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**

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

New Blog

For those who wish to continue following my writing from the US, it's in a new blog entitled Grasshopper Eyes The Potomac (http://potomacgrasshopper.wordpress.com).

Friday, August 06, 2010

Time To Move On

I've given myself time to slide out of Barbados and into the Greater Washington area in both a physicial and mental way, and it's time to draw a line on living in Barbados. This does not mean that my interest in Barbados stops suddenly: I even got my regular reminder of upcoming discussion topics for this weekend's Down To Brass Tacks, and with technology at my disposal, I can continue to contribute as I and others wish. But, I want to start looking at the world from a different perspective and maybe with some different interests, which will evolve.

Certainly, being out of the Caribbean does not mean that I have left Caribbean things behind. On the first full day back in the US, we went to buy a car. We got into conversation easily with the sales consultant, whose accent was clearly Trini. When we asked if he knew Jamaica or The Bahamas, he quickly replied "I did a junkanoo wedding once, a few years ago, in DC." My wife and I took a deep breath, and I asked the man his name (I had not seen the full correspondence by e-mail between my wife and him during the preceding week). Once he answered, I said, "You were the DJ at our wedding!" We all fell around laughing. I had known his sister in the late 1990s, through work; she had given me his contacts, and he had done a great job. Somehow, I felt that we were not going to buy our car from anywhere else. It did not come down to knowing the man, but once you get a good chemistry going other things fall into place. He did not butter us up with turkey sandwiches and potato chips, while we worked through the process. His colleagues sweetened things by giving me a US$40 voucher for lunch at a nice restaurant, for the delays I had to deal with as a minor mechanical problem on the car was fixed. So, within a few hours, we had the car bought, and with the American easy financing set up, had arranged a loan, had insurance, and were good to go within three hours of starting discussions.

We've already experienced many differences in life styles, within a week, even having to deal with a five hour power outage as violent thunderstorms downed trees that fell on power lines. The radio this morning reports tens of thousands of local residents who were without power and the clear up of debris that is beginning.

The neighbours in our little spot have realised gradually that we are back in our house, and we have had some nice 'welcome back' conversations. We are the only non-white family in the immediate area: our street has about 10 homes. Beyond that, non-white families are very few. It has never seemed to matter much. It's a nice area, where we can walk to food store, pharmacy, eating places, bank, and more, in a small plaza just a five minute walk away.

I have taken some early morning walks, instead of my regular swim. I greet those who pass me, but often get nothing but a glazed response. Funnily, fellow walkers, joggers, or cyclists are more civil and they pass each other. On the start of my walk, I passed a young lady waiting for a bus, engrossed in her can of Slim Fast. On my way back, I saw her get rid quick approach, as the can was lying on the sidewalk. Too much to hold onto it and put into trash somewhere? Not only Barbadians litter, I know. But, are people just learning to care less? Those are salutary lessons in manners but also more.

I have to look forward to a state holiday: Virginia has a tax-free holiday starting today, so that great bargains can be had before kids go back to school. Have to find ways to keep the local economy ticking over.

As I tune into National Public Radio (NPR), which is my diet of news and comment, and hear about the coming release of US jobs data, I know that the economy here is in pain, and that finding a way through harder economic times is a major issue here, as it was in Barbados.

I will be trying to continue my writing and will post information of a new blog, as and when it takes shape.

A big thank you to all who tried to help me ease my way into living in Barbados.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Hands Across The Water

One of the more pleasant aspects about leaving a place is the outpouring of affection between those soon to be parted. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but the prospect of absence is also very powerful. Our move from Barbados had been due originally around January. However, several personal concerns (schools, especially) made that timing less desirable. The bottom line was that it made more sense to put off the move until at least mid-year. Through a process that crept up on me, I increasingly became very uncomfortable about leaving Barbados, and reflected a lot about the time I had spent there and the people I had met and things that I had done. I felt good that I was uncomfortable about leaving behind many newish acquaintances, because that indicated that the relationships had some meaning.

As word got out that we were leaving, people started to warm even more and some of the socializing was really special, especially in the last few weeks, when we had informal dinners and lunches and just impromptu gatherings with the many people we had come to call friends. All of these were special and easy on the adult heart, as they did not have any real sense of finality. My daughter's goodbye to her best friend and her friend's brother and mother was, however, very tearful, as our two families had lived close to each other and really become very close. But, we hope that the young children do as they often do--bounce back fast and stay happy.

Some people asked "Why are you leaving?" It was simple to explain, but it was interesting that people felt that somehow we had become fixtures. It was impossible to say a proper goodbye to many people, even though I tried to arrange a few special trips to see people whom I thought would be very upset if I had just upped and left. For a while, I just let the departure matter come up if it did, as I really felt that I was missing people a lot just by mentioning departure dates. In the end, the final days were near and departure was nearly a fait accompli. Not neat and tidy, but the event would happen.

As a good many people know, I found myself turned into a sort of pundit on things economic and financial. That is perhaps not surprising, given my background, but it is surprising given that I had no intention to do any such thing when I arrived in Barbados. An accidental contact had led me onto that path, and becoming a known voice on Down to Brass Tacks or making occasional written contributions in the mainstream press had been things far from my thoughts on heading to Barbados. I also commented on issues through several of the local blogs. For the most part, I enjoyed having a chance to say my piece, and from reactions I had along the way it seems that I was regarded as someone who made sense and was frank about how he perceived things. I never had any axes to grind--other than trying to see things for what they really are or pointing out too much acceptance of mediocrity--and I think that for many people in Barbados that was hard to understand, as they needed to put me into a box to then deal with my views.

With that said, I was still taken aback when during the last week in Barbados I got a call from the Nation asking if I could write a short article on the need for a fiscal stimulus package. I had declined the request before the question had been put fully, as I really knew I could not focus on any such request. The Editor concerned was amused that I knew what the request was ahead of her finishing her plea. I reminded her that I had never been paid for my pieces and the 'price' that had been agreed--a visit for my daughter and her class to see the newspaper office--had never been exacted. I let her know that I was due to leave the island by the end of that week and she lamented the prospect of no more writing from me. A few hours later I got another call from her asking if I would do an exit interview. I agreed and set it up for July 29. Somehow, I had been had, but I did not complain.

On the day concerned, I was staying at Accra Hotel, and I had other things beforehand, so agreed on 10am; the interview with Stacey Russell lasted about an hour. We sat near the outside walkway and I talked about the economy as well as my broader experience in Barbados. I did not realise that things would move so fast, and a piece on the economy appeared in Barbados Business Authority at the start of this week, about which I got a few messages. I had forgotten that Senator Boyce had been due to speak to the press about the economy later that day, so my remarks were not influenced by what I later heard him say. My daughter was headed out to meet her mother and got in on the interview, too. She may feature in some other piece that is being prepared.

IMF staff are used to being seen as ogres, so it was a nice feeling to have given a sense that some of us are really less scary.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

What A Production!

Moving home is no picnic, and doing so while having to change countries can really put a lot of life to tests. Having gone through that process several times over the past six years, I would not recommend it to anyone. It's more stressful than people imagine. The people who are there to help you, often end up being a hindrance, or worse, a series of aggravations. What is clear is that many of the things you have to do have to be done and you just have to deal with the frustrations along the way. Finding ways to stay sane or make light of the bungling has been a lesson over the recent weeks.

Moving gives you the chance to reduce clutter in your life, but it also challenges you to let go of things that you have owned for some good reason. I tried some time ago to do 'one in, one out', hoping that my personal effects would not increase. It did not work perfectly, but when you have not used things for a year or more then you should be able to say goodbye. However, when you are due to leave, people want to give you gifts, and all the well-planned packing ends up with additional bags and boxes. My idea of only travelling with two items of hand luggage on a plane just about held true: I travelled with one suitcase and found a box that I filled and put in the hold for all the 'last items'.

The people who were contracted to pack our Barbados belongings had their way of doing things, and it was universally at a slow pace and also to a daily working day that seemed short: arrive after 9am, take a lunch break, leave by 3.30pm. On leaving after day one, they said they would arrive earlier on day two: well if 9.30 is before 9am on your watch then they were not late. Hello! The crew was made up of all middle aged men, with a young man as 'supervisor'. I had met the older men before, when a friend moved back to Barbados last year and was getting things out of storage. I knew what to expect. The job that was scheduled to take two days, stretched into four. It was a constant battle to stop things that were not supposed to be packed being wrapped and made ready to ship. I did not want to have to ship back our landlord's belongings. That's stressful. I am always ready to share and they were ready to take as many guavas as they could find in the yard. It helped to keep them happy.

The man my wife asked to help move some furniture and clean, needed my help to lift things and created a environment in which I could not work, so forget about what I needed to do during the time he worked. He has a good heart, but when he finished his task and then went for a nap on the furniture he had moved--for a good two hours--I was pushed to not shake him and say "You're being paid to sleep!"

The people who were handling the shipping from the US end were giving my wife no end of grief, and I followed a stream of her e-mail messages that would have driven many a decent person to take drastic action to cull some of the world's population. It was not just the moving of personal goods, but also matters dealing with movement of people. I wont go into the gruesome details, but somehow, in the process of my resigning from the IMF in 2007, that eliminated her in the eyes of the IMF, even though she is an employee in her own right. She disappeared from an important part of their data base and was thus having a hard time getting visa clearance to go back to the US, even though she had renewed her visa recently and travelled to the US many times since my resignation. Don't ask me how that happened, or why the IMF and US State Department reconcile their data concerning special visa status staff.

Having sold a car and wanting to take the proceeds back to the US in US dollars (as the purchase had been financed with them), we had to go through the dark tunnel marked 'exchange control'. We were not impressed to hear that the forms that had been sent to the central back for processing were still 'awaiting action' nearly two weeks later. Cue dog-like barking at someone. Papers move. But why does the Inland Revenue have to be involved in the processing of exchange control requests? For the life of me, I cannot see what it has to do with bodies other than the central and commercial banks. Maybe someone will explain to me.

I have to say that closing our bank account with Scotiabank proved relatively painless. Ending balances were agreed. Documents signed. Exchange control approval noted. Banker's draft issued. All of that within 30 minutes, and only time lost due to the need for multiple signatures by bank officers.

Getting closure on my mobile phone account had more than its share of drama. Somehow, LIME could not allow me to determine termination of my contract at some future date, sign for that, and arrange for payment of the final bill when it became due. Given that there was a security deposit and other funds on the account, I could not see what was the problem. Why would I need to arrange for someone to go into an office after I left the country to deal with that account closure. Having failed to closed the account at a store, I sent a message to customer service, as suggested. I should have worried when I saw the address (windwardcustomercentre@time4lime.com). My message received an instant automated reply (and to this date no further response!). Perhaps someone from LIME can offer a reason why 10 days after sending a message to customer service, the customer remains unserved. Maybe the address should be changed: wayward may be better; that 'time4lime' aspect seems to be taken a bit too seriously in the organization.

"I know someone at LIME you can call," a friend told me. I said I could call someone I knew too, but I was tired of having to go THE person, and wanted to deal with a system that worked. Eventually, I contacted an account manager, whom I do know for the job that goes with the title, and she confirmed that all of my wishes would be handled and that I would be informed in mid-August that the account had been closed, with any refund due being sent to me. We did all of that by e-mail and I have every faith that she will carry through.

I know that life is not about smooth sailing but why should it be the case that processes seem to be set up that do not help people do things they want to simply? I know that one often has to do a lot of 'leg work' to deal with administrative processes, but given where we are with technology, why does it not offer the solutions it can. Who is holding us down? For example, I pay my LIME phone bill online by credit card every month, so why (except for doing the programming) cannot I deal with any other account issue similarly? Some of the contrasts are stark for me: I have had a US mobile phone account since being in Barbados, and everything I need to do with that account, I do online. I did not even need to actually go to get the phone: it would have been sent to me in Barbados by mail, but I happened to be travelling to the US and it was mailed to my then office address for collection.

Thinking through the answers to some of these 'challenges' can go a long way to seeing what kind of progress can be made in Barbados. Productivity is key to making economic headway, but we seem to find ways to thwart it.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Not Quite The Last Post

Although I have left Barbados, I am going to try to make a few last post entries that reflect the last days and the transition back to the USA. Part of the complication is that moving involves losing access to the Internet, except via a mobile telephone or an airport lounge. That part of life will take a few days to be re-established. Meanwhile, I say thank you to Starbucks for offering 24/7 free wi-fi.

Monday, July 26, 2010

All The Rage

The current debate about the state of Barbados' international reserves is not just about statistical measures, but about the nation's ability to pay its way with foreign exchange. The latest salvo that I saw in the press was yesterday's piece in the Nation, with Albert Brandford trying to explain the two common measures cited--gross or net official international reserves (see report)--taking his cue from Clyde Mascoll's muscular arguments during the past week about how the central bank has moved the analytical goal posts in its latest economic review. I am not going to get into a bicep flexing contest about who knows more about these measures--I do know a bit, having worked on developing the methodology for measuring the concepts (take a look at the IMF's Monetary and Financial Statistics Manual, or the associated Compilation Guide) and also having worked on seeing how they are applied in many operational contexts.

The bottom line with any measure of international reserves is how much money does a country's central bank actually have available to meet the country's external financial needs. In some instances, we can stretch the official hand so that it has access to (gross or net) foreign assets held by commercial banks to help bolster the situation. But that is largely private money that is held for commercial operational needs.

Whether you take the current level of gross or net official international reserves, Barbados is seeing the level fall. Moreover, the activities that would help turn that situation around--mainly money coming from tourism--is clearly waning. The things that have to be paid for are not reducing fast enough, hence reserves are falling.

But, are they at a critical level, or approaching that, on any measure? As I cannot see all the cash flow needs that are facing the government and central bank, I cannot say for sure. But, what I do know is that some large needs are there and they will have to be covered in part, or in whole, by borrowing more foreign assets. The conditions for such borrowing are not good, and the sense given by international rating agencies is that they see Barbados as less worthy of being upgraded in their eyes, and more worthy of being downgraded. So, the question that arises is "Will Barbados have friends when it is in need?". If reserves are falling but you cannot borrow commercially (on acceptable terms) then you are in a bind. Something else will have to give in your policies or to whom you have to turn. You can argue about the when and the what and the how, but it has to happen. As an economist, I cannot take it for granted that most people understand this, but I am sure that policy makers do. So, what will they do to either explain that truth or start to deal with it? Lamaze breathing is not going to be enough to deal with the pain.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rescue Me!

Two of Barbados' well known economists unwittingly, but wittily, faced off in this morning's Nation: they each had articles about the quality of economic analysis, which were set on adjacent pages. Clyde Mascoll, whom I would describe as an economist-turned politician-turning economist again (see Standards for all) attacks the public for their preference for style over substance in economic discussions. In his 'take no prisoners' style, he opens with 'I certainly have offended my share of media practitioners over the years in one way or the other. I am therefore fully aware that I am not popular among certain personalities in the media,' and keeps beating. I'm with him on what I see as an appalling lack on the printed media's part to help the economic debate along, and have said so enough times.

Meanwhile, trained agricultural economist-turned man-of-letters and humorist, Richard ('Lowdown') Hoad, takes economists to task for not saying much that is easily understood and not understanding what can easily be seen, agreeing along the way with similar comments by Central Bank Governor Worrell (see Unstable condits). He opens with 'IT HAS been said that we would be no worse off, and would be equally well informed, if we let the weathermen predict the economy and let the economists predict the weather.' His stance seems to be that if all the economists were put into a dung heap it would certainly smell no better than it did before, and their contributions as mould may be more than their contributions with models.

You have to take each point of view where you wish.

Over a lovely breakfast this morning with another of Barbados' well-known economists (he ate the 'Bajan', I ate the 'English'), I likened the discussion over the state of the economy to that over a piece of broken china. So much of the discussion is about who to blame for the breakage, and too little discussion about how to fix it (if possible), or replace it (if needed). It can even get heated about descriptions of the number of broken pieces and their shape. Meanwhile, the broken pieces are being gazed at or stepped over, and some would even try to deny that there has been any breakage. All very surreal.

One collective voice that I have not heard in the recent discussions is that of the National Council of Economic Advisors. If you read one commentary from over a year ago (see Advocate report), when Minister Estwick 'outlined an extensive action plan which puts Government at the helm of steering Barbados out of troubled waters and called on the public to position themselves as part of the response plan' and a 'set of operational responses were indicated, driven by the Prime Minister and comprising a Cabinet Economic Committee, which Estwick chairs; and a Council of Economic Advisors made up of eminent professionals in the area of economics' you may be tempted to ask at least one question. Have I been deaf or blind in that I had not heard more than a peep from the Council?

When I talk about 'implementation paralysis' it includes not acting in a way that can be seen or heard or understood, after promising that each and all would occur. One of my constant themes has been about transparency, governance and accountability and how each seems to be much talked about but not that much seen.