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peggy antrobus
The Gift Economy in the Caribbean
The Gift and The Wind

In the search to redress the deepening of unequal access to economic resources there is a major call for a new politics and new ethics building on our collective responsibilities. Such new ethics would be founded on values that embrace di- versities yet reject the deepening fractures of racism, religious intolerance, ethnic violence, and unthinking individualism. Within this search there is a need to find innovative analysis and new methods that de-center neoliberal global capitalism as all encompassing and highlight the many ways we love, live and work together.
[An] important contributions to this search—the gift paradigm—aims to put in place a new theory, vision, and way of life founded on solidarity or convivencia (conviviality). This vision aims to transform the current rules of the game, going beyond market economics and rejecting a world where people’s time, energy, and hope, and Commons of all kinds, are turned into commodities and sucked into a hugely unfair market system. (Harcourt 2003)1
In this paper, I would like to put that experience of the gift economy in the Caribbean in the context of the natural disasters—the hurricanes—that each year stalk our islands, placing them in great jeopardy and reminding us of the fragility of material conditions (the market economy) and the importance of relationships (the basis of a gift economy) that endure and enable us to survive the worst of circumstances.
In September 2004, the island of my birth, Grenada, experienced one of the worst hurricanes in recent history. Hurricane Ivan, almost completely destroyed the country: the beautiful capital of St. Georges was devastated; 90 percent of the homes throughout the country lost their roofs; most of the schools and churches were destroyed; and the entire market economy shattered. The main elements of Grenada’s economy are tourism, bananas, and nutmeg—all resource-based and particularly susceptible to the destruction wreaked by hurricanes. And this setback was not just for the short run: a nutmeg tree takes thirteen years before it will bear fruit again.
The principles and the values that speak so powerfully to the concept of a gift economy come from our people, a very modern people who emerged after the Europeans had killed, decimated, and sent into exile the Indigenous people of the Caribbean—the Caribs and the Arawaks—who were inhabiting these islands of the West Indies when Christopher Columbus lost his way and happened upon them.
I’m speaking of the experience of a “creole” people. In the Caribbean we use the term “creole” to describe a people who are not Africans, Asians, or Europe- ans, but all of those combined, with a bit of mixture from the Middle East, the Lebanese and even from China. I am speaking of the experience of a people who have survived the extreme exploitation of market forces through enslavement, displacement, indenture, and colonialism to create and sustain new families and new communities.
And I am talking about a small island “developing” state where, in a sense, people really had to start all over again. But the only way to understand how we have survived in the Caribbean and how the people of Grenada have survived is to understand our history.
Hurricanes are destructive but they also help to strengthen our sense of solidarity with each other—including with our brothers and sisters in the wider Diaspora that stretches from North America and Europe, from Asia to Africa. For the Caribbean (and for other countries as well) the Diaspora is important because it allows us to reflect on the strength of the relationships of family and friendship that help sustain us in times of crisis.
For people in the Caribbean, part of the creation of new families and new com- munities after slavery and indenture was the creation of a family that is not just a family based on kinship. In the Caribbean, when we say “family” we go beyond kinship, to include deep and enduring friendships. Women are the center of that sense of family: women establish and maintain the ties that link us to the people of the Diaspora. The people of the Diaspora are extremely important, because although they have physically left the Caribbean to live in North America or Europe, in search of income and a better life, in another sense, emotionally, they never leave. And communications technology allows us to keep in very close contact with each other. There is, therefore, reciprocity between who live in the islands and those who live overseas.
I want to describe some of the ways in which the gift is manifested in the way that we survive. Imagine a young woman leaves the Caribbean in search of work. She goes to North America and maybe she leaves behind her children with her parents. She buys a barrel and she puts that barrel into the center of her room, in Brooklyn, or in Toronto, and every time she shops, or every time there’s a sale, she buys things and puts them into that barrel. And when the barrel is full, she sends it back to her home in the Caribbean. This is known as the “barrel trade.”
Imagine people who’ve gone from Jamaica, from Barbados, to Europe, to work in the transportation sector or in the hospitals in England. They send remittances, and these remittances amount to substantial sums of money. Figures really do not capture what those remittances mean to families, and to the economies of our countries, but in the 1950s, when Britain introduced its first Immigration Act, the remittances that were sent from Jamaicans working in Britain to their families in Jamaica in one year were more than the entire Colonial Development and Welfare grant2 to the entire region for four years. In short, remittances are not marginal to Caribbean economies; they make a very significant contribution to the economies, and not just to the families who receive them. At that time I was a student at a British university, reading for a degree in economics, and this information left an indelible mark on my thinking about economics.
But there’s another kind of gift inherent in the relationship between the Dias- pora and our home countries. Caribbean people who have migrated, who send remittances and barrels back to their family and friends in the islands, also go back to the islands, and they receive from the islands the gift of friendship, ap- preciation, and recognition, which allows them to live and work in what are often very hostile environments in the cities of North America and Europe. So there is that reciprocity: the material gift and the gift of friendship and appreciation that gives people a feeling of connection. And there is also the gift of acceptance and affirmation these Caribbean people receive when they return to their islands.
There are also associations of Caribbean people in the North that collect money within their community to support communities, schools, scholarships, hospitals and clinics, medical equipment, daycare centers, etc. in their home communities.
In the aftermath of hurricanes, the communities of the Diaspora are the first to come to the assistance of their countries. On receiving the news they immediately mobilize to send supplies and money to sustain families and communities, to rebuild homes and to enable children to continue their education.
And it is these gifts that make it possible for us, not just to survive, but to really thrive, and as people experience joy in our lives despite the hardships and the annual ravages of hurricanes and other natural disasters.
However, over the last few years, because of the relentless spread of neoliberal capitalism throughout the world, it has become increasingly difficult for people to survive. Increasingly people have fewer options for survival. There is a sense that as soon as you try to do something to earn a living, it’s destroyed. More and more people, especially young people, out of despair and a sense of hopelessness, are resorting to drugs, to money laundering, to all of these criminal activities.
In this context it is more important than ever to recognize and affirm the gift economy. As Wendy Harcourt (2003) puts it:
The insights of Gen Vaughn’s work on “the gift paradigm” allow us to move analytically and practically beyond the dominance of neoliberal global capitalism and the hegemony of patriarchal competition and hierarchy. It reverses the apparent given that the logic of the market and competition are the only way to live life “we have to be in it to win it.” Instead another paradigm is offered—that of gift giving. It is by freely fulfilling others needs that we sustain and nurture life, and it should be this logic—the logic of gift giving that so many women within capitalist economies and non capitalist economies practice—rather than the logic of the market and exchange of equivalents that guides our transformative vision for the future.
By making visible the gift paradigm, and valuing it for itself, we can foster economic and social relations based on an other-orientation that aims to sat- isfy needs, creates bonding and cooperation rather than egoism, isolation, and competition. By recognizing and restoring the gift paradigm in the innumerable places where it has been taken away, we can build on new/old values to bring about the transformations that our world so desperately needs in these days of fracture, fear, and insecurity.
If we do not recognize and affirm the gift economy, it will die. It will get ne- gated, as we are drawn increasingly into the notion that the market is the only thing that contributes to livelihoods and the economy. Indeed, we are drawn increasingly to the idea that we must commodify everything; that everything must have a price.
The gift economy is to be found everywhere. We need to document it in different cultural settings, and to politicize it, to use it as way of understanding what we have and what we must defend against: the spread of the ideology of the market. Ultimately, the gift economy could become a way of countering the spread of globalization, the spread of the idea that only the market is important in people’s lives and livelihoods.
The gift economy reminds us of the existence, and the power, of another kind of economy. We need this as we try to imagine a different world. We need this more than ever today because we can easily feel defeated and helpless in the context of neoliberal, capitalist globalization. I am amazed that working-class people, black people, and women in the United States can vote against their interests. The implication is that people lack the analysis to show them the links between all of those forms of oppression and exploitation, indeed, the links between patriarchy and capitalism.
More than ever we need to strengthen that kind of work, not just the docu- mentation, the politicizing, but the analysis that will allow people to see the links between U.S. policy and what happens to people in the rest of the world.
To return to the question of the disaster: Sometimes a crisis can provide a par- ticular kind of opportunity for innovation, creativity, and resilience. We have to see disasters as opportunities to really intensify our efforts at documenting and affirming the gift economy. I have no doubt that in the case of Grenada, Hurricane Ivan was an opportunity to start all over again, to do something differently.
I had already decided that Grenada would be one of the countries where I would do some of that documentation of the gift. The hurricane gives me an op- portunity to put that into a completely different context. We are very fortunate, I think, that we actually have the networks, we have the analyses, and we have the technology that makes it possible to link the efforts that are going on in our own country to the efforts that are also going on at the global level. And it is in that sense that I find the optimism to continue.
Born in the Caribbean, Peggy Antrobus has worked for the advancement of women’s rights and development, starting with her post as Advisor on Women’s Affairs to the government of Jamaica on the eve of the UN Decade for Women (1974). She is a founding member of many feminist organizations including the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA), DAWN, and the International Gender and Trade Network. She was General Coordinator of DAWN from 1991-1996, and currently serves on the Steering Committee of DAWN Caribbean. Her book, The Global Women’s Movement: Issues, Strategies and Challenges, was published by Zed Books in 2004.

Personal communication with Wendy Harcourt, editor of Development, the journal of the Society for International Development (SID) following the meeting on the gift economy held at Stone Haven in 2003.
Colonial Development and Welfare grants were the equivalent of foreign assistance or foreign aid today. They were the sums of money given by the British government to the British colonies in recognition of Britain’s responsibility toward its overseas territories.
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