". By the way, Zimbabwe's president did not attend the summit, which is widely seen as a major snub for the African leaders. South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, played the matter as one would expect, having had meetings with President Mugabe in Harare on his way to Zambia (see report): "There is no crisis in Zimbabwe," he told reporters.

The delay in releasing the election results and the process of recounting votes before results have been declared by Zimbabwe's Election Commissionhave raised the spectre of fraud in the minds of many commentators (see New York Times report). The results for legislative elections held on the same day as the presidential vote, were posted, and Mr. Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, lost its majority in Parliament. Over the past week the governing party has demanded recounts involving an increasing number of seats. A state-owned newspaper, The Sunday Mail, reported today that votes for 23 seats (out of 210) would be recounted, raising the possibility that the opposition’s victory could be reversed, Reuters reported. Zimbabwean state television reported Saturday it had unearthed a secret document detailing plans by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to rig the elections. Isn't it amazing what powers the opposition can muster after being out of power for some 40 years?

Concluding that Zimbabwe is "not in crisis" when the country has hyperinflation, with prices reported to be rising over 100,000 percent a year, and rising, is incredible. Just figure out what that means a day, even every hour. By the hour, it would exceed what several other countries call very high inflation over a year, and they mean between 15-40 over 12 months. (Read about Iceland's plight with its current "high inflation".) In Zimbabwe, essentials like bread and soap have all but disappeared from many shops, according to news reports. Estimates indicate that 80 percent of the population live below the US$ 35 a month poverty line. Some 80 percent of the population is unemployed. The government has banned political rallies, while the opposition called for a general strike. If all of that does not make a crisis in your eyes then your view of normal must be very strange.

It's part of the business of diplomacy to dance around real issues (read the transcript of a press conference with African Finance Ministers yesterday, during the IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington, DC). Just look at an extract from what Botswana's Finance Minister said:

First, the influx of Zimbabweans over the border into his country "has been so significant that I think it has not been possible even on the Zimbabwean side for them to issue passports to everybody once they come to Botswana. So, many of these people who have come without their travel documents, and this means that this has caused quite a strain in our facilities, and every so often, our immigration officers take them back. And then, after leaving the border, sometimes by the time they arrived, some had already crossed the other side. So, we've been having that immediate problem, because it means if they need health facilities in Botswana, they must get it and many other things, but the situation as you aware is changing."

Then he mentions the election. "The impasse is simply that the results of the presidential election have not yet been announced. There seems to be some technical problems, technical or otherwise, by the Commission, because it really is the Commission that ought to announce, but they are failing to announce. The international community is waiting, including the Zimbabweans themselves. But I am one of the optimists. I think that Zimbabweans are getting close to solving their problems, and hopefully this coming week will bring miracles, and the announcement will come and they will work with them on that."

I don't know why you need "miracles" to solve "technical problems". I am not going to excuse Botswana's Finance Minister because he is supposed to focus on technical and financial rather than political issues.

Look again at the picture above from the SAD Community summit. Arms folded. Lips sealed. Remind you of the "three wise monkeys principle" to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil"? If you don't know the phrase it is commonly used to describe someone who doesn't want to be involved in a situation, or someone deliberately ignoring the immorality of an act they have seen or in which they are involved. Some argue that the phrase came from the teaching of Buddhism that if we do not hear, see or speak of evil, we ourselves shall be spared all evil. Oh, such wishful thinking!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Do you want to tell the world what you think about the US Presidential elections?

I received an appeal from the host of a website named Dearamericanvoter (see link). He is looking for bloggers and video loggers who are interested in participating in a project he is working on at Link TV (a.k.a. Television without borders). As I have occasionally discussed the pending US presidential election, he thought that I might be interested. However, he is encouraging people from all over the world to submit videos and participate in discussions on his website, to share what issues are important to them in their own country, and to express what Americans should keep in mind when voting. Of course, the American election result will have a large global impact, so the project aims to help give voice to international concerns, as well as healing the relationship between the United States and the world. American opinions are not too, of course.

Blogs and video logs such as YouTube have done much to change the way that people's opinions can be expressed and received, and social commentary is not (and should never have been) limited to so-called experts, so I welcome this initiative as another step to opening discussions to those who really should comment--all of us.

If you participate in the project, based on reading this, please feel free to give this blog as your inspiration. Networking is important.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Thank you, Mr. Obama?

Whatever the outcome of the US presidential candidacy races and then elections, I believe that many people will owe a debt of gratitude to Barack Obama. What he has done by being a very credible black candidate is to raise race and colour to a new level of debate, clearly in the US for now. But I think, that in a wider international context, he has done much to bring to the fore some of the fluff and confusion in discussions about race and colour. Mr. Obama is a black candidate with whom many white voters clearly feel comfortable for the time being (see his primary wins in predominantly white states). Yet, he is a black candidate whose blackness has been questioned by several prominent voicesincluding in the black community (see, for example, Time report). But he has opened up the question about what it means to be black.

For many people who identify themselves as black or are described as black they know that having some visible element of whiteness in their appearance really changes nothing in the eyes of people who identify themselves as white or are described as white. Once the darkness is clear the line tends to be drawn. In the US, the so-called "one-drop" rule tended to ensure that: a person with any trace of non-white ancestry (however small or invisible) could not be considered white. You were black or white. As a result of 400 years of living alongside white people, the majority of "African Americans" have white admixture, and many white Americans also have African ancestry. Some have suggested that the majority of the descendants of African slaves are white. In modern times, you have clearly dark people in America, of clearly mixed racial heritage, possibly raised by a white parent but in no way feeling "white" or being seen as "white". Yet they are not necessarily seen as "black". What is Derek Jeter? What is Mariah Carey? What is Jason Kidd? Each is a product of Irish-something mothers and African-soemthing fathers. (There are separate issues about those who are seen as mixed race and I want to deal with some of them in a separate post.)Mr. Obama brought a different wrinkle to the discussion with his very recent arrival as a black American (a true African-American, with black Kenyan father and white American mother), and with his absence of "black history" by not really being a product of struggles through the civil rights movement, and hailing from Hawaii. (Do Americans really see those islands like the mainland?)

In north America, Europe, and the Caribbean, we have lived through several hundred years of clearly black and clearly white peoples mixing, voluntarily and accidentally (both amicably and by force), with the outcome being a range of people who are not clearly as white (or classically European-looking) as most of the original settlers who travelled from Europe across The Atlantic, nor as clearly black as those who came originally from black tribes in Africa. During that period, which spans a good 500 years, we have known that on the one hand that those who could be seen as white or nearly white gained many privileges that were denied to those who were seen as black. Let's simply by saying they got their hands on economic and political control. So, if possible, there was a natural tendency to be seen as white/European. People are not stupid and rarely choose to impose suffering on themselves. In visible ways, that meant that through time many vestiges of a black/African origin were displaced in simple and complex ways: hair was de-kinked, skin was bleached, manners and tastes were changed to seem more white/European. These are familiar processes of assimilation--no different than learning to speak like a local when you move to a new place. They made sense in a time when clearly privileges were tending towards the whites/European.

In a broad sense the privilege structure did not change much, but through processes such as decolonization from European rule and civil rights successes a black identity started to take on a different and positive meaning. Skipping through the years, we moved to a point where black people could take pride in their blackness and believe that maybe this did not automatically penalize. In some places and the minds of some people, this created a new thin line to tread. At its extreme, "black" people would omit or suppress references to a clear set of white/European roots and/or relations with "white" people, because this was now a possible negative in a world that saw blackness as a positive and whiteness or relationships with it as negatives. So, now being black is alright. But the degree to which whiteness is looked down upon varies. Here in Barbados, there was an instance 2-3 years ago of a black Cabinet minister, Environment Minister Elizabeth Thompson, being overheard using the word “Caucasian” as a derogatory racial term.More recently, Barbados' new mega-star, Rihanna, reportedly admitted in a media interview that she was bullied in school for being “white” (see report and picture alongside of her and Jay-Z).

Various social systems in countries that have a significant proportion of white and black people, but where whites tended to be on top have not yet fully embraced the elevation of blackness. By that, I mean that they have not moved to make things fully even for blacks and whites--hence all the discussion about Mr. Obama's run for president. On the one hand, America has over the past 50 years embraced more the black person as truly an integral part (as the prime sports heroes and heroines; icons of popular culture, especially music; increasingly as a leader in local legislative politics as high as Congressperson and Senators; as important in national affairs--head of the armed forces, in charge of foreign affairs and national security policies; increasingly leaders in large businesses),but up to the past 12 months did not seem ready to embrace the possibility of their political leader being black.

Britain, which has seen a significant increase in its black population through mass immigration in the 1950s and 1960s, and reproduction since, has seen the black person as "British" (and that is synonymous with "being like the white Britons" in many people's minds) especially in the sport world, but seems to have lagged in this process in the areas of politics and business (see report). The rest of western Europe is mixed. France (which is complicated because it includes already black islands like Guadeloupe and Martinique as part of the "mainland") and Holland (which similarly has the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao as part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands), who were both colonial powers, have seen immigrants and their offspring from former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, become integral part of their sporting lives. They have also shown interesting recent political developments in including non-whites in national political office. Countries such as Germany, Sweden, Italy, and Norway are seeing the integration of non-whites move along a range of varied lines; but such countries without much of a history associated with centuries of slavery and mistreatment of nonwhites move on a different track. [The pitcure of Inter Milan footballer Mario Balotelli-Buruwah tells a micro-story of what some of Europe is trying to deal with. He was born in Palermo, Italy, in 1990, of Ghanaian parents, then entrusted to an Italian family at age 3, but still is not an Italian citizen (he must be 18 to make that request).] If the discussion is broadened to include "ethnic minorities" we can see that the progresses have been more widely spread.

So, being being black now carries many elements of confusion within and outside of black communities. It's hard to be too general not least because I believe that there is a world of difference between various experiences. There is America (with its strong, still recent history of racial segregation and intolerance). There is Britain-France (with their ex-colonial powers and mass immigration histories). There is much of western Europe (with little mass immigration, though seeing increasingly migration through asylum seekers and economic refugees). There is the Caribbean (with our history of much inter-racial mixing, being overseen by European colonists and the favours they disposed to those who were seen as "white" or acted more European). Inside the "black community" it tends to be a good thing. Outside the black community, one has to judge the context and it could be a good or a bad thing. At a micro-social level outside the black community, it could be a plus such as being the "black friend(s)" that some white people would claim.

Few of us blacks are truly black through and through. I think most black people know this.

My wife is from the Bahamas (intriguing enough in the region, with "family islands" that were historically quite different in racial mix). Her family on her mother's side would be categorized as "Conchy Joe" (a Bahamian term for a white person or a non-white person who acts white). Her maternal great grandmother was white French-Haitian, and blackness was introduced variously by Jamaicans and Bahamians. But my wife looks more brown than anything else (there's another blog to come on women's skin colour in the Caribbean).

I have very dark brown skin and everyone in my family before me looked much the same, but I must have Celtic genes. Why? My first wife was clearly a Celt (white and a redhead, with family from Scotland and the Isle of Man). My first daughter has skin that is paler than it is dark and is also a redhead. For that to happen, there must be a recessive gene--one that is present in both parents--such as gives blond hair and blues eyes. Therefore, somewhere (probably in that southern St. Elizabeth melting pot of Jamaica) some Celtic blood entered my line. History tells us that the Vikings sailed from northern Europe to the Caribbean, centuries before Columbus. But it could have been from post-Columbus intermingling. I look and feel black. My daughter? She was raised in mainly white neighbourhoods. She has been described as "white", "black" and "other" (which is the description that covers her best, probably). Her racial experiences have been quite different in the US, Canada, and the UK (about which she will write soon). At the family level some of the pertinent questions are:

Do we think we are black? Yes.

Do white people see us as black? Yes. (I can't go beyond that to say if that means they see us as friends or foes, but most experiences suggest more the former than the latter by far. As we have never been criminals it's hard to talk too much about how being on that side would change perceptions.)

Do we act like we are black? Yes, as befits people from our respective island. Which means that we often do not see ourselves as subservient to white people and we are proud of our colour.

Do we feel disadvantaged for not being white? No.

Do we mix with black and white people freely? Yes.

Do our children mix with black and white people freely? Yes.

Do our children have more white friends than black friends? Yes.

Do our children see themselves as black? Yes.

Do people see our children as black? Yes. No. Sometimes.

Looking beyond my immediate family the debate that has been broadened is complex and long and won't be resolved quickly, if ever. But it's a good one with which to get engaged.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Do you ever have days like this?

A friend sent me a message several months ago that I promised to use on the blog. It came as a "breathless" e-mail and I have just put the air together slightly differently.

Today was quite a day. One of those "working mother-with-teenage-daughter" days, but to excess. Left home in the Kingston hills from early morning with intention of dropping daughter at hairdresser for 11am appointment in location-from-hell--Constant Spring plazas [a mere few miles away but awful to reach on a work day]--and reaching work at the university by mid-morning. Ended up reaching work at 4pm, having not yet had breakfast that was packed in car. Explanation: it was so horrific getting her there that I decided to wait for her, squeeze in a little shopping during the estimated 2 hours hairdressing time. Well, 2 hours eventually turned into 4, and the longer I waited the less sense it seemed to make to leave only to have to return shortly thereafter to the same madness. And in my effort to maximise the opportunity of being in the plazas-from-hell (or more accurately to minimise the likelihood of my ever having to return thereto) I ended up buying a Christmas tree while waiting, so of course I had to go back home with it before going to work, etc etc etc. So I'm now in office principally in an attempt to restore my sanity while soaking up the A/C.