A sad reality for countries like Jamaica in this current juncture is that economic progress seems unlikely to hold much tangible benefit for most people. Unemployment is highish, at about 14 percent, and much higher for young people–about 35-40 percent. The economy has been stagnant officially for decades. In reality, growth has been happening, but under- or unreported. We all live off the underground economy, and in a stagnant economy, it represents good value for money. We may despise some aspects, like windscreen washer boys, but give us that car boot full of sugar loaf pineapples, as we drive on our way. Most done confine crime, but the petty kind, say involving marihuana, we tolerate. Gun crimes and trading hard drugs, we abhor and hope don’t touch us.
Official data show rising poverty, and that may be taken as a reasonable truth, though how low some people have fallen is hard to gauge. Remittances and illegal activity have bolstered many households.
Most of the world has not seen fast growth for years and Jamaica lives off the coat tails of industrial countries, like the USA, Canada and the UK. They have little prospect of fast growth in coming years, as they come out of recession like worms breaking ground. So, unless Jamaica becomes a full-fledged satellite of China, it’s stuck in this slower growing economic space. So, forget about growth trickling down or pulling anyone up by their bootstraps.
Jamaica has been saved from a total social meltdown by a few things. Significant among them has been emigration. That our labour has been able to head overseas and find work, often at much better wages than at home, has been an important safety valve. Whether we helped build the Panama Canal, or helped the British public services and factories to overcome their labour shortages, or take care of American children, or find favour in neighboring Caribbean countries, abroad has been a welcome place for Jamaicans.
Crime is another, in particular, through its awful coexistence with politics. It was amusing to read yesterday a report about the Opposition JLP spokesman on national security claiming that politicians were not longer responsible for crime. It’s worth parsing the few words and thinking about what it claims and implies. What struck me was the notion that, while in general Jamaican politicians do not get involved with criminal violence, some in particular did and do still. It’s also the case that the criminals want shot of the politicos, as they are a financial drain. That tells you something about the scale of political corruption. But, it also suggests that criminals can survive quite happily without political favour. That’s bad news because they have become self-reliant and perhaps more dangerous for that. Like a laboratory experiment that gets out into the general population, we all now have to live with the creature given life by politicians that now feeds on us all with no regard to its creator.
Those two factors tell you a lot about how this country has been run, not just post-independence. People have long used escape to survive. Those who could, have used education or skills to help lever that exit on a permanent basis. They and others exit on a temporary or repeated basis.
Our record as criminals tends to compromise our desire to travel. Even our neighbours shun us or treat us with undue suspicion, as we’ve seen in some notable recent cases. You only need to come off a flight from Jamaica to sample this. If you’re law-abiding, it’s a galling experience. Yet, the world doesn’t know that a few bad apples have spoiled the barrel. That will take decades to overcome, and the world can embrace Usain Bolt and stigmatize every ‘Delroy McDonald’.
Jamaican political leaders do not have a good record of driving the country well. Most people have given up on them: look at the steady decline in voter turnout in national elections. So, what will people do? Revolution does not seem to be the preferred option. Jamaicans make much vocal protest, but have little stomach for putting bodies in the line for causes. It’s also not a tradition in the region, which has been extraordinary for decades of peaceful electoral change. Politicians have lived off this, well. But, for how much longer?