No more sitting on hands

LETTER OF THE DAY – Private Sector Must Get Off Its Butt!
Published: Saturday | September 7, 2013

THE EDITOR,
Sir:

Friday’s report that “sections of the private sector remain sceptical about the extended fund facility’s chances of success …” and that “this doubt is borne out of the previous failed International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme, as well as the magnitude of the challenges Jamaica faces,” is truly troubling.

Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips said last week that there was “a slight but important and significant improvement in investor confidence” from approval of the IMF arrangement. He added that “business confidence will improve further with Jamaica having passed the first quarterly IMF test”.

Now, we know that the private sector is not a homogeneous mass, but for this doubtful view to be given prominence makes me wonder if Dr Phillips has been misled or if he has misinterpreted the mood of local entrepreneurs. We would expect that foreign investors would be even more sceptical than locals.

My concern is that, if the Government is really going to rely on the private sector to get Jamaica growing, we have a bigger struggle ahead than we realise. If the view is that Government’s failure to adhere to the previous IMF programme holds so much negative weight, how much success under the current programme will be needed to shift that view?

Clearly, if investors wait until the programme period is well under way to get off their hands, the likelihood of growth by the end of the programme would seem to be limited, if not impossible.

Catch-22

This is a real catch-22. I’m not faulting the private sector for its doubts, because Government has betrayed trust badly in the past. This is one of the costs of lack of commitment to reform.

However, if the new social partnership is to mean something, the so-called emphasis on consensus should mean that the private sector has to show that it takes the Government’s latest commitments seriously and believes in the State’s policies and commitment.

If not, let’s all stop fooling around and talking about making more sacrifices. Let’s not hope for more foreign direct investment. If the private sector wants to get behind the effort to move the economy forward, it has to be behind the Government.

Maybe I misunderstood the views expressed, but my feeling is that the private sector wants to play a wait-and-see game, and I fear the patient may well be dead and about to be buried by the time they are ready.

DENNIS JONES

Economist

dennisgjones@gmail.com

I want to compete

The World Economic Forum’s 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report was released yesterday: it assesses institutions, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country. This year’s report places Switzerland first, for the fifth year running; Singapore remains in second position and Finland in third. The rest of the top ten are Germany, the United States, Sweden, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Jamaica ranked 94th; it was 97th out of 144 countries last year and 107th out of 142 the previous year. The report notes that the most problematic factors for doing business in Jamaica are inefficient government bureaucracy and crime and theft. The report also notes that corruption, tax rates, access to financing and the poor work ethic of the national labour force are also affecting the country’s competitiveness.

For context, it’s worth noting that the report states that Latin America and the Caribbena is a region with low productivity and slow productivity growth, which requires urgent action in many areas to improve its competitiveness.20130905-220231.jpg

People who know the country will quickly see reasonableness in the areas cited as weak.

Inefficient government bureaucracy: ‘Red tape’ is known to be a problem and supposed to be on the list of things to be tackled under the current IMF arrangement. So, success there should see a stronger pillar for competitiveness. Is Jamaica worse served by public servants than in most other countries? Some systems are old fashioned and involve too much paper handling. Electronic processes are less common than they could be. Too many procedures require face-to-face transactions, and may falter because the relevant person is absent. Do public servants care about the quality of service given? The work ethic issues suggest this has to be less than it could be.

Crime and theft: The headlines focus on murders, and at some 1,500 a year, or about 55/1,000 people, it’s easy to see that the country is decimating itself. Add to that, shootings, robberies of persons, agricultural produce, personal property and other things. Credit card frauds and lottery scams are common sport. Do many citizens see petty crime as normal and too tolerant of something that really makes the country less effective than it could be? Conversely, I can cite many instances of scrupulously honest behaviour in instances where a little slightness of hand or lightness of fingers would be easy.

Corruption: I wonder how much of this is actual or apocryphal. Poiticians or covil servants taking their ‘piece’ of deals? Let’s watch the Cuban light bulb scheme trials carefully. I’ve noted press reports about fraud and malfeasance. Let’s watch the case develop with the missing funds from the Jamaican Teachers Association. I’ve not lived here long enough recently to see many instances of possible corruption. I’ve not had any official indicate that a little grease will help a process go faster. No policeman has offered to turn a blind eye to an infraction, or let it slide for ‘some considerations’. Just a matter of time?

Tax rates: They are high. The country has a huge debt burden. Rock and a hard place.

Access to financing: Small business and farmers constantly complain about this. But, I’ve never been in a country where that’s not the case. Everyone wants more to borrow on easier terms?

The poor work ethic of the national labour force:We know that there are many people who work crazily hard. We also know there are many people who cannot wait to just give the minimum or nothing at all. How do they balance? The policeman who warned me that my csr would be towed if I parked it in a no parking zone was doing more than his duty? The crossing guard who just waved his finger at cars that would not stop to let the school children cross instead of stepping out and hauling up his sign was doing less than he should? The bank employees who cannot figure out how to issue my check books after three months are indolent? The Rasta who buys peanuts from St. Elizabeth and roasts them in a drum made from an old butane gas cylinder to sell in Mandeville is doing just enough? I don’t want to harp on about it, but I really wish Minister Hylton had not so proudly been late for his meeting because he wanted to watch TV. That could have set such a bad example and undone many a good set of lessons about taking work seriously. Alas…

We will have a hard time finding better examples of what competitiveness looks like than any of the athletes who’ve participated in major events over the past decade. Or, just look at the students pushing to perform well in GSAT exams. We’re brought up knowing what to do, then go off track as we grow?

Time to fess up and take responsibility and be the best that is possible.

Living in a bubble

Jamaican public officials seem to have put themselves into a series of awkward positions, and unlike yoga practitioners, it’s not clear that the contortions are anything but accidents. They are, nevertheless, painful to hold or unwind.

In the grand scheme of the world, we’re a young nation–51st birthday of Independence just passed. We’ve been playing many roles on the world stage over that time, and we’ve moved from just being in the chorus, to understudy for lead roles, to star, if I can use a theatrical metaphor. We now command respect in several fields that inspire and excite worldwide, especially entertainment and sport.

Our political leaders and public officials, however, do not seem to have received and read several important memos. They are not alone, as I’ve seen similar ignorance in other countries. Too many politicians seem to think that holding office is for their benefit, not for that of the electorate locally or nationally. They also have a hard time understanding that insubstantial mutterings do not substitute for substantial statements. These figures are easily found out, and often become the butt of jokes or ridicule. (Admittedly, politicians provide good butt-fodder for many other reasons–weight, height, looks, voice, choice of romantic partner, etc.) Their political careers stall or get derailed and they then seek new work as tele-evangelists, game show hosts, or directors of shady companies.

The modern world has moved away from the impression that decisions are made in ‘smoked-filled rooms’ or ‘behind closed doors’. People now expect real transparency from elected officials, though will often accept the semblance of transparency, given that very few know what really is happening.

Modern media can spread information worldwide in less than the blink of an eye. If the information is correct or not, matters little. So, pressure is on to make sure that the right information goes to the public, otherwise, false or incorrect information gets spread, and fast, and it will do its damage.

20130905-084005.jpgHere is where Jamaican politicians seem to have tried to get into a full lotus position, having not mastered downward-facing dog. They seem to be still under the impression that they are insulated from the humdrum outside world, and that they control information flow and reactions to it. Recent instances make this clear. A minister arrives late for a major meeting and gives his excuse as the desire to watch one of our top athletes run abroad. He asks for the media to be removed from the meeting. A journalist leaves a recording device in the room and then world later hears how the minister was “nauseated” by the media coverage of issues related to his portfolio. Hello! Well, cue the guffaws for his temerity in taking liberties with people’s time. Cue the possible viral reaction that he could have found many modern ways to do both things and still be on time. Cue to raised eyebrows and face palming that follow from his appearing to be unaware that actions and comments would hit the WHOLE world without his doing a thing and probably before Bolt’s chest hit the tape. Was he living in a bubble?

We’ve seen and read about other seemingly silly instances in recent days. A very important hearing on alleged drug abuse by a star athlete is being held in camera, or behind closed doors. The media were unwelcome and the venue was changed to a secret location. Surprise! The location was discoverd and its address publicized, with pictures to confirm. The opposition political party is perhaps about to witness a challenge for its leader, and partisans are putting on show their likes and dislikes. Plenty of mouth-in-foot opportunities. Maybe, they’re not surprised, but whatever their cases others are quickly deciding if the bags are full of loot or rotting fish.

John Donne’s poem begins “No man is an island“. Good journalism is built on a desire to eke out information, and if someone is trying to bury it, to try to dig further to uncover as much as possible. Jamaica has some good journalistic traditions, so it shouldn’t surprise public figures to be probed, prodded, questioned, doubted, praised, mocked, vilified, etc. So, why won’t they seek to help to move the rocks rather than watch them rolling down the hill and find oneself buried? Donne’s poem ends “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

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We’ve moved a long way from being some little island, known for very little but rustling palm trees, lovely beaches, sun, rum, and exotic fruit. We’ve produced mega stars whose reputations far outstrip our size, and who’ve encouraged a long line of new stars both here and worldwide. They stand on the stage and show that they know what their doing and how to get the audience swaying with them. Our public figures seem to have not yet grasped how to do this. We have a public well versed in making up stories if they cannot be told one. We have a public hungry for news and able to digest many nuances. Do public figures understand this? Many politicians now use social media to spread their messages. They also take opportunities to get out the message in different ways: President Obama being on late night shows is an example. Are ours dragging their feet, thinking silence is golden or no news is good news? Do they believe that what I don’t say can’t hurt me? Wrong!

These figures should know how to manage their audience, and be very interested in being ‘masters of the moment’. So, why have they given the impression that they do not know or lack such interest? Surely, they care.:-)

Why you doing diss?

When public frustration starts to rise in the face of things done by politicians it’s always worth watching carefully. Jamaica does not tend to explode suddenly when political figures perform badly. Public demonstrations are one of the ways that people use to vent their displeasure. People complain vociferously, using print, radio, and television media, as well as social media now. Their complaints can be very pointed and filled with very offensive remarks. But, the frustrations do not boil over often into situations sometimes seen in other countries, with mobs burning tyres, or having major confrontations with police or military forces, or mounting demonstrations outside Parliament or the Office of the Prime Minister, for example. In that sense, Jamaicans seem very orderly for a nation supposedly filled with hot heads and murderous people.

Recent discussions about the prospective development of a logistics hub in Jamaica are tending towards familiar rocks. The general public is being forced to acknowledge, if not accept, that their elected officials are not as good at governance as they ought to be. The Caribbean has a long tradition of paternalism when it comes to institutional life, meaning that those in power or control are often very protective of information that they have, often holding from the electors much vital and important information about decisions taken or to be taken. The belief is that “We know best” or “The people cannot handle this information”, neither of which would take much to be proven wrong.

20130904-134708.jpgOne of the local reggae stations (Irie FM) made the point this morning that, if after 50 years certain things have not happened why would people think that today it would be different? The basic point is many doubt that politicians have the electorate’s concerns at heart.

If you have a strong political bias, which many people do, the government of the day if not our party is a ‘bunch of liars’, or ‘all thieves’, or some other breed of miscreants.

20130904-135228.jpgIn Jamaica, political figures often show themselves to be craven. So, it takes little for people to revert to a “What do you expect?” stance.

What does it take to get people really worked up against politicians? A few clear incidents exist. Hiding things, especially about restrictions in deals that really impact lives. Who knew all the limitations associated with building the toll road? Selling out national interests or assets. Are people getting incensed about apparent moves to take over a piece of land, maybe making it an enclave?

The process of moving ahead with the hub has several instances of politicians doing plenty to annoy their own people. You have to wonder why they’d do that to voters.

Have you done it, yet? Stop digging!

Most adults know the feeling that comes when you have an assignment to do, and a good amount of time to get it done, but somehow time has been allowed to slip, and the deadline is fast approaching. In some cases, it’s clear that doom is just around the corner: you have 30 oranges to peel, each takes 20 seconds, and you have only five minutes left. You can only peel half of the amount. Let’s be brutal, and accept that time was wasted and really you’ve shown a clear inability to set priorities properly.

Those adults who are parents or often with children may be familiar with this situation when it comes to school homework. The child says he or she has three things to do and they should take an hour. The child comes home at 3pm, then eats for half an hour, then decides to go and play with some toys, or read a book. Five o’clock comes along and you hear nothing. You check on your child. She’s in the bathroom with green moose in her hair, and trying to use a shower head to rinse it out. The mousse just keeps foaming. An hour later, the mousse is all out. It’s now six o’clock. The child goes to the school bag and looks for the homework folder. You hear some frantic shrieking and some loud noises as books are pulled off shelves and draws are opened and shut. You hear a grunted “I can’t find my homework!” You take another sip of coconut water and turn the page of the book you had been reading. “I CAN’T find my homework!” now comes with more volume and clear tone of panic. You muster the energy to go to the sound. A little conversation ensues, ending with your saying “It’s now 6:30 and we’re not heading back to school to find your homework.” Tears follow and the evening descends into a sort of chaos, with a sobbing child being tucked into bed and kissed goodnight. A piece of the adult brain is thinking “I hope you’ve learned a lesson.”

It’s a good hope. Of course, no lesson might have been learned.

20130903-124743.jpgThere shouldn’t have been any problems and things ended up much worse than should have been the case. You know what went wrong, but trying to point that out and discuss it with the child ends with raised voices and more tears. You leave it alone, but keep on giving the little reminders about timing, and planning, and checking, and preparing. For years, and years, and years. How does the child turn out? I wont go there, yet.

Those images of the oranges or the child and its homework make me think of Jamaica and its attempts to deal with a range of events: eventually, time takes control and things either don’t get done partly, or done at all.

Public schools started their new year yesterday, and the Minster of Education mentioned that it was a “smooth start” for most schools.

20130903-130217.jpgThat seems generous given talk of incomplete schools and lack of adequate furniture in some schools, as well as awkward issues about payments of supplementary fees, higher bus and taxi fares, struggles to get text books, etc.

This morning, there was a report that only about half of the 40,000 graduates from high school and universities this year would be able to find jobs in the private sector. So, time spent on education for successful students seems to hold the prospect of limited employment opportunities, for half of them. We also have to accept that those who don’t succeed in education are more likely to fall into the unemployed heap.

So, what has Jamaica been doing? Idling away its time to prepare for the employment of its students? We know that the general economy has not been capable of absorbing new potential employees–hence, unemployment at 16 percent and youth employment around 38 percent. One hears little beyond the hope that big projects will come along to offer work. Yes, there’s some vague talk about ramping up ‘growth sectors’ such as information technology and communication. But, Jamaica has dug itself into a deep economic hole and keeps digging.

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That we haven’t prepared very well is clear. We keep letting time slip by without using it to prepare well. We end up on our tush, too often. When you keep digging in a hole, it’s really hard to climb out.

Goat, anyone?

Let’s go with the splash headline. EVERYONE IN JAMAICA TALKING ABOUT GOAT ISLANDS. I know it’s not true but the topic has taken up a lot of headline space and news reporting. What’s the big fuss? A couple of largely abandoned islands off Jamaica’s south coast may be part of some plans for industrial development. The islands are in an environmental protection area and reefs around them are supposed to be the breeding ground of many fish. Very few Jamaicans know where these islands are and even fewer have been anywhere near them. They generate little directly that can be called economic activity, but by allowing fish to breed, they provide the base of livelihood for local fishermen.

The islands are also home of some important flora and fauna, in the form of cacti and mangrove. They have lovely beaches, largely unspoiled, we’d expect. They were once the home of local iguanas–thought extinct in the 1940s–but these have mostly been eaten by other predators, such as goats.

Local environmentalists are worried that any development may go ahead without due regard to the need to protect the special qualities of the Goat Islands.

Some feel that local environmentalists are like rich kids wanting to protect their comfortable lifestyles without regard for the needs of those who are not financially secure, have few or no job opportunities, or are struggling in other social ways. They see only the prospects of jobs and feel that any noise over protecting the environment will kill those jobs, even though no one can say how many or what types these may be. Some have rudely told the environmentalists to “Go to Hell!”–rudeness, for sure.

Developing the area industrially could go ahead without destroying the special environment, but protective measures would be a burden on investors that they may wish to avoid. Disturbance, pollution, invasion of other species of animals or plants, and more, will take place once development starts in the area. Over time, the area could recover, though there’s no knowing if that would happen.

Of course, the need for jobs is desperate, and like a drowning person about to suck on the mouthpiece of an air tank, any attempt to cut off the possibility of oxygen–or jobs–leads to panic.

Right now, one thing that is clear is that little information has been shared about many important things concerning possible development of the Goat Islands. All of the information is not in one place or any single person–about the investors and their plans; about possible impact on the islands; about possible legal restrictions on developing the islands; about local concerns; and more.

Little by little, that fog of ignorance is being lifted, but as often happens, ignorance and misinformation will guide many discussions in the meantime.

We need a few goats in the area to deal with the rubbish. We could use them also to butt a few people so that they see more clearly what is going on. We should also remember that goat milk is very good but people love to milk things till they’re dry or till just they are satisfied.

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The good, the bad, and the ugly (September 1)

Good
*Fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech”.
*Discussions bubbled in public about development of logistics hub in Jamaica, possibly with Chinese investment, possibly based on Goat Islands, possibly bringing with it up to 15,000 jobs. Topic got much press coverage and air play, with politicians and environmental lobbyists leading the way, but plenty of public comments being heard and seen on local TV and in printed media. Still, hope lives to help preserve the Jamaican iguana.
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*Victoria Duval, American-born tennis player of Haitian parents, won her 1st round match at US Open against former champion, Sam Stosur: great match poise by the 17 year-old, who dug from a 1 set, 2-4 deficit in 2nd set, to win the match. Last year, she played 1st round against Kim Clijsters, in her farewell tournament. Wonderful story, including that her father was dug out from Haiti’s recent earthquake. Wonderful post-match interview, where she reminded us to take nothing for granted. Still so young at heart. She lost in 2nd round.
*British policemen who were caught on video ‘doing their thing‘ at London’s Notting Hill Carnival.
Bad
*Minister of Industry, etc., Anthony Hylton, arrived late for a meeting with exporters and claimed indulgence because he’d wanted to watch Usain Bolt race live from Zurich. Hello! Industry? Time is money. Productivity? Politeness. Have someone show the minister how to record live events for later viewing. Do we have politicians who want to be taken seriously?

Ugly
*The still scary number of road traffic deaths in Jamaica.
*Pride of place: Syria: alleged government chemical attacks on citizens, killing some 1430 people; prospects for possible international military intervention; UN diplomatic ‘playing in the sand pit’ by Russia. Assad situation, all round 😦

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For the love of our children

My heart grieves when I see what some parents are allowing their children to do, and often with adult consent, encouragement and funding, in public. This week, I saw children enjoying the last days of summer holidays, doing something that made my blood boil. A boy and girl were seated on a shady bench. The boy reached out to the girl and offered her a bite of his lunch. She smiled shyly then opened her mouth and closed her eyes. He pushed the sandwich towards her lips. Her mouth opened slowly and in one savage bite, she took half of it. As her mouth worked I could hear her moaning in delight. Could a hamburger be so good?

Modern Jamaican children have been led down a devilish path of foreign influences, which threaten to stifle our little island’s great culinary culture. When I drove a family friend around Kingston early this afternoon, she told me a story about how her mother had worked as a cook at King’s House. She recalled how she’d been sent to Constant Spring Market to buy cow skin so that it could be boiled to make gelatin and then have colouring added to it to make home-made jelly. I laughed. My grandmother had also worked as a cook and I had never come across this gem.

But, have we been swept up by the waves of industrial progress and forgotten what we owe to the next generation? I loved it when two third grader children with Jamaican-Bahamian parents, born and raised in the USA, said boldly to their class mates in the US that they loved turkey neck most in Thanksgiving dinner, NOT mashed potatoes and gravy. Hail, parents and grandparents!

This morning, I met a class mate of my daughter’s here in Jamaica and asked what she’d had for breakfast. “Breadfruit and bacon,” she told me, proudly. So, it should be. This week, I’ve fed my daughter a steady diet of porridge before going to school–not oats, but hominy and cornmeal. I can embrace progress with this seeming backward gesture, because Jamaican food manufacturers now produce good versions of these staples that take less time to boil at home. It’s no big deal for me to make separate servings of different porridges. I’ve a cupboard loaded now with peanut, plantain, hominy and cornmeal porridges. Come, Mister Hurricane, if you bad!

My wife’s also gone a bit retro and bought an ice cream churn so that we can spend weekend afternoons making homemade ice cream. So far, mango and soursop have been dished up and were hoping that the guests who enjoyed it with us will soon pack up and leave. Two weeks’ stay over from a Sunday lunch is a little, forward, no?

I’m not someone filled with crazy nationalistic notions. I don’t think that all children need to spend 6 weeks in the country areas each year with grandparents or family members who farm or fish. But, talking about nights spent walking through the bush with a fire-stick or no light, feeling your way to your destination, makes me think that the modern generation is in danger of turning into a bunch of soft people. A friend just told me a story of two men walking through the bushes one night and they came to a river. One man, who knew the area, said to his visitor friend “Just jump!” He leapt and waited for his friend to follow. His friend summoned up courage and jumped. He landed on a slippery rock but kept his balance and stood on dry land. His friend then pulled out a lighter and set fire to some twigs, and they both looked down to see a raging torrent of water that was about 8 feet wide and about 30 feet below them. “Just jump? You mad!” said the visitor.

You don’t need zip lines for adventures. Go to the river and catch crayfish. Try taking a herd of cattle to the pasture. Milk cows. Fetch water. Collect logwood. I’m sure I can sign my child up for some ‘adventure’ activities at a camp, but I like simple.

This week, I decided to be firmer in my efforts to stop this slide down a slippery slope to ‘I’m a getting’ lost. I introduced my daughter to some essentials of life. Others may not agree on their relative importance but I’m not going to stay friends with anyone who thinks these things are not essential. Here’s a list of things I made sure she experienced this week:
*How to eat piping hot cornmeal or hominy porridge with chunks of hardo bread dropped in (I concede that Excelsior crackers work great, too). [As a friend reminded me, whole wheat bread has no place being near porridge.]
*Drinking a water coconut from the shell, without a straw.
*Eating soft coconut jelly with a sprinkling of brown sugar. (She’s even made her own variations, leaving some water in the coconut so that the sugar starts to dissolve a little into syrup. Children are inventive.)
*Ackee and salt fish on water crackers. (Water crackers make many a snack excellent.)
*Eating a slice of hardo bread with condensed milk. (She’s young, so I did not introduce her to the full sandwich.)

Her life changed forever when she tasted the bread and sweetened milk. Blame me!

Some of these things are part of the ‘inside secrets’ of Jamaican life. We eat patty and coco bread. Don’t listen to foolish talk about “too much starch”! We eat corn soup. All hot drinks are ‘tea’. Ah so we dweet!

Driving through Faith Pen last week, it was a given in my daughter’s mind, newbie though she is–to stop for roast yam and salt fish–and the fish was SALTY.

Though some of these tasty treats may owe their origins to poverty and hard times that some may want to forget, they’re very much a part of who we are. Bulla and pear, anyone?

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Jobs jabberwock

A democratic country often judges its elected officials by what they do on several fronts. Maintaining peace within national borders is usually very important. So, too, is improving the economic well being of the nation. On that front, a broad concept like ‘economic growth’ or some measure of national output and income, is not usually that important in the minds of the general public, except in terms of what possibilities it suggests are open to people. Rather, people look at economic activity in terms of what it means to them, personally. So, positive developments with jobs, pay, and prices usually cause people to feel that things are going well, or not. When they lose jobs, suffer frozen pay or cuts in pay, or have to face rising prices, they have a negative view of how things are going.

Jamaican governments have had a very hard time since Independence presiding over an economy that struggles to create enough jobs for the great majority of the working population. Mass emigration has helped reduce some of the pressures that could have caused. Nevertheless, unemployment has been stubbornly high, in low double digits in percentage terms most of the time, and for significant periods, much higher, in the midteens or higher. World Bank data for the past 20 years show this well.

Rapidly increasing prices have been another burden on the nation. Jamaicans have lived with inflation exceeding 5 percent a year since most of the past 50 years. At times, the annual rate has been well over 15 percent.

So, people have lived with a prolonged period of employment insecurity and also lived with the uncertainty that comes with price inflation. Data on wages are not very good and I will argue that most people have lived with at the very best stagnant real wages, over most of the past two decades, even though data suggest that poverty has declined. Much of that improvement comes from the support of informal activities and remittances. So, Jamaicans have had to live with a long period in the economic doldrums. Add to that natural disasters knocking the economy back on its heels very frequently and you have the makings of an unhappy lot of people when you start talking about economic progress. So, when more jobs seem to be coming onto the horizon, it’s like a ship laden with goodies passing a barren island; those who see it start to jump excitedly and wave flags and make noise.

Recent days have witnessed one of those chronic periods where government officials act like the inhabitants of a barren island, and talk a lot about potential job creation. This is happening not long after grim data about rising unemployment left a bitter taste in the mouths of many people. There is no magic wand to creating jobs, and the rabbits come out of the hat with more difficulty when so many things are going against economic growth. I’m always made uneasy when people who ought to have details don’t offer any or many, or the details have to be dragged from them like pulled wisdom teeth.

Hopeful talk is circulating about the job-creating potential of Jamaica developing a logistics hub, to take advantage of planned expansion of the Panama Canal. Chinese investors seems to have become the most likely investment partner, and the PM’s recent visit to Beijing raised hope more that this and other investments would come from China. If Chinese investment underpins the project who will get the jobs created? Chinese or Jamaican or other nationals? If Jamaicans get jobs, what kinds will they be? Maybe, the potential investors–and they need not be Chinese, have different sets of expectations in terms of job creation. In short, we are in a fog, and official comments reflect that. The problem for the politicians is that they are one side of the table and the investors on the other side really have the good cards to play from the other side of the table. Talk is not action, and no action means no actual jobs. But, politicians love to talk.

Opposition MPs don’t seem to have mounted any sustained effort to call the government to task and flesh out their vision for employment growth and unemployment decline in Jamaica, short of some stock snarling when the unemployment figures come out.20130829-195449.jpg

Jamaica’s real problem is lack of investment, either domestic or foreign, without which output cannot increase, incomes cannot grow and jobs cannot be created. People talk about investor ‘confidence’ and how it needs to improve for the economic engine to start spinning faster.

20130830-054831.jpgBut, confidence is not investment. Big projects or small don’t matter till they are realized. People can’t live off politician’s words. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many are skeptical about new jobs appearing. Where? When? For whom? What type? For how long? What pay? These are some of the questions people want answered, but from what I’ve heard few answers come back.

Yes, mi bredrin

So, listen! What is going on in Jamaica? Why are the people so discriminating?

I don’t wear dreadlocks and I’m not a Rasta; my shaved head signals that I’m a ‘bald head’. Beat me up for that? No. I walk into stores and staff do not huddle in corners and whisper or point at me.

I have dark skin but I don’t bleach my face. I could land a job in any bank or prestigious office. When the men who want to wash my car windscreen get close they don’t take a leap back and say “What the….? ‘Im so hugly!”

I don’t wear coloured nails or high-heeled shoes. Joking apart, that’s a combination not to be fooled with in this little island. Alright, I’ve been known to spend an good few hours in a spa trying to make gnarly feet–bruised and battered after years kicking balls–look more fetching. But, sporting my open-toe sandals, I can stroll along the sidewalk without strange looks or wolf whistles.

But, here’s what I’ve noticed happening. I walk into some situation and start talking to the Jamaicans there. Things are going along smoothly, but there’s a certain stiffness presented to me. Then, I let something slip that shows that I have Jamaican credentials–a look, a movement of the mouth, kissing my teeth, some understanding that foreigners are not supposed to have such as the meaning of ‘bangarang’ or the difference between ganja and janga. Then, budum! “‘Im is wan a wi!” Everything changes. “Yu is fram here?” That sadly flat British accent of mine, that people have told me should be on radio or TV, has been giving people fits. “No, man! A Hinglan’ ‘im cum fram,” has just been turned on its head. From then on, I notice that the conversation changes and I get the looseness that I’d expected from the start. People had been putting on a front, thinly in most cases, but now they could dump that.

I tend to think of Jamaicans as generally friendly people and quite welcoming to outsiders. That’s what I know from experience. But is that because I’m Jamaican and feel comfortable with most situations I encounter, or can relate in some way to the local people around me, even though I’ve not lived here for a half century? That’s the image Bolt and Shelly-Ann are selling ‘to the world’. One love!

When a foreign diplomat told me she thought Jamaicans were a bit reserved and tended not to invite you into their homes, I nearly choked on the piece of sugar cane I was chawing (Jamaicans don’t chew). Where has this woman been living? Look, she has a splendid residence and I’d happily go there instead of inviting her to my roost. But, that’s not it.

It wouldn’t be unnatural for us to give each other a pass on friendliness. That how most people are with their own kind. But, Jamaicans have so many kinds–out of may, one people, right. You’d think the smart thing would be to nice up everybody. But, we nice up those whom we think are foreign, but really, really nice up those whom we think are from Yard (Jamaicans double up on a word to make it really strong). So, when I pull up for gas and don’t acknowledge the attendant with a “Mawnin,” I get a glare. Justified for such rudeness. But when I say “You cyan fillit wid 90?” I see a little smile and a glint as she asks me to “Pap di tank fi mi an tun arf yu henjin.” It’s popping.20130829-050144.jpgI’ve been in many situations where people have run off with some stereotype of me. It’s usually been funny.

The Welsh-speaking lady in my office building in North Wales, who came to meet Mr. Jones, and was taken aback when I greeted her and said in Welsh “I’m Mr. Jones.” That’s a very common Welsh name. “But, you’re black!” she’d said with incredulity. Right, in one.

Those customers in grocery stores in the US, who ask me where to find items on the shelves. I’m struggling to find the mayo, myself.

The man who parked his car outside the restaurant where I was standing, waiting for my wife, and gave me to key and said “Park it, for me.” He was shocked when I said “Park it, yourself!”

The official driver waiting at the airport in Uganda, who asked me if I’d seen a white man on my flight. I’d said no. “Where is that IMF man?” he grumbled. Hello! We had a great drive into Kampala 🙂

That’s life, sometimes, in that graded world that assigns lots of roles by colour or gender or race. Like my wife bristling when the server in a restaurant brings me the bill, and the silly look on the server’s face that follows when I hand it over to her, it’s all part of renegotiating the world. But, now, I’m having to be a bit more attentive.

Yesterday afternoon, I dashed out to do an errand before the rains lashed down and the afternoon traffic got heavy: I went to buy coconut water. The sign said boldy “Sorry. No coconut water”. I went in and asked the lady, politely, what was going on; water had been short for weeks, now. Coconuts dried up? She told me that the shop had had supplies earlier in the day, but they were now finished. “Cum back tomarra,” she said, coldly. I just reacted: “Mi a go Mandeville a mawnin.” Her head shot up. She held my hand. “Tek dis numba. Call back ’bout four a clack. Is den di truck due fi cum,” she said, helpfully. Inside track? I can’t be sure. But, I’m going to watch out.

I’ve long known that people make snap judgements on first meeting. That’s why I go to hardware stores in tee shirt and rough shorts or pants: I seem more like a handyman and get better service. Do not go there in a business suit: the shark will bite you.20130829-052330.jpg