I’m in the present day, though I have blogged in a chronological manner through to the 1970s. I need to think about where we are and then go back to see what of the past seems relevant to my thoughts; there’s a personal story that may not matter too much to the story of what I perceive about Jamaica since I came back in 2013.
By no means is Jamaica the worst place I know, and it’s not the best in many areas. However, it does have things that I have not seen surpassed and things that are as low as I have ever known. So, there’s a wide spread to deal with. For many, that is THE problem. If you live somewhere that is abjectly awful (in my experience, parts of Guinea, Guyana, slums in Italy, parts of downtown Kingston, come to mind), then all you really hope for is some move to the upside. Conversely, if you live somewhere that seems the envy of the rest of the world (eg, Zurich, Oslo, The Seychelles, The Blue Mountains), you cherish that and do your best to preserve it.
My overall feeling about Jamaica is that policy makers have disappointed more than they have satisfied: too many promises have been unfulfilled; too many things languish for no apparent good reason; mediocrity has set in to far too many areas; too many lives are still just a breath away from squalour; the best on offer is enjoyable by too few (not their fault). The disappointment comes as much from a serial unwillingness to point the country towards a clear vision that it can excel in all areas and setting in train the means to do that. It’s all well and good to clamour around our world-beating athletes and the kudos they bring with them, but then we fail to understand how much of their success has been despite resources, not because of them. They signify a well-know resilience and willingness to push through that out to be given opportunities to appear in all fields. Our creativity is renowned (8 new different music genres developed during the 20th century). We know we have the ability to produce well-educated people, and this has gone on for decades, yet we have an educational system where only 30% of children graduate high school with any form of qualification. We show some potentially disturbing tendencies in tertiary education, which has risen to about 30% from about 5% in the early-1970s and 20% in the early-2000s, but is now heavily skewed towards female enrollment (about 2/3 now, from about 40% in the mid-1970s. Yet, males appear to be earning far-better salaries than women. There are tensions building from the underlying inequities in education which have no clear outlet, though one of them is to see a continued drain of well-educated talent (increasingly female), again leaving the country with a labour pool that is much lower in qualification than many of our competitors. We cannot be a magnet for higher added-value and technologically-advanced processes if this is what we are offering to potential investors.
Without a doubt, if you look at the physical landscape of Jamaica you’d applaud the sight of highways covering important stretches of the country heading west-central and north. You’d also need to then consider where that has left the east, the southwest and far west of the island in terms of accessibility. The better access comes at a price, so it’s not a universal gain.
If you move in and around the Kingston metropolitan area you’ll notice both significant architectural changes, both commercial and residential. You’ll see much higher density and you’ll see good design. You’ll also understand better why the traffic flows into and out of that area are often dense and clogged at ‘rush-hour’, which often starts earlier and last longer than before, and recurs if there is any disruption as simple as heavy rain, let alone if there is something that sends people into ‘panic’ (eg warnings of hurricane or earthquake, or major event scheduled for Kingston/New Kingston). I wont go into any argument here about whether devolution of functions should have been a priority to reduce pressure on the metropolitan area, but… However, a good portion of these heavy flows of people and vehicles is a direct result of a society that has not managed to shift its technology fast enough.
More people move to do things that can now be done from the comfort of their homes, but are not and the need to deal with physical paper-based transactions impose a heavy load on many people’s daily lives (read the many daily pleases involving hours spent in a tax office to renew a driver’s licence). Part of that continues because we cannot claim to have made the whole country well-connected to Internet and phone services. It’s worth remembering that the metropolitan area, though significant in terms of sheer population is only a small part of the national geography and the spread of people is still far and wide.
I’m a kind of maverick in Jamaica because I refuse to move to do things I know can be done electronically; it’s often a fight to get organizations to accept things that they are set up to do, but seem willing to hide from. Why should I have to point out to a representative what are the possibilities for bank transfers? So, I do not go out to sign documents, or pay bills; it sometimes takes a few heated conversations, but I get there. But, we are a country that has put a low value on personal time, so this resistance is more inate, here. Ironically, I’m a JP, so I understand the frustration others feel in having to get forms signed and sealed. But, I cannot change the whole social structure to render such stuff meaningless. I understand some of the ‘why’, but much of it leaves me boggle-eyed. I’m baffled by the volume of people who go to banks and what they do after waiting in line for often hours; I’ve heard explanations, but I’m still perturbed. There’s a lot of re-education needed on both sides of providers and customers, and then there’s the matter of trusting processes that are automated and electronic versus those that involve face-to-face activities.
Jamaica is in a much more comfortable position economically than in decades. Many Jamaicans understand the stability but have an impatience for that to translate into something called ‘faster growth’. That doesn’t mean that the average Jamaican has found than the financial side of daily life is much better now than in 2015. Part of the past economic problems were fully in the area of government and its budget and how that dominated the financial life of the rest of the country. Fixing that fiscal problem doesn’t mean that private financial situations improve in like manner. Easing the public sector debt burden, say, doesn’t mean that everyone else has more money in their pocket, perhaps on the contrary.
Admittedly, few in Jamaica have any notion of what that means, but I suspect they foresee many more people doing what are perceived as ‘quality’ jobs (but see above on how that’s constrained). Perhaps, they also foresee considerable improvements in the quality of goods and services (so that they equate more to what may be experienced in North America or Western Europe). These would demonstrate to many a country that has somehow become ‘richer’. Elements of such things are here, already, but they are spotty. Another feature of this ‘faster growing’ country may be the orderliness that’s associated with wealthier countries. To my mind, much of this comes from a perception of how society is supposed to function better for more people and setting in train developments in that direction, which are easier to support with more resources, but can go on with ‘slower’ growth. So, clean environment and tranquility are things that people associate with economic advancement. An economist could argue that those things that make life seem better are ‘friction’ that has been removed (friction is associated with lower productivity). Less chaos often leads to anything being easier to do that if there is chaos. Our lives would be transformed overnight if, say, route taxis were committed to follow a code of conduct that had them acting as if their prime concerns were for good road behaviour and passenger safety, and if most transgressions were met with heavy sanctions. So, for Jamaica, significant reductions in disorder would quickly give the impression that life has gotten better. So, an important part of this growth development comes from people behaving differently.
But, changed behaviour usually comes easier in a society where people are better-educated, meaning their ability to understand and adjust should be higher. So, I look back at what our education system is producing and have to wonder how we can get there from here. The comparator countries we like to look towards to mark how little we have progressed have made major changes in how they educate their populations, and being contented with ‘dumbing down’ people and letting young talent flounder wasn’t part of the blueprint. The disparity between Jamaica’s best and worst schools is a national disgrace and the system of sharing out the spoils to offer children a sniff of the best opportunities is a disaster for the average child. But, fixing that can’t be done quickly, and one danger is how long people will remain patient for signs of that to appear. Behind that is another danger of sorts where those who have understood the value of the better education and can afford it, have and will continue to opt out of local education–understandably, given the importance of good investment in children’s education.
I’ve not commented on how our political processes have been a brake on moving the country and I’ll need to think a bit more about that beyond stating that a national motto of ‘Out of many, one people’ that is notable in the absence of true application of that without political favour is the kind of unhealthy self-delusion that has gone on for too long.
I also need to think and discuss crime and the growing perception of fear and insecurity.