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Sunday, April 02, 2006 

Making Jamaica work Common Sense
John Maxwell
Sunday, April 02, 2006


The richer and more powerful we are, it seems, is the greater our capacity for self-delusion. The long-drawn-out departure of the former prime minister has apparently given hordes of privileged Jamaicans licence to speak about the enormous blessings his 14-year stint has brought us.

He has, we are told, brought a new civility to the affairs of the country, notwithstanding the almost tripling of the murder rate. He has, we are told, brought unexampled prosperity to this country, if we ignore the fact that despite all the heavy investment, the Gross Domestic Product of Jamaica in real terms has risen, perhaps, by two per cent since 1990; the rich have become immeasurably richer, the poor have got poorer and more desperate and are sustained more by remittances from abroad than by any other single factor.

The National Public Debt has risen by almost 50 per cent, while, despite all the redundancies, privatisations and other free market nostrums, government expenditures have risen to more than one-third of GDP, and more than 60 cents of every devalued dollar is paid to bankers and so-called 'investors'.

The only growth sector is financial services, which do nothing but accelerate the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The result is a country in which the reverse Robin Hood syndrome is more significant than at any time since the abolition of slavery.

As the World Bank has pointed out in several studies of the region, economic inequality and collaterally perceived injustice are the main factors driving violent crime. According to the Bank (Determinants of crime rates in Latin America and the World):

"Greater inequality is associated with higher intentional homicide and robbery rates but the level of per capita income is not a significant determinant . contrary to our expectations, national enrolment rates in secondary education and the average number of years of schooling of the population appear to be positively (but weakly) associated with higher homicide rates."

That makes perfect sense to me. The level of frustration will go up among the better educated but unemployed youth. The promise of education is blasted by the sense of social and economic oppression and unfairness.

And in another publication, the World Bank declares that "The costs of risky adolescent behaviour in the Caribbean in terms of direct expenditures and forgone productivity reach billions of dollars. It has been calculated that:

. a one per cent decrease in youth crime would directly increase tourist receipts by four per cent in Jamaica.(Caribbean Youth Development: Issues and Policy Directions).

In other publications, the bank suggests that improved education combined with crime reduction might contribute to another six per cent rise in GDP, triple the current rate of GDP increase and more than the Doomsday Highway and Harmony Cove combined.

So what are we waiting for? Conventional wisdom, expounded by conservatives like Don Robotham, suggests that all we need is more of the same Washington Consensus policies so ably promulgated by Omar Davies. This, despite the fact that the strategy clearly does not work anywhere, not in Jamaica or in any other Caribbean nation nor perhaps anywhere in the world outside of Singapore and one or two other specially privileged small nations. (See A Time to Choose: Caribbean development in the 21st century - World Bank 2006).

Recent studies in the United States have produced what the late John Hearne would have called a "brute fact":. The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990s. In 2000, 65 per cent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s were jobless - that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 per cent, compared with 34 per cent of white and 19 per cent of Hispanic dropouts.

Even when high school graduates were included, half the number of black men in their 20s were jobless in 2004, up from 46 per cent in 2000.

. Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990s and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 per cent of black men in their 20s who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 per cent were incarcerated. By their mid-30s, six in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.

One further US statistic is of interest - the fact that of all the men in prison, black or white, 76 per cent were 'fatherless" - ie they came from single-mother families.

These facts tell me that the centuries of dispossession and disinheritance of blacks in the New World has created a climate in which the normal rules of development do not apply, and I am sure that if the Jamaican situation were examined, similar proportions of fatherlessness would be found associated with delinquency.

Migration has been the vehicle for black development since the end of slavery. Jamaicans built the Panama Canal, created the railways and started the banana plantations of Central America, harvested the sugar cane during the 'Dance of the Millions' in Cuba early in the third decade of the 20th century, and provided the farm labour on American plantations during the second world war and after. Since then, Kingston has been simply a way-station on the road to 'prosperity' in Belle Glade and points north.

The current American xenophobia directed against Mexican illegal immigrants, might, if successful, perhaps improve the theoretical employability of native blacks, but it is highly unlikely to succeed because American business knows that it can get away with paying 'illegals' much less than it could offer American citizens of whatever colour.

In Jamaica, we have to wake up to some degree of reality. Jamaica now presents to itself and the world a picture of a supremely investor-friendly destination, the broad smile of invitation subverted only by the cutlass concealed behind the back.

Despite this threat, some investors do buy into the seductive promise of multimillion dollar rewards. A short trip along the North Coast will make it plain that Jamaica is becoming an island completely surrounded by all-inclusive hotels complete with all-inclusive shops and attractions, walled off from native predation. And if water is privatised they, of course, expect to get as much as they want for golf-courses and saunas - and who cares about the thirsty villagers down the road?

The tourism industry, which serves more higher-income visitors than the population of Jamaica, contains within itself the potential to provide a market which could easily demand twice the national farm production, if properly organised and if the industry could persuade itself to buy more Jamaican instead of finding convenient channels for the export of money.

Doubling farm production would require at least two new initiatives, the first being an agrarian reform programme and the second being massive investment in people instead of concrete.
Portia Simpson Miller's expressed intention to harvest the wisdom of the people will surely inform Jamaica of some unpalatable truths: despite the buoyant economic climate in the air-conditioned boardrooms of Kingston, most Jamaicans see no way out of their present hopelessness.

If we read the Horace Levy-edited report They Cry Respect, now more than a decade old, we would find that the people do know what they want.

They understand very clearly that they have been abandoned by the state, and hence feel only a residual loyalty to it. They want an end to the disinheritance, they want to be reconnected to a caring society which understands their history of oppression and misery. That is why Portia Simpson Miller is seen by so many as the answer to their prayers. They know that she knows the troubles they've seen, that she shares their sorrows. They know they can talk to her, and hope she can struggle with the Great Economic Determinists in the sky to bring them a modicum of joy and content.

Between these entreaties and the demands of the rich and super-rich stand a few obstacles, not least the idea that economic development is an exercise in selfishness and greed, in which it is every man for himself and the devil take the women and children.

The Matalon Committee's suggestion that the tax burden should be shifted even more onerously onto the shoulders of the poor is a good example of the level of self-deception in the society. In a small country in which one family can own six-and-a-half square miles of land while large numbers depend on the kindness of friends for the clothes they wear, it is clear that many cannot conceive of the parameters of the perils we confront.

People know, from Sam Sharpe, Bogle, Garvey and the two Manleys, that they are entitled at least to a fair chance. They know from their everyday experience that they do not get one. They intuitively understand that every human being is entitled to development and they seize whatever chances are on offer. If sports, cricket and athletics are the only openings available, they seize the chances and prove that they can excel.

All real sports, including bobsledding, tennis and golf, depend on brains as well as muscle. But not all of us are athletes, and for those, the opportunities are severely limited.

The University of the West Indies recently de-registered 500 undergraduates, not because they were dumb, but because they could not pay their full fees. That meant that the university, at one stroke, lost more than three per cent of its enrolment. We can no more afford such a rate of attrition than we can afford a tsunami.

No duty to be poor

No one has a duty to be poor, and no one has a right to be rich. Most people really do understand that we are all in the same boat and that we swim or sink together. There are some of us, however, who believe that God, or some other external agency, will warn us when we are coming too close to the edge of disaster.

History does not disclose any such warnings to any other society. As we were in 1972, we are back on the precipice's edge right now, and the fact that Portia is in charge is only one way of buying time. If we are to avoid the predictable disasters which lurk round the corner, we need to commit ourselves to a different idea of Jamaica. We have to begin to face facts and embrace them.

Two major resources

What Jamaica needs to understand now is that the country, the society, the nation are broken and that we need to fix them. We need to turn away from the heavy metal developments, from the stealing of public goods, beaches, land, institutions and wealth. We need to invest at the base of our societies, in making real families possible and in making them work.

We need to send all our children to school and to make sure that they are not afflicted with asthma and emphysema provoked by burning plastic and other garbage. We need to understand that those who have much must be expected to give most; and above all, we need to understand that the national interest is our personal interest.

We need to understand that our major resources are our people and our land, and we need to put them both into productive, creative employment. Casual labour is not enough; 'independent contractors' and organised hustling or 'scuffling' cannot work. People must have security of environment in family and community, in work, in health, culture and governance.

We need to understand that it is not only unpatriotic but self-destructive in every sense, to demand more from a poor and almost destitute society so that we can salt away millions in unproductive bank accounts. If half our debt repayment - now 63 per cent of revenue - were spent in education and other social investment we would recoup our investment in a very short time.

We don't need foreign investors - we need only to convince ourselves of the truism that we can only get out of life and Jamaica, as much as we put into them. Our very lives depend on it.What, may I ask, is the point of being rich if we are then forced to live in gated, grilled air-conditioned prisons at half-a-million US$ a pop? Greed is unsustainable.

We can make Jamaica work again, but we need to work on it, in it and for it.
We need to invest our work, our wealth, our confidence and trust and our respect in our people.And we need to remember the famous question: What shall it profit anyone to gain the whole world but to lose his own soul?

Copyright©2006 John Maxwell
jankunnu (at) yahoo.com

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