Friday, December 03, 2010

Behaviour's influence on economic development

I first want to congratulate my alma mater, Jamaica College, for a job well done in taking both the Manning and Walker Cups for 2010. This is a part of the coming together of the vision that the principal and Board had for the school approximately five years ago. Today, the school is excelling at academics, sports and, more importantly, has seen a significant improvement in its discipline.

I just want to say that it is indeed a privilege to have attended a school with so much tradition, and to have been a part of the board and foundation for the past five years. JC had a low period before that but has rebounded nicely, a part of which must be because of the tradition that institutions like JC carry. To all JC students, present and past. Fervet.

My journey with JC over the past five years is very illustrative of what is wrong with Jamaica's economy and society and one of the prime factors needed to turn it around.

When the new board and principal started some five years ago, the indiscipline and academics were totally unacceptable, and this had even started to negatively affect the sports programme. The decision was taken that this would not continue and the principal outlined to the board a five-to-seven year development plan, which was to take JC from the slum we had found ourselves in to the number one high school in Jamaica. Not dissimilar is the 2030 vision for Jamaica, as the place of choice to live for all Jamaicans.

Five years later, we can certainly say that JC is on that path of development, and is very close to achieving that ultimate goal. Since the Jamaica 2030 vision was developed just after the turn of the century, can we honestly say that Jamaica is on the path to achieving that vision in nineteen years? The short answer to the question is no. Let me be clear even if we will do it, the fact is that as Jamaica stands today, there is no indication that that goal will be achieved.

The economy, despite what I think are positive policy actions, has declined considerably; crime is still a problem, and the recent trends are "worrisome"; the justice system seems to be seriously broken, inclusive of the daily cry of the average citizen to end police abuse; the indiscipline on the roads and the blatant disregard for the Noise Abatement Act is relentless; an estimated one-third of Jamaicans are squatters; poverty levels have increased to 16.5 per cent of the population and 86,000 Jamaicans have lost jobs in the last two years; abuse of incarcerated persons, children and the aged continues unabated, and the list of social challenges continue.

The current societal problems are of course a result of years of abuse and disregard for a disciplined and orderly structure, primarily because the development of the country was not always as important as the need for state power.

So, can we honestly say that Jamaica is near to achieving the 2030 vision? Of being a first world country? In my view, there is a lot for the Government to do, like making some good policy moves and things of the sort.

One of the problems is that we have failed to understand that it is not possible to pursue development primarily by a focus on the economic indicators only. For years our main focus has been on the fiscal accounts and macro-economic stability, but can we gain any form of development with the social structure that we presently have? The answer is no. Michael Manley somewhat realised this in the 1970s, but his mistake was that he didn't recognise that in order for social development to happen, you also need economic development, which is primarily why socialism as a system has failed.

Going back to the JC example, the first thing the board did was not to focus on academics but rather on the culture of behaviour. In other words, it was realised that consistent academic performance could not be achieved without a change in the behavioural pattern of students. And the key word there is consistent. Because just like economic growth, one can have a year or two of acceptable growth but because of the societal problems, there is no consistency.

In addition to the behaviour modification changes, it was also realised that this should first start with the teachers, who are, after all, the ones who set the examples and govern the general behaviour. For instance if we do not have a police force that displays or politicians who project positive behaviour, then how can we expect the average citizen — for example, — a taxi driver, to obey any traffic rules?

This had a remarkable impact, as once the teacher group's behaviour was acceptable then it was easy to influence the student body in that way. There is a lot more that can be said but space does not permit. In short, the result is a school that has an improving culture of discipline, academics and performance at sports. In other words, there is now a culture of performance that is consistent and started with the social changes rather than the traditional focus on academics and students. One additional important factor was the physical improvement of the school. If you put a person in an unattractive environment then his/her behaviour will reflect the environment. So when one looks at Jamaica's physical infrastructure, and in particular the roads, what sort of behaviour should be expected?

It is no surprise that Jamaica has failed to achieve development over our 48 years of independence. How do we expect people to behave if they live like animals because there is no running water or proper housing facilities? How do we expect people to behave if they are constantly subjected to police excesses? How do we expect businesses to operate with a competitive spirit if the bureaucracy sets up stumbling blocks that the preference is given to those with connections? How do we expect people to obey the traffic rules if you are always avoiding potholes, there are no adequate signs, or the police themselves disobey the traffic rules?

What we must understand is that economics is a social science, meaning that it is as a result of social interaction. It follows, therefore, that the result of economic and social development is also as a result of social behaviour. If we do not develop a culture of discipline and civility, then the behaviour that results from that will not lead to positive development. As a result there will not be any consistent economic and social development.

Until we seriously understand that, and start acting on it, then we will be destined to long-term declines as a country. Of course we will have periods of development, such as the economic growth in the 60s and 80s, or the social changes in the 70s; but are we as a people only concerned about bouts of development, followed by longer periods of decline, or are we concerned about a goal such as Vision 2030?

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