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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

Summary and Conclusions

Economic Studies in the Caribbean

The Interface between Economy, Society, and Polity

Contributions of the Study

▲Top of Page  Chapter 7 - Summary & Conclusions

Having touched now on the various aspects of Utila society and culture, providing both descriptive material and analysis, it is necessary to interpret the findings of this study in terms of the aims set forth in Chapter 1.

One goal of this study was to provide ethnographic material on small island communities of English-speaking peoples in the Caribbean. Chapters 2 through 6 accomplish this end as they stand.

More specific goals were to look at Utilian materials for illumination of several areas in Caribbean economic studies that Brown and Brewster (1974) consider to have been neglected. Secondly, following Manners (1965:185), it was my intent to demonstrate that the dependency relationship between Utila and the United States is a function of Utila's remittance economy. Thirdly, in connection with remittances and necessary male absenteeism, I wished to examine Utilian institutions in order to identify any preadaptive characteristics in the system, as well as to discover the dynamics of continuing accommodation to this type of economy. Finally, as an outgrowth of point three, I was particularly concerned with understanding the "rest and recreation mentality" in Utila vis à vis Utilian desires for progress and the "good life."

Each of the specific goals will be treated in turn throughout the following pages, but the emphasis is on the integrated nature of the findings given the integrated sociocultural system upon which they are based.

▲Top of Page  Economic Studies in the Caribbean

Initially, I noted the general importance to this study of four hypothesis-generating areas discussed by Brown and Brewster (1974:52-53) in their review of economic studies that have been done in the Caribbean. Paraphrasing the original quotations, these hypotheses are that external factors control the local level of economic activity; diverging production-consumption patterns provide a continuing basis for economic dependency, especially through technological factors; the level of saving is determined by things other than the size of disposable incomes; domestic prices are determined from outside the system, primarily due to import prices and the income-domestic supply relationship.

Clearly, the least controversial finding of this study is that Utila's economy is an external one. There is virtually no economic activity in Utila that does not derive ultimately from the merchant marines and remittances sent home by those in its service. To say that Utila is an economic dependent of the United States, even more than Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, is entirely appropriate. United States (and to a lesser extent Scandinavian) shipping provides the billets, payroll deductions, pensions, insurances, and all other things needed to give a continual flow of income, hence economic security, to Utilians. As long as there are Utilian males to sell their labor power (and as long as they continue to qualify to sell that labor power in terms of literacy and other school-related skills), or individuals willing to violate the terms of visitors' visas, the remittance system should be able to continue indefinitely. That continuance, however, would still leave Utila in a dependent position. On one hand there is the obvious dependency created through job availability itself (and being able to obtain visas to pursue those jobs), but there is another dimension to dependency in Utila which speaks to the second hypothesis.

Utilians are so firmly committed to consumer buying that they are captivated in a never ending cycle of working away from the island, then returning to consume their income, then returning again to work. Utilians, for more than a generation, have made little capital investment in their island, and even the propensity to buy land is a consumer practice since land is a commodity, not a mechanism for generating more (and regular) income. Thus, there is little or no alternative to working in the merchant marine if the standard of living is to be maintained. Consumerism among islanders is an expanding phenomenon; i.e. islander wants and needs continually grow, and the potential of consumerism is infinite. In contrast, individual or household income is finite, depending altogether on the number of people who are available to go off and work, how much they can earn (and how much they can therefore remit) and their regularity of employment. In balance, infinite wants but finite resources, given the method of income production, keeps Utilians in a dependent position.

Robert Manners' point about dependency in the Caribbean being tied, in many cases, to remittances (1965:185) is appropriate here. Manners says that if the flow of remittance income were to be cut off "some [islanders] would move from a position of relative adequacy to marginality; others would plunge from marginality to inadequacy, extreme poverty and crisis." What would be Utila's situation if the island were suddenly forced to be economically independent? What could be expected if islanders were to voluntarily seek economic independence? Whether forced or not, island economic independence would require one of two logical alterations in the present system.

One alteration would be to develop an alternate source of income for the island by some kind of internal development. Without getting into economic development theory, such as the role that capital investment might play, and so on, it is necessary to look at empirical data and conclude simply: Utila cannot internally develop. Neither industry, agriculture, nor tourism are viable in Utila. True though it is that islanders currently garner a considerable amount of wealth through their wage labor, the island itself is circumscribed from every dimension conceivable. Logistically, it is difficult of access by would-be tourists, and poses a problem to islanders themselves in making physical connection with the outside world. Its territory is small and the land a coral-volcanic jumble. Waters surrounding the island would not support commercial fishing ventures. No other brighter possibilities appear to exist.

The other alternative would be for islanders to break their consumer addiction, settling for a life style that is considerably more modest than at present and return to subsistence agriculture and limited fishing. Two closely related realities preclude this, however, the first of which is the experience--still vivid in most adult islander memories--of the years of economic depression and want. Poverty is too real to the majority of Utilians for them to tolerate very much scaling down of the good life that they have now been able to reach: an image of limited good still prevails. Secondly, islanders have had sufficient exposure to the United States model of life than any gross perversion of that model--such as would be necessary by a return to agriculture--would be likely to cause a terminal migration. In other words, Utilian perception added to the realities of island existence spell continued dependence or no island population at all. From the standpoint of islander goals in life, remittance economics make sense, and the question of economic development in the island is only academic. In any case it seems dubious at best that the island could support its present population by such means.

The third hypothesis referred to above, that continued economic dependency is fostered by technological factors, is true in Utila by way of technology's inclusion in consumerism. The good life is a "progressive" one; that is, it includes the various amenities that grace middle class homes in the United States. Many of the things that demonstrate the good life are mechanical appliances, and an obvious point here is that electrification is crucial to their operation, hence to the good life.

The utilities plant in Utila is an excellent example of how islanders are tied to a larger system in a dependent relationship. Although they may have had the option to open a municipal utilities plant themselves (discussed in Chapter 6) it was ultimately outsiders who did so. And by and large it continues to be outsiders who service the machinery to keep the plant going. Petroleum to fuel the generators also has to come from outside. As Utilians have purchased more and more things dependent upon electricity (noted in Chapter 4), the population itself has become more and more dependent. Most island homes still keep kerosene lamps on hand for when there is a power failure, but when an island household decides to buy a refrigerator it is usually an electric one; the same for a clothes washer, and so on. In other words, with greater commitment to the gadgets and appliances islanders lose the capacity to go backward and use items employed in the past, and if the power plant should fail they would suffer great inconvenience if not outright hardship.

Faster, bigger, more sophisticated air and watercraft also constitute dependency-generating technology in Utila's economy. The air and water links to the mainland, which are never sufficiently strong for islanders needs and wants, provide the means for men to get to the outside world and take ship. These aforementioned links are what keep Utilian households supplied with staple and luxury items alike, and provide the means for obtaining medical services and whatever ancillary recreation the necessary trip to the mainland might afford. If these technological items were to disappear, islanders would be faced with a crisis situation. Finally, it is the contact with the United States by air that allows remitting to take place at all. Were it not for the international airmail service the planning that surrounds a man's shipping out would have to be altered radically; rather than monthly allotments, people would have to depend on lump-sum savings entirely, interim credit buying, and so on. It was noted above that even an overdue money order was enough to throw a household into frenzy as it attempted to readjust its budget.

The ultimate dependency-rendering technology in Utila is, of course, the merchant marine itself. The merchant marine, that allows the comforts of the good life, demands that men ship out regularly and sell their labor for wages. Previously, the means of production centered on land and plantation agriculture. Subsequently, going into the merchant marine and selling one's labor has become the technique for obtaining a living, and the tie that this represents for Utilians has already been underscored.

The hypothesis dealing with savings as a function of things other than size of disposable income is certainly borne out in Utila. A comparison of various figures in Chapter 4 shows that an inconsequential amount of the total earnings per year (let alone since remitting was started) is put into savings. One must conclude that past experience (e.g., during the Coconut Oil Years) has not resulted in saving (or hoarding) in order to protect oneself against chance economic crisis in the future. Apparently Utilians are primarily present-oriented, except for concern with leaves and retirement, and rarely worry about future financial security. Likewise, they place a great deal of faith in future generations of friends and family to keep remittances coming in for their support and in the future of maritime shipping.

The fourth hypothesis, that domestic prices are determined from outside the system, is also supported by Utilian evidence. Virtually everything necessary to life--and the good life as well--must come from some other locales since the island no longer even produces its own agricultural staples. The taste cultivated by Utilians in U.S. and other imported products (which has always been the case as attested in Chapter 4) means that islanders experience a double control on their prices; first is the control exercised by mainland suppliers, who can set import duties and retail costs, and second is the price setting that takes place in the United States itself.

Utilians have little or no capacity to affect price levels either by boycott, seeking better prices in a competitive market place, or other means. The only way that Utilians have any control on prices is by opting not to buy certain things. As is evident throughout this study, many of the strictures of Utilian society are genuinely self-imposed through their conception of the good life. The trade-off is, however, that wanting to afford the prices of things, as a goal in itself aside from ownership of things, is a motivation for participating in the remittance economy. If prices were not imposed from the outside and as high as they are perhaps the remittance system would not work as well; lessened goals might be set since the symbols of the good life could be readily obtained (perhaps too involving less frequent shipping out by the men).

▲Top of Page  The Interface Between Economy, Society, and Polity

In the closing section of Chapter 6 a form of "image of limited good" was postulated as one of the single most significant features in Utilian culture. This modification of Foster's model, the Image of Limited Good, was deemed significant because through its use one can trace preadaptations in Utila that facilitated both the inception of the remittance economy circa World War II, and its perpetuation since that time.

An integral part of the postulated image is individualism within the Utilian population, which is both cause and effect of the way in which islanders behave by means of a commercial orientation. A bridge between generalized individualism and its more specific expressions in consumerism and atomism is that commercial orientation apparently brought by island settlers when they first arrived. Munch (1975), writing about the population of Tristan de Cunha, also emphasizes the importance of commercialism to social atomism. For historical reasons unimportant to analysis of Utila, Tristans developed a sociocultural system characterized by selective reciprocal relationships in joint ownerships (e.g., of boats) and cooperative or mutual aid ventures. Overall, however, the island manifests what Munch calls "atomistic integrity" (1975:5), i.e., a lack of society-wide cooperation. Selective reciprocity in Utila is difficult to discover, but commercialism has definitely been evident throughout island history. This orientation (i.e., commercialism) most certainly expresses the Utilian practices of individual economic effort (even in depression times) and sociopolitical non-cooperation.

Thus, individualism as a cause results in Utilians assessing economic, social, and political phenomena in terms of personal or familial advancement, i.e., how it might help or hinder attainment of the good life. As effect, individualism results in little or no community-mindedness, lack of cooperation among themselves, and political organization that is virtually atomistic.

Applying the model and its central feature of individualism to various components of Utila's past and present, it can be seen that land, originally a factor of production but more recently another consumer commodity, has been viewed as a limited and limiting phenomenon in Utila. As a factor of production, choice properties were finite in number, and this had direct bearing on how well or ill one fared in agriculture and shipping. As a commodity closely tied to the stratification system, it is a symbol demonstrating the degree to which one has attained the good life in Utila. The remittance system, which is a mere variant of individual agricultural production (since it is individual labor that is sold in the merchant marine) is basic to this new value in land.

Individually earned money can be turned into individually owned land in a present-day attempt to buy prestige and security with this commodity. Since money earned in the merchant marine enables anyone with sufficient funds to buy a prime parcel of land, this is tantamount to saying that anyone can buy his or her way into the controlling sector of Utilian society, i.e., the old heads. In fact, however, this is not possible; the system of strata, once partially open, has been strictly closed since the depression years. The stratification system has been open for the bulk of Utila's history, a fact that most adult Utilians can recall; this encourages disadvantaged individuals to strive--via remittances, land purchases, and the like--to be mobile within the system. For those advantaged Utilians, who effectively control the island system, stratification is an inducement--also via remittances and the position they or their families previously purchased--to maintain their place as decision-makers. In either case, the remittance economy that Utila now has is an intimate part of individual attempts to maneuver politically and socially.

Emphasizing individualism in the image of limited good, at the level of family/household and status-roles still further important conclusions emerge from this study. The "normal" type of household structure in Utila (unlike that which might have been anticipated from Solien De Gonzalez [1961:1278]) is the nuclear family household. This is both the usual ideal and the most common numerically. Other household configurations also exist in Utila as the result of or in response to special situations that must be met, but the household as such is not economically an important unit: it is not a unit of production nor, necessarily, consumption, but tends to have more social and psychological significance in providing companionship and amicable surroundings.

The functioning of the nuclear family household is individualistic, rather than collectivist, with each unit striving to attain the good life symbolized by ownership of land, other consumer goods, and activities that demonstrate one's wealth and social position. Nuclear family striving dates to the founding of the island settlement--when individual farming was initiated--and helps to inhibit effectively the growth of corporate kin groups, such as an extended family household, and--as already noted--intracommunity cooperation. Limited good operates at this level through the land-individual cultivation relationship already discussed in connection with stratification: good plantations are the result of individual effort certainly (which is limited by the size of the family work force) and the quality of the land being worked (prime pieces being limited).

In the absence of a tradition of collective work effort, or any rationale on the contemporary scene for generating corporate groups, the nuclear family household persists to reinforce individualism reflected at the level of the solitary person. Each nuclear family household has the potential, and the array of complementary status-roles, to be a self-sustained--and self-serving--unit. Thus, there is no impetus to move from well established social and economic structure and function to some new configuration, such as the matrifocal family. Even in a community characterized by a great deal of intermarriage, as Utila demonstrably is, there is little sense of solidarity beyond the nuclear family household--no lineages, no clans. Each unit is essentially responsible to itself, and either rises, falls, or remains at the same level relative to all others (in social, economic or political position) on the basis of its own achievements. There is no record in my field data of one branch of a family (e.g., the Coopers) helping another because of kin relationship; financial aid, or other kinds of assistance, would be extended--or withheld--equally to any Utilian.

Status-roles in Utila reflect individualism and a limited good image in several ways. Males, following from their farming and fishing activities in earlier years, continue to work independently of one another in the sale of their individual labor and subsequent individual expenditure of earnings. Allocation of merchant marine derived earnings is the prerogative of a man--who is ultimately responsible for his family's welfare--and this allocation is typically divided (though not in even shares) between consumer goods that will benefit himself and family, and recreation.

A source of pride is the single individual's hard work that demonstrates one's ability to endure the regimen of sea duty, willingness to assume familial responsibility and success in achieving the good life while thwarting poverty and want. The tendency to consume entirely one's income, neglecting savings or capital investment, is evidence of an image of limited good: islanders, in order to get as much as possible of the good life denied to them for several generations, channel their physical energies and monetary resources solely toward consumerism. Unlike Foster's peasants, Utilians desire an audience to witness their success in achieving the good life at both the individual person level and at the level of the family household.

Envy and jealousy of others success in peasant societies may lead, for example, to accusations of witchcraft or to enforced participation in ritual activities of the community, which would siphon off one's excess wealth. Consequently, peasants are secretive about their wealth and attempt to present a facade, of sameness with other members of the community; to be outstanding is dangerous.

The reverse situation obtains in Utila, where affirmation of one's achievements requires an audience of friends and non-family members of the community. The fulfillment of hard work lies, in large part, in being able to show it off and receive recognition. Recognition itself is not necessarily verbal, and in many cases probably derives from being copied--the island version of "keeping up with the Joneses." Sprees also provide a place to, again, demonstrate one's individual ability to endure, and to work hard (in this case to work hard at having a good time).

Drinking activity is a way of asserting the fiction of male independence of females: a man will come and go at drinking sessions ostensibly as he pleases, and this is done in front of the other men of the island. The drinking session provides an opportunity to trade banter between males, and provides the ultimate forum for proving individual capacities since it is here that fights are most likely to occur--fights from which one should not back down.

Female Utilians demonstrate their individualism primarily through successful operation of their households, especially in the absence of men. Running their respective households, women fulfill the traditional role of domestic managers, but reap the rewards of greater freedom from male interference (since men are gone most of the year) and additional conveniences (a part of the good life) that make domestic work less onerous.

Women are well served by the remittance system since they can secure greater amounts of leisure and less burdensome tasks by appealing to male self-image as good providers; a sign of being self-sufficient--a good provider--is in the comforts a man can supply his family. The trade-off for greater freedom from male interference and added amenities is the increased share of immediate responsibility for family welfare that must be assumed by the woman. Here again, however, is opportunity for the woman to show her capabilities, her own hardness, by handling affairs on the home front until the return of her husband.

Rewards provided to males and females by the remittance system reinforce their commitment to that system. Self esteem, peer group approval, and social position all work to the end that individual striving for the good life can be satisfied by the remittance system. Material rewards for females tend to be more immediate, i.e., received soon after there is means to afford them; likewise, they are incremental since they are periodically augmented as time goes along. Male rewards, because of the absenteeism factor, are set in the future to be received and enjoyed after serving one's term in the merchant marine.

Both men and women have a deeply vested interest in continuing the remittance economy; with it they can aspire to a life style far beyond subsistence level, and markedly superior to the poverty and economic crisis of a generation ago. Yet, while they seem to voluntarily involve themselves in the remittance economy, the reality is that islanders have made themselves dependents of that system. Once they committed themselves to the merchant marine, etc., there was no turning back from it; and now they are captivated by the United States and the larger powers that operate merchant shipping. This dependence is largely self-imposed by the islander conception of the good life, but an alternate to that image is both inconceivable and--supposing that it centers on an in-island economy--unrealizable.

The "rest and recreation mentality" that was one of the special features of Utilian culture to be examined, fits in with discussion of rewards accruing to those active in the remittance economy. As noted, males tend to be future-oriented in terms of rewards for their shipping out, remitting, and so on. The "rest and recreation mentality" represents a kind of intermittent reward (variable reward schedule in psychological parlance) to keep them active in the system until they can truly enjoy the fruits of their labors at retirement. Each return to Utila on leave, with the accompanying drinking sprees, raucous behavior, pampering by females, and so on is a positive occasion, one that inclines a male not only to continue going on the ships, but also to continue sending money home and later to return himself.

Anthropologically speaking, the "rest and recreation mentality" reflects a rite of intensification attendant upon each return of a sailor: good feelings toward family, friends, the community in general, are regularly rekindled by the reception afforded a sailor. The full significance of sailors leave periods and the rest and recreation mentality can only be appreciated however when the other end of the remittance economy is considered, namely, the shipboard context where men work. Quoting Aubert, Gaffney (1975:7) says that roles on shipboard are highly formalized, as is the assignment of duties. Likewise,

the formalization makes it possible for a new man to come on board a ship and find his cabin and his place at the dining table practically without guidance. The structure probably has developed as an answer to the demand that a ship must be able to emerge as a cooperative unit in an instant and without precious preparation.

Life on shipboard for a Utilian male would appear to be the exact opposite of life in the island where individualism and non-cooperation prevail. The very work experience for men in the remittance system serves to reinforce island values: while on shipboard they must operate according to an alien set of rules that can only be (totally) refuted once they return to Utila. The intensity of drinking and partying during leave periods is therefore a direct confirmation, and a direct measure, of traditional island values that actually account, in large part, for continued return of men to the island.

Another important aspect of the structured shipboard life is that entrance into it constitutes an unqualified rite of passage for Utilian young men. Similar to the Out Island Bahamas situation studied by Rodgers and Long (1968), cited in Chapter 1, going to sea for the first time represents a sharp break from the kind and amount of influence that a young man has previously enjoyed. In other words, novice sailors are subjected to a concentrated dosage of male contact and tutoring that makes up for any lack of male images a young boy may have had due to an absentee father. The rigors of life at sea, the alien structure and cooperation, all work to impress young men with their maleness, and--as with their elders--reinforces the fact that it is a Utilian maleness.

The trade-off between life on shipboard and the rest and recreation atmosphere in Utila is more than it at first seems. Men are not simply "blowing off steam" (my phrase), nor are they just giving themselves intermittent rewards, nor are they just engaging in conspicuous consumption when they go on leave. By their actions they are genuinely underwriting and rejuvenating the remittance system.

From the standpoint of the community and the individuals left behind, the rest and recreation mentality also serves a positive function since through it the remittance economy is ensured. Problems that arise between men on leave, or friction between a man and his family, can be ignored because men will soon be off again, taking the problems along with them. The political atomism of Utila is particularly adaptive in this regard too since the community is regularly geared to acting without a full complement of personnel and can therefore carry on day-to-day activities with or without the merchant mariner population.

In sum, the people of Utila were preadapted to engage in a remittance economy; the decision to move to this type of economy was the most reasonable choice of alternatives available to islanders, and the remittance economy continues to this day as a viable support of Utilians and their sociocultural system. Preadaptation lay in individualism and the realization of the limits to opportunity on the island, the nuclear family household suited to independent action, political atomism that allowed community functioning without cooperation on the part of men who would, in fact, be absent most of the time, the local history of shipping and fishing, and a social organization that reinforced individual striving in order to achieve merit and position as part of the good life.

The decision to move to the remittance economy was, based on the traditional life style of Utilians and the natural limitation of the island (in size, accessibility, and so on), the logical and reasonable decision that islanders could have made; its reasonability is partly demonstrated simply by the fact that the remittance economy is still strong after a generation.

The viability of the remittance economy in Utila is reflected in numerous ways, one of the most important being commitment to that system by youngsters who have yet to enter it. Socialization of boys and girls has effectively recruited the next generation of merchant mariners and their wives. Another evidence lies in the continued pattern of consumer consumption, lack of savings, little or no investment of earnings and other traditional patterns of income expenditure: Utilians have not altered the habits of thinking and behaving that preadapted them to the remittance economy--the good life today is the same as 140 years ago, and this binds Utilians to the remittance economy. Finally, social and political organization are well suited to the needs of a population such as Utila's; there is motivation on one hand to participate in the remittance system due to the challenge of the stratification system. On the other hand, the flexibility of island governance, based in traditional lack of cooperative activity, allows men to come and go without causing trauma to the community, and regularly exports any troubles it may have with the departure of the merchant mariners.

In the best of all possible worlds, the remittance economy in Utila would appear to have evolved purposefully to satisfy today the needs and wants that first brought settlers to the island. Utilians could fare much worse.

▲Top of Page Contributions of the Study

The results of research in Utila tend to confirm many of the observations about remittance societies that were outlined in Chapter 1. Utila would for example support the contention that the dependency--engendering remittances are capable of becoming the major source of income in a system (cf. Frucht 1967, Philpott 1973, Van Velsen 1960, Watson 1974) or at least a very important source of income (cf. Freeman 1958, Lopreato 1962, Palmer 1974) for prolonged periods of time; i.e., a remittance economy is a viable alternative for many people vis à vis some form of internal economic development.

Utilian data do not, however, show dire results to social and political systems that are suggested in writings by Lowenthal and Comitas (1962), Arensberg and Kimball (1940:106-107 and 1968:144-145), or Freeman (1958); i.e., there is no massive change in family or community relations, no marked alteration in the system of social prestige and political power, and--most especially--no tendency for the sojourning part of the population to permanently emigrate.

What the model of Utila shows us, which has predictive value in analysis of other sociocultural systems, can be summarized in three points:

(1) A system that emphasizes individualism--in economic production, social striving, political organization--is preadapted for remittance economics.

(2) Successful accommodation to a remittance economy constitutes amplification of traditional patterns of thinking and acting. Particularly important are tendencies toward consumer spending, and male occupations that may take them away periodically.

(3) The singular attribute that is of most immediate importance to maintaining a remittance economy is the rest and recreation mentality.

Preadaptation, and amplification of traditional patterns, are factors clearly crucial in Utila for its particular success. When coupled with a mechanism for attracting sojourners back to their home community, there is a powerful combination of elements to perpetuate the remittance economy. As the gap between under-developed and over-developed countries widens, the remittance economy, reflected in the model of Utila, may be the best solution to local needs and to maintenance of world economic order.

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