The bus has gone but we’re still waiting: Jamaican attitudes bind the economy

A couple of days ago, I wrote about some aspects of Jamaican manners. My focus was on modes of dress and how these had changed over the decades. However, more things about how people behave have changed during the same period.

Back in 2010, Martin Henry (a communications specialist) wroteJamaica has become too much of a coarse, vulgar and rambunctious place. The country is awash with non-criminal social violence. The nation is extraordinarily disorderly and ‘chaka-chaka’ in social relations.’ The article had the notion of a Behaviour Standard Committee.

In passing, an article in today’s Observerby Dennis Chung, Jamaica’s emerging crisis. One of his main points was an ‘apparent absence of values and social skills required for a productive work force‘. Jamaicans are poor at social interaction, and Mr. Chung cited instances of how adults are displaying to children forms of actions and speech that were more likely to repel than attract people. It was a combination of poor attitudes, but also a lack of awareness of how inappropriate was the behaviour in question–cursing, smoking drugs, listening to lewd music, displaying sexually suggestive actions.

Dance hall crossed into Jamaican streets and never looked back
Dance hall crossed into Jamaican streets and never looked back

He saw these traits as bad for the country’s economic future.

Mr. Henry’s article talked about a public institution to handle public behaviour. Do we need bureaucrats to teach us how to behave?

When people cite Singapore as a model for Jamaica, I often think about how Lee Kwon Yew got the population to buy into certain forms of strict social behaviour. Part of that was through rules and laws; part was through a general acceptance of how a ‘good society’ looked and sounded.

Social change is often gradual, rather than rapid. Jamaica doesn’t seem capable of changing on its own at a rate fast enough to take advantage of things that are already in train. This has been true for a long time. One can look at many aspects of how the society and economy work and identify attitudes and practices that are very out of date. People like what they see as traditions, however.

What this means in formal terms is that Jamaica is facing a serious mismatch. The world is moving in a direction from Jamaicans cannot easily take advantage without a major redirection. One reason why Jamaica seems uncompetitive and less productive is that the people here ‘don’t get’ what they do that is wrong in the wider world.

Jamaica being ‘Irie’ and having ‘No problem’ doesn’t get investors to dig into their pockets to put down plant and machinery. Poor timeliness is amongst the things that the world cannot tolerate for long. Indifferent attendance is another. I wont list all the ones I can think of, but we know they are many.

Though not of the boorish behaviour type, we also need to look at ‘social violence’ that comes in different packages.

We are dirty and untidy: count how many times someone throws a cup or food box out of a car. Look at the state of most roads and sidewalks. (Sadly, our streets look horrid despite the efforts of road cleaners trying to tidy up each morning.)

We love wasting time: think of how some processes just seem to stretch on to fill the time available. I don’t have waiting in line for buses or taxis–but they are good instances of how we reduce our productivity. I have in mind the time we have to spend doing things like routine banking.

They are part of the overall picture and we tolerate or live with them under duress. But, they kill us and our economic prospects just as much as the brutishness does.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)