Everyday things that make you wonder if Jamaica is ungovernable or just not well-governed

I’m often stuck between a rock and a hard place when I think about Jamaica: it’s a land of many apparent contradictions. Some of these seeming contradictions are glaring, to me–and I do not believe that my eyes see them more because I had not lived here for 50 years. I think people see them, but perhaps interpret them differently.

Where my mind gets stuck is that, given how obvious some of these contradictions appear to be, are policy makers ignoring them because they do not care or because they get certain advantages from their continued presence? A cynic would point to the political gains from ‘solving’ false problems, and making lives better for some in exchange for votes.

As I drove around the island in recent days, I pondered whether many of policy measures taken fall on barren ground. If so, they are basically a waste of effort and resources.

Let me try to explain with issues I see in a few areas

Jamaica is supposedly gripped in a crime wave, yet one reads reports of people being aware of possible crimes but not responding. The recent killing of fashion designer, Dexter Pottinger, is an example: neighbours report they heard calls for help but did not respond or raise any alerts. Why? A complex set of reasons can explain such apparent indifference, including animosity between Pottinger and his neighbours, the call being interpreted as part of a pattern of raucous behaviour and therefore ‘normal’, a general fear of ‘getting involved’, distrust of the police, and more.

But, are those the feelings of people who feel that violent crime is a real concern? I’d argue no. Or, if it is, then the fear of possible retribution for taking action against violent crime is greater than the fear of the crimes itself.

If so, then the police’s calling on citizens to be ‘nosey’ and help in fighting crime is empty posturing. Something psychological and maybe physical or ‘moral’ is stopping people putting themselves into the mix to help fight or solve crimes.

The inaction of people in close proximity to crimes is compounded by their unwillingness to help oil the wheels of justice, by being witnesses or testifying in criminal cases.  

For some time now, I have been puzzled by the way many ordinary people do not seem affected by an apparent crime wave. In general, I wonder why people would continue to put themselves in harm’s way if they really believed that they were going to be the subject of a violent crime. Why, for example, would people risk their lives by traveling in vehicles driven by unlicensed taxi operators? Why would ordinary people risk their lives by walking alone at night on dark streets? (Before someone jumps up and tells me how they dare not venture out from their homes, I suggest he/she go out with a security detail and check many areas of Kingston/St. Andrew at night. I cannot speak for every other heavily populated parts of the countrym but I have seen the same in Mandeville, and if one drives across Jamaica at night, it is a common feature in rural areas.) Why would many people choose to drive alone rather than in the company of others, if they really felt that they would be the subject of random violent attacks?

I ask these questions in part because I read the analyses of Dr. Herbert Gayle and noted that many of our violent crime statistics make parts of Jamaica seem like ‘war zones’, but then the other elements that would confirm the war zones status seem missing. I’ve lived in and travelled to areas that were war zones, and they are not like many parts of Jamaica. Maybe, the war zone-like areas of Jamaica are so small that one has to live within them to get a sense of those features. In which case, I think we need to have these areas pulled out in front of us so that we can really see up-close what is going on there.

Another piece of the puzzle over crime is the role of the police force. If this were a truly-engaged effort, why would we still see reports in the media that police are themselves engaged in criminal activities, or even implicated or suspected of being so involved? People talk about police morale being low because some have concerns about the ‘burdens’ put on them by the oversight body, INDECOM. But, is police morale not low because a significant part of the force is corrupt? I’m merely asking what seems an obvious question. How can one feel proud to be part of a corps that is meant to ‘serve and protect’ and be comfortable with colleagues who have little intention of doing so?

One does not need to have a perfect world for the police to be seen as above reproach. That, in Jamaica, we often have police on charges of killing citizens is a peculiarity, to put it mildly.


Jamaica has been mired for decades by low rates of economic growth, according to official data. Yet, many signs exist that suggest growth hasn’t been so sluggish. We know many of the general explanatory factors, such as size and growth of informal economic activities, much of which is illegal, so doesn’t get counted for several obvious reasons. This hiding of economic activity makes economic policy less likely to succeed, if people have taken themselves out of circuits affected by variables controlled by the State.

What is clear, however, is that many Jamaicans do not have regular employment, which is not the same as saying they do not have jobs or work that they do. Many people ‘get by’ ‘doing a thing’: that may be odd jobs that come along, or as vendors, or hustling in some way (and that does not imply they are doing illegal things). Getting jobs like that, however, depends on other groups having tasks that need doing and means to pay for them. Jamaica does have a lot of economic ‘trickle down’ in the form of its middle- and upper-classes employing lower classes to do a range of menial and domestic work. But that higher income and social group needs to be doing well enough to pay for such services. Judging by the way that many upscale communities have not fallen into disrepair, or that many so-called ‘gully communities’ adjacent to such areas keep expanding, money must still be flowing through them at a good rate. Judging, too, by the construction activity going on in many of them, money is flowing in to want to buy or rent residences in such areas. Again, as anecdotal evidence, one doesn’t see the average car parked in such areas going down in quality from newer saloons and SUVs to beat-up bangers.

Many young people are not employed, and official data show that rate to be around 30 percent of the workforce. Anecdotal evidence will point to the many young men who can be found loitering on street corners, or walking around doing apparently nothing during what would normally be seen as working hours. Those in regular employment need not be much better off in terms of what that work may bring by way of income.


Are Jamaicans sado-masochists? Perhaps, it’s a consequence of a society that is semi-literate that people do not seem ot learn much from printed warnings. In such circumstances, for information to seep into people’s consciousness, it needs to be visual and direct. But, we have many visual warnings that seem to go unheeded. Road traffic accidents in one area where people seem to have learned little. The reports of carnage have been many, and judging by the way that people flock to accident sites, many have seen the physical results of bad crashes. However, has any of that seeped into how people approach travelling on roads? I’d say ‘not much’.

As one moves around it’s easy to see people jumping into taxis, huddled together on seats without one passenger wearing a belt. Ironically, sometimes, the driver is seen wearing his (it’s mainoy men taxi drivers) belt, with his other hand stretched outside the vehicle witha wad of bills and waving his direction. On many stretches of road, it’s common place to see excessive speeding (by which I mean some 20 km/hour above the posted limits). [In passing, I do not subscribe to the view that Jamaicans generally drive fast. Our speed limit is often between 50-80 kph (between about 30-50 mph). People don’t genearlly drive at 100 kph (about 60+ mph) for extended periods, because our roads (except our few highways, and some stretches of road on the north coast) don’t support such speeds. The sense of speed may be an illusion simply because most of our roads are narrow and it seems that vehicles zip past each other. I was driving in the USA, recently, and was suprised how casually my speed went up to 60 mph (100 kph) as I ‘cruised’ along the freeways that are the standard roadways.

But, we often have many inconsistent and inconsiderate drivers. Cases in point:

  1. I was leaving Exchange, Ocho Rios, yesterday afternoon and passed two cars that seemed to be together, but driving downhill at about 40 kph. At a good point, I and several cars behind me tooted and passed the cars to get to the main road. Once on the main road, heading west towawrds Ocho Rios centre, the two cars that had been passed came racing past a line of cars on the single lane section, revving at about 110 kph (70 mph) as we approached the busy town centre. What! They raced through the lighted junctions, as if racing and were soon mere dots in the distance. 
  2. Coming south last night on the NS highway, a car with four men were hogging the outside lane (a common piece of ‘bad’ or inconsiderate driving), driving at about 70 kph, in part because oncoming drivers had singalled a police speed check was ahead. After the check point the car continued to cruise along. I flashed and hoped the car would move over. It didn’t. I and several other drivers did what is now commonplace: we undertook (i.e. did the passing manouevre on the inside, not outside of the vehicle being passed); this is generally regarded as a dangerous manoeuvre and in some countries would elicit a fine and a ticket. Within moments, the car that had been cruising, zipped passed everyone at about 140-150 kph (86-93 mph), then settled back at around 90 kph. What was that all about? Machismo? Hurt pride? 

Fortunately, none of the cars and their drivers in these episodes were seen overturned on the road and making another set of statistics.

What is government doing in these and other areas of concern? Is it really trying to get citizens to behave in a better way, by creating incentives for such behaviour and penalties for behaviour that goes counter to that? I’m deeply unsure, not least because I often see less-than-full commitment from those who are charged with implementing policies. Public servants should not be holding such positions if they are more focused on making it more difficult for citizens to get quality public goods and services than the opposite. In that regard, I look too at how the police force implements laws that it has at its disposal: if they are not enforced, then society suffers and that sufferance can be worsened if the police gain from not implementing laws–that’s a form of corruption. By contrast, we can applaud loudly those public servants and agencies that have made great efforts to change image and quality of service delivery; in that regard, I’ve cited before the Registrar General’s Department, Tax Administration Jamaica, and the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA).

Do Jamaican citizens do all they can to help government in its tasks, or do they work as hard as possible to thwart such efforts? If much energy is put into bypassing regulations, then Jamaicans are working on being ungovernable. The creation and maintenance of informal economic activities fits into that category. So, too, do practices such as operating ‘robot’ (unlicensed) taxis. That ordinary citizens see these things as normal suggest they would rather not be ‘governed’, except in those instances when they feel that they have no options but to follow government strictures.

The pace at which some government policy gets made makes me think that poor governance is one of the crosses we have to bear. Few problems being addressed today are new. Why some of them have not been subject to real measures (i.e., things that look likely to change behaviour) goes to the heart of many Jamaican political processes and ambitions, which may be more about wielding power and influence (and maybe feathering some nests), than bettering the lives of all.

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. :)