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**

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Making The Most Of What You Have: A Look At A Paradox.

We economists are often wrestling with the problems of paradoxes. For example, we want to try to understand why countries with what appear to be the same attributes end up with very different outcomes. Or how countries with ample resources seem to remain mired in poverty as if they lacked everything.

From an economic and sociological point of view, we can look at countries that say have similar natural resources yet use them very differently. But we may not even need to go beyond a country. Take Guinea, for example, which lies on the west coast of Africa, almost due east of Barbados. It is a country but is made up of four natural regions:
  • Guinea Forest (south east): densely forested; rich soil capable of supporting many staple agricultural products (rice, ground provision, etc., palms); wide variety of animals (elephants, panthers, hippopotamuses, etc. up until not so long ago); mixed tropical climate with heavy seasonal rains; varied ethnic groups.
  • Coastal Guinea (west): fish are plentiful from the sea and rivers; arable flat land (good for growing many tropical fruits), some swampy lands (can support staples like rice); hot tropical climate with heavy seasonal rains; small number of ethnic groups.
  • Middle Guinea/Fouta Djallon (centre-west): mountainous, but with lush vegetation; rivers; arable land; cooler climate, moderate rains; one principal ethnic group (Peuhls/Fulani).
  • High Guinea (centre-east): flat, dry savannas; little arable land (supports ground provisions, some grains, other ground crops like peanuts); one principal ethnic group (Malinke/Mandingos).
The country has a centuries long history and was once part of the great Ghanaian Empire. Guinea has an Atlantic coast and is bounded by six different countries. It went through the process of Islamisation with the arrival of the Fulani (close to Arabs in origin), and is officially about 85-90 percent Muslim. The Fulani also brought nomadic traditions such as cattle grazing. It was colonized by the French and became the first African country to gain independence in the 1950s. The country was once the major African exporter of certain tropical fruit (pineapples, bananas). It has huge mineral deposits (especially bauxite, iron, diamonds, gold, and more), which have been mined for decades, but little processed in the country (one alumina plant exists). The country is mired in poverty, principally because its first president said to the French that he would rather his country was poor and independent rather than rich and enslaved. When the French left, they destroyed a lot of the infrastructure, but the country has had 50 years to overcome that. That poverty amidst natural richness is a huge paradox, and better economics brains than mine have not resolved it.

But, not looking at the global international position of the country, one can see internal paradoxes.

Cattle exist in the Forest area, but the people never 'exploited' the milk: they left the cows' milk for calves to drink: one consequence was that cows never offered income opportunities unless killed for their meat and its nutritional offering was as meat only. The Middle Guineans (Fulani) used cows' milk to make other products, such as fermented milk and yogurt, so they could travel with milk products and trade them for income, as well as have the income and nutrition from meat.

Fish available from the sea and rivers in the coastal area was eaten fresh but also 'preserved' by smoking. Fishing was largely small scale, by artisans off the coast (large industrial fishing came along later and took fish for export to Europe) on in rivers. Fish is plentiful but the country imports large amounts of fish.

Forest Guinea once produced enough rice to feed the whole country; it is said that Guinea has the potential to feed itself and its neighbours. But, in part as a result of mismanagement after the French left, and then the dislocation of refugees coming from bordering countries in civil war (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire) over many years, land that could be cultivated was greatly reduced and the population in the area greatly increased. Guinea is now dependent on imported rice, and suffers because its foreign exchange earnings had greatly dwindled as mineral prices fell. The high price of rice has become a constant stick of social dynamite.

Up until about two years ago, all of Guinea's economic and political woes had never resulted in civil war, or any major civil disturbances. It was also never really at war with any neighbours, though there were/are border disputes.

Guinea's mineral wealth is dug up and exported in raw form, and most is processed elsewhere. For example, Guinea's bauxite is processed into alumina and aluminium in France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. Guinea gets the lower price for the raw product and industrial countries gain from the higher prices of the goods with added value.

Guinea's rivers are regarded as the 'water house of Africa' and it could produce enough hydroelectrictity to illuminate the whole country, yet most of the country does not have electricity. The capital has an electricity grid but it was often plagued by outages, so the city was famous for its darkness: imagine landing at night in a capital city and only seeing the runway lights of the airport, and a few lights dotted around the whole city.

Guinea has a musical culture that is envied in west Africa, yet hardly anyone outside that region knows of it. Guineans often live with the 'burden' of being multilingual. French is the official language, but most people know the main language of each natural region, so that means most people speak at least four languages. Yet, the country has levels of educational achievement that are frighteningly low, and a literacy rate put at around 30 percent (children aged over 15).

We have the idiom, 'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear', meaning that if something in not very good to start with, you cannot do much to improve it. But, we often find evidence that this is not true. We also know about 'squandering your riches'.

When I look through my window and across my veranda in Barbados and see signs of what this country has done since its independence, I ponder the 'paradox of richness' or the so-called 'resource curse'. The academically inclined can read an interesting paper on the subject, entitled Uniquely cursed? The challenge of growth in resource rich countries.

1 comment:

Luis Portugal said...

It has a nice blog.
Sorry not write more, but my English is bad writing.
A hug from my country, Portugal