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A series of interesting conversations is underway in Jamaica. They have in common a search for higher ground on which to build a better society. That would seem to be a good thing.

I write ‘seems’ because I know that many such conversations often do not occur with all voices having equal weight. Those of us who have done well in the educational system often find it easier to express our views and engage others on theirs. Likewise, those who have ‘higher’ social status can carry discussions their (our) way. Those with political and important business positions also get the floor more readily. Others, who fall outside such groups, may struggle to get their voices heard. So, the conversations need to reach those groups, somehow.

Jamaica is always in danger of making any issue a matter of partisan politics. I can’t stop that, but I don’t have my feet planted in any party camp.

The whole notion of social and moral failings has been an issue in Jamaica as long as I can remember. In much the same way, economic problems have been a part of the national status for decades to the extent that people readily say how they are struggling, or how they have to hustle to get along

Hard times are part of the national narrative

Hard times are part of the national narrative

.I began the day thinking about the notion that Jamaica had misused its independence from Britain. As the day went on and I listened to a part of current affairs discussion about social issues, I thought that these were connected.

Independence premium wasted.

1962: The British handed us our independence, but what did we do with it?

1962: The British handed us our independence, but what did we do with it?

My basic view is that Independence gave us the ‘clean slate’ that many countries need to set a true course for themselves. My impression is that Jamaica never made use of that. Much of modern Jamaica reflects the fact that we took the legacy of the colonisers and just ran with it. Take the nature of our Parliamentary ‘democracy’. What thought had been given at the outset and since to the kind of democracy that really suited a small island society. As time has gone on, we have held on to the winner-take-all system of voting that is largely confined to former British colonies. It is a polarizing system. The tribalism, which we see in our local politics is very much supported by such as  system. The Westminster-style debating chamber lends itself to this polarization, too.

Look at our road system and traffic laws. We have what the British used and left us. As we developed, did we try to change that? As we deal with congested roads, do we seek to break away from that model? I’d say no. As an example, the British do not allow turning on red lights; the Americans do. Do we conceive of allowing that on our roads? No, it seems. Would it help free some congestion? Yes. Why not try it?

Lust for the lustiness. No doubt about it, we used our independence in one special way, We fell in love with ourselves falling in love with each other. It may not even be love. It’s sex and sexual performance. It pervades much of our popular music and has done for decades. As a music scholar, Frederick R Dannaway, wrote: ‘Sex and music go together like ackee and saltfish, and Jamaica is saturated with both from the rent-a-dreads trysting with white women, to the orgies of the Hedonism resort and the indigenous sexuality of the dancehall.’

Mento had the ‘big bamboo’. Ska and Rock Steady (developing during the 1960s) had Prince Buster ‘wreck a pum-pum’:

We had Max Romeo and his ‘Wet Dream’, banned in the UK for its overt sexual references, despite Romeo claiming the song was about a leaking roof. 🙂 He had other songs on similar themes. He must have wanted to be a plumber. 😛

Later genres made much less of overt sexual references, with smooth ‘Lover’s Rock’ developing in the UK in the 1970s, and the more mystical and conscious lyrics of reggae music reflecting aspects of the Rastafarian faith. But the late 1970s, saw the emergence of ‘Ranking Slackness’; slackness is generally sexual, violent or secular. This was ‘ushering in the era of Joe Grine, or Joe Grind, who would cuckold men while they were at work’. From the 1980s, sexuality was made rampant, both in terms of what was promoted (heterosexual acts) and what it decried (homosexual acts and oral sex), and that has carried through into the 21st century, with Dancehall holding sway over such utterances and even stage displays, by artistes and even more by fans. The specifics of the lyrics is less important that the general theme and tone of them. (Read Dunnaway’s article for a fuller discussion.)

So, from Max Romeo, it was a short step to the ‘romping shops’ and ‘pimper’s paradise’. Dancehall, in general, was a battleground for sexual declarations. ‘Daggering’, in particular, and ‘winding’, in general, were dance styles that left little to the imagination. That sexual expressiveness was classless (and lacking in class?), though social groups had their preferences. All of this against a background that is the land with more churches per hectare than anywhere in the world, and which holds strongly that it is a Christian nation.

Maybe, the social nadir of this whole attraction was the sight a few months ago of a Cabinet minister giving a constituent his ‘position statement’ on tree planting policy, if I could quip. What was he thinking?

Agriculture Minister, Roger Clarke, showing new seed planting methods?

Agriculture Minister, Roger Clarke, showing new seed planting methods?

The answer to that question goes far in explaining where the country has gone totally astray.

Globalisation found us asleep. As a small, but beautiful island, whose main attraction to the outside world was the raw materials it could provide for processing (agricultural and mineral), its exotic foods (mainly fruit for a captive market in Britain and the former colonies), its wonderful liqour (rum that is renowed worldwide), and its natural beauty (which helped spawn a new industry of mass tourism on the island), Jamaica engaged the world in a relatively limited way. With the spread of ‘globalisation’ and faster international communications and movement of people, goods, services, and ideas, we were less than well prepared. On one hand, we did not have good defences to protect the things that we cherished. On the other hand, we were not well armed to mount our own attacks. Part of that weakness was a legacy of colonialism: we lost many of our brightest people to other countries.

Migration saved us from facing our real problems. We could not satisfy the economic aspirations of the nation for many years. When the British came begging for workers, we gladly took the offers, and with that went much skill and intelligence. Many thought it would be a short-term trip, but it was not so. Most did not return, and on top, they created a new generation of ‘Jamaicans abroad’. That happened first with the UK, but then as the British doors closed, the USA and Canada had doors that were still open. We now find that some 80-odd percent of Jamaican graduates migrate. That ‘brain drain‘ and wider migration had a domestic upside by providing remittances back to Jamaica. However, those inflows of money and goods themselves created a new kind of dependency in Jamaica, even to the point of spawning ‘barrel children’. But, I am of the view that migration robbed us of talent that could not and was not replaced, so we were substantially poorer and less-developed than we could have been. The minds left the grapple with national problems were fewer and, even if very good, clearly were not all the best.

A ‘brawn drain’ also occurred, and we lost many technically skilled people whose talents were not necessarily well used abroad, and were totally unavailable ‘back home’. Look at the life of many artisans (eg, carpenters) who left Jamaica, to then work in public sector jobs and private factories in England. That broke a chain of training and development that had been an important part of how our society had been renewing itself for decades.

Jamaicans have long shown that they are inventive, however. Yet, that too, helped our downfall. We replaced those brains and artisanal skills with those of the ‘dealer’ and ‘hustler’. That meant we saw people finding ways to turn goods around to make money quickly–a classic form of development evident in many economies, which creates incomes but not much lasting value. It also lent itself to the drive to bring goods in from overseas to satisfy demands that were not being met at home: cars, appliances, reading material, clothing, etc. Higglers made money, so too did car importers. It was easier to procure than produceBut, we also had more money to be made from things illegal, exploiting some of the agricultural products that carried premium prices abroad–drugs, especially marijuana. We grew and sold it, and we also became a conduit for other drugs, and the influences of those who wanted to trade those to bigger and richer markets in industrialised countries.

That link created one of the loudest peals in what was a death knell to those who heard it. The link between drugs and other crimes, and the influx of guns into Jamaica is well documented. So too is the link between these things and politics. This would be a dangerous admixture almost anywhere, but has to be a crippling thing in a place so small. Lay on top of that our tendency to polarize our political positions and you see the origins and sustenance of the ‘garrison’ constituencies (especially in Kingston). That has become so enshrined into the political fabric that it’s impossible to see how any meaningful socioeconomic progress could occur with garrisons in place and vibrant.

Come, cross the river with me? A little later, maybe. (Courtesy of The Jamaica Observer.)

Come, cross the river with me? A little later, maybe. (Courtesy of The Jamaica Observer.)

Jamaica saw the emergence of ‘dons’, and with them the creation of control systems that were not part of the established State, though they could be important to, and supported by the political party machines. 

That nexus of crime, guns, politics, and don control, had its recent best showing in the so-called ‘Tivoli War’ over attempts to extradite a known and wanted gang leader, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. That incident, its preceding developments, and its subsequent repercussions, wreaked havoc on a community and a country. But, politicians helped build and sustain the essential fabric of those communities and the lifestyles that became common place.

Tivoli War: wreaking havoc on a community and a country

Tivoli War: wreaking havoc on a community and a country

It’s related aspect, a form of ‘welfare entitlement’ (freeness), raised its known and ugly face recently, in a ‘war’ that had no bullets fired and no persons killed. The local power company, Jamaica Public Service (JPS), had suffered electricity theft and revenue loss from it for many years. The company’s efforts were not making a dent. The major thieves were in areas of Kingston that were co-terminous with the political garrisons. Then, JPS’s CEO had enough: she decided to go rogue. She shut off power to whole communities, laying waste to all who did not and would not pay, as well as those who did pay. Uproar ensued. Within days that move was over. Garrisons ‘under siege’ with no one armed against them? How so? The complaints of the payers were heard most loudly in public. But, clearly, the howls of the non-payers were being heard loud and clear in the ears of the MPs. Strange how many of the major MPs have seats in these areas. Curious and curiouser. So, ‘time to sit down and talk’. We await the outcome of ideas sought and will see what is implemented. But, Ms. Tomblin showed clearly that she had something akin to a ‘nuclear option’ or a ‘weapon of mass (political) destruction’ and was ready and willing to use it.

Living in the political wasteland of fiscal deficits, borrowing and debt. Jamaica quickly began to live beyond its means after independence. It’s not alone in suffering that, especially being a developing nation. It suffered from a series of bad political decisions, which  had severe financial consequences. Tax revenue and borrowed funds were not used in the most productive ways. That’s a catch-all for ‘government waste’. Where the money went, precisely, is worthy of a good forensic analysis. That it was poorly utilised is shown by the level of indebtedness coupled with the state of the economy. Put simply, had the money been well used, we would all be better off than we are: services would be better and infrastructure would be better, at least. We would be wealthier, too, because the money would have been better distributed throughout the population. This is a good topic to discuss itself and some have done it clearly.

This profligacy has made us very good friends of somebody that we see as an enemy–The International Monetary Fund. The Fund has a mandate that is about managing national and international finances well. It was set up to deal with balance of payments problems, and these were seen as mainly the result of mismanaged public finances. To fix these problems, the Fund urges austerity. Webster’s defines it nicely: a situation in which there is not much money and it is spent only on things that are necessary. ‘Belt-tightening’ is a common metaphor. It means financial pain for most of a nation. They end up hating the IMF. They often cannot bear the pain. Politicians get scared they will lose power, as a result. They bend or break the agreements. The people sigh with relief. The problems remain, however, and in short order, the politicians and technicians are back on a plane to Washington to discuss again how to fix what they did not deal with properly before. The process starts over. People squeal. Politicians reel. The international airlines and hotels do very nicely, thank you. This process can go on for years, even decades, with no end to the problems, because countries have election cycles and politicians are sensitive to these. They like to have their pants and skirts loose coming up to such times when ‘party’ is the word of the moment, in more ways than one. Elections over, they have to deal with the hangovers. “Hello, is that the IMF? I have this really bad headache…” So, Dr. Fund is back in the consultation room.

Jamaica has been on that merry-go-round so often that it’s dizzy and ready to throw up. With wobbly legs, it’s now trying again to see if it can walk away from that sugar-induced desire to have just one more ride. So, ‘Hello, Austerity!” This time it will be different? So far, it has been. But, frankly, the time of good behaviour has been really short. Having myself been one of the dreaded ‘doctors’, I see Jamaica needing to be on the medicine much longer than it has shown the stomach for in the past. Jamaica’s major problems with this style of economic problem solving are several, but most important are:

  • Lack of national consensus that it will help (economic policy is an easy political football);
  • Credibility (governments have been ‘economical with the truth’ so often that they lie first and tell the truth afterwards as a matter of routine) [what countries often fail to realise is that the lies are usually quite transparent and the Fund sees through them quickly, and has all the time in the world, usually, for that realisation to take hold because it holds the purse strings];
  • Leadership: not the sort that has people saying airy-fairy things and meaning none or few of them, or the absent type which involves large amounts of handwaving, kissing babies, and smiling into camera lenses. But the sort that involves standing up in front of the nation and stating firmly and often that “I believe that this is the right thing to do. It will hurt us all. We all have to make sacrifices, including me and my ministers,” That last part is often missing, so the nation says “Yeah, right!” as they see the grandeur undiminished: new SUVs for all often mean that leadership is absent;
    Tighten YOUR belts

    Tighten YOUR belts

    large delegations on foreign trips often give the same signal. Everyone travelling abroad in economy often gets a smile and a loud clap. Tell me what you see, and tell me how much applause you’ve heard. Take your time.

The jury is out on Jamaica and its current IMF programme. As they say, Jamaica comes with a pedigree that is not that good.

A clear consequence of all or most of these developments, which is not exhaustive, is Jamaica is paddling a boat in very rough waters, with some oars that are rickety and a boat that has leaked badly and often. It’s more likely to sink that stay afloat. Those aboard the boat are mainly poor swimmers, so most wont survive.

Jamaica has not faced up to its deficiencies very well or often. It has a hard time looking in the mirror and seeing what most of the world sees. So, all of the above rolled into one means what? Jamaica is a laughing-stock, but has not seen that it’s role as a jester hasn’t altered much in the minds of others, despite a few performances that are of stunning brilliance. Take that to be the emergence of ‘stars’, like Bob Marley in music, or Usain Bolt in athletics. They make the nation look and feel good, but they do not reflect necessarily any underlying process that says “look at what and who is pressing behind me who is as good or even better”.

Why are we the laughing-stock?

Which Jamaican understands what integrity means? Clearly, we have problems identifying what it means to have integrity–the quality of being honest and fair; the state of being complete or whole. Our record of failed IMF programmes is essentially about our lack of integrity. We may start well, but look at our finish. In the world of politics, we need not look far to see that (and I cite this simply because it’s an obvious example, caring not one jot about the person or the party. Junior minister, Richard Azan, and the Spalding market scandal. Yes, there was no criminal case to answer according to the DPP, but the Contractor General’s finding of political corruption still stands. The minster’s reinstatement by the PM says that perceptions of inappropriate political behaviour do not matter to domestic rulers. That is the clear message, whether or not it appears in the New York Times or London’s Guardian. The problem is that, the rest of the world does worry about that perception. Jamaica is seen as a place where corruption is not taken seriously: vote-buying, cronyism, and other such activities are in the same vein. I would be shocked of the next edition of Transparency International’s Index does not show a marked decline for Jamaica. It keeps itself in the room of ‘undesirables’

Jamaicans do not understand conflict of interest as it is accepted internationally. The size of Caribbean (or other small) countries poses problems less present in larger countries. Our human resources are spread thinly. It is not uncommon for sitting MPs to still function in their professional capacities, eg as lawyers. This could raise all sorts of questions in many countries, but in the Caribbean, we just roll with it. In Jamaica, we do not see this problem, but we also do not see the general problem of conflicts of interest because we look at people in posts and to judge them as people and what we think of what may be their intent–if that is good, we see few or no problems. But it’s what they do, not who they are, that cause the conflicts. This is the essence of most corruption. The policeman with a long and exemplary record, who tries to ‘help’ someone avoid a charge is guilty of trying to pervert the course of justice. Jamaicans will lament the loss of a ‘good man’ and not see that he did a ‘bad thing’, maybe even finding reasons to somehow justify the acts because of the small amounts of money or value of items involved. I could mention the actions of the minister overseeing energy policy and his trying to get another government agency to ‘change’ its views. We can search and find too many instances that are recent, let alone delving into the past.

Jamaicans want to hold up religion as a shield and act badly and leave the judgement to God (or whatever equivalent deity is chosen). The world, even if on the same religious wavelength, will want to make its judgements sooner. Our mantra could be “We are a Christian nation. We want to sin so that we can all be saved.” So, we rack up a catalogue of sins that are so long and horrible they need to be shared out amongst several countries to seem tolerable, but we have them all hanging on our backs: murders, rapes, violence against children, robberies, scams or other financial malfeasance.

Our discussions on sexual and family matters is mostly disingenous. We focus on many things wrong sexually, but most often we want to touch the fringe of the bedspread, but not the mattress. Our general licentiousness is not what we want to talk about, but prefer to look at the marginal behaviours that we want to tell ourselves are about to ‘destroy’ our society. So, good old heterosexual libidinous behaviour is not up for discussion. Over 80 percent of children born in Jamaica are out of wedlock, yet we get all sanctimonious about the value of families and the importance of marriage. That herb is really good!

We love bun and cheese, well, the bun mostly. I sleep with your girl; my wife mustn’t know. My wife sleeps with my best friend; but I’m too ‘busy’ to know. We all lie about it. I father a baby and give the mother some money, if I feel good. Or, I fight to defend the fact that it may not be my baby. We wrap our concerns in religion so long as that does not stop us doing what we do–a little wrong is alright, don’t it (to use the Jamaican phrasing).

See a man dressed as a woman in a play and we get all frothy and screaming for the hills: “Lock up your children!”. But, wait. Isn’t that Usain Bolt dressed up for a lucrative ad?

Beat our women, and our children too. Call it ‘discipline’. Like the slaves from which many of us came, we know how to keep the minor persons in their place. Show them who is control: grown men. Don’t forget it.

These ‘blockages’, at the very least, stop us having what is necessary, an honest talk with ourselves. 

I hear people calling for all kinds of reconsideration of where the nation is going. It is a hard thing to solve without laying out all the pieces of fabric that are to be stitched back together. Much focus is on some social shreds: parental responsibilities; education systems; family structures; etc. These are all important, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Their relevance is not uniform and the problems are not solved by one set of actions. If I am employed, live in a nice and comfortable home, with good amenities around me, and have enough income to step over many of the national barriers, my life will be easier to redirect that if I am unemployed, live in a wooden shack with a dirt floor, have no sewerage, and have violence facing me at every turn.

The conversations are needed, but we have a long way to go to set them in what I think are the right frames of reference. Those are, however, the ones that I see and think are important. Lucky me, if I can get others to agree on all or even some. Remember, I have said I have no political axe to grind. Once people take their partisan stances, the discussions can go on as long as they like and the colour of the glasses will drive them where they will. I wish I could see enough people stepping out of their red/orange or green skins long enough to figure out what is really common and focus on that. But, they are often tight-fitting and really hard to pull off. Maybe, that piece of adjustment needs to be seen first, if the talk is going to go anywhere. Am I optimistic that can take place? Short of a natural cataclysm, not really.

A former PM speaks. A nation listens…for a while, anyway.