Friday, January 16, 2015

Low-hanging development options

MOST times when we speak about economic and social development, many of us think about the cost of infrastructure or costs associated with the government providing stimulus to the economy. Or if we talk about reducing crime, then one of the first things discussed is the need for more resources for the police.

The truth is many things can be done that do not require a great deal of resources. This is the same as making positive changes in an organisation. In many instances, the really positive changes that are needed to kick-start a successful organisation do not have any costs attached to them.

In fact, spending money can make the situation even worse if the requisite action is not taken to set the stage for a new development path. Similarly, we often hear that the police force and the health sector need more resources, but putting money into a broken system does not necessarily fix the problem. Leading up to the 2008 recession, for example, we saw more and more funds being allocated to health, security, and education, but those sectors actually worsened over that period.

We face a similar situation in Jamaica today. We have a broken system, and putting more money into it without the necessary fundamental changes will only cause us to be in greater debt. This is why the adjustment under the economic programme is so important — not just throwing money at each and every outcry that we hear. We have done that in the past, where we have been in the middle of an adjustment programme and as soon as we near an election, or as a sector cries out, we resume the old ways of borrowing money to ease the cries before polling day. And so we start the whole process again and again. The only difference being that we start from a worse base all the time.

Low-hanging fruit can create significant change without any significant cost. There are four main initiatives that can be taken to bring positive development. They will require strong support from the citizenry, who regularly complain about the country's governance. This is an opportunity for us to turn around the country with little involvement from politicians. But are we willing to take the personal responsibility to do this? Much of a country's development rests in the hands of the people. It is only when the people decide they want a better country that any improvement happens.

The first initiative is the cost of health. Approximately 70 per cent of the cost of health in Jamaica has to do with non-communicable diseases (NCDs), otherwise known as lifestyle diseases. These include things like diabetes, high blood pressure, and even some cancers. Jamaica • billions on NCDs each year, much of it scarce foreign exchange for treatment drugs. In addition, much of the individual health costs relate to NCDs. But the fact is the great majority of these diseases are avoidable. If we behave differently when it comes to nutrition and exercise, then the country's fiscal accounts and balance of payments would benefit. In addition, the cost of individual health insurance would be significantly reduced. No government policy can force this to happen. It is a matter of personal choice.

The second initiative relates to our environment. We know the challenge of garbage collection, and we rightly hold the NSWMA responsible when they fail to perform this critical function efficiently. But a big part of our environmental challenge comes down to our own personal choices. The degradation of the environment has a deleterious effect on Jamaica, particularly because we are a tourist destination. Apart from the negative effect on tourism, it also can be the cause of natural disasters caused by flooding etc. The result of not taking care of our environment is that it can cost us billions in f o re g o n e revenue from tourism, and every time we have a natural disaster it costs the country tens of millions of dollars. The irony is that much of the cost from environmental effects is because of actions by citizens, who pollute the gullies and other parts of the environment.

The third area is law and order. If we are to achieve vision 2030, then it is going to be important to develop a society that is disciplined and adheres to the rule of law. Indiscipline on the roads and non-compliance with the Noise Abatement Act are two areas where citizens can exercise control. Even though the government is responsible for enforcement of these laws, the fact is much of the responsibility lies with the citizens, who are the ones who break the law. This is tied to enforcement, which is a primary responsibility of the government. Another area of enforcement that we disregard but which will lead to a more ordered environment is the zoning law.

The final area is a huge negative for investments and business — public sector bureaucracy. Even though the transformation of the sector will require some amount of funds, the fact is much can be achieved by just changing the attitude of the workers. An example of where this has worked is the Tax Authority of Jamaica, which has not only made legislative changes to be more effective, but more importantly is transforming the approach to customer service delivery.

These are some of the lowhanging fruit that must be picked, to cause serious transformation in the economy and social lives of Jamaicans. Even if we were to spend money on these areas, without the change in behaviour by us Jamaicans, these areas will not improve. The role of government is enforcement, but if we as Jamaicans truly want the country to advance, do we need to wait on enforcement or should we individually be making the change?

Therefore, even while we grapple with the need for funds, we should also realise that much of what is needed to transform our economic and social fortunes really comes down to the will of the government and of us the people to want a better country.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Think differently for a better future, Jamaica

Police Commissioner Carl Williams (right) and National Security Minister Peter Bunting have the right attitude for change.

2015 is here, and we celebrate a new year and new beginnings. But what does the turn of a new year really mean?

Traditionally, we have always celebrated a new year as a new beginning, but what makes the start of a new year any different from the old year? After all, we still have the same crime problem on January 1 as we did on December 31. We still have the same leadership issues. We still have the same problems with bureaucracy (which we were reminded of on the last day of 2014 with the statement from Omar Azan).

There are, of course, some things that are different, which we can speak to. We threw out the old calendars and put up the new ones. That is if you are still from the old school where you have a physical calendar rather than a digital version. For some companies and accountants it is significant because it is the start of a new accounting year, but then again, this is not consistent with everyone.

The truth is that there is nothing different between an old year and a new year, outside of the festivities and commercial activities. When we return to work on Monday, the workload and challenges will be the same as December 31 (unless you worked throughout the holidays).

Many of us make New Year resolutions, which we carry from year to year, and each year they need to be bigger, as we have, for example, gained more weight or have not done all that we wanted to do.

So in reality, there is really nothing different about a new year. The positive about recognising a new year is that it provides for us a measure of time, which we can use to measure progress or failure.

But this measure of time is only useful if we had goals, charted a path for those goals, and made sure that we followed our plan. So a company may do a budget and strategic plan for the year, but if the management fails to follow and monitor the plan during the year, then they could come to the end of the year and realise they have not achieved it.

Similarly, a person who has a health plan, such as weight loss, needs to monitor the steps every day to achieve that plan.

Therefore, while the new year serves as a significant measurement milestone, the achievement of that milestone is reached by actions during the year. So we really don't need a new year to do this, but rather it provides a yardstick and is a good way for people to check their indiscipline.

How many of us have made resolutions in the past to lose weight, but find ourselves putting on more each year? Or how many of us have said that we want to achieve something during a year but find at the end of the year that we are one year older without the achievement?

One thing we can agree on, however, is that the new year is not a magical solution to any challenges we have.

So how do we ensure that we achieve what we want during a year? The reality is that the only thing that will allow change is for us to change our mindset and approach to existing situations. In other words, actions are most times driven by how we think about the problems.

So, if you want to make health changes in 2015, then you have to change your attitude and behaviour that cause the weight problem, which may include getting new friends who do not encourage the bad behaviour.

If we also want a better country, then we also must change the way we approach and think about solutions. This I find to be a big part of the problem we have had over the years.

We have, for example, had many International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreements and promises by politicians in previous years but have always found ourselves back in the same economic quagmire or worse. This is simply because, until the current agreement, we had not adopted a new way of thinking and doing things. And this is why many are saying that the current path, in general, does not work.

Those people are slaves to the normal ways of doing things, which is a significant reason that companies seek younger talent all the time, as they come with a different perspective, which is needed for growth.

This is not limited to the politicians, many of whom need renewal. It also applies to the public. A big challenge for me resides with public sector leadership and rules. I think there are some excellent workers and leaders in the public sector, but there are also some people who think that the role of the public sector is to prevent rather than facilitate.

For example, one of the things we must confront in 2015 is that growing fiscal revenues is not just about squeezing every last cent out of businesses in the form of taxes, but also facilitating the growth of business, resulting in a much larger base of revenue, even if it means lowering the tax take from businesses.

If we are also going to deal with the crime and law and order problems, then we must also think of a different approach. Police Commissioner Carl Williams and National Security Minister Peter Bunting, I think, have the right attitude change that will see progress in this area, and we are seeing some progress, although many are not capable of seeing change while it is happening.

There is, however, still much to be done here.

Much of the responsibility for law and order also resides with the citizens, who don't see anything they do as wrong. My challenge to citizens is that they should not support any violation of laws such as the Night Abatement Act, or driving and talking on the phone, or disposing of garbage improperly.

We must also change our attitudes to child abuse and punish the perpetrators, and those who are complicit, severely.

This responsibility even extends to not protecting people who have done wrong and supporting the rules to be implemented by the JUTC. When they start implementing these rules we shouldn't be asking for people to be given a "bligh". We must support the rules and call out the JUTC if they are not implementing them to the fullest extent of the law.

So as we start the measurement period of 2015, let us all understand that irrespective of the great plans and wants we have, that these will only be successful if we change our mindset and approach to dealing with our challenges, as there is no magic wand that is waved at the start of a new year.

Happy New Year, everyone.