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, June 24, 2007

Bajan man takes a severe beating...

Two articles in this weekend's Barbados Advocate struck me. The first quoted the Minister of Education, Cynthia Forde, who asked that "[Bajan] Men be given an opportunity to prove themselves." She meant to show that they have good character and can make a valuable social contribution. There is no doubt that men are accomplishing, but there has been a tendency to either not see this or to dismiss it, even to the extent of suggesting that it is otherwise (as happened recently with the results of school 11-plus exams, when boys took most of the top 10 places, but one newspaper's headline flagged that on average boys were doing worse).

Elsewhere in the Advocate, there is a very challenging assessment of the changing roles of women and men in an article by David "Joey" Harper (entitled "Woman's quest for freedom"). This leaves us lamenting that despite the abolition on slavery, black people have not reached emancipation--and may never get there. While talking about the changing (not interchanging) roles of men and women, he really is attacking what is happening to parenting and by extension, the family. Both are disappearing, and being replaced by surrogates.

These are interesting salvos in a deep debate that the black community needs to have. Many have seen the sharp visible decline of black boys at the summit of education (go to any graduation ceremony to see this up close). When we read the papers, we see some of the reasons: the crime pages are almost all about black young men; the "family" pages are about the unfaithful men (though often silent that these slips are mainly with other women!)

Men are finding themselves dislocated in many societies, but I fear more so in black communities in the Caribbean, America, and Europe; Africa's experience is different. There is some very interesting research on the many faceted issue of racial identity, which is more of a problem for forced or voluntary migrants (see article on "Sexuality in Men of Color"). Additional research on "marginalized" black men is also revealing (see extract from Alford A. Young's 2003 book "The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances"). The problem black men are facing may be due to a heavier dose of patriarchial lifestyles, and yet another hangover from our slavery background, which meant that men were abused savagely and physically by their masters, and did likewise to their women young and old. Black men may now be reaping the whirlwind.

No matter how many "enlightened" black men there are, they are outnumbered hugely and most black men still "don't get it" when seeing women in new and at least equal roles, and in trying to treat women with gentleness and care. But many black women also "don't get it" that men are universally being diminished and feeling this. Two wrongs don't make a right and our societies have to grapple with this challenge of new roles and equality for the sexes.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Get Naked! Make Money!

I played this week in the Barbados National Championships, at the Ocean View Tennis Club. Result? I won my first round match in the open tournament against a teenager, by a flattering 6-1, 6-0 score. Then, reality bit me as I lost in the next round to the eventual winner, Michael Date, who represents Barbados in Davis Cup matches. (Michael beat Russell Mosley, another Bajan Davis Cup player, who had 10 match points in the final. Russell is now a neighbour so I will commiserate with him later.) Not bad for me, in a sense. I took up tennis only three years ago, and given that I am in my early 50s, I can't expect much. But I've been told that I get national ranking points! What next? I hold no hopes for my own late-blossoming tennis career, especially as I am now nursing a knee injury. The younger players, on the other hand, have a possible future in the sport, though it takes a lot to get ahead. We tried to help them a few weeks ago by participating in some fund-raising events.

By contrast, real tennis stars can help raise money in other ways. Tommy Robredo has just agreed to bare all for charity, in Cosmopolitan magazine (see article). I guess that few would laugh at Tommy's efforts (I have to see the other posers). A good reminder of the movie, Calendar Girls, before Helen Mirren decided she would act as The Queen. Now, if someone asked me to bare all for a good cause, I'd do it willingly, though I'm not sure that Barbados is ready for that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Burying a National Treasure: Goodbye Graeme Hall?

Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary is one of the treasures of the Caribbean (see its website), the gift of a Canadian philanthropist, Peter Allard. Sadly, according to news reports today, this will go "up for sale". Mr. Allard spent over US$12 million and took 11 years to make this sanctuary possible and recently donated extra land adjacent to the sanctuary to make a new National Park. The government response to this apparently has been to give no response but instead proceed with a plan to build a water park upstream of the sanctuary.

I was reading just yesterday the Government's National Strategic Plan 2006-25 (see link), one of whose objective is to make Barbados a green economy:
GOAL FOUR advances the building of a green economy. This requires the protection, preservation and enhancement of our physical infrastructure, environment and scarce resources as we seek to advance our social and economic development. It demands that we find the right balance between our development and the preservation of our physical surroundings. It calls for access to adequate water and energy supplies, a good transportation system and the development and maintenance of sound infrastructure.

With so little land to play with on this small island, and the known pressures that come from intensive leisure developments (eg, vehicle traffic, down stream pollution, litter), it will be a hard sell to square this with the green economy vision. Pushing things further to the brink?

Barbados on the Brink?

Barbados is struggling with the immense progress it has made in the 40 years since independence. Bajans now have most of the tangible signs of a developed country. They have good basic services (electricity, gas, and water), good public transport, many consumer goods (eg, cars, televisions, and household appliances), a well developed financial sector, a range of other public and private services, and some impressive physical developments (such as highways, airport, sports complexes). But the price of that progress is becoming high. Life has become very "busy". People are under much more pressure to do things in a limited amount of time.

Amongst daily pressures, traffic congestion, now worsened by extensive road works, is a frustrating and worsening burden. To avoid this, driving behaviour is becoming riskier: speeding and running red lights are more common, and common courtesies to other drivers are not displayed as often; buses, whether the large public vehicles or the minivans, are driven as if they are on Formula 1 circuits. Service quality is not good in many areas. Routine banking takes enormous time. Service workers seem to have little training (eg, they routinely continue private phone calls or sometimes eat meals while "attending" customers). Getting people to show up for their jobs on time is a major problem. Getting construction projects completed in a short time is for dreamers. Some of the major institutions that defined excellence are appearing brittle. For example, the main public health facility, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, has been the subject of a stream of controversial reports and suffered lack of equipment and financing.

Other strains exist from a range of decisions made by government or private enterprises, which do not seem to take the public along with them. These are the basis of a steady stream of complaints that can be read in the daily newspapers or heard daily on local radio. These complaints also get a more strident voice through the Internet, especially from some of the Bajan blogging community, such as Barbados Free Press and Barbados Underground.

My impression is that Bajan society has thrived on order and following rules. Now, there is a sense that rules can be broken or ignored, and that this can be done without consequence. Having lived recently in Guinea, west Africa, I saw for 3 years how a country can fall into a deep abyss when rule-breaking went without sanction: almost everyone, from the top to the very bottom, in public or private sector, was running his or her own show. It was anarchy. The developing world is littered with examples like that, and I suspect that Barbados, having built an image for itself of a "developed" country, which places a high status on "excellence" is struggling to preserve this image.

I don't know how tolerant Bajans really were in the past, but these developments are putting tolerance to the test. There is no longer acceptance that those in authority should be taken as always being right or cannot be questioned. The polite society is clearly under threat in daily life. Racial intolerance is becoming more evident (fuelled in some areas by feelings that foreign investors are plundering the country and in other areas by a sense of threat to jobs and culture as foreigners come to Barbados to fill a range of jobs). The change in social fabric has its roots in more than "youth culture". There is a vast body of adults who are contributing to these social changes.

I don't think lasting solutions will come from bans and censorship, as some have proposed, because the society's tastes might have shifted. Also, the things that need to be fixed are not all things that can be banned. Bajans have become accustomed to a different lifestyle, but never really understood what they were choosing, or its real costs (moral, financial, and physical). Repression does not seem to sit well with notions of a developed democracy. For me, many current problems arose from a sense that everything is possible, and that it can be preserved without effort. So, promise more, build more, consume more, import more. The only limitation put forward consistently has been availability of foreign exchange, so tolerate whatever brings in more foreign exchange. Barbados' social and physical fabric cannot take all of this expansion without changing. So, the immediate challenge will be to get an understanding and acceptance that limitations are needed in a wide area. This may be very difficult, given where Barbados is now. But the process needs to start because uncontrolled progress leads to chaos.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Economics 101

Bajans are getting some lessons in economics and the impression I get is that it's not to the liking of many. I am not going to push deeply into any of the subjects, just touch upon some things that seem to be causing ire.

Many ordinary Bajans do not understand the process that would allow outsiders to not get preference over locals. I use those terms deliberately, because I don't want "outsiders" to be seen a foreigners. On a very popular call-in program today, Down to Brass Tacks, a caller was irate that those from a particular neighbourhood did not seem to be able to get preference for their children to go to the local primary school. She cited the fact that most of the pupils came from families who lived outside the neighbourhood. I can see that in a system where children are not selected based on tests that the principle of residence would probably be most relevant. However, schools could be using many criteria. I did not hear if someone from the Ministry of Education called to defend the policy. But the principle of "locals first" is one Bajans bring forward often. (The absence of good official explanations is also a part of many problems people have in understanding what is going on.)

Another case in the same vein relates to work on a new Four Seasons hotel resort, which has just broken ground (see picture). Reports indicate that 100 Chinese workers have been contracted to work on this development (see article in The Nation). Quickly, questions are being asked why these jobs have to be given to Chinese construction workers, and why is it that so many construction jobs seem to be taken by Guyanese, Jamaicans, other Caribbeans, but not Bajans. Official reports continue to indicate that Barbados is at near full employment [the Central Bank of Barbados Economic and Financial Statistics for April 2007 reported that the unemployment rate is now around 7 3/4%], and there are a significant number of major construction projects underway, so the need to continue to find labour from outside is not really surprising. Considerations about institutional rigidities in the Barbadian labour market, such as unionisation of workers, are also relevant. But perhaps the local feeling is that "boys on the block" who do not have work deserve the jobs, whether or not they are really properly qualified.

One of the hosts of this call-in program pointed out earlier in the week, in the context of issues to do with vendors, that what drives many decisions is quality and price. What Bajans may have to accept is that they are not competing well on either. What is also apparent from some of the reactions is that "competition" is not something that is well understood here, or the feeling is that the competition is rigged. People express suspicion about outcomes that do not immediately appear to favour Bajans (remember irate comments about the contract for the CWC closing ceremony spectacular, which went to a Trini company). The fact that the Chinese construction workers could well be providing the best quality at a particular price may never get into the argument: presumably Four Seasons feels that its reputation for high quality accommodation is not going to suffer.

I should hasten to add that one of the characteristics of opinion-making in Barbados is that there are some whose "voices" are very loud or frequently heard, but it's not clear for whom these voices really speak. So, what I am hearing as "concerns" may be merely a vocal minority, or someone pushing a hidden agenda.

However, there is two bigger issues for Barbados. First, as a Caribbean nation, "locals first" makes no sense in the context of a Caribbean Single Market Economy. The resistance to outsiders cannot sit well with the notion of integration of markets. Second, whatever people may feel about China, its dominant role in world economic developments is a fact, but is sometimes not seen for what it really is: an ability to be the major player in almost every area of supply or demand.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Lies, Lies, and the Internet

The Internet may be the ultimate shop window, where anything can be on display but the content of the store is very limited. Blogs may be one of the best examples of this. At the risk of making my own efforts redundant, I just say that a blog is nothing more than it originally set out to be: a web log. It does not have to be factual. It does not have to be erudite. It does not have to be relevant. Like a person's handwritten diary, it is what the author wants it to be. So, why are some asking for more than that?

Other things now common to the Internet are not in the same vein. I think immediately of Wikipedia, whose co-founder, Larry Sanger, recently criticised the UK Education Secretary for suggesting that it was "a good educational tool for children" (see link). Wikipedia is not the Encyclopedia Britannica , but in the Internet age many people have no idea what is the difference. People tend to treat Internet material like they used to treat the police: they are good, uphold the law, and always tell the truth. We have many examples now of policemen acting like criminals and lying, and doing so habitually. The Internet is no different, and one of its greatest traps is to pull people in who have few means to determine what is truth.

What Mr. Sanger was referring to was criticism of Wikipedia for being riddled with inaccuracies and nonsense. It was revealed in March that a prominent and long-standing Wikipedia contributor had lied about his identity, having claimed to be a tenured university professor, when he was in fact a 24-year-old college drop-out.Concerned about the website’s integrity, Mr Sanger left Wikipedia, and two weeks ago launched an online encyclopedia called Citizendium.org, which he said would be monitored and edited by academics and experts as well as accepting public contributions. I hope that this merits a "Bravo" for integrity.

There are some sophisticated examples of the lengths that honest Internet companies and users must go to to establish their honesty and goodwill, because they are building honest businesses. I think of eBay's auction system (and its rating system, plus other means of weeding out crooks). I think also of Internet banking sites, such as PayPal. But who can I trust on the Internet to give me a simple service?

Blogging is posing a tricky problem. So far the blogosphere has no real accountability, and perhaps it never will. Someone can write drivel, insult, tell lies, post defamatory material, remain relatively anonymous and perhaps stay above any legal redress. You can also see blogging as an easy doorway into what I will call "shadow boxing". Imagine that for whatever reason someone blogs but wants to spice up the ratings or supposed importance of a blog site. Then one of the easiest things to do is to create a "rival" blog, which takes the original blog site to task. Immediately, there is a phony war being staged and the only people who really know what's going on are the creators. Too much to believe? I don't think so.

I'm not wholly cynically, but I know it's not easy to sense when people are being fraudulent. I've sold on eBay (brand new items, used household items, even used cars) and I know that my reputation is the most important thing to my successful trading. So, my goods are genuine, and I try to deliver on all my promises. Sellers on eBay are protected by payment coming before delivery. I have also bought on eBay, and I have suffered (only twice, thankfully) from fraudsters: a harsh reminder of "Buyer, beware!"

Dishonesty is a part of the world, and the Internet should not be seen as immune from that. Before the Internet, we relied more on newspapers, radio, and television for much of our information beyond our local world, and believed that codes of conduct and professional ethics would protect us. With the Internet, we have very few codes of anything, and ethics are not essential. Using the Internet should not stop us from thinking, though its shimmer tends to make us believe in too much that we see online.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

What is the origin of Bim?

Many Bajans whom I asked over the past few days cannot tell me why the nickname for Barbados is "Bim". A quick search around the Internet indicates that it's a left over from the long connection with England, where Barbados was named "Bimshire" or Bim for short. I don't know if that is quaint or is really an insult. I can understand the shortening of this conjured English county name, by why the original name? The next best explanation I found refers to the fact that in 1942, Frank Collymore founded the literary magazine, Bim, which gave generations of writers an outlet for their poetry, short stories and literary criticism. In that context, it was argued that Bim was the nickname given to the planters by their slaves.

As happens with Internet searches go, the connections keep rolling on. A further search pulled up a reason why the name Bimshire has gained more recent prominence, being the not so fictional setting for a book written by Austin Clarke, The Polished Hoe (see one very good review and interview in January magazine). Born on Barbados in 1934, Clarke has lived in Canada for most of the last 46 years. Interestingly, with the assistance of the Central Bank of Barbados and the Canadian High Commission in Barbados, the play had a short tour in Barbados recently at the Frank Collymore Hall and was one of the most moving productions I have ever seen.

The Polished Hoe is set in the 1940s and is about the unfolding confession of Mary-Mathilda, one long night. She unburdens herself to the local police, and eventually explains how the polished hoe allows her to expunge her bitter memories. She was a young black girl when her mother (who had grown up in slavery) had given her to a powerful white man, Mr. Bellfeels, to be his mistress. Mary-Mathilda later became the mother of his only son, named Wilberforce. I won't spoil the rest of the story. The story brings back fully some of the mental and physical burdens that were part of the slave tradition, and many of which still have a powerful hold. So evocative that one of the actors said after the permiere performance in Barbados that he was left shaken for several hours after each performance.

I'll press on with my searching as I'm still unclear about the real origins of Bimshire, and which part of its origins are still alive and kicking.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Land of Changing Views

Travelling through Barbados leaves me constantly confused. One moment, I feel that I am clearly in the Caribbean, the next moment I feel that I could be in the Highlands of Scotland. That is part of the intrigue of the island. There are not the dramatic high mountains of Jamaica, or the volcanic peaks of St. Lucia or Dominica. But the palm and banana trees that hug the rolling hills of Barbados, especially its eastern coastline, in St. Andrew parish, give the island a distinct charm.

Visitors get to see a lot of differences in a short time, thanks to a good network of local roads. It's not too intimidating to take a car drive around what are really lots of winding lanes. However, the signposting is not the best, and without a map, getting lost is very easy.

Another aspect of Barbados that is charming is the range of Anglican parish churches that are all over the island. This is not so strange in the Caribbean, but Barbados has a selection of some really beautiful churches. A historian, whether or not Christian, will find so many places that date back several hundred years, and often in very good condition. Some of the tombs and mausoleums are wonderful works of art. Casual or intense interest will be easily satisfied during a tour of the beautiful old churches.The churchyards alone are worth a day trip each, just to see the phyical record of history that is still evident. We're lucky in the sense that tourism development has not yet made too much head way in pushing some of these sites and they are still quiet and unspoilt, with very few visitors. The fact that these sites are relatively far from the tourist concentrations on the south and west coast could be their saving. There is enough tranquility in just driving around the interior and the east coast, and it was really surprising to find that the roads have very little traffic.