Saturday, May 30, 2009
Anyway, the other part of the distended reality is the population. True enough, I have only met a few Exumans (pronounced "ex humans"), and they were all named Rolle. In typical post-colonial Caribbean/Atlantic style, all of the people who are descended from African slaves carry names that relate to former masters or overseers. In this case, a bunch of American loyalists running off from the Revolutionary Wars in the 1780s, settled in Exuma and started planting cotton. Out of their cotton picking minds? Lord John Rolle, was a big man among the settlers of the Exumas. When he died in 1835, he bestowed all of his significant lands to his former slaves. So, when you see that everyone in Exuma is a Rolle, and proud of it, you have to remember that Lord John rolled them up in one big naming ceremony and the rest is history. But to hear an Exuman say "I is a Rolle," you would think that the blood line runs back to Adam.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!”
Thursday, May 28, 2009
But, we tried to make it one of those days to remember. We found each other before the ceremonies and took some pictures, with little sister getting her first chance to wear the mortar board. Then we sat down and settled in for the presentations. All went well, and we got a good chance to see the celebrant as she got her degree. She was a bit miffed because of another McGill-style administrative snafu, that meant that her 'great' distinction got down graded to 'distinction' moments before she went on stage. But, she did not really care as she knew that really she had excelled and it was all she needed to know: lots of As and A-minuses.
The graduate's little sister surely has her work cut out to match her older siblings. I hope she can stay the course as well as they did.
We then went for a very leisurely French lunch, which filled us, and now we are just ready for rest. A long day, but worth every moment.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? If Shakespeare will allow me to borrow his lines from Romeo and Juliet. We find one of the rival candidates was behind sending e-mails to journalists who then helped launch a little smear campaign. Now, Prof. Ruth Padel, who won the professorship, against the weakened field, has confessed and resigned from the chair (see NY Times report), stating “I acted in complete good faith and would have been happy to lose to Derek.” Yea, right. But when she won she had said her victory was “poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with...Those acts have done immense damage to people and to poetry.” She certainly has a way with words, but truth doth elude her. We may have to see if that is not a lift from a literary work. In the end, she admits that she acted "naively" and "unwisely". But, she is still kicking the stone that I did nothing wrong and am gravely misunderstood.
Just reading a few of the reports about this episode would lead me to think that this might be some crazy, mixed up lady. Then I find that she is a great-great-grand-daughter of naturalist Charles Darwin; had a father who was a psychoanalyst; and did a doctoral thesis on Greek tragedy. She was once a journalist, too. Funny, how she did not put two and two together when she sent the e-mails. Or did she? Enough there to find its way into a best selling novel. One wonders what phoenix may rise from the ashes of this sorry tale.
Monday, May 25, 2009
National Budgets should set out government expenditure and revenue for the financial year. But they should also show the population the government's economic aspirations for, and concerns about, the country's immediate economic future.
Finance Minister, David Thompson, seems to have had economic stability in his mind this week and conveyed that by presenting what I call a minimalist Budget, with few numbers and few broad measures—most of the changes are marginal. Reactions from my Barbadian friends, who are non-partisan, include words like “bland”. My sense is that Mr. Thompson decided that if we don't move perhaps the boogey man won’t get us.
The international economic backdrop is dire. Industrial countries led the world into an economic downturn from late 2007, which may not end before December 2009. Barbados' major industrial markets for tourism and goods—the UK, Canada, and the USA—have suffered badly. Caribbean neighbours too are suffering, but less so. Barbados' economy has been dragged down by this. The main saving grace of the global recession has been a rapid and steep fall in world oil prices, which is keeping inflation at bay.
Against that backdrop, what did the Budget really do? Mr. Thompson stressed the need for innovation to help steer the country ahead, but the Budget contained few major innovations. His message was that we await the train of improving international economic conditions to pull us forward. Asking the country to rally together as “Team Barbados” and trying to sell the “Barbados Experience” of a country that wants to do better, are good sentiments but for me were not matched by bold action.
The Budget arithmetic is unclear. We got few figures with which to draw a clear picture. But, two troubling images appear. The first concerns what Barbados owes and how it may repay that.
The 2008/9 Estimates indicate lower revenue and higher spending, compared to the same period last year, so we must expect a budget deficit of 5.1% of GDP, instead of the targeted 2.2%, and 3.7% in 2007/8. That dramatic reversal reflects overly optimistic revenue projections and a lack of control over spending. But, this could be seen as 'good' by giving the economy more of a boost now when other sectors are faltering.
Total public sector debt in March 2008 was B$5.8 billion, but by March 2009 was B$6.2 billion (up 45%). The debt/GDP ratio was 99% in 2008, up from 65% in 1999. This reflected an improved on-budget deficit but increased use of government guarantees by the previous administration during the mid-2000s. The ratio will be 102% by end-2009: that figure is a red flag to the rest of the world. The mighty UK has just had its rating downgraded by Standard and Poor's from 'stable' to 'negative' and could lose its vaunted AAA rating for approaching that 100% figure. Speculation last week that the USA may lose its AAA rating has put its financial markets and the US dollar under renewed pressure. So, I must agree with Mr. Thompson that public debt is a “major cause of concern” and puts at risk this country's fiscal sustainability. That concern has already been aired by the international credit ratings agencies, who help determine countries' ability to borrow in private capital markets.
That debt burden will weigh on future generations. How that burden will be shared is unclear. Mr. Thompson plans to have a primary fiscal surplus (meaning the excess of revenues over expenditures (excluding interest payments and debt redemption)) of at least 5.9% from 2011, which, if maintained, would reduce the debt/DGP ratio to 70% by end-2018. That is a big adjustment, and large primary surpluses for the next decade imply pain down the road because revenues must rise, spending must fall, or both.
The other troubling image concerns money flows from and to other countries. Mr. Thompson highlighted that the net international reserves of the central bank at May 2009 showed a loss of B$36 million, which will increase to B$100 million by end year, even after getting a US$100 million loan from Trinidad. But commercial banks' net foreign assets also fell sharply. That means that both the government and commercial entities have dwindling access to foreign exchange.
I would have preferred to see innovation to some major problems. Mr. Thompson has proposed raising water rates from July because the Barbados Water Authority's financial situation in 2009/10 is “distressing”. He noted how money was being wasted due to leaky old infrastructure and slow repairs. But will raising rates really help if reports of significant arrears due from domestic customers are correct? Those who already pay will have to pay more and those who do not pay will add to their arrears. Is a rate increase really pouring money down the drains?
Attempts to shore up employment temporarily may create longer term budgetary problems. Both allowing NIS 'loans' by a one year deferral of employer contributions, to be repaid over five years, and waiving 50% of penalties and interest for National Insurance, income and land taxes, and VAT, with arrears to be settled later could be storing up future problems if the loans and arrears cannot be settled.
More vocational and industrial training, more public housing, and helping the 'creative economy', may be good for some, but introducing measures to tackle 'structural' weakness, such as the acknowledged lack of competitiveness in the economy and impediments to doing business would be better for almost all. Mr. Thompson's desire for Barbadians to be healthier and exercise could be better served if eating healthily was more affordable, rather than giving concessions on gym membership.
Looking at the financial sector, the planned creation of a Financial Services Commission should calm some nerves about weak supervision in the nonbank sector. But, the MOU signed to create an oversight committee for CLICO adds another twist to a saga and we still do not really know the health of the company.
The Budget is benign, aimed more at keeping things at bay—stemming job losses rather than re-positioning the economy, even if we accept that fiscal space is limited. Because Mr. Thompson says that “no sure-footed policies … can be pursued … because we are walking an uncharted path” does not make it true. I think that belief bound him to avoid taking measures that could have set the country on a better path for life after the recession.
The phone has not yet started ringing off the hook, which means that most people have not yet seen the piece. I look forward to escaping to Canada for a few days and will check my voice mail on return.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
This morning, during my breakfast in St. George, I got talking about growing up in London, and reminiscing about a few things, not TV programs, but food, places I went, and things I did.
So, during this hot, May afternoon, the two notions came together and I did a little search on YouTube. What I found and include below show something about TV life in the 1960s in England and life before Nintendo, Wii (Fit or not), Pokemon etc. If you have the time to watch all at once, go for it. If you get the chance to watch with a child under 10 years old, I'd love to know their reactions. Have fun.
Sara and Hoppity (Twiddley Dee, Twiddley Dum)
Torchy the Battery Boy
Supercar (I love Mitch the monkey)
Then there was Fireball XL5
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
This year, I was also close to my radio and watching the performance on TV. I also had the tough challenge of being part of a radio panel later in the evening to discuss first impressions of the Budget. That was no easy task. I found myself alongside the current and previous Ministers of State in the Ministry of Finance, Senator Darcy Boyce and Clyde Mascoll (who is now working as an economist), the president of the Barbados Economics Society, Anthony Johnson, and a well-know accountant, Douglas Skeete. So many economists in one place? Must lead to lots of opinions. So it was, but it was great fun, and we got pizza. I wont pretend that we arrived at any consensus, even on the food. We spent a lot of time talking about the outlook for government debt, which to me is something that should get people's attention.
No one doubts that a politician taking over power during the past two years has had anything other than an economic baptism of fire. But politics is a funny game. I remember when I first got here most of the criticism I heard from Mr. Thompson, when in opposition, was that the economic ills, especially rising prices, could be put at the door of the government of Mr. Owen Arthur. Now that the hat has a new wearer he is quick to point out he was having to deal with 'circumstances not of our making', and much blame is laid on the world recession. I don't have a problem with that observation, but I wonder what changed in the shifting of positions.
The government is in a tough situation. Revenue is less than desired. Spending is higher than desired. Foreign exchange is flowing less than desired, especially because foreign tourists and investors are also facing a tough time. Prices are not falling as desired. Financial institutions are causing clients concerns.
Without going too much into the details of the budget, there is a darkening outlook for Barbados in that it is being increasing perceived as highly indebted, as the pincers of revenue shortfall and expenditure that is not falling fast mean that it has to borrow more. The fact that the so-called debt-to-GDP ratio seems headed to 100 percent is a red flag, and the government's strategy does not see it coming down to around 70 percent until 2018 (a decade away) should give pause for thought. The Budget had a long story of how the credit rating agencies and international financing institutions are laying their beady eyes on this. Barbados should rightly be getting hot under the collar.
Much of the success in economic policy is about confidence and credibility. Barbados needs foreigners' money and it comes in three main forms--from tourists, from those setting up and operating international businesses here, and from investors in real estate on the island. My own view is that the government did not see that nothing should be done to jeopardise any of those pillars especially in the current fragile economic conditions. People are fickle when it comes to putting their money to work abroad. Tough economic conditions in the UK, Canada and the US will crimp tourists arrivals and spending. Plans by the world's economic 'big boys' to rein in what they call 'tax havens' have had Barbados and other countries with relatively low taxes scrambling to paint themselves as less harmful. But, I think the ball was missed in making foreign property investors less welcome, and I fear that once they turn their backs it will be hard to get them to change their minds.
The latest budget did much to allay fears of new tax increases, but at the same time put together measures that were geared to shore up jobs. People's fears of having less in their pockets and maybe feeling less secure at work may well be eased. Those selling motor cars will feel easier with the increasing of the rebate on new vehicles. Many will welcome lower VAT on building materials and the housing measures. Many, however, will wonder how large will be the promised increases in water rates, from July.
There are many dark clouds that need to be cleared. Many people have serious concerns and seek clarity about the real situation with CL Financial and the life insurance company, CLICO. It still is not there. Searching for a private sector solution has many merits but the path to that is leaving many scratching their heads. The creation of an oversight committee which will temporarily be responsible for approving expenditure and decision relating to the financial subsidiaries of CLICO holdings may raise concerns rather than diminish them. Since the problems of CL Financial broke earlier this year, PM Thompson has been trying to pour cold water on concerns about the health of CLICO Barbados. This latest move suggests that more cold water is being dispensed.
Part of the fall out of financial sector supervisory lapses may be addressed with the creation of a Financial Services Commission to oversee all non-bank financial institutions, from the first quarter of 2010. But let's not run with this before we see it walk.
I don't get a sense that the approach to renewal of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital is really the best one.
On of the major challenges is for the government to make all feel that the problem is a national one, not one that is about partisan positions. Mr. Thompson has come up with the "Team Barbados" concept as a rallying call, but I do not feel that it does not do enough to really draw people into a national effort.
Whether the "Barbados experience", which will try to sell all that the country "has to offer in terms of our environment, our friendly people, our international business services, our high quality of life, our cultural services, our tourism experience, our educational standards, our infrastructure, our history, our reputation and our good name" will be more than a marketing slogan, we will have see.
The economic road ahead is not easy but it is also not impossible to pass without falling on sharp rocks. Let's see if people feel ready to help each other walk the road or if they will be readier to push each other over to avoid being the ones to fall.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
The story is about her new puppy. Auntie Anita got him when he was only 8 weeks old. She says that he is a Caucasian Mountain Dog and his name is Xerxes, after the Persian King who thought that he was a God. Xerses would fit into the working dog group, and will eventually grow to about 100 pounds! Whoa! I have not seen him yet, but I have seen a picture of him. I like Xerxes.
I hope that when I go to Nassau during the summer holidays my Auntie Anita will let me take her puppy for a walk. Perhaps when I am there she will let me walk the puppy with my cousin, Zara.
Auntie Anita and her husband, Uncle Basilio, have had a few rough nights as Xerxes attempts to get used to his new home and being left alone to sleep and being home alone in the day. He is eating well, though, and likes affection, just like me. He is also getting better at going to the potty, just like me.
I love him as much as Auntie Anita does.
Over the past few weeks, I have been wrestling with this credibility of concerns issue on the political and economic level. A local political strategist who is also a government adviser, Hartley Henry, has written several articles that make me ask whether his musings reflect correctly the kind of advice being given to the government on political economy issues. His weekly newspaper columns, which are also submitted to another local blog, Barbados Underground, have left me struggling to find a logic and direction for any suggested economic policy. I have said to myself that if he is being paid for the columns then it's money for old rope. His adviser's post is paid and I have read concerns about whether tax payers are getting value for money. I wonder then what are his real concerns and the meanings that seem to elude me, other than meeting an obligation to supply a certain number of words to the newspaper, or to puff up his party in some vaguely disguised partisan fashion.
What first caught my attention was a piece in early April (see Advocate, April 2), sparked by parliamentary discussion on the Budget Estimates. It lauded the fact that:
"I have always favoured English over Arithmetic...thanks to the career I have chosen, I have had little need for use of half that which I learnt in Mathematics at St. George Secondary 30 years ago. Thankfully, in Barbados today there is a leader that is comfortable speaking to the population in English and not only arithmetic...This is not the time for 'bamboozling' the public with ambiguous economic interpretations."
The way forward was clear:
"We need to know what is wrong and what it will take to fix it. We want to know that the advice coming from those we believe know what they are talking about is genuine and well meaning and not the product of hidden agendas or jaundiced perspectives. ... This land belongs to us. Let us speak the language we all know and understand. Let us wrap our thoughts, words and actions in the national flag. Down with economic babble! Up with good old fashioned English!"
This contained a thinly veiled criticism of the previous PM, who is known as a professional economist and one who is comfortable with the economic numbers, when compared with the current PM, a lawyer better known for weaving words well.
However, the core of the argument held for me some disturbing propositions in a country that prides itself on its level of educational attainment and sees itself as atop the list of developing countries. Mr. Henry's career choice could be said to reflect the limitations that his lack of mathematics forced on him. Not being capable at mathematics does not seem like something of which one should be proud, if the idea is to truly encourage a new level of excellence in education and variety in economic options for the population of this small island. Most of the world's fastest growing sectors over the past two decades have been geared to technology and without a good grasp of mathematics (and science) in a broad sense, a country could well be left at the port when it is time for economic prosperity to set sail again.
Then, two weeks ago, after a visit to the UK, he wrote an article that bothered me on a different level (see Barbados Advocate, May 7). Its essential argument was that Barbadians need to come together now more than ever to weather the storms created by the world recession. That is laudable enough. But what bothered me by seeking to draw parallels with PM Brown and the UK, was whether there was thoroughness underlying the arguments. Certainly, the piece displayed some discomforting ignorance, and was just downright misleading. He wrote:
"Life in Britain today is no bed of roses. Simply put, it is dread. Job losses are as common as dips in temperature. You are going to work each morning, not knowing whether it’s your last day on the job or even if the doors to the office will be bolted shut. The cost of living has gone through the roof and public confidence in the political directorate is at an all time low...
"[PM Gordon Brown], from all reports, has failed to inspire voters. Indeed, he has failed to inspire members of his own British Labour Party...No one can point to any major commission or omission on his part, but yet the arrows of anger and vengeance are pointed in his direction."
Now, I no longer live in the UK but visit occasionally and keep abreast of developments via the BBC and newspapers and journals online. It has been no secret that Gordon Brown has been mired in unpopularity ever since he took over from Tony Blair as PM in June 2007. He and his party have weathered accusations about improper party donations; they both saw a dramatic fall in poll approval ratings. The weight of the economic downturn made his government unpopular and it suffered heavy defeats in by-elections. His unpopularity was only stemmed briefly by some high profile suggestions on how to deal with the current world financial crisis. Now PM Brown and his colleagues are mired in a scandal about bogus expenses claims (see Times report for the latest saga).
None of this was easy to ignore or be ignorant of; even through a quick search on the Internet. So, how could the columnist erect the straw man with "No one can point to..." when almost ANYONE can point to? What is the real beef? Is it a pre-emptive defence that says something like, the current government, if its popularity is waning, is suffering for reasons that no one can understand?
This week, the same commentator wrote a long rambling piece about how the recession has made a long-sought after piece of travel luggage, a Tumi Pullman, affordable (see Advocate column, May 14). He wonders why the widespread sales and deep discounting in the US, even on the most luxurious of items, are not apparent in Barbados, and asks if local businesses are not sowing their own seeds of doom by not lowering prices to move goods and attract customers. Pointing to the upcoming Budget, he notes:
"But, we must not despair. Whatever Mr. Thompson can do, I am sure he will do to help the vulnerable and to encourage the progressive and conscientious. Let us work smart in the weeks and months ahead. Let us do what is necessary to keep our doors open and our loyal staff employed."
I have struggled to follow the logic of the various arguments, and to think of who is being served and how, and to weave a picture of where the story is headed, but I am hopelessly lost.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Another acquaintance commented that "For some accountability usually measures the character or goodwill of the individual or organization. For others the political risks or expedience dictate the action of others. In this situation the gains are obvious and big. For [some Prime Ministers in Barbados] firing ministers made them look big even though the deeds were not so clear. Clearly in politics it is a variable that is decided by timing and context. For the West Indies cricket Board it is perhaps the absence of shame and the fuel of ego."
It was interesting, therefore, to read two stories this morning. The first related to the resignation of Henry Gill as head of the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM), which is based in Barbados, and has recently had its mandate and authority diminished by a meeting of Caricom heads of government (see Jamaica Gleaner report). CRNM will now become a special unit of the Caricom Secretariat. "I believe that the new dispensation for the functioning of the CRNM that the Conference mandated at its 20th inter-sessional meeting could best be given effect under new leadership," Mr. Gill said in a statement issued from Barbados, where he is based. Gill ahd been in the post about a year. Having long survived sniping at its autonomy, CRNM faced an onslaught of criticism for its performance in negotiating the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union on the part of CARIFORUM (the 15-member Caribbean Community and the Dominican Republic). So, Mr. Gill says that he is the wrong man for the job and he will vacate post haste.
The second report relates to West Indies cricket captain, Chris Gayle, who made public statements yesterday that he may quit Test cricket (see BBC report). Mr. Gayle was criticised by his opposing England captain for his arrival for Test duty only two days before the matches, following his involvement in the Indian Premier League. But Mr. Gayle does not see that his actions require anything more than putting his critics in their place and replied that leaving Test cricket would be no great shakes: "Maybe Andrew Strauss would be sad if Test cricket dies and Twenty20 comes in because there is no way he can make the change. So tough luck." Note that in the first of two Tests, which England won by 10 wickets, Mr. Gayle made 28 runs and a duck in his two innings.
Mr. Gayle suggested that the captaincy is not something he has relished, since taking it over in 2008:
"To be honest with you there's a possibility I might give it up - I will be giving it up shortly...It's definitely not something I'm looking to hang on to. I need some time for myself, to be honest with you, it's a lot of travelling...There's always something you have to go and do, you know, extra. Lunch or dinner, some other thing, there's always something for the captain...I'm not that type of person. I can't take on too many things. So, soon I will be handing over this captaincy. I will soon finish with it."Well, well. Imagine that you have to do more than train, and play, and get the money. Imagine that the public and sponsors might see that they need something more than seeing you run around in coloured pyjamas for several days. But, Mr. Gayle's attitude does not seem so odd when you consider how others related to West Indies cricket have reacted recently when asked to come to account. The debacle with the waterlogged pitch in Antigua? Stuff happens. The snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory by Coach Dyson? Stuff happens. Good bedfellows all.
For me, these are interesting contrasts. On the one hand, Mr. Gill sees that he does not fit and has said that he cannot continue with the arrangement, so will pack his bags forthwith and head off to new (or old) pastures. On the other hand, Mr. Gayle has said a lot about not fitting and not liking the arrangement, but is doing nothing but leave a set of threats that he might leave. Both show leadership of very different sorts.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
- Passengers travelling on these routes in Lovebird Economy Class may check one bag free of charge, and pay US$25 to check a second bag. Lovebird Executive Class passengers may check two bags free of charge, with a US$25 fee for a third checked bag.
- The new policy comes into effect tomorrow for the New York/Grenada passengers and on July 2, 2009 for the New York/Barbados passengers, subject to the approval of the Government of Barbados.
- Travellers are guaranteed delivery of the free baggage allowance on the same flight on which they travel. All other bags will be transported within seven days, and must be collected from the airport. The status of these bags may be tracked online at www.AirJamaica.com/baggage to determine when they may be collected.
Is this a misprint, misstatement, or did someone have one Red Stripe or Red Bull too many? It's not funny, but scary. You pay extra for the bag NOT to be on your flight, then pay again to go to the airport to go get it when and if it arrives! On that 'if', what is delayed luggage when the airline promises to not deliver it with you?
Like many, I love the Lovebird service and its complimentary champagne taste alike; and the Jamaican food is Irie. But will any of that compensate for the added hassle of having to trek back to JFK to try to get some luggage? That could take another half to whole day. Maybe they just don't want to admit that they are leaving the travel business and want to push away passengers. As Air Jam has not yet started to charge for oversize passengers, maybe the secret is to dress with a few extra layers--know wha' I mean?--so that when you reach a-forin you will have something else to wear. I can imagine some going that route.
Someone asked if this is a new low for lack of service and charging for the added inconveniences especially from the company that started with a mission to make the passenger’s experience exceptionally charming?Once upon a time Air Jam You provided fashion shows in-flight featuring tropical resort wear for the on board entertainment of their Caribbean-bound passengers. Now, if they do that, the passengers may just rip off the clothes to make sure they have something wear later.
A fellow travel blogger was going to check with Jim Grace, President & CEO of Insure My Trip to see if there is a policy to cover delayed luggage when the airline tells you in advance that your luggage is going to be delayed! That really introduces a conundrum! If you know your luggage is going to be delayed up to seven days before you leave home, could that inconvenience be covered with delayed baggage insurance as a pre-existing condition?
This is even crazier if you try to figure out what is supposed to happen with clearing US Customs for the 2nd+ bag. Surely, the US Department of Homeland Security is not going to waive the requirements (what a loophole that could be), so where will they do the checks? Will the airport have a new hangar for unclaimed luggage? Or imagine a parent with infant and two bags and a stroller, which to check first? Then if the 2nd plus items don't arrive for a week what will it be, wheeling child around with no clothes or carting child around with no wheels?
What if your luggage cannot be through ticketed to your final destination, which is not NY/JFK? Do, you have to book a connecting flight after the bags arrive?
I don’t think alcohol alone could be blamed for this nutty set of ideas. It must have been ganja!
Saturday, May 09, 2009
The high end of the tourism market has not been immune to economic hard times. When I was in Nassau, The Bahamas, over Christmas that coincided with news that 800 staff were being laid off at the Atlantis complex on Paradise Island. Barbados has seen the laying off of 700 workers--temporarily it was reported--as financing problems affected the Four Seasons Resort due to be developed by Cinnamon 88 at Paradise, on the west coast. In December 2008, Sandals Resorts International announced lay-offs of 650 Caribbean hotel workers in The Bahamas, Jamaica and St. Lucia, representing seven per cent of its workforce; lay-offs were also planned for Antigua. In the Dominican Republic, which along with Cuba has led the way in Caribbean tourism growth over the past 10 years, the financial crisis has also stalled the major Cap Cana resort, a development which includes four luxury hotels, three golf courses and a mega-yacht marina. The resort development released 500 workers in November 2008, after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and a US$ 250M loan fell through. Talks to re-negotiate a US$ 100M short-term loan also collapsed. The job cuts bite hard and few alternative employment opportunities exist.
Yesterday, while enjoying a day's sailing in the British Virgin Islands, I saw up close again what that means. One of the exclusive hotels on a small resort island, Peter Island Resort and Spa management, just this week laid off 25 staff. The place was virtually bereft of visitors. However, a wedding had been planned for the weekend and some 100+ guests were expected; they arrived before I left and transformed the place in a few short minutes. But after the wedding, what next? When you see an empty beach at an exclusive resort it's hard to know whether that's how it always is, or that's how it is because no one is visiting.
I looked at The Moorings marina in Tortola, where some 40 plus yachts and catamarans were moored for charter. It was a tropical scene to envy, with the swish and sleek white fibre glass hulls lining the waterfront, where a US$15 million expansion had just been completed and opened in January. "This is terrible! This time last year, 20 of these boats would have been out at sea earning money," one of my Tortolan acquaintances shouted.
Visitors to the region from north America and Europe often have the notion that all is idyllic and constant paradise here. Warm weather. Blue sea. Fresh fruit and fish. Music. Dancing. Laughter. Everyone must be happy. People must have it great. Very few ever see beyond the servers at the hotels and restaurants, and the workers at spas and golf courses to imagine what the benefits of those jobs and wages mean beyond the person working. Few will see that there is an economy and social structure underpinned by their visits, and how vulnerable it is. When there is dirt and dereliction, at or near the airport or hotel, or if there are vagabonds pestering people on the beaches or near restaurants and clubs, then visitors get some sense that hardship may be present. But by that stage the hardship would have been well established. While it is creeping along it can easily go unseen. Tourism has built a cross on which many will suffer.
Friday, May 08, 2009
I have to pleasure of spending a few days in Tortola again, with the first cohort of students from the British Virgin Island who have taken the University of the West Indies Executive Masters in Business Administration programme. I have taught on this course in Barbados, Belize and Tortola. Most of the course students are about my age (40s/50s), and all are working while they study. They all have well established careers already, and most have families with a new generation going to school and maybe university. So, to take on new studies, part-time, over three years, is a major challenge. I am very interested, therefore, in the way that they celebrate their achievements.
What was clear as soon as I arrived yesterday for the ceremonies was that celebrate they will. Each student was decked out in fine clothes--the women in white suits, the men in dark ones. The women's hairdos and make up were a show in themselves. The families who were in the auditorium were as wild as at a high school sports days, whooping and whistling, and grabbing cameras to record the moments. The speeches were thankfully short but gladly also very on the mark, especially the keynote remarks, which were about leadership: leaders innovate, managers administrate. But, for me, the first high point was near the end of the ceremonies when the cohort took the stage, and the mikes, and started to sway as the strains of a song came out, and they sang an R. Kelly song, 'The storm is over' (see lyrics), not one of his bump and grind songs but the inspirational strain that he also does well. The final verse tells of the relief after struggle:
(The storm is over now)
And I can see the sunshine
(Somewhere beyond the clouds)
I can feel Heaven, yeah
(Heaven is over me)
Won't you come and set me free
These middle aged students could sing! They had their moment of new glory and they were not going to let it pass. Their Premier was there, and had said kind words, so too was their current Minister of Education. How ironic that one of the students was the former Minister of Education, now trying to make a new career for himself as a consultant. That's leading by example.
Then came the cocktail and banquet in the evening. My instructions had been to dress formally, and I did in black tie and Tuxedo. I felt odd at first during the afternoon ceremonies when I had seen no one dressed the same way, except one man, who I found out was a student's husband. But, local people could go home and change, and I had at least half a dozen other bow-tied men to admire. The women were also in their evening wear, and again, the students stole the show with a display of gowns that was really stunning. Michelle Obama, I think you need to visit Tortola for some tips.
The banquet had a first for me, a female MC, and she told some of the best jokes, mainly about men and women and alluding to things they do. She got the crowd going. She urged the testimonials and the acknowledgement of the lecturers and administrators, and praised the caterers, and wondered if the musicians were really asleep, and so on.
What struck me also, however, was how for this group there seemed to be no limits to the amount of praise they were ready to heap on each other, including each getting a gift for 'achievements' such as 'designated driver'.
What I got most from the ceremonies was a sense of incredible inspiration that comes from personal achievement. I will use one case. A female student had a younger sister, who has no become a judge. She tells how as a child, she watched her sister study all day and night and pass over meals, while saying that she could not study like that; she got as a result a range of minor administrative jobs and began to raise her family. But, she had drive and she helped her children, to the extent that one of her daughters went to the podium, picked up the microphone and belted out a song that would have made one of the talent shows think "we have a winner". Her mother had learned to study, and sacrifice her nights, and now had an MBA, so yes, be proud. She was still not like the sister-judge, but there was no doubting that she had learned the trick with the books.
When I taught this group over a two week period I met some of the most determined people I had ever come across. None struck me as intellectual wizards, but each struck me as honest individuals who wanted to do all they could to take another step upwards. That two of the dozen gained distinctions (at least 11 As and averaging over 70%) does not surprise me. What was surprising was that three of the women became pregnant during the course, and added more burdens to themselves. What was wonderful was to see that UWI has a scheme that allows those new mothers to break from the course and resume seamlessly to complete and graduate.
This group of students is unique in being the pioneers for the study of this course in the BVI. I don't know what any of the gifts were that the cohort gave each other, and I may find out later today, as we spend a day sailing and having lunch. But, I know that they are all gifted and have given us a gift of inspiration to achieve. Most of the students have moved on to new jobs, in both public and private sector, and in some cases started their own business. They were inspired to stay on the island and study more to work to better their small island and its capabilities. They are all excited that, as the economic downturn starts to hit activities in tourism and finance, they have more tools to better weather the storm.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
First up, is a report in today's papers about an increase in what I can call 'fast and loose' money, "causing [some supermarkets] to write off substantial amounts monthly". People are increasingly kiting cheques and passing fraudulent credit cards--these are either stolen or fake, and it seems that they are part of a regional scheme (or scam, one may say). But, we are reassured, they are not related to the worsening economic environment. I wonder. So, to better protect themselves, the supermarkets will be asking for proper forms of identification (see Nation report). This may unwittingly cause people to bridle in a land where people are often proud to see that they know you and wont need to call for some form of identification. Now, I think that the average criminals are short of a few screws, but in this fraud matter they are at least rational: "We have seen this activity more so around Bank Holidays, especially within the last six months. The major difficulty is that persons using fraudulent credit cards don't shop light, so by the end of your financial year you are faced with a substantial amount to write off," one supermarket manager reports. So, the criminals are going for maximum returns from their activities. They are trying to become highly productive. A part of me admires that, in an oddly negative and positive way.
Barbados has had a terrible time dealing with a set of arcane defamation laws, which have rightly been described as "a weapon to silence and intimidate Barbadians" by the current Attorney General, who announced an overdue review of these laws. Interestingly, the AG's focus went to the fact that some people have made a business out of their reputation, and some in the legal profession have made good money out of certain person's tendency to litigation. The government has been slow in moving on its promises to introduce integrity legislation. Here is an area long overdue for action not least because the current laws allow too much latitude for persons to hide behind the threat of taking people to court.
PM Thompson has now thrown down the gauntlet for so-called 'undocumented Caribbean immigrants' (see Nation report). The PM mentioned that a subcommittee looking into the issue had agreed that the current levels of illegal immigrants were "unacceptably high, increasingly difficult to control and posed potentially negative socio-economic challenges for the country". New rules will come into effect from June 1 2009. Now, I am one of those people who find it very odd that there are so many 'undocumented' persons and yet much is known about them. Rather than 'undocumented' it would be better to say that many of these immigrants have false or fraudulent documents, and may have many of them, all bogus. I can hear already the concerned voices from certain non-nationals who live and work in Barbados and may be here legally but are assumed to be here illegally, and vilified for that. Let's see if the discussion on this is really honest or is a thinly veiled piece of political posturing.
But, today I did talk publicly on the radio about productivity. People are often at a loss what this means, in the context of services. The economics notion of how much output is produced by a certain input (whether labour or capital) is simple enough, in theory. We can think about things like efficiency, and cost effectiveness, and quality. But we will always have problems when measuring the work of public servants. Do we count people served per hour? Do we count numbers served irrespective of quality of service? Do we understand that physical limits mean productivity limitations. Does anyone measure what is being done and how? One of my points was about efficiency: how much of the work is repeating tasks already done and is information stored for reuse? I also talked about whether we use 'culture' as an excuse for downright bad service--being laid back and easy going should not mean lying down when we should be working and taking things so easily that customers are ignored. But do staff in organizations recognise any connection between the work they do and the pay they get? This is a big debate which should continue in a country that depends so heavily on service provision.
Monday, May 04, 2009
So, I have no idea what is being referred to when I read in today's paper "Extra medical personnel and new systems have been implemented at the Grantley Adams International Airport and the Bridgetown Port in an attempt to keep the swine flu virus out of Barbados. The stepped-up health surveillance has been put in place at ports of entry to help keep out the disease" (see Nation May 4, 2009 report). If they are there they are well hidden. My family and I came through Grantley Adams International Airport last night, and we saw no one and was surveyed by no one. The most penetrating question we were posed--at Customs, not Immigration--was "What part of Anguilla you come from?" Clearly, no idea of what kind of place is Anguilla.
The newspaper report adds "Each aircraft will be met on arrival by an environmental health officer, who gets a general declaration from the crew before passengers disembark. This declaration speaks to anyone who might be ill. We have placed signage in the arrivals hall as well, so that anyone who might think they have flu-like symptoms and may think they need to see the port health nurse can know what the procedures are..." Nothing of the sort was evident.
People sometimes think that pointing out failings is being critical. I would rather know that nothing exists rather than being falsely assured that something is in place. To add insult to injury, as we exited the departure area, the first person we walked past pulled off a huge sneeze, without even a covered mouth, and sprayed all around him with whatever he had to share.