The equivalent of $1 US:
- 2 medium plantains
- 1 head of cabbage
- 1 pound of tomatoes
- Bulk baking flour (1 pound?)
- 1 hour of internet time at the community center
- 8 mile ride from home to town in a route taxi
- about 2 rolls of toilet paper
- postage for a letter to the US
If I had to make up a rule to explain what things cost in Jamaica, it would be that locally produced things are more affordable (mango, papaya, avocado) and imported things (bug spray, Frosted Flakes, scissors) are more expensive than we pay in the States. There are, of course, numerous exceptions. Some basic food imports are cheaper than local products because the countries they come from have certain advantages, like subsidies or more favorable trade policies. For example, Jamaica has a wealth of coconuts and yet the powdered coconut milk packets at our supermarket come from out of country.
Trade is not the only thing affecting Jamaican consumers. So is inflation. Since we arrived about 17 months ago, the Jamaican dollar has slid from 86J to 1 US dollar, to about 101:1 currently. This is supposed to be due, in part, to deals made with the International Monetary Fund, which is known to place various economic stipulations (such as devaluing currency) on countries that receive their loans. The wisdom in this is arguable.
By the way, because of loans from agencies like the IMF, Jamaica has been operating at half capacity for some time now; about 50% of their annual budget goes to pay off debt. Unfortunately, most of this money is only paying off interest, so the problem is not going away any time soon. (There’s a great documentary about all this called “Life + Debt” if you want to learn more.) It’s no wonder the educational system, social services, and infrastructure are low on resources and struggling to function.
Peace Corps is a people-to-people organization; getting into the big political and structural problems is not really part of our job. All the same, I think it’s important for Volunteers, visitors, and especially Jamaicans to learn more about these root causes of the issues we’re facing. While trying to make an impact on the ground, I hope we don’t lose sight of the big picture and do our best to make impacts there as well.