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Money Order Economy: Remittances in the Island of Utila

Re-published from the original David George Lord 1975 doctoral dissertation of the same title and with the permission of the Author
Adapted by AboutUtila.com WebMaster to facilitated on-line navigation and reading.

Copyright by David George Lord 1975

Table of Contents Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 References ●  Appendices


Economic Studies in the Caribbean

Remittances and Economic Studies in the Caribbean

Migration and Characteristics of a Remittance Economy

Specific Aims of the Study

▲Top of Page  Chapter 1 - Introduction

In the following pages a remittance economy--that of Utila--will be described in detail and hypotheses will be developed concerning the remittance economy as a type. Hypotheses will also be developed concerning the impact of Utila's remittance economy on the nature and structure of the local community.

Unlike many remittance economies, Utila's does not arise primarily from islander emigration to another geographical area, whether elsewhere in Honduras or to a foreign country. I am not, therefore, as one example, concerned with problems of assimilation or acculturation as are other students of remittance systems. Utilian males, upon whom the greatest burden of the remittance system falls, emigrate only in the sense of going away from the island. As merchant mariners, they are not subjected to a foreign culture (as urban migrants could be) that lures them permanently from their home. Their absence could be characterized as migratory labor--in the strictest sense--and yet Utila is much more than just a home base from which workers operate. Utila represents, in fact, an accommodation to limited local opportunities, and the forging of a viable economy and lifestyle from the merchants marine and remittances.

A primary focus of my investigation is, of course, the remittance aspect of Utila's economy, but this is not just an economic study per se. Rather, it is a close examination of the interface between economy, society, and polity in order to see how Utila continues to persist with such apparent facility. Just as importantly, that interface should have both predictive and postdictive value showing where similar systems might appear in the future and why they were likely to have developed in the first place.

In addition to investigating the phenomenon of remittance economics, and all that it entails, this study is also offered as a work that contributes insights into small community structure and functioning, island dwellers with their maritime background, and English-speaking peoples in a part of the Caribbean culture area that is politically attached to Central America.

I will let descriptive material in the succeeding pages carry the weight of how this study sheds light on small, island communities of English-speaking peoples in the Caribbean. The relevance to economic studies in general, and to remittance systems specifically, merits particular attention.

In the overview of economic studies in the Caribbean, immediately following, several general areas of investigation are enumerated which relate directly to findings in Utila but do not adequately explain systems such as Utila's. In the generalizations no reference is made to the actual mechanisms used by people like the Utilians to either develop or cope with their dependent economic status. The general areas are therefore refined in this study by emphasizing the importance of remittances and migration--dual aspects of a single phenomenon--to a dependent condition wherever it appears. Subsequently, the remittance economy is shown to be a strong, positive factor in the continuance not only of Utilian society but of other sociocultural systems in Asia, Africa, Europe and throughout the world.

▲Top of Page  Economic Studies in the Caribbean

Adlith Brown and Havelock Brewster have recently surveyed the study of economics in the English-speaking Caribbean (1974). The result of their investigation is the observation that economic discussion has generally revolved around considerations of size and dependency, with the result that a number of hypotheses deriving from these two factors--hypotheses remaining largely untested--stand out in economic investigations. According to them (1974:52-53), the hypotheses deriving from various studies are:

First, that the level of economic activity is externally determined, and is outside the control of national decision-centres, public or private.  Production, consumption and investment depend directly or indirectly on exogenous factors.

They then go on to say in the article

that consumption patterns, diverging widely and increasingly from production patterns as they do, provide the basis for continuing technological, and therefore economic dependency. Fifth, that the level of domestic saving is determined more by institutional characteristics, such as the value system, the distribution of income and the ownership pattern of the surplus than by the average size of disposable incomes.

In concluding their survey and inventory of the hypotheses coming from economic studies in the Caribbean, Brown and Brewster also observe (1974:53) that

the domestic price-level is determined from outside the system, principally by import prices and the effect of export propelled income generation on domestic supply. Eighth, that wage rates are, in effect, fixed throughout the economy above their equilibrium level by the export sector and as a result the path to full employment is obstructed. Ninth, that since industrial cohesiveness can be developed only to a limited extent on a national basis, the prospects for the creation of an internal economic and technological dynamic hinge on regional integration.

The analysis of Utila's economy is clearly relevant to the discussion of several of the preceding points (particularly the first, fourth, fifth, and seventh) and thus in some measure helps to test these hypotheses. For example, information in Chapter 4 indicates that Utila's contemporary economy functions, or does not function, as the result of external demand for its single marketable commodity: the labor power of trained merchant mariners who work world-wide shipping lines. Should this demand diminish or disappear, Utila's economy would be sorely affected. Consumption patterns in Utila, established with the first settlers of the island, have enmeshed the local economy in consumerism--i.e., the tendency to spend or invest income in non-capital goods so that wealth does not in turn produce more income.

Subsequently, consumerism has irrevocably bound islanders to a life style that undermines any local self-sufficiency. By the same token, saving of income has held a low priority in Utila due to the well-ingrained pattern of consumerism, a seeming unconcern for the future, and--at the same time--an assurance that there will always be income available to meet future needs. Finally, because it depends totally on outside sources for cash income as well as goods and many important services, Utila's domestic price-levels are determined from outside the system.

At first glance the data from Utila might seem limited in the degree to which they could test the foregoing hypotheses; Utila is, after all, merely one island in a small department (state) that constitutes a minute fraction of a national polity and economy. The smallness in size and the economic dependency, however, are the very things that create linkages to the larger economy of the United States and through these linkages confirm the applicability of these hypotheses to Utila. The specific factors--or factor--that might be involved in establishing dependency relationships are not, of course, dealt with by Brown and Brewster since these could, hypothetically, differ from one situation to another. In an earlier article, however, Robert Manners (1965) stresses the importance of the precise mechanism whereby Utila and many other Caribbean islands have developed dependent economic relationships; this mechanism is the remittance.

▲Top of Page  Remittances and Economic Studies in the Caribbean

Anticipating the total lack of reference to remittances in the Brown and Brewster survey, Manners says (1965:185) that

while several Caribbean researchers have remarked on the importance of remittances to some of the islands (e.g., Steward et al. 1956; Manners 1957; O'Laughlin 1959; Lowenthal and Comitas 1962; Frucht 1963) and have even suggested that conditions might be gravely altered by the cutting off of this source of cash, a great many more have failed even to mention this interdependency feature in their treatment of small group structure and function. Yet without the inflow of cash represented by remittances, the present condition of many families, and most of the islands in the Caribbean would be seriously altered. Some would move from a position of relative adequacy to marginality; others would plunge from marginality to inadequacy, extreme poverty and crisis [emphasis added].

The quotation was written almost ten years earlier than the survey; yet as of 1974, consideration of remittances had not obviously increased. A review of literature on Caribbean islands would--as just noted above--demonstrate the fact that it is money sent home by absentee personnel that keeps many a local system from total collapse, but at the same time ties those local systems ever closer to places like Great Britain and the United States.

The remittance is one of the prime factors, then, that creates and maintains a dependent relationship between Caribbean islands and more developed socioeconomic systems.

Two fundamental problems, however, attend any study of remittance economies, the first of which is the simple lack of a common definition for the term. Are funds sent home by absentee migratory workers "remittances," or does the term apply only to monies sent back to their natal home by people who have permanently emigrated? Or further, does "remittance" refer to money supplied by stay-at-home family members to support an overseas member? In fact, the term remittance has been applied to money allotments in all three--as well as other--examples. Lowenthal and Comitas (1962:200) use remittance to apply to all of the foregoing situations, while Manners (1965:185) considers the return flow of money from "migrants" to be remittances (which is the same usage as Philpott's [1973:140 et passim]); Watson (1974:217-218) talks about any money sent home by overseas community members (in this case from Hong Kong) as remittances. Before resolving this issue, however, I must bring in the second problem area referred to above, the inevitable concomitant of a remittance system: migration. "Migration" subsumes not just the fact of absenteeism for varying amounts of time, but also the adjustments made by those who migrate and those who send migrants, the results of remitting, and the like. Here it is useful to examine material that bears specifically on migration to the end that not only the term remittance may be defined, but also some of the characteristics of a remittance system may be isolated.

▲Top of Page  Migration and Characteristics of a Remittance Economy

Nancy Solien De Gonzalez argues (1961:1265) that there is a typology of migration categories that can be valuable to anthropologists for a variety of reasons, such as analysis of a system like Utila's. The categories in her scheme derive primarily from temporal considerations--literally, how absent are absentee individuals--so that five types can be distinguished: seasonal migration; temporary, non-seasonal migration; recurrent migration; continuous migration; permanent removal. From the standpoint of the individuals involved it is doubtless quite useful to distinguish between one kind of migration vis á vis another since various kinds of arrangements, in household functioning, for example, could be radically altered depending on the duration of the intended absence. From the standpoint of a community at large, however, especially in long-range terms, I think that the five categories could just as usefully be reduced to two: permanent migration (where people set out purposefully to remove to another area and demonstrate this intent by such things as taking out citizenship papers, etc.) and sojourning (where personnel expect to return to the community and both they and the community at large operate as if their return is imminent regardless of how long they are actually away).

As the overall discussion of migration types comes to focus on the term "remittance," nowhere is there any demonstration that the variations in the length of absence would have any effect on what researchers should call monies sent back nor, necessarily, on the uses to which such monies are put. In the interest of simplifying jargon, I will therefore use the term "remittance" to refer to any funds sent by migrant or sojourner alike to stay-at-home individuals, whether this be on a regular basis or not and whether or not a fixed sum is remitted

Other implications stem from the typology of migrants and I have already commented on the fact that to the specific people involved the nature of the migration--duration of absence--can have profound importance. Solien De Gonzalez, in fact, concludes her article with this acknowledgement and says (1961:1278)

. . . the main assumption of this paper has been that any society in which some members regularly leave home to obtain money or goods must have special institutions to handle the needs of daily life in the absence of these members. Many writers have been especially concerned with the effects of migration upon marriage and family life. However, from the extant descriptions of migrant wage labor it seems clear that there are several essentially different patterns of behavior which are usually lumped together. . . The main conclusion (in this analysis) is that migrancy will be reflected in the social organization in different ways depending upon the nature of the sociocultural system affected, as well as upon the type of migrancy itself. Some types of migrant labor appear to have little, if any, effect on the family, regardless of what the traditional family form may be. Other types of migrancy apparently are more compatible with some forms of family and household organization than with others [emphasis added].

Beyond sheer economic considerations, which can themselves be potentially very complex, are institutional responses that arise from migration and sojourning. Solien De Gonzalez does not go into any detailed discussion of what might be involved in such responses (i.e., characteristics of a remittance system) although she does give us some hint in this direction with the illustration of the matrilocally extended family household--the so-called matrifocal family--as one example of accommodation to absentee males.

In order to appreciate the scope of remittance systems (in terms of world distribution) and comprehend the dimensions involved in such systems, one must look further than Solien De Gonzalez. By far the most seminal work on such sociocultural systems, at least for the Caribbean, has been done by Philpott (1970, 1973). In both of the references cited, Philpott uses the example of Montserrat in the West Indies in order to illustrate his points. Primarily he wants to under-score the fact that there are some societies that are "migration oriented" (1973:2); i.e., that are institutionally adapted to the absenteeism of some of its members. This fact becomes important to analysis of Utila since the concept of preadaptation figures prominently in my discussion. In addition, he invokes a "migrant ideology" (1973:177-178) as the motivational force that takes Montserratians to Great Britain, causes them to remit monies home, and ultimately returns many of the migrants to their natal homes. Such an ideology must also be operative in Utila, a fact that I argue in connection with Utilian individualism, commercialism, and consumerism.

Insofar as remittances themselves are concerned, Philpott says that much of the remittance money sent home by overseas islanders has been used to pay passages for other Montserratians to migrate (1968:466). Migration does not constitute severing of one's ties to the people at home nor discontinuance of involvement in island society. Absentee islanders are expected to support their stay-at-home dependents, though many of the children involved are actually illegitimate (the products of extra-residential unions) (1968:467). Depopulation of the island has been induced by remittances, however, with the result that the cost of services has risen and the burden of maintaining roads, schools, etc., has fallen on outsiders (Lowenthal and Comitas 1962:206). Loss of expertise has required everyone to perform numerous different functions, and this has resulted in incompetents being kept on for the good of the community (Lowenthal and Comitas 1962:208).

Despite some of the negative results of the remittance-migration relationship, the overall impact on Montserratian society is a conserving one; i.e., there has been a tendency for the system to remain socially unchanged because, for one thing, ". . . migrants generally wish to maintain the status which accrues to them as a result of their migration . . ." (Philpott 1970:18).

As a more generalizing commentary on migration and remittances, the work of Lowenthal and Comitas (1962) is clearly one of the most important in this subject area. In the particular reference cited, the two authors discuss emigration and depopulation in several European countries. In the case of Ithaca, Greece, for example, a remittance economy developed that was characterized by cyclical migration of sailors who would sometimes be absent several years at a time. Return of absentee males to Ithaca was the cherished goal and long separations did not alienate seamen from their families (1962:203). Yet, despite the desire to return, many individuals permanently left the island, causing a depleted labor force at home, later and fewer marriages, a blurring of the patrifocal pattern, decline in agricultural production, a higher standard of living for those who remained (from remittances), and the exhibition ". . . for overseas consumption [of] an image of the past, a false sociocultural orthodoxy" (1962:204).

Although many of the specifics related to remittances and migration just outlined do not apply directly to Utila, they form part of a remittance economy profile that bears on the discussion of dependency and the larger problems of this study. The relevance of the profile becomes evident as analysis unfolds, but there is considerable additional information that needs to be introduced.

Watson, speaking of the remittance system in San Tin village, Hong Kong New Territories, says that many of the young men visiting home after working in Britain ". . . antagonize the village elders by wearing modish clothes and by listening to Western pop music. They also comment at length about London's amenities as opposed to what they now consider the physical hardships . . . of life in San Tin" (1974:219). Nevertheless, ". . . upon marriage, many of the emigrants became enthusiastic supporters of traditional values" (1974:202). Watson also notes that regularity in the flow of remittances sent by the men while overseas is crucial and that "even a brief disruption would cause immediate hardship to almost every household in the village" (1974:219).

Several other points made by Watson fill out--though by no means exhaust--profile material on remittance economies:

For most absentee workers the village continues to be a primary reference point regardless of how long they have lived abroad. The workers ordinarily return to San Tin once every three to five years for an extended holiday of up to six months. . . . The emigrants make up for the years of deferred gratification abroad by spending their hard-earned savings at a furious pace when they return to the village (1974:220).

Important family decisions are held until the heads of household are home on leave and further evidence of emigrant inclusion in the society is by his preparation for retirement with the building of a new house (1974:220). Finally, emigration has not brought cosmopolitan culture to San Tin although there have been material improvements as well as further knowledge of the outside world. The people remain insular (1974:221).

Plotnikov, discussing migration and remittances in Nigeria, echoes Watson's point about migrants supporting traditional values. The returning migrant, in order to avoid suspicion from being absent among strangers, is more or less forced to join the conservative elite himself and defend the old ways (1970:172).

Van Velsen writes about the Tonga of Nyasaland, who support their economy by remittances from the Rhodesias and Union of South Africa, and the fact that absentee males do not disrupt regular day-to-day activities. Rather, the migrant workers maintain an active stake in political and social structures of their native villages through remittances and in turn are sustained through communications with Tongaland and a continued flow of migrants from the rural countryside (1960:265-278). In the absence of many job opportunities in the towns to which they migrate, the natal areas attract migrants back home where they may in turn be supported by remittances.

Inishbofin, one of Ireland's west coast islands, has benefitted a great deal from migration and remittances, according to Freeman (1958:202-209). Remittance monies have made it possible to make farms ". . . which can give basic sustenance [and] as more and more farms are united, some men will prosper, especially those who fish as well as farm" (1958:209).

Gallin and Gallin (1974) report the maintenance of ties between rural migrants to Taipei (Taiwan) and their home villages by means of remittances and the importance of these monies to landholding in rural areas.

Remittances constitute an important--if not critical--input to the local economies of British Honduras (Jones 1952), Barbados (Ruck 1960), Puerto Rico (Lewis 1963), and even the Peoples' Republic of China (Wu 1967). Still other studies show the importance of migration (hence of remittances) to Nevis (Frucht 1967), pre-Revolutionary Russia (Dunn & Dunn 1963), and again, Nigeria (Adepoju 1974). In this last case several additional attributes of remittance economies are brought out. According to Adepoju (1974:388), a few high-income earners among Nigerian migrants to urban areas remit money home due to the fact that they usually support more dependents, and rising costs of living in the towns cut into the amount that could be remitted. He also notes that wage earners, unlike the self-employed migrants, can plan what proportion of their income can be remitted which makes them potentially more reliable as remitters (1974:388). The remittance funds themselves are utilized in building or repairing houses, starting small businesses, educating younger family members, and for general family support (1974:393-394). Adepoju claims (1974:394) that owning a house in one's natal village is evidence of continued connection with the home area and that visits intensify identification with home (1974:387). Overall, however, since visits are costly (one has to bring presents to show success) they become infrequent over time, and the more important link between migrant and stay-at-home family members is remittance money and the aid a migrant can provide for still others to migrate (1974:387).

A number of very specific studies, although not ostensibly concerning migration and remittance economics, are nevertheless relevant to this area of investigation. Wilson (1971), following from Solien De Gonzalez's comments on matrifocality (cited above), has investigated male status-role in Providencia Island. Based on his findings, he postulates a male social structure complementary to females (1971:18). Males and females live in a marked dualistic society where females tend to be heads of household, have major importance in economic matters, and so on. Rather than males being marginal figures, however, they simply have a different social structure which is characterized by the male peer group (that he terms a "crew") wherein male activities--especially recreation and drinking--and male status-role are reinforced (1971:18-20). The importance of this to analysis of Utila will become apparent when male behavior in general is discussed, but is more significant when the relative absence of matrifocality in Utila is analyzed.

In a similar vein to Wilson's study is the work of Rodgers and Long (1968) which deals with male sexual identification in the Out Island Bahamas. Among the Out Island Bahamas there is a prevalence of mother/child (matrifocal) households due to the absence of men on fishing boats (1968:326-327). Adult males, in order to impress maleness upon their adolescent sons--and dilute the influence females may have had on sons' sexual identification--take the boys at about age fourteen to work on the fishing boats. For more than a year the young males are put through a very rigorous apprenticeship kind of training that has the effect of stamping them with appropriate adult male characteristics (1968:327). Although matrifocality is rare in Utila, the absence of males is uncontestable, and the fact is that induction of eighteen-year-olds into the merchant marine may do for Utilians[1] what Rodgers and Long claim the fishing boat experience does for Bahamians.

[1]*Utilian is used by islanders both as an adjectival modifier and as a proper noun to refer to an island resident. This practice is in keeping with other English speaking populations of the Caribbean cf. Gussler 1973) who add "ian" to a place name to refer to its population

Finally, there are studies relating to social (community) atomism in Caribbean societies. Wagley (1957) observes that throughout Plantation-America (which includes the Caribbean islands and the Caribbean littoral of Central America) there is a weak sense of community cohesion and communities are only loosely organized (1957:8). This observation leads to a discussion in which the characteristics of atomistic societies are summarized and explanations for the phenomenon are offered (Honigmann 1968:220-226). Essentially, atomism derives either from psychological factors related to early life experiences or to situations to which adults must adapt. This material becomes important when considering Utilian individualism and atomism, both of which figure so prominently in explaining the continued functioning of the remittance system. Utilians, operating on self interest, do not enjoy a very cooperative society, but this lack of interdependence allows large numbers of people at a time to be absent from the island without hampering social and political activities. Likewise, self interest motivates people (through consumerism and pursuit of the good life) to continue going to sea.

▲Top of Page  Specific Aims of the Study

Having looked at some of the economically oriented study areas that need further investigation, at the concept of a remittance economy and some of the attendant features that go with migration, remitting, and so on, the purpose of this study can be outlined as follows:

First, I will be examining four of the hypotheses noted by Brown and Brewster above through a general application of data from Utila.

Second, I will be examining the interrelationship between economy, society, and polity in Utila by means of a model that emphasizes Utilian individualism, commercial and consumer orientations, and a "Limited Good" outlook deriving from limited economic opportunities in the island. The model will serve as a heuristic device to integrate succeeding chapters, leading to an analysis of remittance systems that will have predictive value beyond the limits of Utila.

Third, again via the model noted above, I will be looking for support of the contention that Utila was "preadapted" for ready involvement in a remittance economy and that alterations needed to accommodate a remittance economy were primarily amplifications of traditional sociocultural elements.

In this analysis the concept of preadaptation will be employed in the same sense as it is used in biological sciences. A concise statement of this usage is found in Brace and Montagu (1965:53) who say that

evolution, being opportunistic as well as cumulative, frequently takes advantage of structures developed under certain circumstances, and uses them as the base for adaptation to changed environmental circumstances. Such a condition is referred to as preadaptation. Preadaptation, the reapplication of structures originally developed for other purposes, has accounted for some of the otherwise remarkable developments in evolution, although this should not be taken to indicate that there was any such preordained plan.

The essential point, in sum, is that Utila has prospered in toto through its assumption of a remittance system.

Chapters 2 and 3 will give background material necessary to understand Utila's preadaptations that culminate in successful transition to a remittance economy and all that this entails. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 constitute the data to support the areas outlined just above. Each of these is a contribution to the ultimate summary and conclusion of this study that is brought out in Chapter 7.

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