An alphabet of Jamaica ‘normal’

Jamaica, where it would not seem out of place if the sun rises in the west and sets in the east…

Much of what goes for ‘normal’ in Jamaica can come from the different meanings Jamaicans put on words or activities that seem to be understood quite differently outside our small island shores. Below, is a semi-serious tour of some of these.

Accountability, a word that exists only mainly in the dictionary…

Bright(ness) usually refers to intelligence, or an abundance of light. For Jamaicans, brightness can be about skin colour and tone and that is a whole book on its own. However, someone who is bright is rude, disrespectful, and so befitting of many a Jamaican on his/her least fine moments.

Corruption, perceived to be high, but hardly proven, judging by the minuscule number of cases that have ever been brought. What explains that huge gap?

Deadline, really the procession of people at one’s funeral or where one reaches after waiting an interminable time for something promised to be delivered or done.

Execution would be a great word if we still had the death penalty and could it much more, but meantime it’s a word like accountability that has yet to find meaning in Jamaican life when it comes to accomplishment.

Follow-up is something promised (as in ‘One of our representatives will call you back on this…’) but rarely delivered in the near-certain knowledge that most Jamaicans remember nothing after 9 days

Governance is often confused with sitting in a post and taking the pay for overseeing things, but is often merely a set of opportunities to fill one’s own pocket and help friends and family.

House, the dream of every Jamaican, and hopefully it can be built before the money runs out or the job that allows for the diversion of resources has to be given up.

Ignorant (in Jamaica and the West Indies, more broadly) is not about lack of knowledge, but to describe someone who is quick-tempered. In fact, in Jamaican Creole, we never use the word ignorant to mean someone is uniformed or lacking information.

Justice, often noted for its delays (and what is denied) than its timely delivery.

Kentucky Fried Chicken wouldn’t dare to have a crisis of no chicken in Jamaica. NEVER!!! It’d be a big deal!

Links have nothing to do with golf or sausages, in Jamaica, but everything to do with how things get done. No links, no progress.

Money is never enough, and always in demand.

Nine days, the length of the Jamaican week, despite calendars showing seven days, after which the pages are turned all can start anew.

‘Oh, really?’ that phrase that greets all attempts to indicate that what is being done in Jamaican contexts would find little acceptance anywhere else in the world.

Partisan politics runs through many things of significance and even though not always superficially clear, be sure that like the duck on water, it’s working hard under the surface

Questions are there to be posed not be answered, especially by public officials. Next!

Rigour, not know as part of much reasoned analysis, which is often better described as ‘rum talk’ (what a thing if a bottle of Ray and his nephews could talk!)

Soon (come), never reach. Foreigners often get excited at the utterance of this phrase and sit patiently waiting…and waiting…

Telephones are there for personal calls no matter what official reasons there may be for using them, and please do not interrupt telephone conversations so that business can actually get done (‘Mavis di gyal did gwan wid one piece a cussin, yu hear…’)

Understanding is what customers are always asked to display in the face of repeated provocation by enterprises who sell shoddy goods and deliver poor service.

*Voilence*, so said because we don’t want to be seen a violent people 🙂

Water is often one of the most elusive commodities in a country known to be the land of wood and water. Can an island spring a leak?

X how votes should be cast and properly counted, before the ballot boxes are mysteriously mislaid on the side of the road from Milk River to Alligator Pond 🙂 (But, our democracy is really better than that.)

Yallahs (pronounced ‘you los’) must get its name from the people who try to get there but never reach because of the terrible roads in the parish of St. Thomas.

Zed is the last letter of the alphabet as said in proper English and only people who went to the USA and try to impress with a twang and saying zee will have a different opinion. 🙂


Do we misunderstand and misdiagnose our problems by not adjusting for realities of what is Jamaican ‘normal’? Some thoughts on ‘Dutch disease’ effects on Jamaica

I posted this question to myself, yesterday, as I was riding the bus from Kingston to Montego Bay. I’m convinced that the answer is yes, but I am also clear that it may not help in getting to workable solutions.

What made my mind wander there was the clearer fact that part of Jamaica has suffered through what economists and social scientists would know as ‘Dutch disease, to quote the Financial Times (my stresses):

‘Dutch disease is the negative impact on an economy of anything that gives rise to a sharp inflow of foreign currency, such as the discovery of large oil reserves. The currency inflows lead to currency appreciation, making the country’s other products less price competitive on the export market. It also leads to higher levels of cheap imports and can lead to deindustrialisation as industries apart from resource exploitation are moved to cheaper locations.

The origin of the phrase is the Dutch economic crisis of the 1960s following the discovery of North Sea natural gas.’ Another term often used is ‘resource curse‘.

Although the foreign currency inflows associated with the rise of mass tourism were accounted for as if they accrued to the whole country, the reality was and is that these inflows were concentrated in the tourism centres, mainly to the western end of the island. That’s true, even if one accepts that the net retention from tourism is well-below 100 percent of revenues. Much of the foreign currency receipts and its local currency equivalents flow through the hands of local people.

The expected impact of such inflows is to lead to currency appreciation, and that is broadly the picture of what happened in Jamaica, even though it might have been manifested in a stability of the exchange rate, rather than a depreciation caused by other economic problems, namely a huge fiscal deficit and rising external debt burden. So, one can see that the Jamaican dollar for a long time remained artificially stronger than it should have been. Not surprising to many economists, that position was unsustainable, and sharp depreciation that was stored up had to occur eventually.

Some of the other attendant problems that the Jamaican economy faced, such as high and protracted unemployment, are consequences of this over-appreciated exchange rate, as pointed out by renowned economist and Nobel prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz. One of the findings of how this phenomenon permeates economic and social behaviour in a country is that such ‘richly-endowed’ countries experience dismal performance. One reason being:

‘…the prospect of riches orients official efforts to seizing a larger share of the pie, rather than creating a larger pie.

The result of this wealth grab is often war. At other times, simple rent-seeking behaviour by officials, aided and abetted by outsiders, is the outcome.’

I think the rent-seeking behaviour by officials is one of the clearest things about Jamaica: it’s what many refer to when they talk about having a high perception that corruption is rife. Jamaica’s anemic economic growth and the spoils system of the entrenched two-party system fit well with the notion of eating more of the existing pie without putting more pies in the oven.

The other thing, ‘war’, is less evident to many, but those who have seen it, such as anthropologist Herbert Gayle (who describes ‘games of war’ with vendettas and retaliation), have pointed out how many aspects of Jamaica’s wave of violence is akin to that of countries at war. I’m one of those who see ‘crime’ in Jamaica as more reminiscent of ‘civil war’ than of ‘ordinary’ crime, and the preferred solutions cannot work unless one addresses the implicit or explicit attack on the State.

To me, these are some aspects of the misunderstanding and consequent misdiagnosis of what Jamaica has been experiencing. Jamaica is not just another developing country, so it cannot have workable solutions that treat it as such. It’s relevant paradigms are not the average of development countries, or even those in the English-speaking Caribbean, or some some set of constructed groups. It’s paradigm should at least be resource-rich economies, and within those, the ones that had below-average incomes.

That the Dutch disease phenomenon was understood as it pertained to tourism, we see that Jamaica used one of the tried and tested means of neutralizing the foreign currency inflows by creating a special fund for some of the inflows, through the Tourism Enhancment Fund (TEF). But, TEF is only tapping the merest dribble of potential tourism-related inflows, the rest of which flow around the private sector and the public finances. So, for the most part, no effective neutralization of the inflows has taken place beyond what the central bank may try through its ‘smoothing’ operations in the foreign exchange market.

Now, some may argue that foreign tourism should be seen as a natural resource in the same way as a discovery of oil or copper or even the existence of our bauxite reserves. Though that may be true, the notion of the impact of foreign tourism as a Dutch disease phenomenon has been examined in the case of one country where it was likely to be present, Spain, and the rise of its mass tourism markets.

Anyone who visits Montego Bay and knows the rest of Jamaica would be hard pressed to say that the north coast strip bears any resemblance to the rest of the country, and it shouldn’t. It is truly a world apart–or really several interconnected and disconnected worlds (as the recent comments by the WTO’s Secretary General touched on with the idea of five star resorts in three star communities). Much as the areas that were the beneficiaries of development in bauxite and alumina were also highly atypical (look at road and housing developments, especially, in such areas). That such areas did not ‘erupt’ and manifest other social problems was a piece of luck brought about by the relative isolation and small size of the communities involved.

A common adage in economic and financial analysis of malfeasance is ‘follow the money’. It would not have been difficult to try to understand the money trail that was being created in Jamaica by mass tourism and make some simple deductions about the problems that were likely to show up. But, a word of caution. The impact of the massive inflows of foreign currency did much to change the mindset of anyone close to that process. Simply put, more money was sloshing around and like bears to a honey pot, everyone could think something nice was there for them. That could easily be seen as leading to a trend towards exploitation because that was likely the easier way to tap into those flows. It’s a short step from that mindset to that which sees Jamaica as a base of exploitation and (for the moment) an easy place to run the latest schemes, in this case lottery scamming (even though that began as an ‘accident’ out of legitimate business). But, that latter was made easier because Jamaica had been rapidly brought into the web of globalization, manifested by much easier access into and out of the island, both physically and through telecommunications. That the money-making potential of that was seen and was well-understood in the so-called underworld and by certain politicians shouldn’t come as any surprise, whether spontaneously done or spurred by a raft of international contacts. By the time others cotton on to what is underway it’s far too late to roll back the time (excuse the mixed metaphors). But, down be lulled into thinking that Montego Bay has a ‘crime’ problem. Crime is not fundamentally what needs to be fixed.

The World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that the total contribution of tourism and travel to Jamaica was about 30 percent of its GDP in 2016, and the total contribution to employment was just over 27 percent. I’l leave you to deduce whether tourism is a major driver in what’s going on in Jamaica.

A funny thing happened on my way to getting customer satisfaction

In the same vein that I think that naming and shaming has positive effects, I think that giving credit where it’s due also is important.

Last week I used social media to rail against some poor responses that I was getting from a local company (which I wont name, because that’s what I agreed in some phone conversations; but my Twitter account is public). Someone who read what I wrote kindly suggested I call the CEO and get him aware; he’s know to take such matters seriously. I refused: my rationale being that I do not think that the CEO needs to address each operational snafu. I accepted that he/she may be best position, but I also thought the systems put in place should be given their chances to rectify problems. Perhaps, being a bit purist, I also thought that while I suffered in the short-term, in the long run the company would suffer as customers left. But, in Jamaica, using contacts in high places in part of how we solve problems. So, I called the company and asked why the technician had not kept the appointment the day before, which had been arranged at their convenience. The reply was ‘It slipped his mind.’ I saw a swirl of problems with that answer, even if it were accurate and not flippant. Anyway, I was promised another visit within a few hours that morning. Surprisingly, a technician came within the hour. However, he did not know why he had been sent–another problem, here. I showed him what was wrong (wires that had been taken out of a wall that had not been put back and had their covering plate reset) and he fixed it quickly. He pointed out some other work that had not been finished and said he would report it to his supervisor for attention. Good, I thought. This thing is sinking in.

While I pondered what about the management of the company was not right and allowed it to not realise that jobs were not being done as intended, friends in low and high places were on the move. About an hour after my first rant, I got a phone call from the CEO of the company in question. “Social media is powerful,” were his opening words. He told me that a friend of mine had relayed my ‘distress’ and given him my number. (The friend later fessed up gladly that she’d been the prod.) We talked for about 10 minutes and he said he agreed with my concerns and irritation and that he would ensure that the matter was addressed. I pointed out that I had already had a visit and the reason for my rage had been addressed and that supplementary work was going to be done. I added the problem of the technician being sent on a ‘blind date’. The CEO acknowledged that much needed to be changed. Before noon, another visit had been made and the supplementary work (cementing over some holes that had been created) was done. Job completed, finally.

Later in the day, I got two calls from a supervisor to check that all had been done to may satisfaction. I also got another call from the CEO in the evening to check the same thing.

All-in-all a good outcome, for a little bit of angst on my part. But, the basic issue of what it took to trigger that was still there in my mind. I wont know how well that’s been addressed until I have another issue, but I suspect that things will have been made better for a wider group than me. So, that was the name and shame outcome.

The other side happened this week with three different companies, one of our major appliance suppliers, one of our major banks, and the other a major American airline. The common theme with both interactions was that the person dealing with me did so with both enthusiasm and humour.

The appliance issue was simple–an ice maker had been replaced but now it was not making ice. “Oh, that’s terrible!” said the ATL operative–it wasn’t, but it suggested a level of concern that was good to hear. We ran through the timeline of the repairs and neither of us had a record of it being done, though I had the old part and the box that the new part had been shipped in from overseas. Eventually, we reached a compromise and set in train arrangements to get a technician to visit. I said I was ready to get back to my fruit breakfast, which set off a conversation about a good way to start eating each day. I offered to give the representative banana bread if that would speed the process. She told me it wouldn’t but it was nice to be offered some cake. We bantered for a few more minutes, then cut the call. Now, whether she told her colleagues about the jerk and his banana bread or said nothing or shared the story as a joke didn’t matter to me; I felt that I was more than another call and another invoice number.

The bank issue was also simple. Out of concern that my account had been compromised, Scotiabank had sent me a replacement ATM card in January, but had just surfaced. However, I had encountered a problem with online banking and had a new card issued before receiving the card that I had just found. Could I destroy the one just received? I asked the bank via their Twitter account. Probably, but check, came the reply. I called and got through to someone in a minute. “Did it take long for you to get connected?” was the first question. I hadn’t and the representative was glad about that. I explained the situation and she confirmed the card numbers and some personal security details, and told me I could go ahead and destroy the card. “Was there anything else, I could help with?” I replied $1 million deposited into my account would be nice. “Then take out a loan and it’ll be there shortly.” I liked that, and we both laughed.

Finally, the airline. I tried calling American on Skype; no answer, just ringing. I tried three times; same situation. I raised the matter via Twitter; the company replied in five minutes that they had checked the number and got through. I called again. Yes! I went through the familiar voice prompts and eventually started speaking to a representative. I explained my issue: I’ve some long flights to make to South America and was looking to upgrade, but kept seeing ‘no upgrade offered’ and had no idea what that meant. She explained that it meant I needed to call the company (why not have a message that says that?). She went fishing and came back to say that no seats were open now, but I would be waitlisted (and the upgrade would cost me miles and a co-pay amount). No problem. Issue resolved, as far as possible. Happy customer.

Many morals are in these stories. One is that social media is indeed powerful, if only in that it allows words and thoughts to spread faster than anything else to which we have become accustomed, and when they fall on others with whom they resonate then watch out, as the reactions can be swift and hard to control. But, I like social media because it works

and has the advantage often of impersonal contact that is better than when prejudices come face-to-face with each other. Fortunately, I only have a few thousand followers, but my followers have followers, and as people know people, then the adage of ‘The people, united, shall never be defeated’ comes forth loud and strong 🙂

Another moral is that our age does not need physical movement and face-to-face contact to get things done. I couldn’t possibly have dealt with two companies in Jamaica and another in the USA in minutes without the aid of modern telecommunications, and when I was asked if I did not have time to go to ATL to pay the deposit and responded that I needed no movement, as my money would do the walking, the point was well taken.

Palms don’t need to be greased or personal pride sacrificed to get things done. Yes, how people are trained is important, but more so, how they apply the good training and spot in themselves signs that they are falling down on the job. It doesn’t take much, but when it’s absent… Wishing you all a great day in your interactions 🙂

If you keep mistreating people you should not expect them to keep taking it without reaction. Some thoughts on the aloof Jamaican public official.

I say repeatedly that many of Jamaica’s problems have been well diagnosed, yet we struggle to go to the next level and take on board the many excellent recommendations and suggestions that have been made. If Jamaica were a person, I think we would call it obstinate. One of the problems of getting things done in Jamaica–that not getting it done is at the root of why many problems go unaddressed–is that, because we are a small country, many who have power and influence love how that feels so much that positions are used as much for profiling and ‘keeping others in place’, than actual stewardship. Sadly, by forgetting the ‘why’ of positions, many are obsessed with the ‘what’ of them. To me, that’s evident in the stance often taken by public officials, especially, which is a mixture of pomposity and arrogance. If not actually said out loud, the attitude is very much in the ilk of ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ as if that knowledge gives a certain status that defies all questions. In reality, it’s often used to indeed exclude questioning. One sometimes has to wonder if those in public positions of power Jamaica think they are gods; many act as if they are.

How that translates is simple, and I cite a few examples with no ranking on the scale of pompous behaviour, but I think I have captured well the stance that all-too-common:

  • The ordinary police officer, who demands respect, yet shows very little for the citizens he/she is there to serve and protect. (Please don’t react by saying the force has good people. That never can excuse the boorish behaviours that are all too common, and displayed to almost any and every citizen. I don’t know if politicians are exempt, but let that be a matter to be discovered.) So, the officer who threatens “Bway, mi should arrest you!” to a motorist after a routine traffic stop where the driver asks questions such as “Why did you stop me, officer?” is in that box.
  • The public officials who seem (because it’s a conclusion from what they do, rather than a stated set of actions) more interested in demeaning and frustrating clients rather than ensuring that a good service is delivered are also in that box. When faced with questions about why things are being done as they are, they often revert to non-arguments based on ‘That’s how we do it’ or defensive postures that relate to their not being totally in control (‘You need to ask a supervisor/manager’).
  • MPs, who rather than start the nation’s business of deliberating and creating legislation on time routinely start late, with nary an apology. Jamaicans and many Caribbean people make light of time-keeping, but I do not. My training tells me that time is money. In the fancy jargon of economics, time has an opportunity cost: it’s simply what could have been done with the time spent. As with all things in economics, we are talking about choice. What the MPs and their tardiness do not take into account are the many lost opportunities that must arise because they cannot do things without (inordinate) delay. Now, when I am my most irritated, I always point out to people who are late or cause me to be late what that would mean if I were to charge them for billable hours. When I told a LIME operative that my time was worth US$500 an hour and that I would bill the company at that rate till they fixed the problem with my phone line, it had the effect of getting a technician to my property within two hours rather than ‘in coming days’. When costs of time are not made explicit, people tend to waste it. In transport economics, the value of time is the opportunity cost of the time that a traveller spends on his/her journey. In essence, this makes it the amount that a traveller would be willing to pay in order to save time, or the amount they would accept as compensation for lost time. Now, if MPs were willing to compensate the electorate for lost time, we could at least accept that in lieu of actually being timely, and the mounting costs to them personally and the national budget would make interesting reading.
  • Those charged to undertake public projects (and I wont deny that high in my mind are the many road ‘improvements’ currently being undertaken in densely populated and heavily trafficked parts of the corporate area, namely at Barbican and Constant Spring Road, but also the project to widen Mandela Highway) see little or no need to inform, advise, forewarn, apologize or a raft of other socially gracious actions that would make the public who will inevitably have to bear the consequences. At its worst, we will see the traditional silent (dumb) insolence: a silent act designed to frustrate a complainer, criticizer, superior etc perhaps involving a refusal to answer them, looking sideways or at other people as they chastise you or ignoring them by continuing what you are doing. (In reports of events that can be stated as ‘unavailable for comment’).
  • Lying to save face, which is a set of actions that find favour with many in many positions. This can range from a downright untruth through repeated denials up until the moment of truth arrives. Simple examples in recent time (and they are shocking to me in the way they were glibly executed) are the way the pasts two Police Commissioners denied they were going to resign and then in a flash announced their resignation. Talk about betraying public trust! I have deduced that part of the educational process in Jamaica is to make it hard for people to accept failure for its positive virtues and also the fact that we have a strong ‘blame culture’, so avoiding (or seeming to avoid) blame carries a high premium.

Dealing with each and all of these situations imposes enormous financial, emotional, and physical strains on the average person. They also impose a huge social and economic cost that is hard to calculate, not least because part of the cost is in the form of investments that are not made because savvy money does not want to get messed around by such attitudes. Sadly, they form of a web of unresponsiveness that usually goes unaddressed. Or, people go for weak reactions that are far short of direct physical confrontation–the occasional burning of tyres or chopping down of trees to bar roads are often merely symbolic and easily addressed with a few temporary ‘sweeteners’ rather than anything permanent. I say sadly because I suspect the general attitude of Jamaicans, which is along the lines of grinning and bearing it leaves many in power with the impression that people don’t care or can be so easily manipulated.

But, I’ve also said that situations like this must have their tipping points. While I don’t favour direct attacks on people, I see the ground being prepared in such a way as to make some think that this may be the only alternative. Reasonable and tolerant behaviour that is repeatedly met by unreasonable behaviour usually ends up in a major conflict. In Jamaica, that would not be out of keeping with many of the fundamental views that people hold, including well-know aphorisms such as ‘If you can’t hear, you must fell’. We’ve seemed to stay away from that as a nation, much to the surprise of many, including me.

But, it doesn’t have to get to that.

It’s more than noteworthy that, in recent days, the Jamaica Constabulary Force has made a major PR meal of the fact that they are now doing in the corporate area what many feel they should have been doing all along. In the area of traffic management, they are publicizing the fact that their increased presence and visibility at points of major traffic problems seem to be bringing forth much better behaviour on the roads.

This comes in the face of mounting and harsh criticism of many aspects of the force’s policing activities. It’s seemingly proactive but is glaring because it points to previous passivity. But, let’s give credit to the JCF realizing that they had been falling down on their own stated objectives of: “We serve, we protect, we reassure with courtesy, integrity and proper respect for the rights of all”. Added to that is the launch of a campaign to ‘give up a criminal for Lent‘.

These are two recent attempts to engage positively a wide spectrum of citizens. Will they work for more than a few weeks? Let’s be optimistic.

More importantly, do they signal a sea change in attitudes to the public? That I cannot say, yet. It’s not something that I see currently spreading across the spectrum of public administration, so for me the jury is not even ready to start deliberation.

How Often Did Your MP Attend Parliament in 2017 – 2018? Do You Care?

How Often Did Your MP Attend Parliament in 2017 – 2018? Do You Care?
— Read on

Susan Goffe goes to one of the many areas where public officials do anything but the job they are supposed to. The adage is that a fish rots from its head and Jamaican elected officials are as good an example of that as one would wish.

Add to the poor attendance the tardiness that is customary in Parliament and one gets a real mess of portage.

Going beyond the elected officials, we know that those appointed to serve the public also gave poor performance records. To the extent that such appointments are part of a ‘spoils’ system, society gets jipped again and again.

But, do Jamaicans care much?

Spring is almost here, but patch and mend is not transformation

I spent a week in London with my eldest daughter, who was born there, and we both like to renew contacts especially during the football season. So, a trip in February or early March works well for both of us. It’s not the time that naturally attracts Caribbean people to Europe; in fact, the traffic is normally flowing more in the opposition direction. Enter ECON101: fares to Europe are lower than usual. Deal!

I love seeing London change and the city I knew as a boy is barely recognizable, but much of the core can never go away in the matter of a few years. One of the best views I had, from atop 20 Fenchurch Street and its Sky Garden, showed me the London I knew was being overtaken by a London I do not know. St. Paul’s Cathedral dates from the 17th century, part of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire in 1666. But, the city retains as much beauty as a massive urban space can. So, London is being transformed, and that’s because BIG things are always happening to top off the many little things that are always going on.

Big things are not all about physical changes. One of the bigger things is a means of travelling on most modes of transport using a single electronic ticket. Gone are the days when one needs to pay a fare on a bus, then on The Tube, then on a train; one Oyster card can be used to travel on all three and maybe for a fare that acknowledges (because of the time stamps) that you are making a single journey, so are not gouged for a series of single trips. London was always a better-than-average city to navigate by public transport, but now it’s much easier both in terms of fares and connections. Another big thing is that the city and its many administrative parts work together well to minimize the inconvenience that all the new building involves. For example, it’s great to see an electronic sign that warns people of upcoming roadworks and offers alternative routes. So, these things are important because they impact on how people behave.

I came back to Jamaica at the weekend and found that it had changed a little over the few days I had been away. Changes in Jamaica can be subtle, and the ones I noticed were typically so. It was a tad warmer at night, and even when I landed at 9pm on my delayed flight temperatures were still in the high 20sC. Within a day I saw the other change: it looked like rain had been much less and the lush green was already beginning to take on a brownish tinge, not necessarily signaling drought but reminding us that a long dry spell may be on the cards. But, the other change I noted was on the roads. We were into the period of patching and mending.

Many people in Jamaica live in areas where potholes in roads are the norm. They also know that each year these get filled with marl and then a thin layer of asphalt, leaving them ripe for the rains that are expected during hurricane season to wash away these ‘repairs’ and reopen holes and start again the process of pothole-creation. As my wife would say “Who does that?!” Though she often does not wait for an answer, I’ll chime in “Jamaicans do…All the time.”

So, for a few weeks the general level of disappointment and dissatisfaction will fall and the sense of well-being that comes from a series of bump-free rides on our regular routes will leave many of us thankful that our prayers have been answered, or our MPs and councillors had managed to find favour and funds to ease our burdens a little. Now, that sort of repair does nothing for people like my aunt in St. Mary who lives in an area where water washed away the road from before I was born and the replacement is still on lay-away. For people like her, patch and mend can’t happen as there’s nothing to patch or mend.

So, we come back to to that age-old Jamaican problem. We inflict little changes that are like a handful of sweeties that make the mouth feel good for a few moments, but really do nothing to fill the belly and ensure that we are strong enough to do more that hanker for another paradise plum the next day. In a few words, we struggle with transformation.

Now, I can understand that. We are a conservative people, so change is something that holds more than a little fear for many. But, our politicians–renowned for talking big and loud–have been muttering and uttering the T word for a while. Yet…

London has potholes. But has decided to address the problem in … ways. For instance, there is a government portal for reporting them by post code,; but there is also a private website for reporting them, claiming for damage and sharing stories, Those are empowering developments, and speak to the notion that part of being a citizen is to ensure that elected representatives do not just keep spouting BS and doing little, but if they do to mobilize other means of getting action underway. Put differently, the UK has decided to treat potholes for what they are: not a local inconvenience but part of a national problem and to which national solutions need to be applied. That’s how to make progress on transformation.

Jamaica’s patch and mend strategy and mentality are part of what I see as typical in a divide and rule approach to many things–play each side off against the middle. But, as should be obvious, all that does is kick the problems down the road. Roads need to be rebuilt literally from bottom to top and until that’s done, then…

The approach to road repairs is but a mere metaphor, though, and all one need do is to look at the problems we have aplenty in Jamaica and try to see if and when the approach to them has been any different. Progress can only be made if steps forward take you to a new place further away from where you start; it is not possible, if you keep going backwards beyond the place where you started. Look around and tell me where you see forward ever, backward never. I rest.

Productivity continues to fall and looks set to kill any Jamaican goose…and MPs give no sign that they understand the problem

Something I try to assess all the time, and it’s hard to do well because chance observations can be misleading, is what appears to be happening to labour productivity in Jamaica. For the longest while, it has been low and falling in Jamaica, but also in the Caribbean, but with our workers lagging badly. My general impression is that so much focus is on the broad aggregate ‘economic growth’ that many do not see or consider that even if the country grows fast it could be happening at a rate where each person is producing or contributing less than before. That may not strike many people because few are paid by performance so cannot get even a direct indication of how well or poorly they are working because their remuneration change. (As ironic aside: It’s likely that organized crime is one area where productivity is well noted. Few gangsters are satisfied with the total take rising while the numbers in the crew may show that each gang member is bringing in less per head. What that tends to do is to find ways of eliminating the underperforming members or to find activities that can raise the average yield of members.)

Although the official data are somewhat out of date, they are showing that employment in Jamaica is rising (up 4 percent October 2017 over October 2016) and unemployment is falling, and within that youth unemployment is falling faster that the average. That should fill many with hope, not least because, if you believe that a rising ship will life all boats, then evidence seems to be there that the tide is rising. For those who see that as one of the keys to reducing a major drag on the economy–crime–this is a very good sign. Unemployment has fallen to the lowest rate in 8 years, at 11.7 percent. But, I think it’s ludicrous to believe that Jamaica has only 140,900 unemployed people, as reported in the official statistics. I wont go into the many caveats that surround employment and unemployment data and what they may mean when one considers who is going in and out of the labour force, or that the numbers of underemployed are not well captured.

Some commentators are noting that the increase in employment is not being matched by an increase in output, ie that labour productivity is declining–not a new thing, but the sort of thing that needs to change if Jamaica is to become a different economic space. Jamaica’s GDP growth rate is puttering around 2 percent, and the latest projection from the Finance Minister is for 2.5 percent in the next fiscal year, 2018-19. So, as they say, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ That growth rate is being generated by falling productivity. This is not a new problem and has been highlighted often by official and private assessments, see, for instance, Dennis Chung commentating on fixing labour productivity problem last December.

It’s a big elephant in the Jamaica economic policy room and, so far, I’ve seen little that is happening to make that change.

But, here is a sad truth. Amongst those who seem hell-bent on worsening labour productivity are those who have been charged with framing and shaping the nation’s policies–its politicians. If you don’t see or understand how they do that just note the following observation about the simple matter of when the politicians decide to get down to work.

Parliament being its usual late self:

They say a fish rots from its head…

I spy with my little eye: serving the Jamaican public good is more than paying it lip service

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?

That’s news to me: a glimpse of what the world is saying about Jamaica

When you’re away from your home, it’s always interesting to know what the rest of the world sees of interest about your home. So, here I am in London–in winter. I’m not missing the heat of Kingston. Why should I? I chose to come. I get to watch European football in the right time zone, not at breakfast or lunch time–still getting used to that. I now don’t have to miss the news from home, because thanks to wonderful inventions like the Internet, I can still stay in touch with Jamaican news sources. I presume that they are usually the best at capturing what is likely to capture the attention of those at home. So, in my few days away, what did I learn from them? Briefly, and in no particular order, I list three things:

  • PM backs down from his decision to appoint ‘acting’ Chief Justice. (Aka…no one elected ME to lead the country, but seeing as I have that position, let me pretend that it’s more legitimate than it is…)
  • Police officer pepper sprays a journalist trying to cover an aggressive attempt to restrain a member of the public, including a another police officer pulling at what appears to be a child no older than 4 years old. (Aka…Community policing means JCF treating fellow citizens like the offsprings of slaves that we know them to be, and who are you to tell us that we have no right to do so?)
  • Jamaican women’s bobsled team coach walks off the job at the Winter Olympics, before the team has had a chance to competed, and allegedly threatens to take her sled with her. (Aka…If it ain’t broke let’s break it so that someone else can fix it. There’s a pattern here, folks 😦 )

But, what has caught the eyes and ears of reporters in Britain? Guess? The drama of the not-so-cool runnings in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Well, at least I did not learn of the story first from The BBC, though they did a segment this morning on what was being reported in the British newspapers. It’s a good sports story, though, in the ‘I’m taking my ball home, so you can’t play’ variety, even though the issues are far from being that simple. I think the ownership and related liability issues are complex. They also point to aspects of life in countries like Jamaica, where ownership of important assets is often the province of foreigners.

However, whatever people may say or think about Jamaica on the sporting map–and it’s not all about Usain Bolt–the country knows how to generate drama. If I thought even for a moment that this was part of some publicity stunt, I’d say so. It’s hard to think of what real benefits could come from the story. Jamaica isn’t really expected to do well in the event, but with the world awestruck by its athletes’ prowess, it could hope that they could run off coolly with a medal. That would make tears flow more than if a one-legged Samoan had flown down the skeleton track and finished in 1st place even though his was the first run ofhte event.

But, contrary to the adage of former-president Obama, Jamaica does sporting drama. Internal bickering is something in which we could easily and regularly get gold medals. That is not a cynical view! But, pending further developments, let’s say that Valentine’s Day did not produce an outburst of Ich liebe dich from the German coach. Instead, it turned in Trash Wednesday.

From London, I remain your humble servant. 🙂