Jamaica: The land of the curate’s egg 

Jamaica is a country full of wonderful places and exceptionally good and nice people. It can give you experiences that take you to new highs. Yet,… It doesn’t take much to lose sight of all that. You can be dragged down to the lowest point within moments of hitting those highs.curates egg

When I wrote a few days ago about the country being more than stuck in a rut, it was based simply on a series of personal observations of things I could see for myself. I never drew on images fed to me, by media or other people. The heavy tinge of negativity came through stronger than the sweet taste of positive feelings. Why was that?

It’s because of what we have let happen.

In addition to my own observations, I could have added much from the pages of the daily papers. They tell me persistently about the very dark place that Jamaica has become. The place of murders. The site of horrific abusers of children. The land of corrupt public officials. A scammers’ paradise (on which, there’s a telling story in today’s Gleaner of how a good venture has been killed by association, i.e. the belief that all Jamaicans are scammers). Those are all aspects of how Jamaican people have become good at stepping on their fellow citizens, or those with whom they make contact. If I just looked at those papers I would see little of the good Jamaica. Those who do not know Jamaica see such reports and take away a more negative view. That happens whether those readers are far or near, white or black, rich or poor. Why? Because bad news sells. Good news about Jamaica isn’t what hits the headlines, even though the main newspapers make attempts to highlight some good and uplifting news.

But, I never drew on that source. What hit me was what I passed through on my own journey and it reflected several things, that I’ll try to summarize.

Environmental degradation

We’re passing through a dry spell and the land has become brittle. We’ve had the usual spate of bush fires, this time wreaking havoc on hillsides growing coffee. Economic and financial losses may be high. Some property may be lost. Some lives may be lost, immediately, or after a while. Whether fires were started spontaneously or by human action we don’t yet know. But, this is an annual event, and yet we do little or nothing to either prevent it or be prepared for it. Simply put, we’ve done little to safeguard our environment. Yet, it is essential to our livelihood. Taking (as opposed to talking about) measures to stop people burning bush for every single reason should have been part of our heritage. Instead, we see scarred hills, bare to the sticks after another fire has ravaged them.

The dry spell means that water for many purposes is scarce: rivers are low, catchment areas are feeding less to the reservoirs and urban areas are already under notice to conserve water or that water supplies will be limited. This is another annual event, and again, we’ve don’t little to prepare for, or prevent, it. For instance, making water catchment at homes mandatory could have been a policy introduced decades ago. Allowing people to erect water tanks to be filled with piped water isn’t water conservation. But, I suspect many people think it is.

I can talk about our willingness to discard waste with little or no thought about where it goes. (We are exhorted by the Ministry of Health to clear potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Yet, in the same vein, we can see public agencies doing little but create such breeding grounds by doing shoddy work, or not dealing with their public hygiene responsibilities).

Add to that an inability of the state or private enterprise to clear the discarded waste.

Add to that the inability to manage the waste collected. Again, we have an annual disaster in the form of fires at the Riverton dump. This year, it was the worst on record. Concerns go sky-high, just as the ash does, as air quality is obviously worsened and factually confirmed by scientific measurements. We see public agencies squabbling over blame. We hear that people who know who lit the fire won’t speak because the ransom is too low.

We have rivers and water ways polluted by effluent from industrial processes, as well as personal disregard for them.

“Environmental reports in Jamaica just fill me with gloom and despair. This is such a wonderful river. How could they?” That comment was a reaction by fellow blogger Emma Lewis, to a Gleaner story yesterday about how a river in Frome had been poisoned by toxic dunder from a nearby sugar factory. It’s not new, but the process has continued–been allowed to continue–unabated.

Fish stocks dying in river near Frome (Courtesy Jamaica Gleaner)
Fish stocks dying in river near Frome (Courtesy Jamaica Gleaner)

I can add the brewing story about possible mining in the biodiverse region of Cockpit Country.

We are just not concerned about, or conscious of, the damage we are doing.

When it rains…

The dry spell was broken a few days ago–at least in the St Andrew and Kingston Corporate Area. But, what does that give us? ‘Rain contributed to Corporate Area power outages, says JPS‘ ran the headline: ’caused by surges resulting from rainwater mixing with debris on power lines’, the story reported. Most people can see power lines strewn with debris all the time. Is it invisible to those who run the power company?

We know it will rain, and we go out without the means to stay dry. There’s a word for that. It’s another example of how thinking ahead seems to have escaped us.

Social dislocation and the tendency to be complicit

We are going through another period of hand-wringing about how society seems to be crumbling around us. This time it’s been triggered by a spate of nasty murders of young children. Yet, this is a society that sees ‘discipline’ by beating children as something to defend as a ‘cultural practice’. I’m no psychologist, but I can see the suggestion coming that I take a long lie down on the couch if I came for consultation holding those views. A society where adults often have difficulty drawing the line clearly between what is acceptable for them versus what is acceptable for, and with children, is a society on a very confused road. Why do you take young children into adult-rated films? Who turns the blind eyes to that? That’s just a for-instance. Jamaica is not alone on that journey. For example, the US and our CARICOM neighbours have it, too, but in different areas and degrees.

It’s common for us in Jamaica to leave children unsupervised. it’s part of a carefree life, where we feel that we can trust those around us to be decent. But, carefree can turn into careless. We know that we live amongst people who often are indecent. We’re then surprised that the unsupervised child encounters the indecent person. When I drive through rural areas and see a single child, aged no more than about 11, walking with a plastic bag, I know I see a potential victim. Alone. Far from home. No means of communication. Unlikely to be strong enough to withstand an adult. Yes, it’s a shame to lose that trust in those around us. But, it went years ago. Groups of 3 or 4 walking together, at least present a bigger challenge.

Our society has long held on to ways of meting out its own justice. Add to that a formal justice system that seems unable or unwilling to administer justice. What do you think you will get? I see ‘take the law into my hands’ as the likely response. We can look at that from several viewpoints, but they mostly end up with people being maimed or dead for transgressions. It’s swift and, in many cases, final. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is a well-known legal maxim: if legal redress is available for someone who has suffered some wrong, but is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, it is effectively the same as having no redress at all. Most people want to see that justice has been done. It’s really simple.

Why then, do politicians and public officials think that the way to address what they say are pressing problems is to make pronouncements about what they will do if it continues? Like the desperate parent who cannot control a child’s behaviour, or convince a child to change, the threat is issued. It rarely works. Yet, from top to bottom in Jamaican public management, it gets trotted out. To appease whom?

We have police ‘high command’ telling us last week about extortion by gangs in Spanish Town. Stating proudly that they know who does it, and the amounts of money they collect. This is 2015. I read the same or similar stories reported 10 years ago. The leading sentence back in 2005 was ‘NOTHING much has changed in the extortion zones of Spanish Town’. Who’s fooling whom?

As another adage goes, you can’t solve the problem if you are part of the problem.

Economic desperation explains many things 

It’s easy to blame it all on the economy. It’s not necessarily greed that drives much anti-social behaviour in Jamaica; need is there, too. But, being economically isolated and without means will lead most people to do things that are neither necessary or desirable if things were better. I won’t hide my cynicism on this, though, because it’s too obvious that many groups of people thrive from the fact that many people are economically and financially on their knees.

The simple call to have faster growth, if met, may change some of that, but a process has been well in train for a long time that has built dependency in many people and they are effectively unemployable. They’re saved by ‘handouts’, be they literal in the form of cash or goods, or figurative, in the form of ‘work’ that is parcelled out.

That process works well because people have not understood the trap they set for themselves by not being well-educated (and that does not mean going into tertiary education). Or they been unable to leverage their education and training, because a ‘spoils system’ (call it nepotism) is stronger than the merit system. A good example of that latter case is what happens in many areas of public sector life, where merit is not driving processes, but connects do. At its most extreme, we see cases such as in Lucea. But, that is an extreme and many similar points are passed before that is reached.

Have we resigned?

A caller on the radio current affairs programme, ‘Beyond the headlines’ , ended his commentary with a change of tone; it sounded resigned. The host noted that. The man said it was only her true professionalism that stopped her voice hitting the same tone. She gave no reply.

I think many people have resigned. It’s hard not too. But, it means that there are fewer who are prepared to fight to change. If you keep finding worms in what looks like a good mango, it’s easier to stop eating mangoes than to keep searching for a good one.

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. :)

One thought on “Jamaica: The land of the curate’s egg ”

  1. It’s true. Your own observations show you the good – and the bad. Since you travel around the island such a lot, those observations are really valuable. Some of us who stay in the city all the time (me, for example!) miss these things. But of course, “short-termism” is a disease that plagues us, and infuriates me!


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