Friday, May 08, 2009

Poor and boasy…Jamaica’s plight

The budget debates are over, and I think I have done enough commentary on the presentations, and would like to look at what I have always, and still consider to be one of Jamaica’s main challenges. And nowhere is this more demonstrated than in the rise of one of Jamaica’s street boy’s to prominence in the Magnum’s King and Queen contest on television.

Poor and Boasy is the name adopted by the winner of the said contest, and his story is one that should encourage all Jamaicans and make us determined about what needs to be done to truly unearth the hidden potential of Jamaica. He walked away with the $1 million prize but by doing so gave us a message worth much more, that of the significant talent that lies unexplored in our neglected people.

Poor and Boasy reflects Jamaica’s plight in two ways – (1) His name signifies Jamaica’s borrowing over the years to be “boasy”, as we have used it for consumption items such as cars; and (2) The fact that we have neglected the poor citizen of this country who has the talent to bring fame and fortune to Jamaica.

Jamaicans’ aggressiveness
And when I say neglected people I do not only mean the other street boys who have to hustle by wiping car glasses, but I mean most Jamaicans who have to suffer the indignity of the inefficient public sector bureaucracy; the less than adequate roads and transportation system; the unprofessional behaviour of the police, who they are forced to pay with their taxes; and the debt they are called on to pay that most have not benefitted from. So is it any surprise that Jamaicans are known the world over as an aggressive set of people, as our leaders over the years have helped to create this aggression, which it is only through this self taught behaviour that many have learned to survive.

Some Jamaicans have turned this aggression into a positive by channeling it to significant achievements. The problem however is that many also channels this into criminal activity, which holds the great majority and the country at ransom.

It is this scant regard for the citizen of Jamaica that I believe has led us to where we are today. Because achievements are not spoken about in terms of development of the rights and democracy of the Jamaican citizen but rather in terms of macroeconomic targets and fiscal deficits. And I am in no way saying that these targets are not important but just as in the US the rights and development of each citizen must be at the central part of any planning or development we look towards. I believe this is the only true way to achieve real economic and social development. If we put the Jamaican citizen at the heart of all our plans then we will achieve all the macroeconomic targets that have long eluded us as it is people that drive a country forward not debt.

So when I hear parliamentarians spending so much time discussing the level of the minimum wage, I wonder if they do not realize that the need to have such a lengthy discussion on it means that we have failed Jamaicans. The setting of the minimum wage should be procedural without any comment if we develop a country where Jamaicans have the requisite skills and opportunities to earn a lot more than the minimum wage. The fact that we have to spend so much time deliberating on the minimum wage means that our gift to many Jamaicans since independence is to keep them at the minimum wage level, and to make it seem as if we care by adjusting it upward each year, only making life more and more difficult.

It is the failure to address the theme of the citizen at the centre of our development, which I think has been the biggest failing over the years of the debates and the country. In the 1970s the world moved into the Information Age and helped to usher in the need to grow based on a knowledge based society, which Kim Marie Spence put on the table recently in a review of the budget on Direct. I do not think that there is anyone who will dispute the fact that we live in an era where a competitive edge is not based on the amount of capital one has (that was the industrial revolution) but is very much dependent on the human capital of a country or company.

Knowledge/Efficiency Age
It is ideas that create a competitive advantage not machines. Everyone has access to technology and machines, as even if they can’t buy it they can easily outsource it. The Internet allows an individual working from his/her home to have access to the global marketplace and appear to the world to be a large corporation. In fact the mammoth office building and its attendant costs are now a competitive disadvantage. This I believe will be more pronounced in what is emerging to be a new economic order that will come from the current economic downturn. We are looking at the birth of a new era that will maybe be called the Knowledge or Efficiency Age.

For decades we have always been talking about the need for economic and social development in Jamaica and have different periods where we have focused on both separately. In the 1960s we had economic development; in the 1970s we had social development; in the 1980s we had economic development; and in the 1990s to 2000s, we suffered from the effects of globalization. What we need is to have a period where the focus is on developing both the economic and social aspects of Jamaica. I believe that the only way we can do that is to place at the centre of our development the citizen of Jamaica.

I commented in my last column on the need to change the format of the budget debates, as the current one does not serve as the developmental tool that a budget should be. One of the things I would want to see achieved is the setting and debating of developmental objectives before the revenue and expenditure estimates are worked out and tabled. In setting these objectives the central theme must be the protection of the rights and improvement of the Jamaican citizen. This was espoused somewhat in the 1970s but the shortcoming was that the belief was that it could be done without proper economic development. The fact is that neither can be done successfully without the other.

The budget did address the call on the people to bear the sacrifices needed for us to move forward, and we now need to specify a timeline to see the benefits of the sacrifices. While appealing to the Jamaican people for their patience and understanding, and recognizing the challenges we face, we must also say that we abhor (i) every time a citizen’s rights are abused by the police or criminal, (ii) the fact that every Jamaican owes over $400,000 as a part of the national debt without seeing any benefit, (iii) the condition of and the indiscipline on the roads and the night noise that Jamaicans have to put up with, and (iv) the lack of opportunities and education that stagnates our economy.

We should also commit to every Jamaican that if we make the sacrifices now and follow the road map for economic and social development (which should be communicated to the people) then these are the targets that we will achieve. We must assure the citizen that their rights and development are at the forefront of every policy decision.

If we continue spending too much time debating the minimum wage and the continuation of handouts to the poor, we reduce the hope to make Jamaicans really “boasy”.

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