It’s the deficit, stupid

For most of its over 50 years as an independent country, Jamaica has been plagued by its deficit. The IMF came and went and came again and went again, and are now back once more to deal with our fiscal profligacy. They seem to have gotten the message across about the need to address the fiscal deficit. But, we are still facing a huge deficit that no one seems to be willing to tackle–the deficit of leadership, some call it.

This morning, I saw a range of headlines… ‘We have no history of taking bold and imaginative steps‘–this was referring to a series of readers’ comments about what Jamaica should do to take advantage of a wave of countries wanting to legalize and decriminalize use of marijuana. That’s going to be one that tests those whom we have as leaders.

We see the national urban bus company, JUTC, fighting a physical and moral fight to assert itself as a viable corporation, in the face of much internal indiscipline (fraud, etc.), against much competitive pressure (from other operators and the travelling public), in a dire financial state, and facing criminal guerrilla-style attacks from stone-throwers, who have damaged vehicles and injured passengers. The reckless behaviour one sees on the roads from some minibus drivers has its match in the cowardly attempts that come from throwing rocks at a bus.

A volatile urban community in Kingston, Tivoli Gardens–the scene of much continual violence and criminal activity; the focus of attempts at ‘garrison’ politics; the centre of attempts to revitalize a community with housing and sporting amenities–is in danger of exploding again, as gangs and their supporters flex their muscles. The MP for the area, who appears to be trying to be a peace maker now faces local opposition to this efforts. Angry residents burnt T-shirts bearing the image of their MP, Desmond McKenzie, and demanded that he leave the constituency.

Desmond McKenzie feeling the wrath of some residents in Tivoli
Desmond McKenzie feeling the wrath of some residents in Tivoli

He represents the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (colour green) and many protestors were in the ruling People’s National Party’s orange. Tribal wars still being waged.

Some Tivoli residents, wearing the colour of one party, accuse their MP (of the other party), of taking sides
Some Tivoli residents, wearing the colour of one party, accuse their MP (of the other party), of taking sides

Several public corporations have been getting the wrong kind of media interest, with internal squabbles surfacing, for example, with the Housing Agency of Jamaica. Its chairperson, Maureen Webber, resigned along with three board members, in the wake of the mass departure of senior managers and allegations of political victimization; nearly 50 employees had left during the course of April-December 2013. Ms. Webber says ‘she believes criticisms of her leadership style stemmed from the fact that she was a woman heading an agency in a male-dominated industry’. That’s speculative, but may be true. The board will now be headed by former Bank of Jamaica Governor, Derrick Latibeaudiere, who himself was ousted from his post several years ago. This could be a case of politics and good management showing again that they are uncomfortable in bed together.

I come from long line of meritocratic people mainly from rural Jamaica. You get up early. You work hard. You help your neighbours and like it if they help you. You don’t tell tales. You don’t push your friends under the bus. You earn respect; it’s not a right. You earn your position; it’s not a right. You do not kiss butt. You shun those who try to kiss yours. I don’t do affirmation, if it’s not merited. If you want a stroke on the back for everything you do, I suggest you do it yourself; it’s devalued if it’s constant. I don’t like signs of gravalicious or licky-licky behaviour. Jamaica, however, is not made up of clones of me.

While writing this morning, I asked my father (now 85, and a stroke survivor) some simple questions.

  • “Did Jamaica have good leaders?” Not anymore, he replied.
  • “Were Busta and Norman good leaders, strong and decisive?” Yes.
  • “What happened after them?” The country mash-up.
  • “Have we had good leaders since them?” No.
  • “What about Michael?” He was frail.

I thought that last point was deep, so I had to explore further. Frail has several meanings, including ‘easily damaged or destroyed’. That fitted.

  • “How frail?” He was given a job to do and did not do it. He could not lead the country.

All of that is just one person’s view, and anyone can challenge it. But, I was struck by the clear line drawn. My father was never openly political; he voted and kept his views to himself about political figures. He had strong views about some policies, especially education, which he saw as one area where Jamaica had gone terribly wrong and not done things to develop a strong nation, as opposed to some strong class divisions. His mother was a strong woman, who came to Kingston and sold coal; cooked and kept house for a living later; looked after her own and other people’s children, proudly raising all of them to be good people, honest, hard-working, good cooks, and respectful. My father never talked much about himself, but was a great story-teller about characters in his family.

I’ve met some Jamaican politicians, but cannot say I know any of them personally. I have seen them operate inside the country and abroad. I have seen them with their backs against the wall in need of financial support from international financiers. I have met and know personally politicians in other countries, including one president and a few prime ministers. I have also seen them facing financial problems for their countries. I have seen them get fired for not succeeding and also fired for succeeding–odd, but that’s politics. I’ve worked with politicians so afraid of the retribution from their national leader that they could not function properly if their phone rang with a call from that person’s office, or if they were invited by one of that person’s aides to attend a meeting with ‘the man’.


I know many civil servants in many countries. I’ve worked for a central bank and for an international organization and seen people work to implement national and international policies. I’ve seen and experienced political interference to help and hinder the mandate that I was supposed to be following. I’ve seen public servants consumed by self-survival and totally oblivious of those whom they were supposed to be helping. That’s part of the broad tapestry that is ‘the corridors of power’. Thier careers flourished and people suffered, but no concerns were expressed for the latter by those flourishing.

I’ve known public officials who took public money for their own use and used their positions to salt away public funds out of sight of their nation for their private use.

I have met some business persons in Jamaica and know a few personally. I met business people in other countries who were more powerful than any politicians except ‘the man’, who was their principal benefactor and protector, who could always get an audience, and were feared because of what they could do financially and whom they knew politically.

I have met a few educators in Jamaica and know some personally. I know some of them have their political affiliations, some of which is apparent in their work. I’ve seen educators in other countries who were in no position to be anything but supporters of the ruling party or lose their jobs. I was taught by many educators at university who were themselves close to political power, being advisors to one or other party, or being connected by family to political power.

What does my experience tell me about leaders in Jamaica? I’ve yet to see many who really command respect for having vision; I’ve heard much talk, but seen little real doing to back that up. I’ve not seen many who seem to have true courage. I’ve seen none who want to be truly transparent. I have heard talk of dismantling support bases in the ‘garrisons’ but seen any real commitment to doing that. I’ve seen many politicians stuck with a real example of the prisoner’s dilemma, who have not understood the losses they have suffered through lack of cooperation.

Jamaica has set itself up as tribes, warring factions, divided groups–some call that ‘silo mentality. Leadership in Jamaica has never sought to destroy or dismantle that; it has often accepted it and tried to work with it. That’s been a failure. Sharing information is feared. Transparency is feared. Accountability is feared. Failure is feared. More people in powerful positions lead through fear than through the example of good decision-making. Listening skills are in short supply. A nation built on constantly showing that one is strong, keeps things close the chest, and answerable to few or none, is a nation built like a house on sand.

With its human and natural resources, Jamaica should be sitting higher in the world rankings in many areas than it is now. Natural resources have been used to buy political power and keep it at the expense national enrichment. Money has been borrowed to buy political power and keep it at the expense of national enrichment. Favouritism has trumped the wise use of available talent. Vindictiveness based on political affiliation has been commonplace; it has been ‘our time now’ every time. Rob Peter to pay Paul. All have been losers, even those who thought they were winners. Ruling by fear means always having to resort to fear, and often each time of a higher degree than before. Fear has been allied with the ‘handing out of candy’. People scrabble to get and keep power to be able to exert the most fear and give out the most candy. Letting extensive poverty continue is the perfect condition to keep using fear and giving candy.

We could have done much better. We can do much better. Do we have it within us to start looking at those who want to do better?


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. :)

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