Caribbean Attitudes Toward Finance:  Part 1 – Remembering Our Roots.

A fundamental principle of investing is – ‘The Higher risk, the higher the return’.  In the Caribbean we have also added to it by saying – ‘If something sounds too good to be true it usually is.’  That being said, people from all over the world continue to take risk and to reap rewards without regret.  What makes the Caribbean people for the most part, risk averse?  Our culture of paradoxes.

In the past, loans were deemed as bad, very expensive and outside the reach of many.  As a result, our economies adopted a save to get what you needed culture.  Houses grew in stages.  First, the wooden section.  Then members of the family would save to buy cement, the children would “head” sand (make trips with a bucket to the river to get ghaut sand), and a skilled person would make concrete blocks using the cement and the sand.  These would be left in the sun to bake for a few days, prevented from getting wet initially until they were fully cured.   Over time the family members would head stones from the river and some adult or skilled child would spend his afternoons after school pounding stones into gravel.  With enough blocks, enough stones and enough money saved more cement would be purchased and bay sand would be headed from the nearest bay until there was enough.  Then the real action begins, one Saturday and or Sunday morning, the yard is suddenly filled with what seems like all the men in the village.  Trenches for the footings are dug, a set mixing concrete, someone bending steal and next thing you see the foundation for an addition to the house.  In tandem the ladies of the abode would cook and depending on the family and the big milestones this could include freshly produced meat cooked up either in souse, goat water or simply bull foot soup.  This process could take months but at the end of it with a window made now and a door later, an addition to the house would be completed.  Never mind no electricity is in it as yet, that too could come later.

This was the culture of community, of self-help, of today for you and tomorrow for me.  It is from this genesis that savings of any earned money included pooled savings with payouts rotated on a set frequency basis.  In the Eastern Caribbean this have been called Sous Sous (Sue Sue), partner hand, or Box.  The economy was agrarian and persons who had means held wealth in livestock and land in some countries.  For the few who had access, having a bank account was a prestigious thing.  For the rest money was shared, people knew each other, raised each other’s children and was ok working with each other.  Shop keepers would give you goods on trust and make their notes in their little book.  Debts were settled.

It was the produce from the fields and sale of livestock that has created many a lawyer, doctor or other professional today.  It is with this transition to a new professional class coupled with the prestige of having a bank account that saw the growth in the perception that the safest place for your money was in the bank.  As banks sought to market their services, persons were discouraged from the incremental approach for acquiring wealth, to the model of – leave your money in the bank and the bank will lend you to build or to buy and you will have immediate use of the funds.  This was also the birth of hire contractors and get it done now.  No more self-help.  In with work for hire and the death of community.  People not as close, knowing less of each other and less willing to help.  The prestigious bank book becomes a trophy.  The paradox of cultures emerges.

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