Friday, May 28, 2010

I weep for Jamaica

I remember a few months ago being on a talk show with a private sector leader who was clamouring for reduced interest rates as a means of spurring investments and driving the economy forward. At the time I told to him that the reduction of interest rates would not, by itself, move the economy forward and that we would be better served by improving the weak social and political infrastructure spawning the lawlessness in the society. It has always been obvious to me that the need to address our social and political infrastructure is the root cause of our economic and social challenges.

Even while the successful JDX provides some breathing room in the economy, even this is hostage to our social and political problems. And we must understand the crime we have in this country is only a symptom of the political architecture that has held down this country since independence. We started with the wrong foundation and you cannot expect to grow fruit from trees that are planted in mud.

Economy taken a beating
Over the past three to four days Jamaica's economy has taken a real beating from the events that have unfolded. A simplistic direct computation of the losses over the past four days can be to look at four days GDP output, which at a GDP value of $1.1 trillion amounts to some $17 billion assuming 261 working days. In addition to the GDP loss, however, there is the loss of disposable income from events being postponed and generally lower spending in the economy. This will also have a lingering effect as people will be guarded with their spending and investment in our unpredictable social environment.

The effects on tourism and long-term investments will continue to cripple our economic turnaround. Jamaica is a well-known brand and any marketer will tell you that a well-known brand always suffers more from bad news than lesser known brands. So while we expect the publicity from good news about the brand, such as sports or music achievements, similarly when there is bad news then expect the same or more, publicity. Just think about the effect on Tylenol sales worldwide when cyanide was found in one single packet.

So the immediate and longer-term economic impact will be devastating. Not only from international investors but also local consumption and spending. The Finance ministry will face challenges to its revenue programme from this fallout, despite all the positive adjustments that have taken place. I trust that people will believe me now when I say that even more important than interest rates and macroeconomic targets is ensuring that the social and political infrastructure is on a sound footing, as dealing with this will have a much more positive economic impact on the country than any macroeconomic policy.

I weep for Jamaica. Not because of where we are as a country today but because of the lack of understanding of the fundamental challenges that we face by persons who should understand. I weep for Jamaica because of the comments I continue to hear, which tell me that the same emotional responses are coming out as happened when West Kingston came under siege in 2001 or when the slaughter of children dominated the media. I weep for Jamaica because it seems as if we still do not understand what the root causes of our problems are. We do not understand that the main cause of our problems emanates from a lack of respect for citizens' rights, and not from any high rise building or the number of guns on the road. If we do not try to win the "hearts and minds" of the people of Jamaica then we will only be setting ourselves up for another confrontation.

This day has been in the making for a very long time. At least since the 1970s. The state of emergency in the 1970s, which saw many rights being abused, the 1980 election, the Green Bay massacre, the police squads formed over the years from the 1970s until now, the Braeton incident, Janice Allen, the Constant Spring lock-up, 2001 Tivoli attack, police killings. And I could go on. These were all under the guise of preventing criminality. Has it worked?

Support for the security forces
I fully support our security forces, and commend them for their bravery and protection of us Jamaicans. I ask that they respect the rights of their fellow Jamaicans. The movie Invictus portrays a giant (Nelson Mandela) who showed that compassion, respect, trust and forgiveness was the way to rebuild a nation, not retribution. In viewing the news over the past few days I have seen some glimmer of hope that the security forces are starting to change their approach and respecting more the rights of Jamaicans. We need to institutionaliSe this approach.

The problem, however, is not just with the security forces or politicians, but with civil society. I have heard and read the commentary of many Jamaicans (including those overseas) saying that the security forces need to go into another garrison and do the same thing they did in Tivoli, and deal with the criminals. This mindset is the problem we face. I thought that it is not until people are found guilty in a court of law that they become criminals. How would those people who promote this idea feel if they were children in Tivoli over the weekend, or how would they feel if they even had a relative in that situation?

Why are people so stubborn and illogical? We have tried this approach since independence and it has not worked. Why do we want to live in countries where human rights are respected but don't think that our own country is good enough for this sort of respect? Civil society, when you wake up every morning, before you start to blame the politicians and security forces please install a mirror in your bedroom and look in it before you go to the kitchen and eat some of the food that others are being deprived of.

I hope that when all of this is over that we do not go back to business as usual, and more importantly that we do not respond in emotional ways to what has happened. We must deal with the underlying challenges which can only be addressed by proper analysis and careful planning, not the usual responses of "kill them all". This is a defining moment for Jamaica, and we must deal with it in a rational way.

If we want this economy to move forward, and develop in the way it should, understand that only a stable social and political infrastructure can ensure that. When this is done, then I guarantee that we will be on the way to progress.

For all those who have contributed to and supported criminality, who have ignored the need for respecting the rights of others, who have turned a blind eye to corruption, and who have played politics over patriotism, take a bow. You have all contributed to what is happening in Jamaica today and should be proud of your accomplishments. I have always lived by the philosophy that I should not speak about anything I don't fully understand, and if I don't have a rational solution that I should keep my mouth shut. I invite anyone who falls into that category to do the same.


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