Credit for a Poor Jamaican

On a pristine Jamaican beach, tourists recline on padded beach chairs and leave all their worries to Clive. Need a dry towel? Clive will provide one. A cool drink? It's in your hand. Too hot? Clive heaves the heavy chair under a leafy canopy. When he is not serving guests, he is picking up litter and raking the sand.

With an easy pleasant smile, he hands me a fruit punch wrapped in a napkin and leans over my chair. ``Hello, I'm Clive Simpson, the beach boy.'' He is one of the 100,000 Jamaicans who earn their daily bread, and little else, by ensuring that tourists enjoy carefree vacations.

I was trying to forget a Jamaican sight that tourists rarely see: Kingston's Riverton City, a garbage dump where people build shanties from refuse and forage for food along with the pigs. This beach boy with his amiable smile is obviously poor, but he walks with a dignity that seems to be denied to adults whose only work is picking through garbage or standing in line for charity food and clothing.

Clive, I soon learned, is a high-school graduate, father of twin girls and an infant son. He wants to move to the United States so he can take better care of his family.

``My children live with my grandmother,'' he says. ``Their mother took off. It is hard when a family can't have their own home.'' In America, he believes he can make enough money to send home so eventually they can be a family again.

This young man is definitely not a candidate for Riverton City's soup kitchen. He also has pride, and, it seems to me, far too much intelligence and charm to be fetching cold drinks and towels.

I ask him why he doesn't borrow money to start his own business in Jamaica. I point out that tourists need taxis and guided tours as well as towels. He nods. A taxi business would solve his problems, and he is sure he can learn to be a good driver.

Still, as much as he has thought about it, borrowing money is not an option. He has no collateral. Even if he did, the interest on $4,000 (the price of a taxi) would be an additional $4,000. ``The bank repossesses many taxis,'' he says. ``Then the banker sells them cheap to friends.''

Couldn't he save the money for a down payment? He explains a beach boy's economics: Food and rent are $49 a week. His salary is $40 a week, including tips. Several months ago, the hotel posted a notice that it was not necessary for guests to tip the beach boys. His salary was not raised.

In 10 years of working with service organizations, I've learned that there are two basic ways to help the poor. The first, handouts of food and other necessities, is by far the most prevalent. But I couldn't imagine telling this young man the way to the nearest charity depot.

The second way to help poor people is to make available something we take for granted: credit. Around the world poor people are proving credit-worthy. With small loans to start little businesses, poor people work their way out of poverty, permanently and with dignity. Their initial collateral may be a reputation for honesty and dependability. It may be a bamboo bed or the family pig.

I tell Clive that a loan officer regularly visits this and other tourist areas looking for honest, hard-working people with vision and plans.

He pulls up a beach chair. ``Fair interest? I don't have to be rich?'' he asks. I nod, but he asks both questions again. He looks out at the gently swelling sea, and the curtain of disbelief dissolves. ``I could stay in my country,'' he says. ``I could buy a taxi. I could be a businessman.''

I give him a name and a phone number. I tell him I will tell the loan officer to expect a call from a friend of mine who wants to buy a taxi.

The beach boy's handshake is firm. He has one request. ``When you tell them about me, will you call me Mr. Simpson, not Clive?''

``Certainly,'' I said. ``But why?''

``Clive is a beach boy,'' he replies. ``Mr. Simpson is a businessman.''

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