Friday, June 29, 2007

Allocating priorities

Last Wednesday, I attended a forum put on by the Taking Responsibility group on 'Jamaica's Foreign Policy: The Economic Development Link', where a report was presented that discussed foreign policy in Jamaica since independence and sought to make a link with economic development. When the group first came on the scene and presented its paper on 'The Jamaican Economy Since Independence', I thought that this was just another academic group, that would produce mountains of paper to add to the growing pile of studies and reports we have amassed over the years. Well, after reading the report, and listening to the discussion, I no longer have a doubt, and I'm convinced that they will produce nothing more than academic information for students and to attain professorships.

One of the main problems we have had in this country is that we are brilliant at studying and saying what the issues are, but never seem to get to the point of implementing. There are many eye-opening studies (and commissions) that have been done, correctly outlining the challenges we face as a country but which are never implemented. We have even had citizens of the calibre of Douglas Orane and Peter Moses contributing their time in leading studies and making some solid recommendations. But they have never been implemented. Soon we will call for a study to determine why the studies were never implemented.

Nine-day wonder
Someone once said to me that the purpose of the various studies and commissions is never to seek solutions for implementation but to give the impression that something is being done. And in our true 'Nine-Day Wonder' style, after the reports are published and discussed for a few days in the media, then we forget about them. So we hear statements from politicians such as it's time for us to forget about the Trafigura affair, as it has been discussed enough, or that we need to stop talking about the wasted funds on the Trelawny monument to elephants, and start thinking about how we can now make money from it. Never mind the fact that billions of dollars have been wasted and the trust in public institutions has diminished considerably, as accountability is never important.

So back to the academic report from Taking Responsibility. Both reports mentioned above do not come with any concrete steps for moving forward and ensuring economic development in Jamaica. Instead, the reports outline generally what they believe got us to this point and, even more generally, what needs to be done, but propose no specific tasks and timeline needed for action.

Coincidentally, the same morning I was discussing with Ronnie Thwaites and Ralston Hyman, the ascendancy of Gordon Brown as the UK's prime minister, and what the implications for the UK were. During that discussion, Ronnie asked a question, which I think was most important, what are the implications for Jamaica? In other words, how can our foreign policy take advantage of the evident changes that will be ushered in with Gordon Brown?

The answer of course is a question I asked the forum, without getting an answer. How did we arrive at studying Jamaica's foreign policy without first addressing the real issues here at home? In other words, why do we seek to put the cart before the horse, as we do with many other things? It seems to me that before we get to studying Jamaica's foreign policy that there are some more fundamental issues to look at. After all, Jamaica's foreign policy has been nothing more than seeking debt, aid, and foreign investments. The problem, of course, is that the foreign policy is only supporting what the domestic policies are.

Economic development
Therefore, it would seem logical to me that the approach should be to first address the challenges with domestic policy, ensuring that they are properly aligned with economic development.

The truth is that our domestic policies are not geared towards economic development, but rather at keeping the status quo afloat to hold onto state power. This is the way that we have operated since independence, irrespective of who is in power. The objective of governments has never been economic development, but political power. So when we fought for, and gained independence in 1962, we were more interested in political rather than economic independence. And this objective is supported by the way our constitution was crafted. The only thing that changed for us was who was placed in the Great House, not the abolition of it.

So because of our domestic policies, our foreign policy is supporting the wrong path. Is it any wonder then that we have not achieved anything more from foreign policy than signing new debt agreements and getting some foreign investors, after giving up tax revenues? My question would be, after all the money that we have spent on the numerous embassies around the world, and trips here and there, what have we achieved? The only thing we seem to have done is sunk this country into greater debt and poverty. Wouldn't it have been better to rationalise the embassies, as recommended by Douglas Orane, and use that money for education, health, and crime? And then we ask ourselves where can we get money from to fund education and health services?

The report by this group makes five main recommendations that, from a 56- page report, take up one page. The other 55 pages are dedicated to describing the problem. Now if that is not an academic report then I don't know what is. What we need is not only the identification of issues, but specific steps to achieve these recommendations with the agreement of course, of all the stakeholders. Some of the issues described in the report also I think are not true. One such is that Jamaica, as a small state is a price taker. That may have been true decades ago but not so in an age of globalisation where information is accessed at lightening speed. Many companies and countries have demonstrated this. As a matter of fact, small means that one can be more nimble.

In a market the truth is that all players are price takers, and this is determined by product/service quality, supply and demand. We have products such as our coffee and ginger that we do not have to compete with in a strict price range because of the quality. Our tourism potential is so great that if we were to take care of it we could be demanding higher prices. We just have to look at what 'Butch' Stewart has done so successfully with Sandals. Instead of giving a tax break to local entrepreneurs such as Butch Stewart to develop the tourism product, we would much rather give tax breaks to overseas investors.

Our priority, of course, is not about economic development, so we go for the quick money from foreign investments rather than the stable money of organic growth. So business persons such as 'Butch' Stewart will have to succeed against the bureaucracy and the investigations into scandals such as Whitehouse, which will turn out to be a grand waste of time as nothing will come from it.
But such is our culture. We are great at studying and reporting, and this is the sensationalism that our citizens demand. We are more concerned with what politicians say than what they do. I bet if the question were asked of the Observer, which is the most read page daily, they would say page two. The one that shows the parties and images of well-being.


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