Friday, July 27, 2012

At 50, Jamaica still not truly independent

ON August 6, 2012, Jamaica will celebrate 50 years of political independence. I deliberately say political independence, because after 50 years we still have not come to grips with how to manage our finances, and consequently our economic fortunes. In fact, we have never truly been economically independent, not even in the booming 1960s, and so we can safely say that we are still economic slaves.

In the 1960s, even when we were growing at rates in excess of 10 per cent per annum, we still were supported to preferential rates for sugar and banana, and so we never really stood on our own two feet fully. During that time we were learning to walk, and started to creep with help from the old colonial masters. Today, as a 50 year-old adult, we still remain on the breast of other countries, and so in our 50th year of self- governance we are clamouring for support from the IMF.

Jamaica has made much progress over the 50 years, but a lot of the development is as a result of debt, not earnings. (Photo: Aston Spaulding)

There are some who like to hide their heads in the sand and say that we have much to be thankful for as we have achieved much. They point to our sporting and cultural success; the amount of road and building constructions; more access to communications, cars, and other luxuries. I, for one, would never deny that Jamaica has not made progress because we have in many respects.

We have become a very powerful international brand; a lot of development and institutional establishment have taken place; there has been much social and legislative improvement; our tourism product is number one; and we have seen a lot of commercial development.

However, when one looks at development and success, it is never done in isolation. So while there is no denying that we have made much progress, the truth is that a lot of the development we have seen is as a result of debt, not earnings. This is tantamount to a person of 50 years having a house, car, and other assets, as a result of either debt from the bank (loans) and/or gifts from his parents (grants). He has not, however, developed enough to be able to afford these things from his own ability to earn.

Also, development and success must be seen relative to others. In 1962, Jamaica was seen as the jewel of the Caribbean, and in fact we were visited by Lee Quan Yew,

as an example when he was developing Singapore. Secondly, we were in a position to refuse Federation with other Caribbean countries because we were fearful that their poorer economies would have been a burden to us. Well, today much of our economy is owned by two of those economies — Trinidad and Barbados.

* In 2012, our GDP per capita is the same as it was in the early 1970s — 40 years later.

* We have one of the highest murder rates in the world.

* We have one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world, and only recently we were being compared to Greece.

The fact also is that when you look at the areas of our excellence — sports, tourism, culture, and music — these are all based on the exploits of individual Jamaicans, and has nothing to do with any support structure provided in the Jamaican environment. In contrast, the Jamaicans who have done well in these areas, such as Bolt, Ottey, Powell, Fraser-Pryce, Louise Bennett, Bob Marley, Butch Stewart, Ranny Williams, etc, have all done so in spite of the many challenges faced in the Jamaican environment.

Our governance has failed us miserably, so that 50 years after colonial rule, we still find that the lower-income classes are discriminated against. We have areas (inner cities) where many Jamaicans cannot go to. In fact, we have greater access to other countries than we do in these areas within our own country. We find almost on a daily basis that there is a conflict between the police and our citizens, or we find that our governance is executed in such a way that we find it easy to tarnish the name of people, as a result of our political parties or bureaucrats believing that they have a right to impose anything they want on citizens who do not share their views.

So 50 years later, our citizens are still under a form of colonial rule.

Fifty years after, we have a school exam in place (GSAT) that encourages class discrimination, as based on the school you end up at you are seen as either having a future or not. I am happy to see that Minister Thwaites is trying to change this because we cannot continue to expose our young to this type of discrimination.

And if we talk about business development, we see that the businesses that dominated close to 50 years ago are virtually the same that exist today. Little or no private sector innovation, which is reflected in the number of listings on the equities markets over the period.

Back to the issue of discrimination, though. This discrimination is reflected in how we treated the issue of the Jamaica 50 song. My main issue with the nonsensical approach to this Ja 50 song business is not the play out of the polarisation of the people by the arguments about the song, but that we ignored the festival song competition as the avenue to select the song and chose to give the spoils to a select few. The competition has historical value and I think it would have been best to choose the Ja 50 song from this competition, and provide a cash prize of around $2 million, and so open it up to the creativity of our Jamaican citizenry. This for me was a reflection of how we have developed.

The governance that has got us to this point also manifested itself in the disgraceful behaviour in parliament a few weeks ago, when there was a blatant refusal to obey the rules (law and order) by those who are supposed to uphold it.

So after 50 years, and being born after Independence, I think Jamaica can be the best place on earth to live if we take our governance seriously. We still have the potential to be the most attractive place on earth to live, but we must all take responsibility by realising that we are all Jamaicans, and not two tribes living in one country. If not, then in another 50 years the children will be asking about the lost 100 years of Independence.

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