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.

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