Friday, December 24, 2010

Time to step up our game

One of the contradictions of Jamaica is our ability to show how great we are as a country, but still continue to suffer from low economic growth and issues such as human rights abuses. We are known to have one of the warmest set of persons in the world; received the title of happiest country in the world; consistently we are rewarded as one of the best tourist destinations; we continue to outclass other sporting giants; and our music and people continue to make an impact not consistent with our size.

Despite all of this however, we have not been able to achieve any significant economic and social development since independence and continue to see the suffering our people have to bear at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them.

What accounts for this contradiction in a country that can consistently produce the best in music, sports, business, and science? What is it that prevents us from making the leap from that demonstrated global excellence to the needed economic and social development?

My own view is that the only thing that has failed Jamaica is political leadership. Everything, and everyone else, has been successful. Politicians have held back this country from the greatness that we should be seeing in our country and people. If we look at all the excellence that Jamaica has achieved, it has been through individual achievement, despite the governance of our political and economic affairs. And this excellence has been achieved without the country providing any opportunity or support to these persons. We always recognize our own people only after they have achieved acknowledgement outside of the country, they are dead, or if they are affiliated to a political party. Apart from this there is no structure that allows for us to recognize the ability of our citizens. This type of behaviour we could describe as acting like "wagonists".

One of the reasons for this is the lack of proper accountability of our leaders, including those at every level of society. One such situation is the leadership of the education system. It is in light of this that I support the recent assessment done by the Ministry of Education, and the minister's policy announcement that teachers will be held accountable to a performance standard. This I think is one of the more significant policy developments, if implemented - many policies in Jamaica are nothing more than an announcement.

The reason for this is because we will never see a general improvement in our education system, and eventually productivity development, if we do not ensure that the persons in leadership positions in the educational institutions are held accountable. This is the whole purpose of performance pay, for example, which the JTA had rejected, just as they are now not accepting responsibility for what they need to do to ensure that this accountability is implemented. And I say JTA leadership because I know that there are some excellent teachers out there who would like to see the whole system step up to their level. I also believe that teachers (and other public sector workers) need to be compensated better based on performance levels.

I have seen the benefit of this type of approach (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) at Jamaica College. It is only logical that if you want to see an improvement in the behaviour and academic performance of students that it requires proper leadership and performance from our teachers, and principals. How can students perform in an environment where teachers do not turn up for classes, or turn up late? How can students perform in an environment where the physical infrastructure is dilapidated, such as non-functioning toilets? How can students perform if the people teaching them are not properly trained themselves?

So isn't it logical that if we are to improve the performance of students that the first things to do are to (i) create an enabling environment; and (ii) to hold the guardians of that environment - school management and teachers accountable. Isn't that the same thing we need for businesses to succeed - create an enabling environment? Isn't this the same thing we say of police-citizen relations, that in order for people to respect and work with the police, the police needs to respect them and set proper examples? So if we are clear about the need for this for businesses and policemen, then what do we expect of our vulnerable children.

On this point I support the minister and the ministry in its efforts, and urge them to prod on with the implementation, as this I believe is the most significant policy decision made in transforming education as far as I can remember. It is not enough to just create a more difficult exam - GSAT - and separate the performers from non-performers. What we need is a GSAT for teachers and principals.

It is time that we face the realities of our underachievement and step up our game.

Economic vulnerabilities
As I indicated a few weeks ago, while the economy will start to benefit from the recovery in the global economy, I do not believe that we have made the structural changes necessary to lead us to a new development path. The head of the IMF mission in Jamaica stated (Observer) that "the IMF couldn't impose growth targets but could only facilitate growth". I don't see how one can impose growth, as if it is a dictate to be followed, but secondly isn't all we need a programme that facilitates growth.

What is clear is that once again the economy will be vulnerable to the current oil prices levels, at over US$90 /bbl and heading to over US$100 next year. This will negatively impact the balance of payments, spending power, and business costs. The result is inflation pressures. What we must do now is focus on renewable energy sources in retail consumption and transportation improvement - 60% of our oil bill. Business costs cannot escape the short term impact of higher oil prices, as it is much more expensive to deal with that problem, as the highest costs come from air conditioning and manufacturing.

The other vulnerability we will suffer from is rising prices from food based commodities such as corn. The agriculture ministry has been doing a good job of improving domestic agriculture production, but as I indicated months ago, they have reached their capacity of what they can efficiently do. The only way to see a significant upswing in agriculture, and adequately replace food imports, is to significantly increase agro-processing of local products. This, however, is negatively impacted by the bureaucracy and social factors.

There are of course other areas of vulnerability, but space does not permit them to be mentioned. I am also clear that we can avoid much of the negative impact from the slow recovering global economy, but there are some structural problems that will make it difficult to achieve. These vulnerabilities could begin to show January/February.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone happy holidays.

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