As I’ve noted before, the relative and absolute distance of being away from a place can help to let one see better or at least differently some of the good and bad things of another place. I’m loving a short visit to London, as winter is ending and spring is sprungen.

London is always an adventure, even after living there for 30 years; something new can be seen because old stuff was missed in the past and new things are always springing up. Yesterday, I met with some old friends (of over 40 years standing) from university and we spent the afternoon in The City of London, near The Monument. Now, that monument is to the Great Fire of London in 1666, which began in a bakery in Pudding Lane, adjacent to where the monument stands. That construction to commemorate a disaster was once the tallest building in London. But, I was due to go to what is now the tallest–20 Fenchurch Street and to its Sky Garden, which offers a panoramic view of London and its adjacent lands. To say the view was spectacular is to understate what a feast the eyes had, and pictures barely do the view justice. It was a magnificent sunny day. But, I’d love to visit several times during the year to see how the landscape changes with the season. *Note to bucket list*.

But, what we see are the outcomes of many things natural and man-made, and it was the latter that kept floating through my head as I thought about Jamaica–what makes it also a marvelous place to see, but too often a place where frustrations recur and boil over and those who should be focused on making them less seem to be bad at doing that.

London is the result of centuries of private and public decisions, many of which have been in total contradiction to each other, but which found coherence through a series of national and local government agencies doing much to solve urban development problems through actions that worked because they were put in place and made to apply–eg banning open fires and burning coal–and understand what complementary actions would make such polices work better. One area where it shows well is the move to extend environmental concerns through various forms of recycling and resuming, which means having clear national and local policies, making provisions for these to be applied, and penalizing harshly those who do not respect the policies (both implementing agencies as well as the public).

It’s not hard to see many of Jamaica’s problems as the result of poor policies, or policies poorly implemented or not implemented at all, and the absence of necessary complementary actions.

One thing that strikes me about a lot of policy making in Jamaica is how it goes on in the absence of what my training tells me should be a key element–understanding the people whom the policy is meant to affect–the agents who should administer as well as the public who are affected. I’m going to look at that briefly in the context of a few pieces of easily-observed daily life.

Now, my first observation is that Jamaica needs less new legislation than it needs existing legislation to be implemented properly. What happens with partial implementation of anything is that it creates ‘gaps’ for other activities to take hold, and often supplant intended outcomes. We see this a lot with many aspects of social conditions in Jamaica. Take two important areas, for example:

  • Housing policy is in chaos because those responsible for housing policies have abdicated that role and let settlements come into existence without planning and proper resources.
  • Roads (and traffic) are in chaos because (a) construction has been poorly planned; (b) construction has been poorly overseen and maintained; road traffic laws have been weakly administered. Consequently, Jamaicans drive on roads more noted for their state of disrepair than anything else and have to contend with behaviour on roads that exists because the costs–actual, in terms of fines or other penalties imposed and paid as they are due, opposed to notional, as represented by fines on the books–of not adhering to those laws in low.

Yet, despite the major problems being about what has not been done by those who have control over rules and laws, we see governments hell-bent on introducing new laws, as was the case recently with a new Road Traffic Act (RTA)–passed on February 6. As reported by the government’s information service:

‘The new Road Traffic Bill, which will repeal and replace the existing 1938 Act, was passed in the House of Representatives on Tuesday (February 6).

The legislation, piloted by Minister of Transport and Mining, Hon. Mike Henry, was approved with 131 amendments. It will establish new offences, as well as provide increased penalties for breaches.

Among the features are: a restriction on handheld devices; and a requirement for drivers to have a licence in their possession while operating a vehicle.

Offences under the Bill include: driving without required motor vehicle insurance coverage ($20,000); driving a motor vehicle without being the holder of a permit or driver’s licence ($40,000); failure of driver to obey traffic light ($24,000); loud noises within silence zones and failure to wear a protective helmet ($5,000); failure to comply with traffic signs ($10,000); and failure to stop at pedestrian crossings ($12,000).’

This is almost like a classic case of not understanding some simple rules about arithmetic and running ahead with calculations that make little sense. So, using that parallel, we should know that anything multiplied by zero is zero. Therefore, applying anything additional to something that is not being administered means that nothing new will be administered. So, you have higher fines on not obeying traffic lights in a country where there is little official observance of what goes on at traffic lights. Is the expectation that there will be more self-policing? You have higher fines for not wearing a protective helmet in a country where one can see motorcyclists without helmets congregating outside a police station as their regular place or rest. Eyes wide shut! Fines for not stopping at pedestrian crossings in a country where it’s not customary for the public to stop at pedestrian crossings or for drivers to respect those places as ones where they should stop to let people cross, and many of the crossings are so indistinct or poorly marked as to be worthy of a quiz asking ‘where am I?’? Really? This is a classic case of doing things for the sake of being seen to do something–yes, the 1938 law needed updating, but, first the police need fixing.

In the case of the RTA, being about things that affect people’s behaviour and that should have monetary consequences, one needs to understand what must be happening to the monetary relationships. It’s a simple deduction that if fines are in place and levied but drivers are not paying the fines in a timely manner—something we know and observe, clearly, because we have just ended a period of amnesties for fines which was extended–then levying new and higher fines will not make drivers pay these with anymore readiness. Instead, they will (a) continue to await (the almost inevitable) amnesties; (b) find ways to avoid fines being fully levied–for which we can deduce a hope for police officers to offer alternative charges that do not appear on official records or avoid being stopped by police (a dangerous alternative, but not out of the realm of possibility). So, what we should expect to see from new fines under a new RTA is an increase in unpaid fines and an increase in ‘bribes’ extracted by and paid to police. Policy makers should not be surprised by this, because they have not raised real incentives for drivers to behave differently. In particular, there is nothing to compel police officers to do better policing. Hence, we see the kind of exhortation by police ‘high command’ to policemen to not take bribes. Hello! Tell a dog to not chew on a bone! At the end of the day, the national treasury will be much fuller–happier Ministry of Finance and public who can believe that more funds are available to spend on social programmes–but roads will not be safer–sadder Ministry of Health and general public who face many of the same dangers as before.

But, let’s note that Jamaican legislators are not short of stubbornness in the face of passing legislation that makes little real sense.

What can one expect in a country where the last image you have of traffic police is seeing two male officers happily engaged in a conversation with a lady (driver?) on the side of the north-south highway, sitting on the back of their truck with arms folded while vehicles sped along their way in excess of the posted speed limit? (By the way, I have witnesses in the form of foreign visitors who thought it noteworthy 🙂 ) When the police force’s actual priorities are not about serving and protecting the mass of the people, what should one expect?