Friday, November 28, 2014

Jamaica’s fundamental challenges

ONE of the things I pointed out early in my second book is that before we can solve a problem we need to understand what the fundamental issues are. I say that because over the years I find that we tend to address the symptoms of our problems rather than the underlying issues.

This is also true when we engage in debate about what solutions are to be applied. I guess that’s because some of us are not able to really understand the issues.

I do find that this is not only a national problem, but also manifests itself on a personal level. So, as an example, many people who are uncomfortable with their weight tend to try to cover it with clothes or undergo cosmetic surgery, or apply other solutions, when the real problem is getting proper nutrition and exercise.

However, humans tend to always seek the easier way out, and so the cosmetic solution is often preferred. This reflects the approach to our economic challenges where, for a very long time, we have delayed having to take the necessary decisions to ensure a better future.

The result is that the delay in acting causes tougher decisions later, both nationally and personally. In other words, it is better to maintain good health than to get it back.

So recently, more than ever I have been giving serious thought to what Jamaica’s fundamental challenges are, and why we have not been able to make any real progress in over 50 years of Independence. Maybe because I am getting older, I am even more distraught at the suffering that many Jamaicans have to endure, especially the children who are abused, and after so many years we are still unable to fix these ills of society.

Instead, what we have done is focus on many macro issues while ignoring the plight of individuals in general.

One thing I have learned is that no matter how much you try to address the macro environment, unless we deal effectively with the smaller issues we will never sustainably solve the bigger problems. This is very true for organisations, as many people try to implement policies and systems without giving due consideration to the environment that the staff has to work in.

In both an organisation and a country, the most valuable resource you will have is the people, as without people there is no organisation or country. This is an important concept to understand as the main reason behind every activity on earth is life, or people.

The other thing that many of us fail to understand is that economics is all about human behaviour. So too is social studies. And whether you have a successful economy or society depends on how people behave. In other words, the vibrancy of an economy is not fundamentally about the policies implemented, but rather how people react to the policies. Do they encourage people to consume or produce?

It would stand to reason then that if we are to truly achieve success, or to achieve the objectives of Vision 2030, then any policies that we formulate must put people at the centre.

After all, policies and laws mean nothing if people don’t support them and act positively towards them. In fact, one of the main reasons why we have failed to achieve prosperity as a country, relative to other countries, is that we have failed to consider the importance attached to the welfare of our people.

I know that we have enacted many laws and that various structures have been put in place. However, for me, the success of policies and actions is not based on announcements and implementation only, as we have become accustomed to, but rather on outcomes. In other words, with all that we have done, and all the investments made, have we seen the desired improvement in income levels and quality of life generally? At the economic level, after all the debt that has burdened us over the years, have we seen the desired economic growth?

If the answer to that is no, then it means that no matter how much effort has been made, we have not achieved what we desired. And it must mean that we have been doing something terribly wrong, and of necessity must relook at what we are doing.

This is why we had to make a seismic shift in how we approached our economic and fiscal challenges. Based on the past two years, it seems as if we have come to grips with what needs to be done in that area. However, this is just a part of the bigger problem, as a country’s development, in the final analysis, is about improving the standard of living generally and providing greater opportunities to people, not just meeting economic targets.

So even after we have successfully achieved the economic targets we still have work to do.

We have to accept that we have not done a good job as a country in this regard, and it is not only because of poor governance, but very importantly a lack of our own personal responsibility, and how we understand our roles as citizens.

I think that the basic problem we face is the lack of proper parenting, and that we live in a time when roles are confused, as children want to act like adults and adults want to act like children. Just like the mosquito infestation, which has contributed to the CHIKV spread, if we were to all address the actions of our own surroundings then we would have better citizens contributing to development.

This problem crystallises itself in social issues that, I think, are at the root of our problems. These include child abuse, poor parenting, unethical values and attitudes, general indiscipline and lack of enforcement of order by the people responsible, and the list goes on. The point is that if we have a society that does not produce good and productive citizens, then we will have economies and societies that are far from optimal, if we accept that economies and societies are nothing more than the interaction of people.

There is a lot more I could say on the subject, but suffice it to say that Jamaica’s fundamental challenges lie in how we build and maintain improved standards of living for our people.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The main lesson I learnt from visiting Cuba

HAVANA, Cuba — Jorge Perez, the head of Cuba’s top tropical medicine institute, points to a map, showing the location of the field hospital set up to train doctors in the fight against Ebola, in Havana on Friday, October 17, 2014. Cuba has sent 165 doctors to Sierra Leone and plans to send 296 more to Liberia and Guinea, the largest commitment of medical personnel so far. Perez says Cuba is ready to send more doctors as long as there is enough funding and infrastructure to support them.

LAST month I was a member of the delegation that visited Cuba with Health Minister Dr Fenton Ferguson to look at that country's preparation for Ebola, and thus take back some lessons for implementation in Jamaica.

There is no doubt that even though Ebola is unlikely to penetrate the Caribbean region, the fact is that the consequences of it doing so are so harmful that it is important for us to do everything to prevent it. In the unlikely event that it does enter the region, it is imperative that we contain it quickly.

This was my first visit to Cuba, and I was very impressed with how organised they are, and their approach to confronting challenges. The team did learn a lot from the visit, and the hospitality of the Cubans was outstanding.

One could argue that the system of government, and the resulting effect on the standard of living leave much to be desired. However, that is not what I want to focus on, as I think there are some very important lessons for us to learn from them.

We did learn a lot about the Ebola virus and how to prepare for it, including the systems to use. However, the main lesson for me went far beyond Ebola. It was the fact that there exists a well-ordered and disciplined society, and that the people seemed to take a lot of pride in what they do and strive for perfection. This, of course, can only come through years of instilling this culture.

The truth is that this type of order exists in countries like the US also, and this is primarily because they ensure the enforcement of law and order, not unlike in Cuba, although in a more democratic way. The level of order and discipline in both societies can only come through the authorities ensuring that they enforce laws.

It seemed to me that it does not matter how many conferences we go to or how many laws we have on the books, if we do not ensure that there is order, which is enforced in a fair and swift manner, then we will never be able to realise our full potential as a country.

The first thing is that, even though we were on an official visit -- where you are usually ushered through immigration quickly -- the Cuban immigration authorities spent time with each member of the delegation quizzing us about our travels and whether we had visited West Africa.

I am sure that they had some indication of whether we had or not, as they went through our passports thoroughly, but may have used the questions as a way of confirming our honesty. The fact, though, is that they ensured that the system of screening applied to everyone, as border control seemed extremely important. They later advised that this level of scrutiny was applied to anyone entering Cuba.

I was also impressed by the fact that for them, 8:30 am did not mean 8:31 am. In other words, there was a lot of respect for time, and everyone with whom we spoke was very knowledgeable and very comprehensive in their analysis.

So they thought about everything that could possibly go wrong, so that every system they had in place was there for a reason, down to how they put on and took off the hazmat suits. They also had a true centralised system of operations and included a wide cross section of people in their deliberations.

The health system is also very well organised, so that each region has a hospital and each hospital has around 25 doctors, who live in the communities where they work, and each deals with about 1,200 patients, so they know each patient very well. This may not work in our system of competition and a broken health care system. However, it shows that health care is a national priority and must be seen as critical for development.

I was also very impressed with the fact that they don't allow the deterioration of the infrastructure, which is also very well organised. There are many parks for communities and the roads are organised for cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles. Quite a contrast to Jamaica where it's every man for himself.

I noticed, also, that the Cubans are very active in restoring the buildings in Old Havana to their original architectural design, as they recognise the value of this as a tourist attraction. I often wonder when I see the historical pictures of downtown Kingston why we never did that, not to mention Port Royal and the value that would have had as a tourist attraction.

It is this lack of discipline and order in Jamaica that, in my view, has been the primary reason for our economic and social decay. For example, we love to speak about major crimes like murder, but we never seem to realise the link between murder and general lack of discipline and law and order. In other words, how can we solve crime if everyone is allowed to do what they want when driving, throw garbage anywhere they want, or play music at whatever level they want or whenever they want?

Or how can we solve crime when it takes years to get a case through the courts, or there is no equity in justice, as in case of Mario Deane and others held in prisons for long periods without a trial.

How do we talk about economic development when there is no proper monitoring of the zoning laws by the parish councils, leading to improper competition? Or how can we see an increase in productivity when the bureaucracy of the public sector takes hours to deal with one transaction, or it takes each of us 368 hours per year to pay taxes?

The truth is that, unless we can address the problem of a dysfunctional society, in terms of law, order, and values, and unless there is accountability for actions, then we will not realise the potential we need for sustainable economic and social development.

Each citizen, of course, has a big role to play, and I am reminded of this when I see how much garbage gets into the gullies and onto the beaches. It is just plain lack of any respect for self why we as a people throw garbage on the roads, but maybe this is a reflection of the pride some of us have in ourselves.

So while the trip to Cuba did produce valuable lessons about the Ebola situation, more importantly it showed me that if we are to move forward, then we must develop a society that embraces law and order, and citizens who accept their own responsibility.