People who know me well, know that much as I love Jamaica, I am an equal opportunity critic. So, I’m constantly asking “If it’s not working, why do we keep using it?”
One answer to that question is simply ‘inertia‘: things have been a certain way so long that people cannot contemplate change, and may even resist it strongly out of a deep-seated fear akin to Chicken Little syndrome–‘the sky is falling’.
We see this all the time in daily life, and it’s part of our national rituals.
Some obvious examples include unplanned housing development. Now, this is an enormous problem that has allowed communities to come into existence through squatting and land grabbing, and forced people to live without basic services. Jamaica isn’t alone in having shanty towns and they’re symptoms of economic change as people chase jobs faster than resources can shift to accommodate literally the new workers. But, such developments place big burdens on everyone and everything. One feature of squatting is the difficulty of determining where people actually live, as dwellings get created without formal addresses. That makes it hard to do things like levy taxes. It also creates a natural hiding place for a range of illegal activities because tracing people is more difficult, even as people try to regularize their lives, eg by having work places, attending school and churches, and improving their homes.
Other visible examples include the daily peak hour road chaos created by the siting of Hydel College. Vehicles and people travelling west have no safe way to enter the school. The daily juggle of dodging traffic on Mandela Highway to get across two sets of highways has not been addressed, even for the more-vulnerable, school children, with a solution like a footbridge. Is our fiscal situation so dire we cannot afford this? Can corporate Jamaica not be persuaded to fund this? Does anyone care enough about the lives we say matter so much?
So, we just trundle along. 🎶🎶🎶🎶
Another is ‘what about the people’s jobs?‘. We see this, for instance, in our approach to waste management. Some justify littering because it keeps garbage workers employed. Madness? So, rather than not litter and move to a world of cleaner living, people tolerate mounds or streams of garbage. It’s not appealing, even to those who do this, but ‘It’s how the thing set’. 🙄
Another reason is that ‘it’s political‘. That’s harder to see and possibly harder to dislodge, given the many layers of maneuvering that may be involved. But, one can suspect.
It may be party politics at work, eg when some places get good services when one party is in national power.
It may be local politics and nepotism. Without going into current legal cases, look at Hanover Parish Council.
However you look at the political mud through which people have to crawl, it smears and burdens us all.
One more is stubbornly refusing to do the right things. This may have elements of the three points above, but can take on its own identity, both individually and collectively.
Examples include bureaucratic processes that are largely senseless and time-consuming.
I will accept that we may be victims of underinvestment so cannot be technologically where some other countries are. That’s why my wife and I can sell a home in the US without moving an inch and having most processing done electronically, including signing documents. Yet, I can barely do anything in Jamaica without needing to ‘come into the office. That’s why we have manual records that are not interconnected. That’s why we have missing files, etc.
But, some of it is that we doggedly hold on to bad systems. This is present in both private and public sectors. We see it often in the spotty service delivery of banks, as well as the teeth-grinding procedures of many public agencies. It’s part of the ritual of annual patch-and-mend road repairs. It’s part of the ritual of widespread flooding after heavy rain. It’s part of the ritual of demanding additional meaningless ‘proof’ of identity when you already have presented national identity documents. Don’t ask me for utility bills as proof of address; they’re in my wife’s name or I pay online.
These hurdles are not necessarily my personal barriers, but a well-worn set that were placed there years ago.
Our challenge is several-fold:
- Can we break it?
- Do we want to break it?
- Are we ready for the consequences of change?
As I pondered the other day: we are so accustomed to mediocrity that any shining blip above that is seen as a glimpse of Nirvana. But, that’s really living with a bar set low.
There’s a price to all of this, and we have internalized the many costs. Because so many things are not ‘quite right’, we spend less time and effort ensuring that things are done well. We’re accustomed to things taking longer than they should, so we don’t press too hard to schedule properly, or to set up plans for contingencies. We see this at some dramatically bad times, such as the past weekend, when an island-wide power outage exposed some haphazard ‘plans’. Police did not seem to have a clear set of procedures to deal with the traffic chaos. The urban bus company was planning to cut services early, focusing on the safety of staff and travelers, but seemingly oblivious that such action would trigger a different set of problems, even dangers. ‘Soon come’ will cover all time slippages. Worse, in my mind, we just grab for excuses as if they are boxes of cereal on a shelf.
We’ve also become cynical and less-troubled by things that remain uncorrected.
I’m a skeptic concerning the Economic Growth Council and will remain so till I see signs that it’s going to tackle some core features of life in Jamaica that are not about speeding up approvals of big projects but are about unbuckling the many little belts that bind our daily lives. Some of us may need shock therapy to rouse us from the slumber into which we’ve fallen, and it may be a rude awakening for those.