If Jamaicans were more anally retentive

My favourite dictionary defines ‘anal retentive‘ as ‘extremely or excessively neat, careful, or precise‘. Faster than a speeding bullet, most Jamaicans would recognize those traits as almost totally un-Jamaican. Much of the country and its people are, sadly, seen as untidy, careless and imprecise, at the least, and wWe could add traits like untimely, vague or dismissive of truthfulness. I’ve written before that Jamaica is often seen best from afar, ie from the air or looked at from a boat offshore. As one gets closer to the ground, literally, what’s in front of the eyes is really a series of horrible eyesores. Yet, if one goes into most Jamaican homes, the places are neat and tidy and clean. There’s something about public spaces, however, that leaves much to be desired. What’s odd about that is how rare it is that public space is treated much differently if its truly public (like road verges and parks) or open to the public (like shop frontages–the inside of many corporate entities is more like homes, but I can also cite many instances where the surroundings are slap-dash, if that nice). Why is there this attitude of ‘can’t bother’, or ‘it’s alright like that’ (when it really isn’t). But, to recognize the usual crappy look, give us a few days before a major holiday, and out come the bands of workers with cans of paint and brushes to ‘spruce up’ the place. How about every month, week, or even more frequently? Please don’t argue that we need to give road cleaners work to do! They try early every day to remove small amounts of roadside debris, but that doesn’t change what one faces once the sun is up and we are about.

One thing I’ve noticed from the various places I’ve lived or visited which people argue are desirable places to live or whose people are worth copying is the tendency for high degrees of orderliness. I recall vividly being told in Switzerland that I was not allowed to sit on the grass as it needed to be protected and that I should go and sit on a bench in the park. The Swiss are renowned for neatness and precision, much exemplified in their famed watch industry and the state of their railways, whose safety and punctuality are legendary.

People often look at Jamaica and say the people are lawless. But, I’ve often noticed that this is far from true. If one looks carefully, it’s easy to see that many Jamaicans are conformists. What Jamaicans do often, however, is to ignore rules which they know from experience or the attitude of enforcers to be meaningless–ie the rules can be broken without much, if any personal costs. That’s what we see most evidently on our roads, where in the extreme one can see transgressions in plain sight of police officers which are ignored by said officers. People often counter with the observed orderly behaviour at the US Embassy, when people are applying for visas. But, if they misbehave or literally go out of line, they will lose their turn (expensively obtained for US$160). We are more in fear of transgressions on the road, but unless your eyes don’t really see, only a small minority of drivers run red lights (possibly, the scariest of incidents), or don’t stop at junctions, or drive on sidewalks. Yes, we can find instances of that, but I defy anyone to track incidents thoroughly and tell me that this is common behaviour. We know a good number of PPV drivers have done and do these things, but even they are not all birds of a feather. What we have observed is that many of those instances happen because most people know that nothing much happens to those who try these stunts, and we are also in the midst of many who validate these actions by either ignoring them as passengers or, worse, urge them on, because personal concerns about time and convenience trump all others. We do not witness what I did when I first visited Germany, and acting as if I were still in London, decided to cross a road when I saw a gap in traffic. “Nein!” I heard from about 20 mouths around me. Shocked, I looked around at a see of wagging fingers and an old lady pointing to the crossing light, whose figure was still red, meaning don’t cross. Meekly, I stepped back, and waited with the others for the light to change. On the contrary, we teach our children to cross in the gaps of moving vehicles, and hope that a hand held high will be seen as enough to give us the pass we need. So, of course, as adults, that’s how we will proceed. Watch how people cannot navigate the new designated lights crossings in places like Barbican: same old, wait for a gap. Worse still, people will ignore the crossing area and just traverse where they want to. I often see school children walk from the Texaco gas station on Jacks Hill Road/Barbican Road and cross as soon as possible, rather than walk the 5-10 yards to the designated crossing. Admittedly, we have made life more complicated by some badly-thought out road designs, but our nature has been nurtured to do the wrong things.

If someone were to say that it’s because Jamaicans tend towards laziness, I’d have to hesitate to agree. What I would say is that most don’t want to spend time and effort to do things well, and the inevitable result is that we have lots of examples of imperfection. The night chart below shows what most will understand as a basic truth: that one has to spend time and effort to do things well. But, perfection isn’t really where one wants to be, but much better can be a far cry from where we are.

Many people talk about ‘cool’ Jamaicans, but many of my compatriots are people who love expediency, and we love to ‘get away with it’ as much as possible. Now, that’s cool when it involves, say, ‘getting something for nothing’, but it’s uncool when a worker does nothing (or little) and expects to be paid something. I wont use the examples we often see of several men standing idly by watching one digs a hole; we don’t know the work flow, so may misinterpret the roles that are being played. Instead, I will cite a few examples that I have experienced and I witness often.

  • Inability to complete tasks (phone calls unanswered; promises not kept; unfinished building works; road completed but furnishings missing for months, maybe years; holes dug but not filled for weeks, even months–all examples of essentially the same problem). My worst personal experience was the doctor who kept my daughter and me waiting for nearly 2 hours one evening for an appointment, and when we said we would leave, around 6pm, promised to call us the next day to reschedule. That was nearly 4 years ago, now, and I have still not had that call. Fortunately, my daughter was recovering and we have had the ailment treated elsewhere.
  • Low standards accepted as the norm (our roads are a good example, so are many of the associated elements, such as sidewalks–if they exist). At its worst, that low standard means the absence of provisions, because someone thinks that just because it’s the norm elsewhere, it need not be the norm in Jamaica. Exhibit 1 could be many restrooms, where taps that don’t function, no soap to wash hands, no towel or paper to dry hands, no receptacle to place trash, doors with no handles, tiling that must have been done by people with poor sight and no sense of balance, are common features. Exhibit 2 could be the inability to understand that information (especially signs) is literally the guidepost many need. I remember when I used to visit Jamaica and my father would take me somewhere in the country and we had to find the route through landmarks, not road signs. These were not journeys to uninhabited places, but either no one saw the need or it was assumed that anyone needing to go to these places would figure out how to get there. We’ve lost some of that mystery in Jamaica, but when I drove from Montego Bay to Mandeville via Trelawny, I don’t think I would have arrived in a day without GoogleMaps. In most countries with developed road networks, there is a hierarchy of road signs from the local through regional destinations. But, this inability or unwillingness to inform is so pervasive. I’ve often contrasted how so many of our road projects end up with worse traffic, but one of the reasons is that the agencies doing work rarely seem to give advanced notice (and I’m sorry, sending out a press statement, beforehand, isn’t the answer that could be offered by some well-placed signs on roads, and offers of alternative routes). Exhibit 3 would be our absent national waste management, which is a series of downward spirals that start with lack of adequate equipment, resulting in erratic scheduling, descending into garbage that is collected and dumped en masse not sorted in places that do not control waste and become hazards themselves, which at worst end up ablaze, sending noxious fumes into the surrounding area. When economists talk about ‘vertical integration’ it’s not normally about how one designs enterprises to worsen what they try to do, but our waste mis-management ought to be studied by some keen student for its reverse application of economic principles.

It’s sometimes hard to separate these two traits, as they often result in similar outcomes, which are poor quality whatever, or incomplete products or services whatever. I read a post, yesterday, from one of our esteemed economists, Dr. Damien King, about an experience at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet:

We often read or hear of complaints about the total absence of service, or interrupted services from many of our major utilities and phone companies. What is often odd is how these go on for years without real solutions. That leads to another trait:

  • Empty promises. These work well in Jamaica because we have low degrees of accountability and often not good at following up on our own complaints, aka the ‘nine day wonders’. Politicians play on this trait a lot and have gotten away with it for decades, but that’s also the nature of politics in many places. We an understand how monopolies in the public sector get away with it–people have few choices of who can supply electricity and water. What’s odd is how, in the corporate world, we end up with companies that are supposed to compete but seem to compete for ‘first to the bottom’. Part of the oddity comes from the absence of true competition, so our two main phone companies are just oligopolies, and happily live high on the hog sharing out the misery. For all the failings that have been evident in Jamaica over the decades, our country is not littered with the corpses of dismissed executives or managers. On the contrary, one often reads of how some have fled the country and remain far out of reach.
  • Giving a bly. This is a close cousin to the empty promise and is often founded on the notion that all should be forgiven, but especially if it’s someone well-known, or related, or just because our way is to say ‘give the person another chance’. Where we get this compassion badly wrong is that we give bly, upon bly, upon bly, with little or no sign that the offending behaviour has been corrected, let alone addressed. We had the absurdity of this attitude rammed up our noses earlier this year, when a motorist was pulled into public gaze for doing doughnuts in a fast car at a major intersection, which was caught on video. Instead of the police throwing the book at the alleged driver, they turned it into a PR moment and offered the driver the chance to become the face of ‘road safety’. Those with a keen sense of the absurd will note that the officer in charge of this ‘event’ is a ‘bishop’, whose name is ‘Welsh’ (which means fail to honor), and who felt that using his discretion was the better part of valour.
All friends together? Photo credit: Jamaica Observer

Of course, the story wasn’t so simple: the owner of the flashy car was one of our star cricketers (next to a deity, for some; the alleged driver was a man whose light skin tone is often seen as a pass through any Jamaican gate; the Commissioner of Police ordered a further enquirer into the whole affair, the police officer was ‘ relieved of his post’ and ‘reassigned’ to somewhere that has not yet been made public. Now, so much dust has settled that no one really remembers what happened, or for that matter now cares.

That is the state of affairs that would have many cast Jamaica as a failed state, incapable of seeing what it does wrongly so often so unable to correct it.

Jamaica and aesthetics are not often in the same sentence, for good reason. Our natural beauty stands in stark contrast to the monstrosity of a country we have built. The nursery rhyme about the crooked man who built a crooked house could be a metaphor.

Visitors from abroad come and tell us that we’re quaint, but that’s their way of trying to avoid hurting people’s feelings by saying “How on Earth do you people live like this?” When it’s blurted out plainly, we get into a hissy fit about how we are being disrespected, not seeing that we have showered ourselves in mutual disrespect.

Finally, we are the perfect illustration of ‘you are what you tolerate’. We were out driving yesterday in Nassau, The Bahamas, and passed a disused supermarket lot that is the perfect picture of urban blight, with dishevelled store, broken concrete in the parking lot, and other signs that no one cares. A woman and her daughter had erected a tent and were hanging clothes on it, presumably to sell. My mother-in-law gasped “What in the name of Jesus is this?” She was horrified that anyone would just put up a ‘store’ and start selling. Now, she knows Jamaica well and has a similar reaction when she sees our sidewalks overtaken by vendors, often under signs that state ‘No vending’, or narrow roads made impassable by the spread of ‘entrepreneurial prowess’ as she witnessed during a resultant traffic jam in Port Antonio last month. Now, The Bahamas is no paragon compared to Jamaica, but the reaction shows what is often missing in Jamaica, which is a sense that this should not happen, rather than the ready acceptance of its happening.

I can distill all of this into Jamaica being a place less desirable to live in than many, though it offers some of the best natural experiences that a country can offer: our quality of life should not be as low as it is. I can also distill it into a country that does much worse than it should more of the time: read the many stories of how ‘unprepared’ our sports teams are for events. One of my common themes is about Jamaica’s poor productivity record and it’s easy to see how this gets fed by much of what I have described.

So, where do we go? Hard though it will be for many, we need to stop tolerating the things that we say we don’t want to see. Friends and relatives and others can go hang and we need to not only call out this misbehaving and force changes because it’s not happening voluntarily–we’re too far gone in many areas for gradual measures. How can we? Well, that’s part of the tough ask. We each have to be ready to be the line in the sand.

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. :)

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