Hands across the water: “What you send for me?”

If Jamaicans had not benefited from remittances over the years since Independence, the country would have been deprived of an enormously important source of funding. Remittance inflows match foreign exchange inflows from tourism, each being about US$ 2 billion; each ususally outstrip exports annually, and also outstrip foreign direct investment. A Bank of Jamaica analysis last year showed that each Jamaican got about US$ 700 in remittances. These data show that more than half of the remittances come from sources in the USA (just over US$ 1 billion each year), followed by the UK (about US$ 300-350 million), Canada (US$ 200-220 million), and Cayman Islands (about US$ 150 million).

Cash apart, we also know that many Jamaicans benefit from goods sent from abroad in barrels. While the material benefit of food and goods from parents or other relatives living and working abroad, it has created the  phenomenon of ‘barrel children‘–those children who, while waiting in the Caribbean to migrate to their parents in the metropoles of North America and the United Kingdom, receive material resources in the form of food and clothing in place of direct care.

So, while economists would urge countries to improve their ability to increase foreign exchange earnings from productive activities, we have lived with decades of high foreign exchange inflows coming in the form of private aid, plus direct aid also coming from private sources. I was able to see some of the effects of this first hand the other day, when I went to a Post Office to mail some letters.39438western_union The courtyard parking lot was absolutely packed with people, overflowing from the counters, collecting remittance envelopes. So much for trying to do my little business early in the day. I’ve seen the lines of people at Western Union. I also hear the adverts on the TV and radio, which talk about how easy it is to receive money from abroad. But, I also noticed a new element, which is to facilitate the payment of bills for local services directly from overseas. We could call that targeted aid: at least, phone bills from Flow can be handled this way.

Some are greatly concerned that Jamaicans depend so heavily on aid, both from international and bilateral organisations, and from remittances. Can a country and its population learn to work its way into prosperity when so much of its income is in the form of gifts?