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**

Thursday, May 01, 2008

What world are we living in?

As my eyes wander when I travel around Barbados they show a certain perplexity with what they see. I don't have the keen eye of one of my fellow bloggers (Barbados in Focus, whose images are both vidid and small works of photographic art). As an economist, I have noticed for a long time in the English-speaking Caribbean countries the contradictions of wealth and poverty. However, having lived in a dirt poor west African country I know that our absolute poverty is relatively good compared to the miserable existence that is imposed of many Africans struggling to get by on less than US$1-2 a day, often without drinkable water, electricity, basic health and education services.

Jamaica has posed a conundrum for many economic analysts for decades. Official statistics show a stagnant or declining economy, which has suffered several periods of high inflation. However, if one tours the country you often see many signs of a country that is thriving, at least for a not insignificant part of the population that lives in the large houses and mansions that adorn the middle class suburban hillsides around Kingston, or as appears to be becoming more common in smaller towns, of which Mandeville is one example with which I am familiar. Jamaica has not had a conventional social explosion that might be expected in the face of a depressed economy with high price increases. Financial transfers and goods sent by families abroad have done a lot to keep many Jamaican residents more than just afloat. Financial transfers to Jamaica in 2007 were about US$ 2 billion, compared to foreign direct investment of about US$ 750 million. Some would argue that the country has had a social implosion--at least in the metropolitan area around Kingston--in the form of a frightening rate of murders, putting it as a world leader in that category. This is not an Olympic sport so it's not a proud position to be in. Without going into the various possible explanations of the violence, it has put the society under a high and debilitating level of stress.

Overall, Jamaica is said to lag its neighbours like The Bahamas and Barbados in terms of its economic status, when measuring growth and income per person, and looking at things like the public debt burden. Yet, as noted those who have wealth seem to have plenty of it and often flaunt it, and the average income is weighed down by poor people who visibly have very little.

Whenever I visit Jamaica I never feel that I am in a poor country. When I visit The Bahamas and now that I live in Barbados, I do not think that I am in countries that are especially wealthy. A lot of consumer goods are available, but often very dear. The economies are heavily dependent on tourists and financial services, and outside those areas it's not easy to see where wealth is being created. Yes, there are certain things that are more readily available in the smaller islands and their provision is simpler given their size. Certain dislocations that one experiences in Jamaica, such as power failures or brown outs, or water shortages, do not seem to occur as often--though they do occur. Social services are mixed in all the islands. Public transport is good in Jamaica (taxis and buses), and in Barbados (where it is also relatively cheap, but private car ownership is also very high), but it is really limited in The Bahamas (where the love affair with the private car has reached obsence levels).

Increasingly, when I look at Barbados I search for some clear signs of its higher standard of living, and I wonder where it really is. It is not Switzerland or Singapore, yet I experience a very high cost of living, and a lot has been said on that by me and others. Barbados has some services that offer good standards, given the size of the island and its population, but they can be quickly stretched. But for a country that is supposed to be on the cusp of first world-dom it has some disturbing signs of pockets of poverty and a place where some important things don't seem to be right. (For those who know the island all the pictures here show places that are no more than a mile from either the Governor General's or the Prime Minister's official residence.)

I see many destitute-looking people men walking or lying on the streets around the south coast. I aslo see handfuls of them dancing at Oistins on Friday evenings, with a drink in their hand and reggae in their ears.

I see signs of deriliction and incompleted buildings in urban and rural areas, and I am now trying to capture some of that in pictures. Sure money for construction runs out. Some of the derelict and rundown properties are owned by government, and one has to ask what is the story with letting such buildings stand idle while renting other space. Some buildings appear to be privately owned, including some glaring eyesores on land owned by churches.

I see signs of delapidation in the road systems, and I don't know the political map well enough to know if that reflects political favouritism or lack of resources or failed works. For example, when I take the roads from the airport, I wonder why the road esastbound into St. Philip is a total shambles, within meters of the airport, while there is the blissful smoothness of the highway heading west toward the south and west coasts. I see the highway borders being trimmed and manicured periodically, and I see roads being dug up, repaved, dug up again, etc.(In many instances, these kinds of works appear like "make work" projects that allow contractors to get a steady flow of income, and provide jobs for some men and women who have few skills. Like the roads in Jamaica that seem to need repaving every year after rains took away the thin skim of tarmac and marl put on the year before.)

Very few Barbadians appear to live in stooshy residences (with their marble interiors, fine furniture, and golf courses); these are mainly the homes of foreigners, either as actual homes and/or investments which they can rent to tourists or expatriates. Most homes are very modest-looking; many inhabitated buildings are nothing more than shacks. The tourists may stay in some high class hotels such as adorn the west coast--and brand names are absent--but many hotels are small, boutique-style.

So, I have an ambivalent viewpoint about Barbados in figuring out if it is really first-, second-, or third-world. I think I can say safely that it's not third-world compared to most of the developing countries in that category. So, it's somewhere in the second-world. And moving up, sideways or down?

I am going to leave that as a question to be probed more.

1 comment:

Jdid said...

I wouldnt say barbados is on the cusp of first world-dom myself but if I can nitpick for a moment I question whether "disturbing signs of pockets of poverty" is a sign of first world-dom given what I've heard of the ghettos of DC within close distance to th U.S capital's landmarks and given the projects and slums i've seen in some North American cities.

Are the pockets of poverty as bad as the ones in Barbados or other Caribbean islands? probably not but there are some really disgusting roach and rodent filled, unheated, cardboard in place of glass at windows, smell litteraly like crap spots I've seen in a couple of places here in Toronto and I know we're probably better than most North american larger cities.