Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #8: Take me to your leader

Guinea is heading towards presidential elections in mid-October, and at least three friends may be candidates, including one who was prime minister between 2004 and 2006, during my time as resident representative. That led me to think about about how work thrusts you into the midst of leaders past, present, and yet to-be. One good friend, whom I met as a colleague in another multilateral agency in 2003 is now finance minister in Guinea, after spending some of her working years in Jamaica. Doors open and close all over.

I never had any idea what my working life would throw up in the ‘celebrities’ stake; economists are just technocrats, right? I should have had an inkling from my days at the Bank of England when economists with whom I’d worked were next seen as presidents or finance ministers or central bank governors; one even became prime minister 👀. (I’d have taken bets on Theresa May never becoming PM.) None of these outcomes are far off the career path, really.

In many countries, economists are revered in politics much as lawyers are in many developed countries. I did work with Ernesto Zedillo on capital flight from Latin America during the mid-1980s, while he was at Banco de México, and had no idea of his political aspirations or affiliations (President 1994-2000). His predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid (1988-94), was one of the funniest politicians I ever met, and recall well a story he told about being late for his daughter’s wedding because he was playing dominoes.

But, Fund work sends you to the top of the tree all the time, and if you’re easily overawed by trappings of position and power, then it’s likely not going to be a happy place for you. I’m an iconoclast, so treat all people much the same. Yes, I have been abrupt, direct and far from self-effacing when ‘talking to power’ 😉 I don’t jump to my feet when ‘powerful’ people walk into rooms; I don’t cede my place to them, either. As my father used to say, “We all have bottoms.”

But, just crawling through the undergrowth of the past, who’s memorable?

Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi (aka ‘Brother Leader’) was stunning, more because he just showed up midway through a discussion session of central bank governors, all flowing robes, and launched into a long tirade about multilateral financiers, and how we were part of some massive geopolitical problems, then left. The first clearly unhinged political leader I had ever seen up close.

Stretching my mind backwards to my Bank of England days, I was thrilled to rub shoulders with then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, especially as my new graduate banking peers had selected me to give the vote of thanks at a banquet hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City of London. But, how does one navigate a world where significant figures in your workplace are peers of the realm? But, my kind of person was the governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi, who was the first man on the dance floor and the last to leave 🙂

In country work, it gets to be ‘stock in trade’ to have courtesy meetings with presidents and prime ministers. As a res rep, though, these people can be on the meeting schedules very often. In Guinea, I only met the late president Lansana Conté once. I met his (revolving set of) prime ministers often, though, and visits to La Primature were regular. Conakry is compact when it comes to location of most government offices, so it was no more than a 5 minute spin in the car. Sometimes, I walked.

Some presidents want to show they are in charge and make a big show at the beginning and end of missions, to set the ground clearly and check that their ‘instructions’ had been understood. Azerbaijan was the most notable, there, with former president Heydar Aliyev (father of the current president) making a big final meeting show. His career had involved being head of the security services and he ran an authoritarian (some say ‘police’) state. His son, Ilmar’s, succession tells all [FYI he’d been first vice-president of SOCAR, the state-owned Azeri oil and gas company (the source of most national revenues) when I worked in Baku. :)]

Guyana was interesting because the president (1999-2011), Bharrat Jagdeo, at the time had been the former finance minister (1995-99), with whom we’d gone tooth and nail over budget figures, so he couldn’t help showing his mastery of that and understanding of Fund financial programming.

One of the strangest interactions was with Latvia’s Einars Repše. (He graduated from Latvia State University (now known as University of Latvia) in 1986 with a degree in physics (specialisation – radio electronics). He first entered politics in 1988 as one of the founders of the Latvian National Independence Movement (LNNK), a political organization promoting Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union. He was elected to the parliament of Latvia in 1990.) From 1991 to 2001, So, he was a seasoned politician when the IMF missions first began working with Latvia. Repše was the president of the Bank of Latvia (Latvia’s central bank). During this period, he oversaw the introduction of the Latvian rublis, Latvia’s temporary transition currency and the Lats, independent Latvia’s new currency. So, my first encounter with him was as central bank president. He was astonishingly frank is stating he understood nothing about monetary policy and just needed to know what numbers to watch. Being a physicist, he learned the arithmetic of monetary analysis fast. He was the most ‘successful’ central banker I have ever met.

He went back into politics and became PM (2002-2004). He founded the New Era Party, a Populist anti-corruption party. After the 2002 elections, Repše became the Prime Minister of Latvia in November 2002. He led a coalition of his own New Era Party, the Latvia’s First Party, the Union of Greens and Farmers and For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK. Repše’s government became known for an outspoken fight against corruption and tax evasion. He was finance minister 2009-10 and also defence minister in 2004. He’s described as flamboyant but eccentric seems more fitting, in my mind.

Interestingly, his deputy during my time, Ilmar Rimšēvičs became governor in 2001-19, but more recently (2018) was charged with accepting bribes; the case is pending.

But, here’s the rub in much of this. Status or rank are things that matter more in context. Notions like he who pays the piper calls the tune put status into one context. The Fund, as major financial supporter of economic policy and often with that political power, tends to stand above any individual’s status. If we can’t agree on a program, then start to figure out how and when the reserves are going to get replenished, and from the support that comes from the Fund’s thumbs up, where is the budget going to get what it needs? For many ‘powerful’ people or those who think their status matters, that’s a sobering reality. It rarely gets to the point of ‘your money, your rules’, but it’s often about ‘our money, our rules’ 🙂

#COVID19Chronicles-159-September 18, 2020-Changes in COVID protocols

COVID conversations were held last night, the broadcast is below. Dr. Tufton continued to redirect public focus to longer term issues to deal with ‘living with COVID19’:

Changes in COVID testing are coming from October, with addition of antigen tests, which are faster and able to be more widely distributed and will reduce demand on PCR tests. They will only be used on symptomatic cases. Results should be ready within 30 minutes:

Delays in approving these tests reflected waiting for consent of WHO/PAHO.

Changed protocols for workplaces are being drafted, and input and feedback from institutions will be sought.

The minister stressed again that people must understand that this phase of community transmission really means ‘everyone counts’; all must comply across all protocols.

The clinicians shared various charts on infection characteristics including the impact of comorbidities and sex and age of those who’ve died:

#COVID19Chronicles-158: September 17, 2020: Schools are going back soon?

The main issue on the horizon in my mind is how will schools reopen on October 5. Well, planning is underway and a task force has just been set up to oversee planning. It’s expected to be an online start; in-person schooling would be the start of a huge wave of chaos and probably rapid infection spread, in the current environment, knowing how children congregate and circulate, plus laxness with hygiene, as well as the many problems with public transport operations and the lack of rigourous adherence to health protocols. Remember, the expectation is that the pandemic will reach peak infections by end-September.

Some private schools returned last week, online. Their experience will be noted.

Problems have been evident in our other countries:

The Gleaner is hosting an online Editor’s forum today:

The American International School in Kingston (AISK) reopened for in-person classes several weeks ago, in late-August; their experiences will also be instructive, though the school is small and has been equipped with highly sophisticated facial-recognition screening machines, which other schools are less likely to be able to provide:

They’ve shown imagination across the range of school activities in ‘living with ‘COVID’:

The inequalities existing across education have been well-exposed by the pandemic and it’s hard to see these being much lessened in the near-term, although many measures will be coming to bear in efforts to do that.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #7: May I take your order?

International travel and food can be a volatile mixture of both pleasures and pain. Whenever, I hear those “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?” questions, I usually start to giggle hysterically and that my family are quickly pulling the straitjacket out of the cupboard. So, let’s go over a few highlights and lowlights, just from the world of work. I think when I travel for pleasure, it’s open season; work settings ought to be safer. Hmm, maybe.

When you’re presented with sheep’s eyeballs, do you turn the pupils away before you bite? Azerbaijan is Turkey’s cousin and has some of my favourite food. But, traditions are different. When the host of the banquet wants to show his appreciation for the work the IMF team did, he offers the mission chief the first pair of sheep’s eyeballs. But, the crafty manager, has a solution ready: “Dennis, why don’t you do the honours?” To quote Basil Fawlty: “You bastard!”

Swallow, gulp, swallow, slurp vodka, swallow…Belch! You have to show your appreciation of the delicacy.

Staying with Azerbaijan, but the other end of the tasty scale, though an oddity for most, something I grew to love: Beluga caviar (sturgeon roe), raised plentifully in the Caspian Sea.

The Azeris loved to give the mission members several jars at the end of work; some had no interest, so I was a willing taker of surplus. I often stopped in London on my way home to stay with my wife’s uncle, who was a High Commissioner at the time. He and his wife supplied Champagne to go with my ‘rent’ payment. Bliss! Admittedly, it’s really preferred with ice-chilled vodka, which was how I’d consume it in-country.

I already mentioned Matoke, as a speciality of Uganda. All I’ll add is that I was told it was reasons for automatic divorce if a wife could not make it well. Go, research it, if you disbelieve me. 🙂

Early visits to former Soviet Union countries brought a level of culinary shock that’s hard to explain. One of my early points of confusion was seeing people lining up, but not knowing for what; it turned out to be for bread (хлеб (chleb), in Russian) and no one knew how much was available, just that some would be. But in the early days, scarcity was the norm.

Russia, mid-1990s: We were in the food ‘Gulag’. So, it was common to have this exchange in a Moscow restaurant (excuse the attempted Russian accent; I could write it in cyrrilic, but 🙂 ):

“Vot would you like?” the waiter asked. I checked the menu, and ordered chicken. “No chicken.” I checked again, and saw ‘meat’, so ordered that. “No meat.” I’m patient, but… I asked what was available. “Potatoes and cabbage.” My eyes met his and rolled a lot. Those ingredients would be alright in borscht, but just alone on a plate? McDonald’s hadn’t yet opened. Time to get up and leave, with a smile. Socialism’s equality of opportunity is fine, if you must want the opportunity offered.

But, I’m a sucker for street food, and Africa hit the spot best, including Casablanca, Morocco, where I often took stopovers en route to Mauritania.

Or ‘fry fry’ in Freetown, Sierra Leone:

I love Asian food from the whole region, but never worked on the continent. The best I got was, oddly, a Korean restaurant in Conakry, Guinea, where we often went on Sunday evenings, for their mixed offering of Vietnamese food and Korean BBQ. Our daughter was less than 3 but that’s where she learned to use chopsticks 🙂

What about drink? What about it? Most countries have their local beers and I’m glad to try any. Having spent so many formative years in England, and enjoying dark, warmer beer, with little fizziness, I’d learned that most of the world like lager or Pilsner beers, with fizz. The best compromises were the dark beers of Germany and the fruit beers of Belgium. But, if I’m pushed, my favourite Pilsner, from work settings was Czech Budweiser.

Drinking it or wine while dining in a restaurant that’s in a cave in Prague—Svatá Klára? Magical.

But, without my business travels would I have known how much vodka I can drink and still walk straight and take good notes? What is the maximum number of toasts at a dinner? Would I have learned about the quality of Georgian brandy? Where would I have learned about Chibuku shake-shake? Would I have learned that Estonia’s Vana Tallinn is made from a base of Jamaican rum? Why does Latvia’s Riga Balsam taste so much like Ferrol Compound and are the medical benefits similar? I’

But, food is truly joyous with good company. I’ll never forget how my staff in Guinea greeted us on our reconnaissance and my assignment visits–with home-prepared dinners to carry through a few days. A better welcome has never been had.

In Guinea, we were good friends with the Japanese ambassador and his wife; their chef was excellently and scoured the fish markets daily for the best catches. Any invitation to dine at their residence was an automatic yes. His wife loved the traditional tea ceremony; so did we. Sushi was to die for. They were part of a group of 8 which we formed for tennis on Sunday mornings. The group was completed by a French couple and the British ambassador, our immediate neighbour. The French couple’s kids would babysit Rhian while we played. After, was potluck brunch at our house. Each brought something: pastries and sushi were constants. Brunch had no end time and often went past noon. That’s when my wife started the tradition of watching tennis grand slams with friends food and drink.

Finally, dining with ‘important’ people in informal settings is often the mark of good relationships.

  • Guyana’s president enjoying good curry while discussing budgets in his garden.
  • Discussing program issues with Estonia’s finance minister in a sauna with beer, pickled herrings and peanuts.
  • Saturday lunch at home, under the gazebo, with the French ambassador while she rocked our toddler on her knees.
  • Spending a evening sitting on the floor having dinner with Mauritania’s central bank governor, with jazz playing in the background.

The details of the meetings? Not important now. The memories? Timeless.

Financing creativity-a webinar, plus some further thoughts

I’m not a night owl, so when I was asked to do a webinar I was gungho till I heard it would start at 7.30pm ‘backstage’ and go live at 8pm. We seniors need our rest; I’m up before 5am most days. But, the hosts were so charming and when I had the run through with Kenia Mattis on Monday, I told myself to ‘man up’ and take an even longer nap so that I would not be all droopy eyed. Well, so much for the nap and my mind was racing all over the place as Parliament opened and bits of news filtered through about the latest shenanigans in the PNP.

Anyway, we got underway as scheduled, so watch the recording and I’ll be happy to field any questions or comments on what I had to offer.

As an economist, I see the ‘financing’ a bit differently from Gary Peart and Dahlia Harris, in that I think about what support needs to be in terms of its ultimate value. So, as I tried to explain, a person seeking support for a creative venture is seeking money as a means to an end, but may find life easier being direct about getting the support for the ‘end’, say the building of a workshop. So, a supporter who’s prepared to provide materials and labour is better in that this removes a layer of negotiating to get to the real objective. That’s just to stress that those demanding support need to be nimble in seeing what opportunities present themselves and not be fixated on that support being in monetary form.

My economics training helps me understand the importance of various forms of economic integration. Much of this happens spontaneously—I mentioned last night the clustering of car component firms in the metropolitan area around Hagley Park Road. Sometimes, it needs some help from the State or other interest support groups.

I think such integration is important going forward and see glimpses of it in Jamaica is the beginnings of ‘incubating’ communities, where creative people can integrate and build synergies. I mentioned communities known for being the homes of many creative spirits, such as Greenwich Village in New York City. But, the Village is the home of many ‘fringe’ elements, and is seen as ‘counter cultural’. I’d like to think of it as Bohemian, and think of places like Notting Hill, in west London, in a similar way. But, world-wide, creativity can originate anywhere, but it sometimes needs some clustering to be better nurtured.

There’s interesting literature on ‘creative clusters’ and the idea has useful pointers for generating economic growth and urban renewal. But, it’s not all upsides and can also be trigger for socioeconomic friction (as with gentrification, in general).

One of the features in many developed societies is for such clustering to be part of the resurgence of urban areas (aka ‘gentrification’). Though not really a feature in Jamaica or many developing countries, I’m looking at what groups like Jamaica Creatives are doing in downtown Kingston to see if it is planting such ‘green shoots’. The government now has a Cabinet minister in charge of urban renewal, so let’s see what he brings to the table.

That said, Jamaica’s cultural heritage is national and its rural roots and underpinning are as important and anything that happens in the capital and the metropolitan area.

#COVID19Chronicles-157: September 16, 2020–Parliamentary governance structures becoming clear

Parliamentary life continues to take shape, not without a few fanfares in the distance. The Opposition party in the House of Representatives will be led by Dr. Peter Phillips (PNP president) till a successor is named; he submitted the list of Opposition senators.

Phillips is, however, being assailed by the youth wing of the party, PNPYO, whose president, and failed candidate in the September 3 election, Krystal Tomlinson, issued him a 30-day ultimatum, and offered a slate of 8 senators—which Phillips rejected! The letter stresses ‘We must change or die’.

However, the letter has been surrounded by some farcical cinema: it was claimed to be a draft (but it was signed); it was allegedly issued in error (but was leaked to the media); the PNPYO president included herself amongst the proposed senators (seemingly lacking in humility?).

Nationwide90FM reported ‘In the meantime, PNPYO General Secretary, Dexroy Martin, is confirming that the leaked letter was written by the PNPYO to Dr. Peter Phillips. But, he says the letter was only a draft.’

The ‘corrected’ version will then be released to the public; he claimed the letter was not an ultimatum to DR. Phillips, and presumably the ‘correct’ version will have removed any such suggestions.

I must say this episode runs a close second to the ‘drama’ around the issuance of the PNP election manifesto, which was ridiculed for being changed so often as to leave the public bewildered which version was correct. I hope this is not a trend.

In other prosaic business, Mrs. Juliet Holness, the PM’s wife, was voted Deputy Speaker in the House of Representatives:

In the Senate, Tom Tavares-Finson was reelected President, and Charles Sinclair, a former mayor of Montego Bay, elected deputy president.

The House has its first sitting:

Women are filling more seats in both houses:

The magisterial recount of the tied vote in Westmoreland Eastern (not an oxymoron?) went to Daniel Lawrence (JLP), to return the overall winning margin to 49:14:

The Gleaner reported: ‘In court Tuesday, Lawrence lost one vote that was marked with a tick, rather than a cross or an X, but managed to finish with 28 of the 107 previously rejected ballots by the Electoral Office of Jamaica. Buchanan tallied 17 and MiKa’el one. The others were ruled as properly disposed of by the court…Twenty-one spoilt ballots were accounted for in the four-day magisterial recount.’

Two other recounts concluded in time for the reopening of Parliament; one confirmed the preliminary results. Hugh Graham (PNP) won in St. Catherine NW.

He wasted no time is ‘hailing’ his victory in his ‘From NUTTEN to Member of Parliament’ orange Lamborghini; the video archives will treasure this for the ages:

It’s worth recalling the car had raised eyebrows last year, with questions about how it had been funded:

Rhoda May Crawford (JLP) won in Manchester Central, sensationally ousting PNP deputy president and leadership aspirant, Peter Bunting, after Rohan Chung (Independent; 49 votes) had called for a recount!

However, Chung is not done and plans to use his constitutional right to take the count to the Supreme Court; he already has a bill of some J$2.3 million to pay for the first recount (what I term ‘cha-Chung’), after which he actually lost 1 vote. That’s not how ‘vote buying’ is supposed to work!

Two other recounts are still underway in St. Ann SE and Clarendon NW.

“We’ve only just begun” the song goes…

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #6: Seeing Africa from the inside

I started as IMF resident representative in the Republic of Guinea in July 2003; the timing wasn’t ideal–my wife was 7 months pregnant. We’d known months earlier that I’d be starting in the summer, but still. Overseas IMF assignments are limited, but are an option, and work better for staff without children, or single staff; they don’t usually work so well for a Fund-Fund couple.

We’d travelled to Guinea during the spring to reconnoiter the post, with my stepdaughter and her friend. We checked the existing residence: it was a dump, even though it was next door to one of the president’s wives. It was on a main road and had been lived in by my predecessor without his family; it was like a flop house and no sense of having been a home. Why would we leave our new house in a cul-de-sac in Bethesda for this? So, we focused on finding a new place and settled on somewhere in a newish gated complex by the ocean, called Résidence 2000. It was fun negotiating with the owner-developer, whose assigned villa we ended up getting; money talks and guaranteed paying tenant for 3 years speaks volumes.

IMF residence is middle of three villas.

That done, I also wanted to make my office a nice and efficient working space. My secretary knew everything and everyone needed to get things done, she was also well connected. So, we hurtled around Conakry to find furniture and curtains, plus some local art and sculptures. I could look forward to returning in the summer.

Once I started, I travelled back to Washington every two weeks till the baby was born, on September 21, during Hurricane Isabel😳🙏🏾then took extra days after before heading back to Conakry. I came home again for Thanksgiving and Christmas, after which we theee travelled to Conakry.

The context for my job was difficult: Guinea was a candidate for debt relief (highly indebted poor countries initiative–HIPC ) having reached the so-called ‘decision point’ in 2000, and aiming for a ‘decision point’ (to receive relief) by end-2004. Presidential elections were due late in 2003. So, my task was to edge them along towards the decision point. Over my three plus years, we saw several false dawns, not darkened by Fund reluctance, but often by mixed performance and presidential arbitrariness that undid what we thought we had sewn up. For context, with political upheaval rising from 2006, after the death of president Conté, Guinea did not reach completion point until 2012, with Conté dying in 2008. Guinea was known to be one of the least democratic and most corrupt countries in the world. Say “Hello!” 

I’d worked in Guinea on missions a year or so before, in my PDR capacity, and knew the country’s economic issues and policy makers well. That was part of the sell.

My French wasn’t bad but I’d have to get better especially on wider vocabulary. That didn’t take long. In my first week, I was leaned on by the local phone company for massive unpaid bills. After my secretary confirmed this was an error, I set to on the company over the phone and as my anger rose at the apparent scam my vocabulary expanded twice as fast. I agreed with them that I needn’t get the finance minister involved or go to their office for a face-to-face talk. Good start! French profanities? Check.

I’m not going to detail my 3 1/2 years in Conakry. Though, I started representing in one country, I ended doing it for two, after months of negotiations left me covering neighbouring Sierra Leone, too.

The two countries were fundamentally different politically, Let’s just narrow it down to the fact that Sierra Leone had just come through a vicious civil war (1991-2002), which had started as a spillover from the civil wars in Liberia (1989-1997, 1999-2003), that left many of its population literally scarred and many missing limbs. Guinea was a sea of relative calm compared to rumblings or worse in each of its neighbouring countries, and had been a refuge for many fleeing those wars, Liberians and Sierra Leoneans (both Anglophone countries bordering on Francophone neighbours). The region has many ethnic connections spanning current national borders. The region is predominantly Muslim, with Christianity as the next main religion; however, Animism is strong throughout. However, Islam is practised in the two countries with a lighter touch than in many others in the regions.

In having to cover both countries, travel was one of the main problems. By road, the journey was about 300 km each way and take about 4 hours; depending on weather–especially during rainy season in the summer–the route could be bad to impassable. Otherwise, I would hitch a ride on the UN helicopter from Conakry and then get my car to meet me in Freetown. However, the helicopter rides, though relatively short, were just downright scary, with Russian vessels and crew: the sight of vodka bottles under the pilot’s seat told me more than I needed to know and what I could understand in Russian didn’t make me calmer. The night I had to hurtle back so that Rhian could have an operation the road seemed blissfully clear.

I had a residence in Guinea, and lived with my family and my household staff; my secretary and economic assistant, driver and ‘go for’ were in my office. In Freetown, I had no office to start with, and it was a long time before I got dedicated space in the central bank. I had no support staff, really. I stayed in the Country Lodge hotel, which was really nice, up in the hills outside the city and it had great ambience, great food, and tennis courts. I’d taken up the sport in Conakry, soon after I started my assignment. But, it was a weird existence living in a resort.

I managed to develop good working relationships in both countries. Social relationships were harder to establish in Freetown, but I managed some interesting ones.

In keeping with what I called Islam-lite, I hooked up with the head of the local Heineken subsidiary, who would take me around bars and clubs at the weekend as he checked how products were moving. Interesting! It was a safe window into a culture and subcultures that would otherwise be hidden from me. I know the head of the local brewery in Guinea, SOBRAGUI (who made Guiluxe), but never had a similar relationship.

Guiluxe, Guinea’s main domestic product 🙂

I also became friends with a judge who was presiding over the war crimes trials involving Charles Taylor. We would link some weekends and drive out to River number 2, where friends of hers had a small chalet and would arrange for fresh fish and seafood for a lunch and conversation. Absolutely, blissful, and some of the nicest beaches I’ve ever visited.

On the Guinean side, we developed lots of friendships from work and different social activities; many are still close friends. My first set of friends were young tennis men I met at the Novotel hotel; they included Guinea’s top 3 players. They started to give me lessons. My first sport was still football, having just retired from playing in my early-40s, and I played with some youths on the beach many mornings in my early weeks in Conakry. I was staying nearby at Le Rocher hotel, initially, while the residence was being made ready and furniture was being shipped from Washington, and a drive by the beach was en route to my office, and I could shower at Novotel–nice privileges.

As my working life extended, I found friends and close acquaintances all over Guinea, though mainly in Conakry. I used my post as an excuse to poke around everywhere and into most things–all in the name of understanding the economy; however, I wasn’t going too close to political intrigue. President Conte was in charge and who worked for him was his business. Opposition politicians came knocking but intended to keep them distant, with few exceptions. I got to know well management of banks, foreign-owned mining companies, petroleum retailers, those who imported and sold rice, those importing goods from overseas, mainly China, and those making use of the parallel exchange rate market for large transactions; that covered a lot of the economy. I became known to, but kept a distance from, some businessman who were known to be close to the president, and respectfully met them formally, but rarely.

Lunches and dinners could be with any and several. I made good friends with the equivalent of the permanent secretary at the ministry of finance and the minister’s special adviser, who was really my main point of liaison. So, the family spent weekends socially with both and saw what their family lives were like.

We tried to get out of Conakry when possible, at weekends, whether for a day to one of the islands nearby, which were largely undisturbed, or to some known sights. I usually drove myself outside of work hours, or even in the evenings to/from functions, so that my driver could make his long journey home and get some time with his young family. Life outside the capital always had many surprises. It was wholesome in its simplicity, and like when we visit ‘country’ in Jamaica, the car would come back laden with fruit and vegetables. We enjoyed eating the fish often available (snapper) or local poultry (poulet bicyclette–or running chicken, because it had to be caught before it could be cooked 🙂 ) Meals were not served in a hurry. If I travelled out of the city on business, usually for an event organized for another diplomatic delegation, we had to accept that we’d be met with fanfare–drummers and dancers–and gifts, usually a robe (boubou) or work of art. My office appreciated the cultural additions.

The diplomatic corps was small and close, led by the French ambassador and the UN head of agency (as Guinea was in part a humanitarian crisis case because of its hospitality towards refugees); we met often on security issues and I was the point man in matters economic. I grew close to my World Bank counterpart, who’d been finance minister in Niger; we became a tandem team for economic discussions with the authorities; our missions often worked together, closely. We also lived across the street from each other. So, Sunday lunch was often at his apartment around a bowl of Thiboudiene, a wonderful Senegalese dish of rice, fish, meat and vegetables, eaten with the hands. 👍🏾

My post made me widely know and easily recognized and walking around was part of my style. I was referred to mainly as Excellence (his Excellency 😳), and being hailed so was nice. I could often be found eating at a roadside ‘café’ (everything comes with rice, and I love meals with sauces), or in a shawarma bar. (Guinea had a sizeable Lebanese community.) 

Eating out was now part of my life, more at lunchtime than for dinner. However, our house and cook made dining at home appealing. We had a gazebo by the ocean fence that was great for meals anytime of day. I liked breakfast meetings. Once Therese and Rhian arrived, after new year in 2004, I usually went to work around 9, came home at about 2 and stayed home in the afternoon most days. The time difference with Washington meant the day could be nicely split into Guinean focus in the morning and IMF focus in the afternoon.

Daytime and evening functions were also now a regular part of life.

Some of my best friends were restaurant owners 😀 Perhaps, one of my most touching experiences was during one Ramadan, when I was also fasting, I broke my fast each day with a good Lebanese-Guinean friend, who worked with his mother in their restaurant–one of my favorites–Le Rocher–and showed me how it was done in their family, with dates and fruit, followed by heavier food and yoghurt. Conakry’s finest restaurant was Le Damier, famous for its cuisine and superb patisserie, whose owner, Andre, always found a parking space for me by the front door, opposite the always-busy Marché Niger.

Le Damier and its owner, Andre Chapron

Blessed times.

Fortunately, food was fuel and it was also glue. Tennis courts were 2 minutes walk from the house and floodlit; so lessons at 6am or pm we’re common, or playing with others. I got good enough to enter and win competitions 😳 We set up a nice tennis doubles activity with half a dozen friends for Sunday mornings, that usually turned into brunch and sometimes went on till evening.

But, we decided to act as we would have done in Washington and make our home a comfortable place to meet, eat and greet, so made semi-formal lunches and dinners part of our routine. My predecessor had notably done nothing like that at the residence. It suited us, of course, with a young child as part of our package. Our daughter grew up in a tropical environment, spending hours outdoors, and being the centre of attention from lots of ‘important’ people, one of whom gave her a tee-shirt printed with ‘Future President’. Our neighbours, on either side were the British and Chinese Ambassadors. It was the ‘high life’, of sorts.

But, moving past the broad settings, a few highlights:

I tell the story of how the central bank governor gave instructions to one of his staff, while meeting with a Fund mission. The staff member retorted: “Mr. Governor, you forget your family used to be my family’s slaves?” I’ve never seen African slave history the same ever again.

During my posting, Guinea had numerous problems meeting its budget targets and international reserves levels and I knew part of the reason (some things one shared with HQ, some were left where they were; this one was shared). President Conté regarded the international reserves as ‘his money’. I often saw his car pull up in the central bank courtyard, just outside my window. When I saw his guards bringing bags to put into the back of his Toyota Land Cruiser, my secretary informed me he was collecting ‘his money’. That’s not how it was supposed to work! But, I wasn’t going to march to the presidential palace to set him straight.

A corollary to that, was the president struck deals with his private business associates to supply ‘materials’ for the country, mainly vehicles, but, some other items, too. Much of this never touched the budget, which meant our monitoring of the program targets difficult. Sifting through things like this hampered relationships, to put it, mildly.

The central bank–more precisely, a deputy governor who was a close confidant of the president–was up to some hanky panky, embezzling funds. As this is now public record, I’ll point to the Human Rights Watch report on the aftermath of political violence that erupted in Guinea in 2006:

‘On December 16, 2006, Guinea’s President Lansana Conté traveled to Conakry’s central prison with his motorcade and personally secured the release of two close allies charged with embezzlement from Guinea’s Central Bank, reportedly telling his entourage, “I am justice.” The first, Mamadou Sylla, is alleged to be Guinea’s richest businessmen and had been arrested at his home earlier that month in connection with his allegedly unlawful removal of millions of dollars from the Central Bank. The second, Fodé Soumah, former Central Bank deputy governor, was also arrested for alleged complicity in the affair.

Fund staff were aware of irregularities in central back activities and made resolution and publicity of them a condition for going forward with Guinea. It was an uncomfortable set of affairs. Fortunately, I rarely had direct dealings with the deputy governor and as noted above, kept my distance from the president’s business associates, though I kept close eyes on all reports of transactions that were taking place.

Does diplomatic immunity matter? The presidential guards stopped my car on the street one morning and pointed rifles at my driver, for no apparent reason. “You can’t do that!” was all I said, and it worked. What if they’d shot him? 😦

The work in-country has a no parallel; the proof is the difficulty of re-entry to HQ and seeing life as a desk economist, mission chief, advisor or higher as fulfilling in the same way that daily contact with policy makers and sharing with them the headaches of getting things done. It can be as expansive as one can manage. Few things are meaningless. Much is frustrating. Getting to understand human relationships that come from power disparities is revealing. Living in a totally foreign environment is full of adventure and hard knocks. Sharing some of that is an extra pleasure.

I was lucky that, after my mother died in 2004, ironically on our way back to DC for ‘home leave’, my father took up the offer to visit Guinea, and stay for about a month. By then, he was in his mid-70s and still a nimble fellow. He showed clearly his intent from the day he arrived, and wandered off to the gym where we found him ‘in conversation’ with a French man; neither spoke a word of the other’s language! The next day, he had left the complex and was found in the park nearby ‘chatting’ amiably with some young Guineans: “I could feel what they were saying.” OK! We were worried sick not knowing where he’d gone.

He loved what he discovered in Guinea and it was in part a spiritual experience for him ‘returning home’ as he put it. He was an easy guest and he loved having time with his newest granddaughter, who was an athletic toddler. He loved what he could see of the countryside and I have told already of the trip to Fouta Djallon.

Therese’s family travel as a caravan, so it was a houseful that arrived from Nassau. Into Africa, young and old, including parents. Great trip, including their charabanc tour to Fouta, and Labé. Highlights of their journey was the need to replace a tyre and being feted like dignitaries by families where they had to do the repairs. Given the size and contours (or lack of them in The Bahamas) they were blown away by all of Guinea’s natural sights, including waterfalls. Before they left, a wonderful dinner was laid on for them, where almost every African country was represented from amongst the diplomatic community whom we knew as friends.

So, we have several generations who, on the back of my good fortune to have to live and work there, could claim to have made the reverse trip across the Atlantic, to Africa, and that is no mean accolade for Caribbean folk.

#COVID19Chronicles-156: September 15, 2020: Order, in the House!

The new Parliament is taking shape.

Cabinet ministers and the Attorney General were sworn in on Sunday;

Cabinet held its first meeting:

State ministers were sworn on Monday:

The Speaker was nominated on Monday, Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert:

Opposition senators have been named; Dr. Phillips honored his promise to nominate 1/2 of them women:

MPs and Senators will be sworn in today.

The Opposition has yet to name its leader.

Magisterial recounts in Eastern Westmoreland mean at least one seat is yet undetermined.

#COVID19Chronicles-155: September 14, 2020: Economic pain

I’m not going to characterize economic outcomes during the pandemic as if they’re unexpectedly awful: the bottom has fallen out of the world economy and we’re part of that. Our pain has different sources and remedies and that’s what’s important to understand. Simply put, we’re highly dependent on other countries, especially the USA.

Data for the 2nd calendar quarter and 1st fiscal quarter, April-June, and now available: they show the economy contracted by 18% compared to the same period in 2019:

No sector has escaped. In services, hotels and restaurants have been brutalized—declining 88%—while in production sectors, mining and quarrying declined 25%. The sharp decline in tourism explained the former as the sector limps along at about 10-20% capacity. Alpart closing affecting mining badly, and limitations on movement badly affected ‘other services’ and ‘transport etc’.

Tourism has borne the local economic brunt of the pandemic but played its part in suppressing the health impact. Sector spokesmen stress how tourism has tried hard to respect health protocols. But, they fear being made scapegoats to justify another closure of our borders.

Obviously tourism is especially fragile now.

Some perverse positive trends: remittances are up: The BOJ governor commented in a published statement, “Incredibly, while the global forecast is for remittances to decrease by 20 per cent in 2020, remittances to Jamaica have increased since May, evidenced by a 15.7 per cent increase in May and a 41.6 per cent increase in June, after a very small decline in the first quarter.”

Despite the tired howls that the sky is falling almost every time the exchange depreciates, the FX market is showing the resilience and behaviour it should with a flexible exchange rate. The J$:US$ rate touched 151 over a week ago and was trading at about 143 last Friday. Again, BOJ governer Byles: “It must also be noted that the newly reformed FX market continues to operate in the way that an FX market is supposed to work. The exchange rate is supposed to act like an elastic band that contracts and expands automatically, to transparently reflect the state of the market and the overall economy.”

There’s no shortage of FX: “An even clearer picture was painted on Tuesday, September 1, 2020, when the Bank of Jamaica intervened in the market, offering US$20 million via a B-FXITT (Foreign Exchange Intevention and Trading Tool) flash sale. For the first time since the start of 2020, the market did not ask for more than what was being offered. The market did not even ask for half of it. BOJ received bids for only US$7.8 million, or 39 per cent, of what was offered. This is an emphatic and unequivocal indication that the FX market is presently adequately funded and in no need of extra funds.”

However, the sharp contraction of the quarter reported ought to be much more than the next quarter, as the economy opened up again from mid-June, albeit with many operations and workers not at full tilt. The surge in positive cases that has led to the official change of status to ‘community transmission’ may bring with it greater irregularity of activities, as firms and organizations deal with identified cases and some shut down temporarily to clean and sanitize. Tougher enforcement of health protocols may also push some businesses past their tolerances and business will fall, eg for public transport due to enforced lower ridership.

So, we might have touched the bottom of the downturn, but that will not be clear till next quarter. Either way, the road to recovery will be long, whether it’s not until early 2021/22 or later.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #5: Back to Africa, again

Africa is a massive continent and its countries have incredible variations.

I’m really pleased that my first visit to Africa wasn’t as an IMF staff member; it pays to see things from a different perspective. Having said that, I’d gone to the continent first as a staff member of the Bank of England, as a footballer, mainly, during an international 40th anniversary celebration of Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) in the mid-1980s. Its highlight was playing the top two teams in the country, Silver Strikers (sponsored by the RBM, which had started as a social club for central bank staff) in the ‘Silver stadium‘ in Lilongwe, with a crowd of about 20,000 and live radio broadcast. Nothing like hearing your name over the loudspeaker: “Dennis Jones…on the ball…” 🙂 We also played the many-times national champions, Bata (now ‘Big’) Bullets in Blantyre, the other main city.

What was incredible about these matches was our opponents included several national team players, some of whom had trained in Brazil. They were shocked that our team had players in or over their late-20s; for them, retirement by 24 was normal. It was also an exhausting experience to play football at altitude, both dealing with a ball that flew so fast and far, and sucking on thin air. Lilongwe is on a plateau, 1,050 metres (3,440 ft) above sea level. Blantyre lies at an elevation 1,039 metres (3,409 feet).

Three things were extraordinary about Malawi, still under the iron-fist autocratic rule of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. First, was the conservative dress code, notably, the policy that women were expected to dress “modestly”, that is no bare shoulders, and legs covered to below the knee, Second, was the creation (in 1981) of Kamuzu Academy, a private boarding school that was founded by, and named after, Banda, and described by its proponents as “The Eton of Africa”. Third, was Chibuku shake-shake, a beer made from sorghum grain, about which I’ve written before.

But, Fund work sent me to the continent many times.

My first mission was to Kampala, Uganda, doing technical assistance on international reserves, for the Statistics Department, about which I’ve already shared some stories. But, it was where I discovered the ‘double’ massage: two masseuses working the body at once 😳I’d wanted an hour but only a 1/2 hour slot was available, so…Undoubtedly, the best massage ever 👍🏾🤔

I also played squash for the first time on a court with no roof, at the residence of the World Bank country manager. In those days, I travelled with my squash racket like people travel with a tennis racket.

Madagascar was my next place to visit for Fund work, negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program; my responsibilities were for the balance of payments and external debt (I was working in the Fund’s Policy Development and Review Department (PDR), which developed and oversaw the application of Fund policies, including reviewing mission briefings and staff documents at HQ, and on missions being a mix of ‘internal audit’, ‘policy integrity’, expertise on all things general policy, and working on the external accounts). It’s an odd situation to be part of mission teams, but not working to the dictates of the country department, but being ‘above’ them in many ways, representing the institution. My love (not) of doing debt sustainability analyses began there 😦

Madagascar is an island, to the east of the continental land mass and its population has ethnic traits from across the Indian Ocean. It’s the source of most of the world’s vanilla—originally from the Americas and now the 2nd most expensive spice in the world (after saffron). It’s losing its forests at an alarming rate—1-2% a year, and up to 90% of forests are burned each year. It has some of the world’s rarest and most-threatened species of animals and plant life. I was thrilled to see lemurs in the wild.

It’s where I had to work in French for the first time and in a country with long family names, the longest recorded being Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra, you can imagine note-taking wasn’t a breeze. Its capital, Antananarivo, is referred to as ‘Tana. My notes were filled with ‘FM A said’ etc, ie finance minister [name]. It’s another elevated capital, and sits at 1,280 menters (4,199 ft) above sea level in the centre of the island. When I worked there, Marc Ravalomanana, a Malagasy entrepreneur and politician was president of Madagascar, having won election in 2002.

Mauritania always sticks in my mind because of Saharan sand in Nouakchott and because desert life is so different from anything else. For example, at the weekend, residents of Nouakchott prefer to head into the desert instead of to the beach. Pitching a tent and cooking lamb (méchoui) under the open sky, and in relative solitude.

Its ethnic mix is mainly Moors, originating from the north, and black Africans. originating from the south.

It’s a country where slavery was only outlawed in 1981, but is practised nationwide.

My missions there were negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program, and I was again Mr. Balance of Payments and Debt. It’s where I was on 9/11/2001. I was recently kicking the French by now, and its use as one of my working languages was now well-established.

It was where I first saw a parallel exchange rate market working, live and large, in the streets and shops with rates calculated rapidly on calculators and money exchanged in huge volumes.

It’s where I experienced my first sandstorms and happened to be out running with my colleague to and from the airport one morning, and we had to navigate by sound and our voices. It‘s where I first saw women openly vilified for running and chastised for their wearing athletic gear, even long pants and long sleeves.

Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was president during my mission (having held office since 1984).

Guinea will feature more in its own right, because of my living there for nearly 4 years as the IMF’s resident representative. Sierra Leone will also feature apart as I had dual responsibilities as resident representative there, though non-resident. Travel between these neighbouring countries was not easy, and complicated because vehicles drive on the right in Guinea and on the left in Sierra Leone, and crossing the borders was always fun for the first 10 minutes.

Angola’s capital Luanda, has long had the reputation of being the most expensive city in the world. Coming out of the chaos of civil war in the mid-1970s and discovering oil, shortages and expatriates with high incomes made for a spiralling of costs, most notably for rental accommodation. Oil wealth does odd things to property values. I knew no Portuguese, and fortunately could work in English. I was on only one mission to Luanda (again, for PDR), not long after the end of my res rep assignment in late-2006. The odd thing about it was the authorities did not want a mission at that time and were not at all interested in borrowing from the Fund, but, we went through our hoops and loops. Though Fund thoughts were on a post-oil future, oil revenues were still gushing. So, it goes, sometimes, when economics and politics are at loggerheads.

South Africa was a transit point for the mission to Angola and also some regional meetings. I stayed in Johannesburg and had the chance to visit Cape Town, see Table Top Mountain and penguins at the Cape of Good Hope. I also got to see what a plane load of off-duty oil sector workers looks like on a long-distance flight from there to London. If you cannot take the liquor bought in duty-free onto the flight, what else to do but drink it before getting on the plane. To say the sight and sound of jolly, drunken British oil riggers for over 8 hours is not my idea of fun is an understatement!

Libya holds a special place as we visited soon after the embargo on US travel was lifted (February 2004). I met ‘Brother Leader’, Colonel Ghadaffi, who spoke to a conference of African central bank governors. Rhian was just 6 months old and she (one of the first Americans to visit) and Therese came along for the junket.

We had to fly from Conakry to London to Tripoli. On arrival, we were met at the plane door by Libyan officials and whisked through security to a VIP lounge. We waited there while other people arrived, some I recognized as governors. When the ‘group’ was complete, we were ushered out to a fleet of black Mercedes outside the airport arrivals. We got into the back of our car and greeted our driver. I don’t speak Arabic, so I used English and French. Then, off we sped, and I mean sped. Motorcycle outriders cleared our route as we hurtled along at 140 km an hour into Tripoli 😳‘This is new’ was the expression on our faces; Rhian was blissfully ignorant. We pulled up at a glitzy 5-star hotel that was the conference venue,checked in and went to our palatial room. Not bad!

Libya is strictly Muslim, and though Guinea is predominantly Muslim, Islam is practised there with a lighter touch, eg its main domestic business is beer making 🤔😳🍺 It took some getting used to having fake gin and tonic. More than any of the other Muslim countries, I’ve visited, with maybe the exception of Mauritania, Libya is incredibly chauvinistic, and my wife couldn’t stop marvelling at men alone sitting at tables of coffee shops, and women, alone, seen in markets and stores.

But, as trips went, the visit was on a different plane for splendor and history and political enigma. My baby daughter became a star and featured in lots of pictures being passed around by central bank governors 🙂 I suspect she recalls nothing about visiting the old Roman city of Leptis Magna.

Morocco was never a work location, but a favourite stopover en route to/from Mauritania, because a Tunisian colleague and I loved the food and feel of Casablanca. No Bogart-like experiences with Lauren Bacall. I discovered the literally moorish delights of pastillia. 

To offset that, I have fond memories of being steamed and massaged in a hammam.

Sénégal was also not a work location but Dakar was a transit point for Guinea and South Africa. We took a vacation there from Guinea, made better because the Fund rep there was a good friend and a Guinean, Ousmane Doré, who later was Guinea’s finance and planning minister (2007), and whose residence became our ‘hotel’.

In Sénégal, we visited Goree Island (Île de Gorée) the site from where slaves were shipped across the Atlantic during the 15th-19th centuries —a hard emotional visit as tourists. 😩

No two countries the same or remotely similar.