The Citizen’s Guide to the 2019-2020 Budget: a good start, but…

First, let’s be happy about what the Minister of Finance is trying to do in making the annual budget something that more people can understand and relate to. That latter aspect is important because it raises the chances that policies will go in the desired direction. For the first time, there is an attempt to put a non-technical document out to the public “in an easily understood format”. It’s close, but has a few steps to go, I’d argue.

Amongst those steps are ‘how will more people get to read the document?’ We’re long past the days when pamphlets about government policies were only available at official outlets and in paper form. So, a pull-out supplement in a Sunday paper is welcome. But, we know that many don’t have or want their access limited to this format. So, while the website address to the ministry of finance is prominent on the front of the document, a visit to that site doesn’t offer an electronic version of the guide. Why not? Worse still, the site listed under ‘Resources’, http://MOF.gov.jm/documents returns a ‘404 error’!

Put out the document in electronic form across the many social media platforms that now exist.

Economics is not a subject that is short of jargon but its use should be minimal when describing things. Also, simpler terms are better, I feel: ‘used’ is better than ‘utilized’, ‘aids’ is better than ‘facilitates’, for example. Plain language goes over better.

Graphs and charts are good, so use them more.

Accuracy is important but understanding doesn’t demand precision.

At the least, the decimal places could be dropped and the numbers rounded, eg J$274,447 millions. That should make for easier reading, at least.

Consistent simplification is needed. It’s great to see a heading like ‘Where does the money go?’ but why should we then have to translate ‘compensation of employees’? Couldn’t it be ‘What money staff get’ or similar?

There are some ‘inaccuracies’ that can be confusing: ‘bilateral institutions like the IMF and World Bank’ is wrong–they’re multilateral institutions. That difference can be explained simply, if needed, by pointing to bilateral institutions (citing the bilateral partner country).

While the guide doesn’t ask for feedback, I’ve offered it! However, I think feedback should be sought explicitly. After all, it’s better to hear how well citizens feel about the guide.

Just some thoughts. 🤔

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Sometimes, the frustration with Jamaica is just overwhelming

Last week I had a periodic rant (see thread below):

I’d just gotten back from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where my wife had been attending a Clinton Foundation conference on disaster recovery.

More than anything, I was struck by the look of a city that had suffered devastating hurricane damage less than two years ago: it was almost pristine. When the taxi driver had told us on the drive from the airport about water up to the fourth story of buildings, that was mind-boggling enough. Jamaica hasn’t had a major hurricane hit for several years, but the country knows well the widespread devastation and how hard it is to recover. So, why does so much of Jamaica look like it’s still recovering from a natural disaster? That’s where my frustration starts.

When I add the fact that Puerto Rico has been on its economic and financial knees, my concerns grow. Successful clean-up isn’t about good institutions and organizations but goes deeply to how people have strong sense of common purpose and pride.

That goes to answering questions like ‘How do we want our country to look and feel?’ It can’t be that we’re happy with grime and grunge mostly and the occasional sprucing up around major holidays or if US presidents are visiting.

We don’t have to totally replicate the look of San Juan, but it’s not a bad look.

What also strikes is the contrast in speed and cohesion of what’s being undertaken. That stings more now as many parts of Kingston and its metropolis are undergoing extensive urban reshaping–and I use that term instead of redesign for a reason. So much of our urban change reeks of disunity and that lack of cohesion stems from basic poor design through the obvious lack of communication with key parties that would ensure, at least, minimal disruption. Too often, we hear of or experience that much to our collective detriment: I’ve lost count of the unplanned power outages and water supply disruptions that have been caused by road construction damage.

I asked recently where are the cost-benefit analyses that should accompany the major projects underway. If they exist, they’re probably well-hidden in a draw. Why? Because, if they were glowingly positive do you really believe the government would want to hide them from plain sight?

Our patriarchal system of government is so entrenched that citizens just keep sucking it up and get ready for the next gullet full of bile. But, we are all losers in that case.

It doesn’t take a cynic to find political slogans like #NewJamaica more than a bit distasteful. One just has to remember has a newly-finished road, built to alleviate congestion stemming from one of the major new road projects, flooded and collapsed. (See reports on Chesterfield Drive.)

Image courtesy of RJR News

Out came the excuses from the National Works Agency about blocked drains that rendered the work so quickly unviable. You have to wonder how many of that agencies employees put on their outer garments before putting on their underwear. There’s a simple sequence to work, including that part called preparation. So, in the absence of that being adequate, how and why is there surprise at failure?

My rant ended by saying not caring is ingrained. In saying that, it’s easy to conclude that failure is similarly ingrained in much that gets undertaken in the name of the Jamaican people.

More servings of the mess of pottage?

Happy new year!

I’ve been wondering what to write about in 2019. I still haven’t decided if my general line is going to change from looking at things in the socioeconomic space of Jamaica or more generally about things to do with my life, personally. However, while I ponder life goes on.

I drove to Mandeville early yesterday morning, for the first time since my father died in November and was buried in November. As I drove along the all-too-familiar road heading west, I thought about several things.

First, I pondered what it means (to me) to be an economist. I see a lot of barbs thrown the way of economists, and I usually bat away those coming in my direction with what I hope are some helpful insights into what economics is really about. Many people see (macro)economics as merely about forecasting (right or wrong) economic outcomes, and proposing policies (workable and not) to deal with such outcomes. While that may be where many hang their hats, the underlying basis of the discipline is about trying to understand change, especially its motivation and things that influence it. At many levels, economics is about watching a marble balancing on the head of pin; it won’t stay there, but where and when will it fall? Economists are never out of subjects to study because nothing remains unchanged.

I often focus on things that don’t work in Jamaica even though they seem to act out well in many other places. One of the obvious reasons is that we have lots of undercurrents that don’t exist elsewhere or are less prevalent. One of those undercurrents is our sizable informal sector. By, its nature, it’s a sector that stays away from formality, often because its activities border on the legal. So, we often find that policy actions can’t operate through established channels, and thus tend to fail rather than succeed. Take a few simple examples from daily life seen on my drive yesterday.

We have two new bans in operations in early-2019: one, single-use plastic bags under 24×24 inches (don’t ask me why it’s not stated in metric terms, given that we’re supposed to be on a metric system–but that goes to another point), another on sugary drinks in schools. So, should I have been surprised to see children being sold goods outside the main schools in Porus in small plastic bags, or vendors supplying schoolchildren with what looked like sugary drinks in unmarked plastic bags? Of course not! Who and how are such bans to be policed? But, this is the informal sector at its core: the pursuit of personal gain irrespective of wider social issues. It’s a Darwinian ‘fight for survival’ and as such is often accepted because there’s no ‘social safety net’ that could provide income support for those who seek to ‘do a little thing’.

Anyone who has had to enter or leave Kingston in a westerly direction over the past two years must have experienced the road ‘improvements’ underway on Mandela Highway. One of many peeves expressed by a good number of people is how the roadworks happen with scant regard for safety of non-vehicular movements. We have high-speed two-way traffic often separated by no more than flimsy plastic barriers. We have people needing to cross the highway but with no adequate provisions for that. Instead, we see impromptu attempts to get traffic to yield to allow such crossings, often a pedestrian waving arms to alert fast-oncoming traffic. One wonders what it would have taken to construct say a temporary footbridge.

Relative to the main road works, such construction is neither some new-fangled idea or major. By not doing so, government tells us explicitly how it regards lives of pedestrians over other road users–lowly, even at zero.

What these two seemingly unconnected sets of actions tell us is simply that (typically), on the one hand government shows scant regard for citirzens, and in return citizens play scant regard to government’s wishes (as expressed through policy actions). That combination is a recipe for continual failure. Sadly, government often seems oblivious of its own ‘foot-in-mouth’ posture and wonders why changes are slow.

Arc of the covenant: Thoughts on a migratory path

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Why did my parents choose the paths they did? After my mother decided to go to England to further her nursing career, why did my parents do what they did? My father could have stayed in Jamaica with me and kept on a nursing career path already underway. He could have taken me to my mother in England and left me with her (she had potentially good family support there). Long-distance relationships were, and still are, not uncommon amongst migrants, so too are families where children get left behind while parents seek work abroad. Splitting the household could have minimized risks and removed many uncertainties. I could have grown up as a ‘barrel child’. Their son could have moved along an educational path that, while not certain, was better known and understood. Instead, he was pitched into a new educational set-up, which he navigated better than many of his migrant peers and ended up well-positioned, as his parents had hoped. My parents opted to move into a world that often treated migrants as second-class citizens, especially in key areas like jobs and housing. What a huge risk!

At what point did any of these options get discussed or discarded? Of course, I can’t now pose those questions of my parents.

That the choices they made did not leave them on the floor of migrants’ fortunes over a period of 25 years is fascinating. They succeeded far more than they failed. For instance, they moved from renting small basement flats in London’s inner city to buying houses in the suburbs. That’s a good story to tell.

No way could they have foretold events that would leave them living comfortably as retirees in Jamaica, debt-free, pensions coming predictably from the UK, largely protected from exchange rate losses, not uncertainly from Jamaica in depreciated dollars.

Hindsight is 20-20, so I don’t know how much second guessing my parents did through their lives, but I know they were happy with the outcomes.

The world turned upside down

I spent several enjoyable hours reflecting on my father’s life while I was writing Remembrances for his funeral, and I managed to put together a piece that was part chronological, part about characteristics. Not surprisingly, at this time of year, when we tend to reflect, at least on the year past, I’ve kept reflecting on my father.

Funnily, I did that every morning beforehand, because I do about 10 minutes of yoga/stretching. My father was never an athlete, yet after his return to Jamaica in the mid-1980s he got into an active regime that involved him gardening/farming, but also walking a lot, mainly across the Manchester Golf Course, but also into the centre of Mandeville for aerobics and yoga classes. As I was arching my back, my teenage daughter walked in–early for her. In mid-stretch, I asked her if she could recall seeing her grandfather do headstands; she said no. I remember seeing him do them for the first time and being astonished with the ease of his movement. He suggested I try the pose. Well, I was never great at gymnastics, so was wary as I tried to flip myself up and over and get my legs to touch the wall, which was for guidance and support, as a beginner. After a few failed attempts, I was inverted. Then, he told me to stay there for a few minutes. What? He then told me to close my eyes and breathe gently. I’d be lying if I said I felt comfortable, but gradually I lost my sense of disorientation and relaxed. Daddy, then told me to come down slowly. I did and got into a conversation with him about the benefits of yoga.

I would never describe my father as a health nut, but during his retirement he focused more on his health and diet. He was a diabetic and decided to deal with that by controlling what he ate, a challenge for a man who loved to eat and to cook his favourite Jamaican dishes. Cooking on an open fire was one of his skills, and like many rural Jamaicans, could regulate heat without a thermometer.

Of the many changes I noticed during his time back in Jamaica was how he ate heartily but became trimmer-looking. Life in Jamaica is sweet, people often say, but that’s often reflected in a swelling waistline; I can attest.

My paternal grandmother and my parents taught me how to cook, but I can barely hold a candle to any of them. My gran could bake like a wizard, and would ply me almost daily with desserts she made, when she came to live with us in London: “Dem dont feed yu a school? Look how yu mawga!” she often said. 🙂 My mother taught me how to cook chicken, and I managed to get her to tell me recipes that I wrote in a book, so they can be added to heirlooms. But, my father was the king of seasoning food. I’d marvel at how he’d start seasoning a joint two days before roasting it, and his pot-roast pork makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

Despite all that, I can’t cook many Jamaican dishes, though my fried chicken is mean as is my take on fried dumplings and saltfish.

My Bahamian in-laws demand I cook this every visit. 👍🏾🇯🇲

So, bear with me if I get emotional sometimes over a meal; it’s probably full of great memories. I remember watching a documentary a couple of years ago about how some Asian cultures revere the memories of ancestors through meals, and there’s interesting research on links between food and memories.

So, in death there’s always meaning to life.

Barren fruit: a region plagued by killing, with Jamaica out front

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The priest opened this Sunday’s church service with “Any day you wake up six feet above ground is a good day.” I’d say! It was a slip of the tongue, but had meaning. We usually value our own lives. But, that of others?

He chose as his sermon to stress the theme that life must ‘bear fruit’ (not in the simple sense of procreation, but in terms of being gainfulness) and that it should be done ‘with love’. As part of an instructional process, he elaborated on his theme and sought answers from the congregation about why these two things are often absent in their lives. Selfishness, concern about others’ views came out as reasons, but also fear of rejection. Those who have loved and lost can relate to that latter point. In my mind, I played with the notion of rejection on all sides.

I enjoyed Canon Scott’s sermon, not least for his trying to engage the congregation in a way that set him as no better than them: “I’m no saint!” He asked how many rejected the tenets of their faith as soon as they step out of the church. He knew it, personally, as he felt when people talked about him: his ears twitched. But, some people are just ‘disgusting’, often shown by utter ingratitude as when the woman whose flat tyre he and a friend changed just drove off without a word of thanks. Priestly Scott bit his lip, but his friend was ready to hurl a rock at the woman.

The idea of all-around rejection resurfaced when I read a detailed analysis of crime/murder in Jamaica, written by my good friend, Kevin O’Brien Chang, Cry, My Murderous Country. (Full declaration, Kevin and I have been friends for ages, and have many strongly argued discussions about Jamaican life, often over a long lunch in Mandeville, but also over the phone or by WhatsApp. I find him one of the island’s most perceptive commentators on things Jamaican, and his knowledge of our life and lifestyles are well documented in his books on music and the country. We both try to support our arguments with solid data, and he’s often pointed me to some fascinating trends.)

His basic pillar was Jamaica’s homicide stats are horrifying. The planet’s second most murderous country in 2017. Earth’s highest violent death rate for women. Almost 10 times as murderous as the world average. He went on to argue for a continuation of the State of Emergency, accepting that it is only short-term:

‘We all know the SOEs, in and of themselves, are not the complete solution. But they are indispensable to any realistic strategy along the lines of:

– Short term: Intelligently applied force to normalise matters, by taking the irredeemable out of circulation – namely SOEs.

– Medium term: Social intervention to redeem the redeemable.

– Long term: Ending our education apartheid by enabling inner-city access to decent education, including early childhood interventions.’

But we can continue the SOEs while working on these. How much longer should we keep SOEs in place? The first goal must be to get murders below the psychologically critical 1,000 mark. And if Jamaica’s murder rate can be reduced to Latin America’s average, homicides would go under 500 a year, about 1989 levels. Only then could we consider ourselves a ‘normally’ murderous country.’ (My emphases.)

This is one of the better arguments for not yet removing the SOE, because it’s not just about the time not being right, but putting a reasoned timeline on what would constitute the right triggers to remove SOEs. I say this to contrast to some of the arguments, including those offered by the PM in claiming that 20-25 “dangerous criminals” will be unleashed in St. James at the end of the state of emergency, which he raised during an interview on Nationwide radio. My first reaction to that claim was its total lack of reference to the inability of justice and security officials to do their jobs, properly, in building “water tight cases”. The underlying weaknesses in this reasoning were well spelled out yesterday by attorney Daniel Thwaites, State Of Incompetency:

‘You can’t have hundreds of persons detained on the basis that I may one day be able to come up with some evidence to support some charge against the person”.

Perhaps one of the worst aspects of these SOE is that it accustoms the police to act with impunity instead of doing good investigations and bringing cases with evidence. Is it any surprise, then, that arrests are down, arrests with evidence are down, and firearm and ammunition seizures are down?’ (My stress.)

I’ve had a different concern about the SOEs from early in their recent introduction. Mainly, once it appeared that they were ‘working’ in terms of murders declining, I wondered at the logic underlying their limited application elsewhere. No one should be surprised that those living in areas where murders are being reduced dramatically would want to hold onto what they see as the reason for that success. Naturally, others would like to benefit from similar reductions in their areas. So, if it was really a good solution I always wondered why and how the government chose to extend it. Clearly, the government did not have resources to make the SOE national–taking aside whether this was feasible, constitutionally. Moreover, as Thwaites stresses, the police seem at best no better at crime fighting and even with SOE astonishingly worse. Things like SOE clearly don’t help those supposedly doing crime fighting to be better at that job. Policy makers should be worried about that, not least because public confidence in the police will remain low in such circumstances.

The Bahamas, like many other countries in the Caribbean, has seen its crime rate, especially murders, rise in recent years, recording the world’s 11th highest homicide rate in 2017. In the past week I’ve heard about murders every day on the news, noting that it just had the third straight week of triple double homicides. The reports of these incidents haven’t given much context, but many of them are like those in Jamaica, mainly related to some other crimes (eg drug dealing) or domestic violence. Police Commissioner Ferguson said earlier this month: “These are disorganised persons who are going around, once they have a gun in their hand and want to make a couple dollars, they will go and they panic and things happen.” Asked if the double homicides are related or concern gang activity, he said officers see no connection among the matters yet. However, unlike Jamaica, Bahamians have seen significant declines in violent crimes in 2018 (eg murders down 27%) without any state of emergencies.

I listened during a car ride to a litany of horrific mass murders of members of families that have occurred in New Providence in recent decades; none seemed to have clear motives and the accused either denied the crime or claimed that he had been ‘told’ to do the crimes by ‘The Devil’. Domestic ‘disputes’ are a bane across many of our communities, though mass murders are rare.

We know from international experience that measures like SOEs aren’t often used to address crime trends. Why Jamaica has sought to rely on that makes interesting consideration.

We know that Latin America and the Caribbean has the dubious rank as the the world’s worst for violent crime (as Kevin O’Brien Chang notes and often gets highlighted in international media). We also know that violent crime is a major drag on national economic and social development.

Jamaica’s PM made an election campaign promise that a vote for him would mean that Jamaicans could sleep with their doors open. It was a ridiculous assertion, but in the euphoria of electoral politics, it’s not surprising that it flew high. That a country with its record of anemic growth stretching behind it like a bad odour since Independence, I often wonder why Jamaicans haven’t grasped how crime has impoverished them. They’ve tolerated for decades poor crime fighting from the police. Many have also preferred to quietly cooperate with criminals, enjoying many benefits from doing so, albeit at a heavy price in terms of risks to their lives. That tells a basic story of how government has failed to deliver ‘welfare’ to a large section of the people.

In the words of Canon Scott, Jamaican governments have not borne fruit and done little with love (of its people).

#Windrush reflections across the generations

I’m sure my parents didn’t think it, and I certainly didn’t: we are, apparently, part of the Windrush Generation. The fact that we migrated from Jamaica on a BOAC flight not on the Windrush seems irrelevant.

According to a BBC report, Windrush generation: Who are they and why are they facing problems?, ‘This is a reference to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands, as a response to post-war labour shortages in the UK.’ The BBC also noted that there are now 500,000 people resident in the UK who were born in a Commonwealth country and arrived before 1971 – including the Windrush arrivals – according to estimates by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory. The influx ended with the 1971 Immigration Act, when Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK were given indefinite leave to remain.

The fact that my parents and I left England means that we were not ensured by immigration issues about our rights of abode in the UK. However, we did have issues.

When we left Jamaica in 1961 we were all UK citizens. After Jamaica’s Independence in 1962, we became Jamaicans, with a right to retain UK citizenship for a limited amount of time. Of course, as a 7 year old at the time of Independence, not of this registered with me. It never mattered to me until the 1980s.

I had travelled to England on my father’s UK passport. As I needed to travel to Europe during my time at grammar school, I went abroad on a British visitor‘s passport, which one obtained from a Post Office, and was valid for no more than a year. It was introduced in 1961 and good for travel in Western Europe.

It was a simplified document and I had several of these during my student years. It was discontinued in the mid-1990s.

At some stage, I obtained a Jamaican passport, as my parents had done, earlier. So, as I passed through life it did not occur to me that I was anything but a British-Jamaican citizen.

Fast forward. I was offered a job at the Bank of England, but at my final interview was asked if I was a British citizen. I said I thought so, recounting my history briefly. But, to be sure, I agreed to check with the Home Office, before finalizing the offer. I discovered that I could reregister as a British citizen, having lost this at Jamaica’s Independence. It was a simple process, and my central banking career could begin. That was in 1980.

I assumed my parents had already done this themselves. However, as I combed through my father’s papers, I came across the reregistration documents for him and my mother, and they are dated several years after mine.

What we’ve seen during 2018 is how some of these immigration issues have caught some migrants out, so that despite being in the UK for decades they found that they had problems proving their right of abode. To me, it’s an understandable situation which could have been resolved more easily with a different attitude toward immigrants. Decisions to destroy copies of landing records of some of these people are among the more disturbing and puzzling. Home Office processes led to some wrongful detentions and deportations of members of the Windrush generation, says a National Audit Office report. To say that the Home Office didn’t have a good understanding of what the rules implied for some migrants is an understatement.

British nationality laws are complicated and have become more so since the early-1970s. As the BBC noted in April: ‘In 1971 these people were told they could stay permanently but the government didn’t keep a full record of them. Some of these people didn’t apply for official paperwork like a UK passport.

In 2012 there was a change to immigration law and people were told they needed official documents to prove they could get things like free hospital treatment or benefits in this country.’

It’s quite understandable that many immigrants were ignorant of their true citizenship status. They could easily have confused time in country and involvement in many aspects of national life, or using travel documents that appeared to confer citizenship, or a host of other things as somehow conferring citizenship. People who travelled to the UK on their parents’ passports could understandably thought that they were British, after a life being raised in the UK, and might never have understood the need for a document to prove that.

All of my cousins in England were born there. They don’t have these citizenship issues facing them, thankfully.

Ironically, many Caribbean migrants never went to Britain with views of remaining permanently. But, things always change once you start moving around. Sadly, though, some of those Jamaicans who left England after different degrees of stay, especially long ones, haven’t found returning home a bed of roses, either.

It’s trite but true that life of often existence between a rock and a hard place.

Thinking about the ‘good old days’

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I love the Christmas holidays! It’s the best time to get family together and for stories about families and friends to flow. It’s frankly more uplifting than focusing on the various political ‘circuses’ that are performing this season.

I’ve just been sharing some thoughts with a Jamaican cousin about younger members of our extended family in England with whom we’ve either lost touch or never knew. In the process, we reminisced briefly about some uncles, now dead, whom we both remember as ‘characters’ and funny, or involved in funny events.

Four of my mother’s brothers went to England in the late-1950s/early-1960s. I must have met all of them before, but my stronger and longer memories of them are after I went to England. They all lived in South London, and initially lived in a house owned by the oldest of them. I’ve been racking my brain, recently, how a farmer from St. Elizabeth could manage to own a huge house in London after only 4 years there and working for London Transport.

I visited the house in Brockley on one of my UK visits a few years ago and marvelled at how it and its neighbourhood had been transformed into gentrified luxury. In truth, it was getting back to its earlier status as a location for wealthy people. The current pictures from the same road confirm my recollections, especially the huge walled garden, in which I sometimes played with younger cousins, born in London. I have pictures from the early-1960s of my parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and me taken outside my uncle’s house, so know that my memories are clear.

As the historic link about Brockley notes, ‘In the 1950s and 1960s these houses provided accommodation for the recently arrived African-Caribbean population,‘ many of whom found work in nearby Deptford, to which I can attest. What puzzles me is the point made in the link: ‘In the period 1945–60s it was very difficult to get a bank loan to purchase a pre-1914-built property, hence the frequent subdivision of the larger older houses during this period.‘ My uncle owned the house and was landlord for his brothers and another cousin from St. Elizabeth. It’s possible that the money was pooled through some ‘partner’ system. I may have to trawl through some property records to get a handle on this ‘mystery’. Sadly, living family members who may be able to shed some light are dwindling.

The house story is an intriguing aside. My conversation about my uncles and their children was really about how we’d lost contact, if it was ever established. My father’s side of the family who are in England have a vibrant WhatsApp group going and it’s the go-to place for all family affairs. Maybe, we can use their presence in England to reach out to cousins on my mother’s side.

I know the other uncles moved out some time after their elder brother got married and started his family. One, I know, moved into a flat not far from New Cross, in south-east London. He came back to Jamaica in the late-1980s, after an accident in England, as a retiree. The home-owning uncle also returned to Jamaica and worked a while at Alpart.

We know that migrants tend to band together, at least in their early time abroad, but also, as stays extend, chance or other contacts occur. So, we’re going to do some ‘reaching’ into one side of the family to see if they can reach out to the other side in the UK.

What a death tells us about NIDS

Anyone who has been following my commentary over the last year or so will know that I am not a fan of the government’s plans for a national identity system (NIDS). However, many of my concerns are being deliberated by Jamaica’s Constitutional Court, so I’ll await their adjudication and see what follows. Anyone who knows me well, also knows that I need to walk a very careful line on how and on what I make comments. I have been bemused and also distressed by some of the commentaries that suggest NIDS is some kind of panacea for many of the ills that exist in Jamaican life. I don’t have problems with claims that NIDS will smooth the path to digitizing Jamaica:

https://twitter.com/andrewholnessjm/status/930217464197275648?

That’s a given. But, how NIDS works towards other objectives, including service delivery by both public and private sector, depends much on how other agencies choose to or can use it. For instance, if the Jamaica Constabulary doesn’t move from inefficient paper records, that are not easily integrated, to digital records or ways of verifying such digital records on the spot, certain potential gains from NIDS cannot be realized. Identify frauds, for instance, wont disappear, even if harder. It’s long been understood that criminals thrive, in part, because they are at least one-step ahead of law enforcers including being able to tap into human frailties to commit transgressions even if sworn to do otherwise.

As I have written in recent days, my father died in late-November, and was buried on December 11. He is no longer a living person, which is known and obvious to anyone who knew him. What needs to happen, now, is for institutions and people to learn of his death, and deal with that, accordingly. The problem with human society is that people and organizations need to know when we come into existence, when we change the nature of our existence, and when our existence ends. Documenting existence efficiently is what NIDS should be about, essentially. Documenting that across several countries or jurisdictions can be problematic, but is usually doable. Some countries have systems that do not pay much regard to the rest of the world; ironically, the USA is one such country: try enrolling for certain services in the USA and getting blocked by the fact that you don’t have a US address.

In most countries, births are recorded at the time they occur. If there is a delay in recording the birth then that creates scope for mistakes. Recording births properly is made easier if they occur within well-recognized institutions, but even then mistakes happen. If a birth occurs at home, say, then the accuracy of recording the event depends on the ability and education of those involved in the birth. Someone who is illiterate or unable to complete the report of it online, say, would not be able to record the birth accurately. That same problem can occur if you have institutions which are responsible for recording life events and the person providing information is either illiterate or in some sense ignorant how relevant systems operate. You can always have simple human error messing up the recording of events. For example, when paper records are being digitized any record missed could disappear from a system. One then has the awkward situation, say, of someone having a paper record of their original birth certificate but that record doesn’t exist in digital records. Strange, but true, according to a story a Bahamian in-law related this morning.

Some problems occur in a country like Jamaica, where English is supposed to be our official language but many people do not speak or write English very well. They rely on the spoken word and may utter words that sound correct but are not the correct words. So, in the case of someone giving information about the birth to an official, the person may say the name of the child but what they say may have no bearing on the real or desired name of the child. We know stories from the recent past, perhaps apocryphal, where a friend or relative was asked to record the birth of a child and when they were sent they were given a note with the child’s or children’s names and told that the name was pinned on them. When they arrive at an office for the registrar general, and were asked the name of the child, they said the child’s name was ‘Pinned on them’. Sounds ridiculous? I have at least one relative close to me whose name appears to be a written representation of what someone said but the name is really hard to understand given the origin of names as we know them. More common are the existence of other errors, such as date of birth. Again, I’m all too close to those errors within my family.

Jamaicans have lived with the consequences of these kind of birth records errors for decades. NIDS won’t remove existing errors. I struggle to see how they have made us highly criminalized or economically poor performers. So, reducing them is unlikely to result in major shifts in those kind of socioeconomic ratings.

According to everyone who knew my father from his childhood and told to me by father, he lived all his life with the wrong official birthday. His grandmother got the dates for him and another child confused. At his death, however, I was not in a position to correct that, and the records show that error to his grave, literally.

While information about dates of birth and death are only part of identifying who someone is, we know that they do not determine who someone is. NIDS, or any other system, needs other corroborating information to cement an identity. Biometric data can offer such corroboration, to a degree, though are not infallible. The challenges to such data systems are fully explored by US NGO The National Academy of Science. Specific concerns have been raised about use of biometrics in recently developed NIDS systems, eg India’s Aadhaar system.

My father has a trail of documentation that establishes who he was that is not only based on Jamaican records but supplemented by UK records (pre- and post-independence), and by the vagaries of diplomacy cemented in some international records based on his travel and need for visas. Most of that is paper-based, and any electronic records reproduce errors that exist in ‘source’ documents.

As I try to wind up my father’s life, these errors will be there for all time and only family memories will carry the truth.

Anyway, he’s been removed from the voters list (the Electoral Commission of Jamaica is on a drive to remove dead voters, launching the ‘Dead Elector Removal Exercise’ on November 28, which is aimed at clearing the voters’ list of persons who have died since 1998). His bank accounts will be closed, in due course. I’ll have to advise the Royal Mail to discontinue his pension payments. These changes rely on conscientious individuals to keep others informed, and in a timely manner. I think I have the essentials covered, but others could be unaware or unable to do the necessaries. Given the fallibility of systems and people operating them, I’ll be interested to see which institutions continue to seek him out after they’ve been informed of his death.

Exorcising demons? Do I have a book in me?

Friends have been urging me for some time to write a book, most likely a novel. My wife liked a recent post so much, she had me pencilled in for a Booker Prize 😂 I’ve started a few times to write something biographical because it’s often said that life experiences are the easiest to retell.

My father’s death triggered a number of thoughts about my retelling life stories, his mainly, at the moment.

Whenever I started on my own life I’d reach a blockage when I recalled parts of my father’s experience in the first few years of our time in England. For context, note that my parents left Jamaica in 1961, before Independence. I never heard my parents utter a bad word about the British or life under colonial rule. I don’t think they went to England expecting to find milk and honey. But, I am absolutely certain that they did not expect the barriers they found.

First, the fact that my father’s Jamaican qualification as a mental nurse, which he had gained under the British system, were not accepted in Britain was a great source of pain for my father. Instead of continuing his career he had to choose alternative work so that he could add to the family’s income. In Jamaica, he had reached the level of a senior mental nurse at Bellevue Hospital. But, in England he had to look for work, first with London Transport as a bus conductor and then later as a driver. He later became a driver and mail man for the Royal Mail, the Postal Service. Thereafter, he worked on administrative and organizational aspects of mail delivery.

As a young boy, I did not appreciate the sacrifice that my father had made so that we could continue a normal life in England. Later, when I discussed his time in England with my father, the pain he had gone through by having to give up his nursing career was always evident on his face. What sticks with me is his inability to understand how or why he was supposed to relearn a subject he felt he could teach. Also, I may never know why my mother’s Jamaican nursing qualifications were acceptable but my father’s were not.

The second barrier comes from my knowing that my father soon realized that he did not want to stay in England, but sadly was unable to find money to pay for his fare to return to Jamaica. I think this is the right telling of the story, as opposed to another possibility which was that my father might have lost face had he returned to Jamaica so soon after going to England.

A third barrier was my father’s relationship with the Masonic Lodge. What I recall is that he never found welcoming arms from The Brotherhood in England. I don’t know why that was, but know that he attended only a few meetings. As far as I know, he never associated with the Masons after his return to Jamaica. So, the vaunted ‘bonds of friendship, compassion, and brotherly love‘ seemed missing for a significant portion of my father’s life. Technically, the Masonic regalia should be returned to them, and that is something I may explore in the new year.

Growing up in England, our house always had medical books, many of which were my father’s, and it was always interesting that he would give my mother advice on medical matters as she developed her career as a young nurse. Early in my life, it was natural to accept the idea that I would enter the medical field; after all, anatomy and things to do with the body and mind were the literature that surrounded me more than anything else.

Thinking back over my father’s life before he returned to Jamaica in the mid-1980s, it’s a great shame that I have no photographs of him showing his working life. In fact, the only photograph I have of my father in Jamaica before 1961 is his passport picture. Nowadays, with the arrival of digital devices that can take pictures better than many of the old cameras, we are accustomed to seeing pictures of almost any moment and every moment we choose. My daughters are not short of photographs of their father, and of themselves with their father and their mothers. For that reason, it’s important to try to give an image of my father based on my memory, rather than any images that shows clearly who or what he was. From 1962 onwards, there are some pictures of my parents in England, mainly at social events. I became a keen photographer in my mid-teens so it’s surprising that I do not have pictures of my parents from the late 1960s onwards. The reality is that my photographic interest was in other people and places in England and when I traveled abroad, taking the typical tourist pictures of things that were really new to me. I took a lot of candid photographs with a school friend, who like me was interested in photography, and we spent many hours developing pictures in his dark room.

I’m urging family members to dig around to see if they have pictures lurking around, so I may get lucky and discover some pre-1960s snaps. I recall seeing some pictures, including my father with his beloved BSA 250 motorcycle, before he had an accident and broke his leg. I remember riding on it with my parents to Palisadoes and the drive-in movie theatre at Harbour. View. But after a lifetime of moving around, I’ve no idea who has them.