The system is fine, but some of the people need fixing?

What do Jamaicans understand by ‘personal responsibility’? Let me start with a definition: ‘Personal responsibility is the willingness to both accept the importance of standards that society establishes for individual behavior and to make strenuous personal efforts to live by those standards.’ I took that from a Brookings Institution 2009 report. It’s corollary is that people do not look around for other factors to blame when they fail to meet those standards. However, to get started well, we need clear and straightforward sets of agreed goals.

I cannot give you a definitive answer to the opening question, because I’m not going to ask every person. Like with most things, I try to gauge what my senses tell me.

I watched another TV program this week about how our sense of personal responsibility plays out. CVM TV’s ‘Live at 7’ took a walk through Kingston’s public parks.William St Grant Park It was a mixed picture, of mainly unkept, under maintained, dirty, smelly open spaces. Public lavatories were often in a poor state, and patrons needed to pay in some cases, so that the ‘caretaker’ could buy necessary supplies. It did not seem that the supplies, if bought, were being used, however. We heard that some parks are used as places for sexual activity. They become homes for the homeless. They become places for people to strew garbage, and more. Clearly, a sorry state, and more could and should be done to keep such spaces in better order.

The previous week, the same programme had looked at our national heritage. Things did not look good from the start, when the offices of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust showed all the signs of disrepair that marks a building for which no one cares.Old Harbour Station

Both the state of some parks and the disregard for buildings and places of national heritage displayed a general social disregard, and a lack of responsibility that may not be seen as personal but is, in that, few of us appear to want to take on the caring, assuming that someone else will.

Schools have restarted. This week, we saw one of the ritual new term dances, concerning the ‘appropriateness’ of school attire. The most prominent has been a Kingston high school, whose written rule stipulates skirts to fall two inches below the knee. Apparently, the rule has been changed to be 11 inches. Many grls were barred from school for failing to meet the new standard. They protested by demonstrating outside the Ministry of Education. They got support from the ministry’s permanent secretary. The Minister of Education did not approve of their behaviour, arguing that (such) children should not state protests “whatever the cause”.

Jamaican schools have a tendency to throw children out of school for such transgressions, and appear to think nothing of the consequences when children are expected by their parents to be at school during that time. Was the particular school being reasonable? Are schools being reasonable and responsible in their behaviour? What can parents expect? Are the students being responsible?

Taking these instances, is it that we have a simple clash of values?

Focusing on other things, what do we see? We are a society that has become comfortable with a general state of uncleanliness.GarbageC20120301NG Later today, I will be assisting in a beach clean-up near the airport in Kingston. Jamaica is not the only country in the world that has people throwing away their garbage indiscriminately. We are amongst the countries that try to have people do the right thing without giving them the means to do so. I think–and will check later–that there is not a single receptacle for garbage along the Palisadoes Road, leading to the airport. What should people do with their garbage? The official presumption is that they should not litter and take it with them. But, is that being realistic and reasonable?

I think it’s quaint that goats walk along the streets of Kingston. But, gone are the days when the goats could deal with the garbage that littered the streets. However, we’ve not evolved to show that understanding. We litter at a high rate and the goats can’t cope and our system of garbage disposal and collection have not kept pace. Race won by garbage.

Our drains get clogged when heavy rains come. Why? Garbage is falling from the sky? No. When the rain is heavy, all manner of objects are seen floating along in the rushing water. You need to check as you pass a ford, in case some heavy object is rushing towards you. Throwing things into gullies has been a national sport for decades. It all goes down to the sea, right? The sea will wash it away, right? We don’t have to do anything else, right? One reason I will be handling a lot of plastic and polystyrene waste at the coast is that people have made those assumptions, and they are wrong.

Our environment is, perhaps, the clearest indication that personal responsibility is lacking. But, it’s not the only example.

A friend relayed an experience with her young child at the University Hospital: the ‘team was professional, thorough and pleasant … save for one young doctor who [was] either [in] med school or her parents forgot the tutorial on manners. Clash of values? My friend felt that ‘the system was fine … personal responsibility also dictates that individuals ‘check themselves” Agreed, but in the absence of personal responsibility, or in a world where this is not clearly spelt out?

We tend to get consistent service from people (technical problems aside) when they feel truly involved in what they are doing. Truth is, though, we’ve not got systems where people are truly engaged (and proud of what they do) and gives us consistent good service. Not picking on any area, specifically, but just retelling things that I have seen at random.

  • Garbage collectors throw receptacles into the street from their truck, once emptied. That’s not where they found them? Who will pick them up?
  • The often-seen cashier having a personal phone conversation while dealing with customers. We should wait until the conversation is over to continue our shopping?
  • The food server who just ‘dashes’ the food onto the counter in front of customers, instead of handing it to them.
  • The appointment/home visit not kept (no need to look for specific examples). Who is supposed to be at home all day for the 11am appointment not kept?

It shouldn’t be about us (customers) reminding them (providers) what to do.

People say “You get what you pay for”, but Jamaica is odd. For all that people appear to need money, they do not do things that ensure they will earn it. Why else do service professionals do a bad job or not show up for a job? I can’t remember how many months have passed since my wife called the electrician. Maybe, he’s swamped with work, and really ought to employ someone else.

Conversely, our gardener does more than he should almost every visit, and has now gotten into the habit of passing by unexpectedly with offerings of fruit and vegetables. Is that because he loves us, or that we offered him lunch on a few occasions? He’s motivated by something.

I’m going to leave the question open, awhile, though I think that not enough of us have accepted the same values. It’s clear that we can be individually spruce, but collectively gross?

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. :)