Critical Issues in Caribbean Development, Number 3 :Institutional Aspects of West Indian Development (Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, 1997)

Jones, Edwin et al.

                           'Backra gi yuh load fi carry, yuh mus mek cotta' Old Guyanese Proverb

This study looks at work ethic, work attitude, and entrepreneurship among persons of African descent in the English-speaking Caribbean. The current levels of understanding of the extent and precise nature of these phenomena within the region are inadequate and ambiguous. Views on the attitudes of Caribbean people to work range from the notion of them being lazy, crafty, and dishonest to the belief that they are hard-working and industrious.


The historical accounts of the region's early history abound with stories of the crafty Quashi who outwits the taskmaster with a feigned stupidity (for example, see Patterson 1973). The region's folklore champions the exploits of the lazy, crafty Anansi, who invariably ends up with the most through stealth, trickery, and dishonesty. At the same time there are well-researched accounts of the contributions that the region's people have made to world economic development through discipline and hard work (Williams 1945; James 1996). Questions of importance to be answered, therefore, include what is the real nature of the Caribbean work ethic? What are the factors that influence its formation? In what way does the work ethic of the Caribbean worker influence his or her work attitude?


Associated with this perception of poor work attitudes and ethics is the belief that persons of African decent in the Caribbean do not, as a rule, have an entrepreneurial spirit. Comparisons are usually made with other ethnic groups within the Caribbean that have become quite successful in business activities, despite having to start, in most cases, from very poor and degrading circumstances.


Historically, within the Caribbean, businessmen and entrepreneurs have, in fact, come from racial groups that were not black. In Barbados, whites, near whites, and the Indian minority have been quite successful in setting up profitable businesses. In Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean, similar business acumen has been attributed to the Chinese, Syrians, whites, and Indians. The single notable exception has always been blacks, who do not have a record of being successful at business, and especially not on a sustained basis; neither have they, as a group, entered the business environment as entrepreneurs in as large numbers as other ethnic groups in the Caribbean. Instead, many perceive them to be more interested in status rather than capital accumulation. This has manifested itself in their preference for civil service jobs, ostentatious forms of dress, and high levels of consumerism. Is this relative lack of interest and success in business on the part of blacks due to poor work ethics? To what extent do other historical and cultural factors playa role in this seemingly poor performance?


There have been several explanations of this seeming inability of blacks to be successful entrepreneurs. First, there are the cultural explanations: Danns (1994), for example, has suggested that the cultural orientation of blacks, particularly their preoccupation with religion and things that are not of this world, has led them to ignore practical matters such as capital accumulation. Ryan (1994) goes further back and locates the cultural influence in the African heritage. He argues that the values of mutuality, reciprocity, and communal sharing, originating from Africa, act as a disincentive to work among blacks. He explains:

There also obtained a sense of corporate kin and extended kin responsibility. Those who were successful were expected to look after those less so, and the latter invariably pressed such claims. Greater wealth thus meant more dependents and greater obligation. ..this imperative necessarily helped to shape the African personality and had implications for anyone thinking of becoming involved in business activity ...

The effect of slavery and the subsequent black experience were to therefore strengthen, rather than cause, an aversion to working beyond what was necessary for one's basic needs. While not described in negative terms, this culturally based ethic and behavioural pattern are nonetheless said to be two of the major contributors to the 'failure' of black entrepreneurship (Ryan 1994).


Others have focused greater attention on the extremely narrow structure of opportunities that have existed for blacks in the colonial and postcolonial periods. It has been argued that this structure was kept in place with the use of economic, legal, and psychological strategies, many of which were racially inspired, and/or even accompanied by overt racial measures (Beckles and Shepherd 1991; Boxhill 1994).


However, we take the view that traditional cultural orientations can be important explanations only inasmuch as there are structural and social reasons that permitted their persistence. It is difficult to counter the view that the impact of slavery and its effects in the colonial and postcolonial periods are of great importance in the shaping of work ethics and black entrepreneurship, among other things, in the Caribbean. But once it is agreed that the societal and institutional context within which work and business are conducted are the crucially important determinants of the attitudes and approaches that are adopted in regard to these activities, then it is also necessary to examine how those structural and economic circumstances continue to encourage and support a poor work ethic and faint entrepreneurship.


In summary, therefore, the specific objectives of this study are to

  1. establish the reality of the existence of both a work ethic and a spirit of black entrepreneurship within the Caribbean
  2. determine the impact or influence of the organisation of the work enterprise on work ethics
  3. analyse the importance of factors such as family, education, and ethnicity on the evolution of these two variables


Two countries-Jamaica and Barbados-were chosen for comparative analysis. The examination of entrepreneurial activity in the Indian community in countries such as Trinidad and Tobago has demonstrated that the cultural resources drawn from family and ethnic traditions and organisation were critical to successes experienced by that ethnic group (Ramsaran 1993). It therefore seemed useful to look at the experiences of other groups (in particular, those of African descent) in countries with similar ethnic composition, and common economic and political histories.



1 Anansi is a West African folk hero popular throughout the Caribbean.