Jamaica’s economy needs good workers, so why worry about ‘quality’ jobs?

I’ll admit that I was fired up with frustration when I wrote on Facebook, ‘What can I do with a gardener who decides to dig up all the seedlings I had in a corner of my garden? ‘Dear, Lord, give me strength to not commit any act I will regret.’ The seedlings were otaheite apples, and I had been keeping them for a friend, who had tried once before to get some into his garden, but due to a long summer absence, his first batch of about 10 had all died. Oddly, he has a gardener, and I wondered what his man had done, or not done, to ensure the plants lasted the summer. I need not have asked because when I was away during the summer was when my pumpkin vines were allowed to swallow up the adjacent beds of pakchoi and rows of corn. I had asked myself when I saw that ‘carnage’, ‘What does it take to retrain some pumpkin vines? 10 seconds; 30 seconds; a minute?’ Just that little time and…some understanding.

I had already written how my gardener had no understanding of what composting is; he knows how to mulch, or to put it better, how to pile cuttings on top of each other week after week. The process of rotting was not something he understood. He was providing ground cover but had no idea what else could be going on to return nutrients to the soil. I accepted that, and with some smiling advice from another urban gardener left the man to keep mulching and to stay the heck away from my compost heap. So, now, each week, he piles grass cuttings and dead leaves around my banana plants; they like that, but they need that mulch to rot down. I take the fresh cuttings etc and pile them onto my compost, so my compost is being built—I now have four piles, 2 well rotted, 2 on their way. But, he piles the stuff on elsewhere, including around plants that don’t like it. I am happy to delegate tasks, and reluctantly take back a task, but if your contribution is to make work for me, then, sorry, mate, I have no time for you!

This story is part of an ongoing problem I see in Jamaica: people undertaking tasks for which they seem to have no training, no understanding, few real skills other than to put human muscular effort to work. We hear talk about helping local enterprises, but local may

be much to our detriment, if it’s substandard.

Up comes my economics muse. The world is doing away with the need for such ‘skills’. Most jobs require a certain level of literacy and numeracy but oodles of reasoning and ability to solve—not make—problems.

I had started by wallowing in the mire of my own ‘suffering’, but started to feel desperate when I read some of my friends’ reactions; my plight was neither new nor unique: Read for yourself:

  • Oh yes. I know the feeling
  • Them things mek mi VEX…N if u cut mi u no find no blood Inna mi the way how mi vex
  • Done wid the destroyers. That was the new nickname of one of our gardener. ” the destroyer”.
  • What do you expect from a Gardener? You need a Landscape Artiste. I can tell you about Gardeners – he cut down my Pride of Barbados plants which I am grooming for a hedge. He said not to worry boss, they still have roots. And he was correct; Yes they are growing again. What brilliant advice. I need not worry
  • I wonder if he’s related to my gardner – after 5 years, I still had to walk behind him ALL day today! Ah tired so till!!
  • I had a gardener who once cut down a big weed for me, my june plum tree – notice I HAD a gardener

Now, I was glad to see that in some cases, classic economics had worked: the gardener in question was now looking for new work. The ideal would be for him to have exited the industry, or gone for retraining to come back into the workforce with new skills. But, I have no such illusion. Gardening is grunt work and if you live in tropical or sub-tropical areas that means working in the heat, and that ain’t no picnic—excuse my English abuse.

In many countries, you see certain national or ethnic groups taking on this work: the US is now full of Latinos who have not only taken on jobs as sole workers, but fill the workforce of landscaping firms and have also created their own landscaping companies; they’ve locked down the business. They have a long history of providing agricultural labour and extending that reach wasn’t hard. In The Bahamas, Haitians have taken on this work (and, in passing, are taking on many other labour-intensive work that Bahamians now feel is beneath them).

Jamaica has not gotten to the state where ‘foreign’ workers have started to dominate labour-intensive sectors. But, we should be worried about that, to the extent that we know that nearby we have better-equipped workers and if we are interested in productivity then the pressure must be there to replace local workers. One reason why it has not happened is that Jamaica does not offer as good a life for those workers as they could get in the US, either as legal or illegal migrants, or richer Caribbean countries like Barbados or The Bahamas.

That feature is perhaps a better measure of how Jamaica has not improved.

The hapless gardener has exposed himself and stays alive because few others want to do the work. In many respects, he’s not productive. In that sense, he is not as good as true farmers and their extensions, the vendor. Both are good at what they do—growing and selling fruit and vegetables. We rarely see or hear stories of substandard produce available—save during times of drought or flood.

Which brings me to the second part. Why worry about ‘quality’ jobs?

For the most part, many are concerned that the jobs coming to Jamaica do not do justice to the high level of learning some of our citizens have. Now, we can argue about whether jobs in business processing centers (BPOs) are ‘quality’ jobs, whatever that means. We know in Jamaica, and worldwide, that graduates from school or university are often criticized for not being ready for the world of work. Whatever quality jobs look like, the question is posed ‘how well could they do the work?’ For most employers, that’s the bottom line: qualifications are fine, but functionality matters more. Employers often have to retrain even the academically brightest of entrants; but the amount of that employers are prepared to do is related to how profitable it will be. In a simple sense, we know that many people who have good high school education can learn enough to handle jobs that used to be the expected landing place of those who have more academic training. One simple reason for that is the creation of technology that requires a certain level of intelligence and maybe physical dexterity, but can be done with good reasoning and problem-solving skills. It is not a matter of fact that university education produces higher levels of problem-solving, so a graduate may be 3 or 4 years behind in that regard relative to a high schooler who has worked and had some years of real problem-solving. It’s a difficult situation.


Optical illusions and allusions: politicians living in the twilight zone

One group of people are constantly in the public eye in Jamaica (and in other countries, too, but to a lesser extent when the country is large and the political structure different)—the members of parliament and senators, especially those in the government. To that extent, what happens so often to them is peculiar. What they have allowed to happen in recent weeks is even more strange than usual. I have a general view that politicians in Jamaica see things quite differently to others in society. I’m not able to summarize what that outlook is, but it manifests itself in behaviour that suggests the MP or senator in the Cabinet is immune from criticism for the most absurd and even childish behaviour. Without going deep into the when and why, I will just list some things that have passed my eyes and make go “Eh? What? You must be joking!”

The most recent series have tended to congregate around matters of national security—much because crime has taken the front burner spot and many who can, see this as the crux of whether Jamaica will progress in the short-term or not. But, if one looks carefully it is prevalent in many portfolios.

1. Declaration of ZOSO and series of bungling that would make many a politician reach for the standard resignation letter, but…

2. The authorities charged with licensing firearms keep seeping evidence of deep-seated corruption…yet, winds of change dont seem to suggest that the political directorate think that more than a quick brush over will not be needed.

3. Admitted the PM is the minister of defence and his minstry of national security covers both police and armed forces, his taking the reins in the matter of ZOSO seems to show that his minister is ‘not up to the task’ (talk yesterday of ‘reshuffle’ only heightens the feeling that ‘three strikes and you’re out’ have already been passed and ‘job vacant’ is already post in the office of the minster of national security).

4. The minister of security’s offhand offer of a seat on a new security committee to his Oppistion counterpart via a tweet should have raised such a big red flag that a formal letter ought to have been on said counterpart’s desk so fast that he’d wonder if he were still in yesterday. But, oh no. It had to await the painful public refusal of the post by the Opposition leader—himself a former national security minister—for the current minister to agree that he should now make a formal offer. Today’s Observer editorial on the matter was cruelly kind, or kindly cruel, depending on your perspective. This extract says much:

‘Mr Montague must have known better than to extend such an invitation in that careless and insincere manner. Was that the same way in which he invited all the other members to the committee? We hate to think that he was merely playing old-time politics.

It suggests that had no real interest in having the Opposition on the oversight committee that he said was designed to hold him and his ministry accountable. One wonders whether he wanted to make it impossible for the Opposition to accept, while giving the impression that he wanted a bipartisan committee.’

5. A by-election is due to be held in a St. Mary seat where the general election was decided by a mere 5 votes. The PM then announces a road improvement project in said general area. Now, even with the best wish in the world, it can only be someone terrible naive or terribly out-of-touch or awfully self-confident who would not have seen that this looked like simple jerk pork. Whatever merits there may be in his argument that politics is far from his mind must be lost on the simple bad timing of the announcement. Would it have choked in someone’s mouth for this so-called ‘neutral’ project to have been announced weeks ago.

6. The visceral tone of the education minister chastising schools over fees, and calling them ‘corrupt’, only to have back down and apologize shows an attitude to governing that doesn’t really fit our democracy.

7. The utter disconnect that was shown in the matter of fighting crime and providing justice in other areas reached a new low point when the director of public prosectuation and the Chief Justice publicly aired their frustrations at not having had full clearance to increase staff numbers in order to deal with the excessive backlog of court cases. Within hours, the needed clearance was coming from the ministry of finance.

One of the things I had noted with the previous administration was how its mantra of ‘joined-up government’ was often show to be hot air. This administration does not have such a mantra, but seemed to have put a premium on being both transparent and better communicators; both are seriously in question.

The obverse of this is easy riding on the economic front that has kept the finance minister out of too much oral trouble. The other major portfolio of foreign affairs has also been able to float on various waves of good-feeling, and world events have allowed Jamaica to look good on a world stage, and not have to put out too many begging bowls.

One other area that seems to have been escaping too much flak is the environment, even though that portfolio has many dark clouds hovering, especially regarding Cockpit Country and other areas of environmental degradation.

Where the administration’s activities have seemed most odd is in the context that the government only has a one-seat majority, and their behaviour is more benefitting of an administration that has a strong and comfortable majority. For the moment, the one seat has grown to three, with two PNP MPs resigning and the death of the MP in St. Mary.

One reason that situation persists is because the Opposition is weak. Talk is cheap but serious alternative policies matter more to non-partisans that knee-jerk opposition rhetoric.

Capturing the economic dividend: Can Jamaican crime be addressed effectively without major reform of the JCF?

Everyday, we have to live with the realities of life. That’s not meant to be profound in its pithiness. It’s meant to set a context for what we try to do to change realities.

Jamaica has moved to a place that many economists, in particular, or the population, in general, though was just a little beyond it: the basic economic policy framework for the country is sound. The latest IMF review mission left last week, having indicated that Jamaica met the latest set of quarterly targets for June. Sure, we have to live with what economists call a large debt overhang–our debt/GDP ratio is still well over 100%, but it’s much lower than a few years ago, and set to fall. I’m not going to explore the details of public finances, now, though I have concerns–expressed here, recently–that the current budget balance is too tight, and this seems to be due to mainly to buoyant corporate income tax. Whether that is a problem in the near- or medium-term depends on what else may adjust. The rate of growth as measured by official statistics is still low (now forecast to be 1.6% this fiscal year, slightly down from an earlier forecast closer to 2.5%). Inflation is low. Employment is rising; unemployment is falling, though we should still be concerned that youth unemployment sits around 30%.

With that new-found economic ‘stability’, people can now focus on other things that have held back progress in this country. One of these–crime–is at least partly related to that high level of youth unemployment. The World Bank estimated several years ago that crime was costing Jamaica about 5% of GDP each year; that loss is enough to help absorb a large portion of the unemployed, especially those young would-be workers, many of whom are finding crime paying better than other options. For me, jobs is a key part of helping to solve the crime problem. Another part is specific action against crime and criminals.

The government has recently declared its latest moves against crime, in the form of zones of special operations (ZOSOs). People’s civil rights have been partly curtailed, in this process, but my impression is that people will accept this if it appears to bring a significant decline in crime. Personally, I don’t think it will, not least because it’s a cart that was put before a horse, in terms of trying to restructure important parts of how the country operates. One of these is the intrinsic distrust that many have for the police.

It begs much to believe the people will be happy to see a dysfunction and allegedly corrupt force given more powers. It begs much to see an organization that displays incompetence in many basic operations being expected to hold the line again a wave of marauding criminals. I have no personal beef against the police: my concern is a simple matter of creedibility and confidence. I would have been reluctant to say the preceding had it not been for the fact that several civil society group,  INDECOM, and senior members of the current government Cabinet have essentially said the same: the Gleaner reported in mid-August that ‘Dr Horace Chang, said the Government cannot accept the report at this time. Dr Chang stated that it is not a good report and does not reflect well on the police force’. That report preceded a meeting between the Minister of National Security and the JCF on the same review. Following that meeting, the JCF’s Commissioner changed his tune about the Tivoli Enquiry Report and its recommendations, now accepting it. That about-face tells a sorry story of an organizaion that is not really sure of the route it’s travelling and has issues of integrity of action that are disturbingly obvious.

Finally, whatever slack one was prepared to give a force that is under the cosh in carrying out its task, quickly disappeared in my eyes, after the debacle of the errors in crime statistics that came with the declaration of the first ZOSO. Some will say that the corrected number for murders (7) and shootings, though considerably lower than those given initially to the public (54 murders), are still too high; ie, in a country as small as Jamaica, we need to see even one murder as disturbingly high. I could agree with that. But, my issue is about credibility and integrity, and if you can misstate a ‘fact’, based on information you collect by a factor of eight, then I am beyond frightened. Why? Because all of the anecdotes about fabrication of evidence and other acts of malpractice by policemen gets set in a new context of their producing ‘evidence’ to suit their end. That is not a good platform on which to build what is needed to move Jamaica further ahead as a society.

The need for heightened trust in the police was made well in 2015 by the current commissioner of INDECOM. The following quote (my stresses), points to the basic problems identified in the 2008 Strategic Review of the JCF, which had not been addressed before ZOSOs came into place:

‘They found that one of the dominant cultures in the JCF was one of corruption. They found that the squad culture reigned in the JCF, where some members would always respond to the needs of someone they were trained with even if it meant violating ethical or legal boundaries. They found uniformly that Jamaicans, no matter their background, wanted a more trusting relationship with their police force. They wanted to be treated with respect for human rights and to see corruption eradicated. They were calling for a change in the culture.

The Strategic Review said that in a democracy, a police service is best able to carry out its functions when the members enjoy the respect and confidence of the population. The Strategic Review opined that the JCF lost much support because of the actions of some of its members. They pointed to certain endemic corrupt acts and practices. This is a sad tale of endemic practices but we have to repeat them so that we can correct them. What they found was endemic corruption, contract killings, engaging with gangs, planting evidence, trafficking in weapons and extortion. They said that these practices will take many years to be eradicated.’

Few societies make much progress with trust in public institutions is low. Because the government has not sought to fix that key element, then its chances of benefiting from the current economic dividend is lower.

Some have called for the total disbanding of the JCF. Such a radical act is not unprecedented, and the most famous recent similar act was taken by the Republic of Georgia in 2005, when they fired all 30,000 traffic police officers and started with a round of fresh recruits.

One cannot predict whether such a radical act is what Jamaica needs. But, one can predict that little will change by leaving things as they are.

‘It ain’t my job’: stiff attitudes and the road to unemployment in Jamaica

I’ve commented many times about little things that are commonplace in Jamaica that hold us back from being a much better country, in the broadest sense. One such thing that I experience, and irks me enormously is how employees seek to distance themselves from any decisions that happen in their workplaces, often with the simple phrases, ‘That’s not my job…’, or ‘It’s not by business/company…’, or ‘I don’t make the rules…’ All of these seem to suggest that discretion, which we know that Jamaicans generally love, is beyond the realm of actions. It also suggests disinterest in the overall quality of what’s offered to customers. I had another instance today at a gas station in Clarendon. I wont be coy: it’s Texaco at Osborne Store.

Now, a little background. That area in Clarendon offers the cheapest gas I have ever found in Jamaica, eg 87 grade is $130, compared to about $140 in Kingston, and a scary $155 on the north coast/Ocho Rios. I have been to the station before, and found to my surprise that they only sell for cash. I try not to move around with lots of cash, so that was a put-off for a long time. The station was recently renovated and (I think) brought under new management. However, my few forays there have shown me that staff are generally decent. For instance, I once had a double puncture and sought help there, and was pointed across the street to a repair shop, where my two flats were repaired in about an hour.

This morning, I was on a quick trip to/from Mandeville, and came back earlier than expected–no bad thing, as I saw busloads of PNP supporters headed to the National Arena for their annual conference.

I pulled into the gas station and went to a pump that was unoccupied. As I pulled in, another driver came to the same pump from the other direction. After a few seconds, the other driver pulled back and moved to another pump. No signs were on the pump or any indication that it was not in service. I waited for about 5 minutes, and noticed the attendant dealing with other cars at the pump behind me. I got out and asked “Are you only dealing with that one pump?” The young lady asked me if I wanted gas. I responded that I would not pull up for a pump for any other reason. After some discussion, she told me she ‘expected’ that I knew the pump where I was was not working and that people often park by a pump and go into the store (which is a good two car widths away and would seem to be much more easily accessed by parking right beside it). I asked how she could ‘expect’ something of me without engaging me in any way. The point passed her by. I asked why there was no sign on the pump. Then she went there: “That’s not my job…It’s not my gas station.” I explained that her attitude ought to be to make it easier for any customer to understand how the station was functioning. “People who come here know the pump isn’t working.”

So, here is my beef.

  • The attendant knows the pump doesn’t work, but somehow the station has not seen fit to advise all customers of that; custom and practice will inform.
  • The attendant did not see any need to greet or acknowledge a new customer, even to point out the above point.
  • Her sole focus was servicing from the pump where she was. She stressed that’s what was in her job description–‘only to work at pump 3’.

Clearly, whatever pay she gets, it is not going to change with how she functions, so long as she is not rude and rude or steals, I guess. How much feedback there is between the attendants and the managers and owners of the station is a matter of pure speculation. But, the impression is that anything to do with the management of the station is not seen as part of the overall function of staff. I asked if her attitude would be the same if the station was being robbed. She told me that was different. So, if it’s a robbery, she would do what was needed (presumably, not just run away, but something like trying to alert police, or protect the premises), and then it became ‘our business’. But, when she had the need to make things better for the average customer, it was not her business. You can mull that this afternoon.

This attitude is quite common in lots of establishments in Jamaica, and begs questions about how management operates in many places. To be fair to the attendant, I did not ask for a supervisor to get an idea of how things might be seen ‘up the line’. Also, in her defence, it would mean that she would be doing more work for no more pay; so the incentives are low. That said, some of the best customer service comes from those employees who see where there are gaps and fill them, temporarily, at least, and perhaps try to ensure there are permanent fixes. A simple example is a restaurant where wait staff deal with customers comprehensively, not just in the sector to which they are assigned, not least because the flow of customers in dining area can be uneven. So, if a table needs clearing, and the assigned waiter is not available, another staff member just does the necessary: what goes around, should come around.

The deeper, nerdy view of this touches on labour productivity. This is horribly low, even in secular decline, in Jamaica. Workers who are inflexible, by choice or by design are more easily dispensed with: one size hole, fit by one sized person. A simple example of how bad that can be comes from when I coached football. I taught my girls to play every position, including goalkeeper, and said that when they went eventually to high school and a coach asked ‘Where you you play?’ better to reply ‘Where do you want me to play?’ That way you have 11 chances to get on the team, not just say 1 or 2. Understand?

The bottom line to this attitude is that, given choices of where to invest and create jobs, many firms would steer clear of the kind of labour we offer. Mull that, too.

The extraordinariness that is the Jamaican

One of the most insidious things I hear on a regular basis is that Jamaicans are unruly. The reality is that we are what we tolerate and Jamaicans generally tolerate a lot of things that they criticize, but without compelling people to abide by any set of rules, if indeed such rules exist and are well-known and accepted. So, in general, Jamaicans know well that they are allowed to get away with a whole series of behaviours, which in other countries never get displayed to any great extent. One reason we see them less elsewhere is that people know there are real and immediate penalty consequences. This is rarely the case in Jamaica.

To repeat and stress the point, Jamaicans act in a number of quite sensible and rational ways. What sometimes irks others is that Jamaicans do not conform to behaviour that others would wish them to. One of those sensible things is to find the shortest distance between two points, which we know is a straight line. So, go to our major E-W thoroughfare in and out of Kingston, Washington Boulevard, and you will see a series of overhead walkways, that are hardly used. Jamaicans prefer to cross at points that connect them more directly from where they are to where they wish to be. They discount the risks of accident, for convenience; they do not see the benefit of crossing safely if that means they must walk maybe a kilometre in two directions to get from A to B, which is only about 50 metres apart. That behaviour exposes also the poor planning and understanding of social needs by those who created the new urban space.

One of the tasks I had to do early in my career as a trasnsport economist was to predict how people would move if road patterns were changed; it was not often easy and took a lot of surveying to see what people did and what could reasonably be expected after the changes. We also had to build in a revisiting of the plans if people behaved differently. But, such flexibility is not aways easy to build in, and is not cost-free.

I have just been to and from Ocho Rios on the N-S highway and again saw how poor planning and understanding of social behaviour has left the impression that Jamaicans are unruly.

The N-S highway is meant for motorized vehicles. However, people who live in areas near the highway have begun to use the highway as if it were for their purposes to travel on foot. What is also extraordinary in a general sense but quite normal in Jamaica is the fact that the police seem to do nothing about this kind of behaviour; they carry on with their usual traffic duties on the highway, looking for speeding motorists and drivers operating recklessly. Pedestrians, even though they have no right to use the highway as a passage, are not their concern. When we criticize the police for not ensuring compliance with laws, this is but another example. Perhaps, the police view the people as they do stray livestock; animals are meant to be deterred by cattle grids and barbed wire, but people can easily get by these obstacles. I have yet to see any police activity shepherding pedestrians off the highway, whether they are workers on their way to do road works, or students, or farmers.

I have written many times before that the average Jamaican is quite rational. What the highway has done in many areas is to create a way through that is smooth, clear, and direct where none existed before so it is not surprising that people will find the highway now creates a more convenient way to move from one point to another.

Now, in many other countries there is a general social acceptance that motorized vehicles and people are kept apart. Not so in Jamaica, where pedestrians often walk in the roadway, not least because safe sidewalks do not exist. People are conditioned to intermingle with motor vehicles. Such things, however, expose poor public provision.

What is extraordinary is that the Jamaican State and bureaucracy are complicit in the seemingly unruly behaviour of many of Jamaica’s citizens. The complicity of Jamaica’s bureaucracy is sometimes accidental in the sense that planning has not anticipated the kind of behaviour that we see on the ground and consequently has no response to the new behaviour. The bureaucrats may have little information or little interest in changing the behaviour. In the case of the highway, for them, the completion of the road is the end of the task: the road is finished, motorists are using it; motorists are happy or unhappy at having to pay the tolls.

What we see the Jamaican pedestrian doing on the highway is not that different from what we see the pedestrian doing on other roads: the Jamaican pedestrian sees the need to move from one point to another in a direct line; for that reason when you drive along many Jamaican roads you see pedestrians walking directly across lanes of traffic to get from one side of the road to the other, not having much concern for what hazardous conflicts they may have with speeding cars.

Jamaican drivers, who are accustomed to this behaviour, know how to adjust their maneuvers to avoid hitting the pedestrian. (I’ve seen similar behaviour in Italy and Greece, where drivers are thought to be crazy.) I was with an Irish man who lives in Jamaica the other day and he was constantly concerned with the pedestrians were approaching the middle of the road in the direction of his vehicle, thinking that the pedestrian was going to continue walking. He became more anxious as the walkers came closer but the pedestrian had no intention of walking directly into the vehicle; the pedestrian was merely moving between two points in a straight line, and would pause for a decent gap to continue.

What we see on the roads we know is replicated in many other spheres of Jamaican life, in the sense that few people feel compelled to act according to some ‘rule books’ with which they clearly do not agree.

Where this is more unacceptable is where the participants have explicitly or implicitly agreed to the rules, eg, public servants working for an agency who bend rules to facilitate a range of corrupt practices: the recent revelations at the Firearms Licensing Authority is the latest, scary instance of this. But, we see it often with those who are meant to uphold laws–the police. Why else would we have police on murder, theft, embezzlement, extortion and other charges?

In a society where you cannot rely on the contracted public officials who are supposed to be upholders of the laws to uphold the laws, I cannot understand why you would have issues with citizens doing more or less what they please when they have not contracted with anyone to act otherwise.

#ZOSO going to plan? While the cats are away, the mice will play.

Let’s not put too much into one set of numbers?

As I intimidated in my blog earlier today, if large amounts of security forces are deployed in a ZOSO, fewer must be available elsewhere–unless the supply of police and soldiers magically increases. So, knowing that, criminals will feel they have more room to manoeuver.

Murder figures for the month so far are 54, according to the leader of the Opposition–a higher rate than before, at well over 5 killings a day.

Ironically, the PM made the stipulated ’10 day’ report on the ZOSO, in Parliament this afternoon. Interestingly, in making his conclusions, he stated:

“The Zone of Special Operations is meant to preserve and improve the quality of life in Jamaica’s most vulnerable communities.”

Of course, that’s all fine for those embraced by ZOSO, but not if it’s at the expense of a worsening quality of life elsewhere, which is what the higher murder figures suggest.

#ZOSO going to plan, but what a strange strategy

Last week on TVJ’s ‘All Angles’, JDF spokesman Major Basil Barrett told Dionne Jackson-Miller that ZOSO was not about catching criminals; it was about displacing them. That way, he argued, they would be easier to catch when moving around far from their safe havens.

Now, I’m no military or police tactician, so this argument struck me as strange. I’ll explain why, shortly. However, recent reports suggest that the plan in working, as criminals are apparently fleeing St. James and looking to infiltrate other parishes; see St James Gangsters Fleeing ZOSO In Droves:

“We are getting intelligence that many of the violence producers in communities like Bottom Pen, Norwood and Salt Spring are running away to other parishes,” a senior policeman, who asked not to be identified, told The Gleaner over the past weekend. “They see what is happening in Mt Salem and it has driven fear into them.” The lawman said that based on their information, the retreating gangsters are targeting parishes like the neighbouring Westmoreland and Hanover as well as St Elizabeth, Manchester and Clarendon.

This description of what’s happening is what has me confused.

I can understand the idea of ‘flushing out’ criminals from a small area in the sense that they are more vulnerable in the ‘open sea’, and will struggle to fight against the waves of police pressures they will find. It’s like channeling fish or birds into an area to get netted or pick off by shooters (sorry about that imagery). But, the supposition is that security forces would be ready in the fringe areas to capture the fleeing villains.

But, I don’t see that happening.

What I also wonder is, if the ZOSO has been flooded with extra security personnel, then that leaves fewer to tackle crime in the rest of the country. That would seem to expose the rest of the country to at least the same amount of villainy as before, and more likely more.

That seems to be what is happening: Mount Salem seems to have had no murders since the ZOSO was declared (but given the correct number of 7 murders so far this year, one would only expect at most one murder). However, killing and shooting seems to be going on unabated in the rest of Jamaica. For example, today’s papers report another gruesome double beheading in Clarendon. (In passing, this is a specially bizarre type of crime in Jamaica, which makes one wonder if it’s ritualistic, in either a criminal context or some other ‘cultish’ sense.) In other words, whatever criminals may have to fear in Mount Salem or St. James, they seem to have little to fear elsewhere.

I would also have understood the ‘displacement strategy’ better had several ZOSOs been declared at the same time; that way, even fewer safe havens would have been available.

So, we are still in the process of weighing the sense and effectiveness of this new crime-fighting strategy, but bear with me if I find some of the thinking on it a tad suspect 🙂

#ZOSO musings: I’m using different definitions…JCF leave us with still more questions than answers

In the fast-moving story of how a possible positive attempt at crime-fighting turned into elements of a farce, the JCF issued yesterday clarifications of the crime statistics cited for the first area declared a ZOSO. The Gleaner report included the following statement (my stresses):

“The area of the zone of special operations is approximately .4 kilometres square, has a population of about 3,500 residents, with a murder rate of 190 per 100,000. This is four times the national average. The data clearly shows escalating violent incidents in the zone,” the JCF said in a press release.

According to the JCF, the revised figures for Mount Salem as at September 1 when the ZOSO took effect are:

– Four murders and 11 shootings in 2015

– Nine murders and 10 shootings in 2016

– Seven murders and eight shootings since January 2017

At a press briefing at the Office of the Prime Minister last week Friday declaring Mount Salem as the first ZOSO, Acting Commissioner of Police Clifford Blake gave the following data:

– In 2014, there were 46 murders recorded in Mount Salem and its environs;

– 70 in 2015;

– 85 in 2016;

– 54 so far this year – 16 of which have been committed in the Crawford Street community alone.


In the statement yesterday, the Police High Command explained that the figures in the original report focused on violence in the police district, which includes the declared area along with other communities.

“It should also be clarified that during the presentation of the data, murders and shootings were conflated to give a violent-incident index, however, this was inadvertently presented as murders alone,” the release said.

“The JCF acknowledges that residents and communities should not be unfairly stigmatised and, therefore, supports the residents’ thrust to have the data clarified.”

According to the JCF, the violence situation in the police area is as follows:

– For 2014 – 20 murders and 26 shootings

– For 2015 – 35 murders and 35 shootings

– For 2016 – 39 murders and 46 shootings

– For 2017 – 27 murders and 27 shootings (as of July 7, 2017)

These figures, the JCF noted, clearly indicate that violence within the police area is escalating, and given the interconnected nature of criminal activity and the presence of organised criminal gangs, strongly suggest the need for intervention.

The JCF further said: “We have conducted a preliminary review of our protocols, which confirms that the collection, collation, and analysis of crime data is sound. However, we have concluded that there is a need for stronger protocols around the packaging of data, that is to say, how we report and present data to the public to avoid errors and misrepresentations.”


The JCF also pointed out that the formula used to calculate the risk of proliferation and projection of organised violence in an area is linked to the number of gangs involved in criminal activity affecting the area, which is 12.

The release named Unruly, Junglist, Temple, and Alliance as the main gangs based in the Mount Salem area, with eight splinter/minor criminal groups that also operate and/or are based in the declared zone. These are Katan Lane, Nation Crocs (affiliates), Green Tank (affiliates), G City (affiliates), Texas Faction, Bronx Faction, OG Gangsters, and Blake Family.

According to the JCF, gang influence extends beyond the boundaries of their geographical turf.

“The presence of gangs drives conflict and violence within the declared space and creates informal and illegal systems to capture and control the people and community,” the statement said.

“The public should bear in mind that aside from internal havoc, these gangs have created an intricate criminal network, which has tentacles that stretch outward to other communities, exerting influence and spreading fear by using violence in support of their criminal enterprise.”

It continued, “Having reviewed the data and the analysis thereof, the JCF stands by its recommendation to the prime minister and the National Security Council for the declaration of the zone of special operations in Mount Salem.”

Sadly, for me (and, maybe, you) my working career was about making sense of statements and assessing whether there were logical or analytical weaknesses in them. So, let’s take a little shufti (English slang for ‘look’) at this statement.

First, the statement tells us the area of the ‘zone of special operations’, which I presume is the area specified in the gazetted orders. It then goes on to talk about ‘Mount Salem and environs’, without giving any idea of how that really differs from the ZOSO area, in terms of area and population; we could also ask what are the precise coordinates, given that the ZOSO has precise coordinates. So, the JCF leave us asking more questions from the fuzzy answer they give.

The statement then talks about murder rate of 190/100,000, which is the same as 1.96/1000. Now, I’ll let you test your maths skills and see if that corresponds to any of the numbers cited for murders in the statement.

I wont argue that the violence situation appears to be escalating, though as I wrote in an earlier post, unless one disaggregated what shootings actually involved (say, assailants and bullets used) what kind of escalation is still in question. So, intervene away!

But, in this area of escalating crime, the ability to crawl over every nook and cranny and search everyone entering and leaving the area, the JCF has unearthed about a dozen knives and most recently one handgun. Mighty strange, that! Unless…Surely, not? Well, do you any any other ideas, excluding everyone in St. James being related to Harry Houdini?

The JCF then tries to reassure us that all of their ‘bean counting’ should cause us no concern because they have reviewed ‘protocols’, which are ‘sound’, but need to do a better job of ‘packaging’ data. How about having some simple checks? As I noted in an interview given to TVJ a few days ago, it was mighty odd that someone from the community should have had doubts about the data, but not some member of the local police force. Surely, they knew how many killings had gone on in their area? I would have expected some local officers to have gotten onto ‘Police High Command’ to say “Hey, Chief! Those numbers aren’t right.” Perhaps, JCF protocols don’t encourage that kind of critical offering.

Almost every thing to do with the JCF seems to have gone pear-shaped as soon as ZOSO came into existence. Morale issues get blown up in significance. Nearly half the officers assigned do not show up to the work the area. The food is bad. We hear of other JCF ails, first with the Minister of National Security calling publicly for promotions to be made, forthwith, and rank and file staff saying to the media that promotions don’t happen because officers don’t want to succumb to sexual requests from seniors. The allegations have been upheld by senior officers of the Police Association. I can’t image that the protocols for unwanted sexual advances that are sound.

Some would see many of these revelations as politically-motivated.

I mentioned the word farce, at the outset. It could be much worse than that.

#ZOSO…more musings…not amusing, but surely bemusing

When the PM announced the launching of the first zone of special operations last week, my own interests were to see how the initiative would develop and whether it made any major difference to crime in the area covered. (Personally, I thought that the PM stating that for him success would be no murders was wild, and more likely to end up in a ‘failure’ on those terms and then the inevitable efforts to show that in fact there were ‘successes’, if other metrics were considered. But, more on that in the future.) I did not anticipate commenting soon or often, thinking that the initiative needed time to go through its phases.

But, I was nevertheless a bit uneasy from the start because words of reassurance about preparedness uttered days before the launch were within hours shown to be less than convincing, with the problems caused by requests for official IDs in a country where many people do not have such things, and the need to consider how to deal with that. Did someone not really understand the Jamaica in which they operated?

Now, depending on how deep-seated you think problems are, you would want to see different amounts of preparation. I’m one of those who believes that some serious problems exist within the JCF and any efforts to include them in activities run the risk of falling apart because the organization is at least dysfunctional and inefficient, and clearly a place where corruption has taken hold. So, without ‘cleaning house’ first, who knows what may happen?

My suspicions were heightened when I read the recent Administrative Review of the Tivoli Operations, where many felt the JCF attempt to exonerate its officers and also denigrate the Commission of Enquiry pointed to a disturbing level of self-protection. The fact that INDECOM has added its voice to the government’s in calling for the withdrawal of the report tells us all we need to know: “The JCF has an unfortunate practice of denying and disputing reports that identify their failings and encourage them to improve,” Commissioner Williams is reported as stating.

What seems to have unfolded yesterday, demonstrated that in many senses the cart had been put before the horse, and the horse may still be harnessed in the stable.

There was a data snafu concerning the number of murders in the ‘Mount Salem and environs’ ZOSO, which the PM had said days before had ‘recommended itself‘. The actual numbers were reportedly much lower. So, how valid was the ‘recommendation’? So, how much trust could one put in a selection process founded on faulty statistics? Pending a full statement of what went wrong with the data and how the error will be avoided in the future, one has to shake one’s head that the processes involved seem to lack some basic procedures for checking and verification.

The data snafu shows that JCF did not move with enough speed to anticipate the role that they would need to play, not least of being in the public eye in helping determine where ZOSOs would be, and being fully accountable and ready for the scrutiny of decisions that should be the norm, but is often missing in many of its actions. Amongst the things that JCF had not done was fast-forward improved uses in IT and data collection, rather than cementing the image in many people’s minds that it is stuck in the days of hand-written ledgers and the limitations some of its basic practices put on being able to analyze information quickly. In that sense, JCF has been behind the analytical curve for too long. JCF has also been slow to embrace various other forms of faster communications.

Security forces’ spokespersons told us they were ready for ZOSO, wherever it was rolled out, but, this seems to have been at best wishful thinking, or at worst some sort of bluster.

But is the ZOSO operation one where people are using colanders to fetch water and with hands tied? What was behind the low turnout of officers in Mount Salem yesterday, when some 80 out of 140 officers did not report for duty? Is that a matter of morale, poor coordination, or some other form of mess-up?

One wonders if sabotage is going on. From the fact that information seems to be leaking from the Security Council, as implied by a media house being forewarned of the first ZOSO declaration, to questions posed about operations by the opposition spokemans, to the data snafu. If that is the case, then these are signs of absence of trust at many levels.

The authorities were quick to set up social media platforms to inform the public, after the ZOSO was declared, but they seem slow in staying ahead of what seems like some basic and obvious questions. The appetite for fast news only gets greater with the creation of things like Twitter handles and Facebook pages. So, AFTER  media reported erroneously that ZOSO was over, the official tweet came:

But, was it beyond the wit of someone to forewarn the media, even five minutes before the operation was due to start, without compromising security operations?

It adds to the sense some expressed that things were amateurish and shambolic.

This flow of information issue is not easy but it needs to be addressed, and also goes to the manner of real inter-agency communication.

Former JCF Commissioner, Owen Ellington, had his views on crime fighting published in Jamaica Observer this past Sunday. Some cynics would wonder about the timing, on the back of ZOSO. Former Commissioner Ellington, who resigned his office suddenly, and with little if any explanation why, was saying basically that the move to not focus on engaging criminals more has meant that crime fighting has been, and will be, less successful. His views add to a body of opinions that is less than supportive of the current crime fighting plans. Be that as it may.

Politics and pose: The PM was quick to get his photo-op in Mount Salem.

Many non-politicians will see this as nothing more than PR. If it weren’t then, he could have chosen to go to another area where people appear to be under the threat of violent crime, and could be doing that on a continuous basis. Would that not raise people’s expectations of ZOSOs in the future? Maybe, but then again, he had campaigned on a statement that his party was the one to vote for if one wanted to see a reduction in violent crime. But, that was electioneering, wasn’t it? 🙂

For the moment, I am not going to do more than note that the missteps feed the political fire. On that, I will just flag a few things, which some will see as mischief-making or part of what the Oppositon should be doing:

That’s enough for now!




Everyday things that make you wonder if Jamaica is ungovernable or just not well-governed

I’m often stuck between a rock and a hard place when I think about Jamaica: it’s a land of many apparent contradictions. Some of these seeming contradictions are glaring, to me–and I do not believe that my eyes see them more because I had not lived here for 50 years. I think people see them, but perhaps interpret them differently.

Where my mind gets stuck is that, given how obvious some of these contradictions appear to be, are policy makers ignoring them because they do not care or because they get certain advantages from their continued presence? A cynic would point to the political gains from ‘solving’ false problems, and making lives better for some in exchange for votes.

As I drove around the island in recent days, I pondered whether many of policy measures taken fall on barren ground. If so, they are basically a waste of effort and resources.

Let me try to explain with issues I see in a few areas

Jamaica is supposedly gripped in a crime wave, yet one reads reports of people being aware of possible crimes but not responding. The recent killing of fashion designer, Dexter Pottinger, is an example: neighbours report they heard calls for help but did not respond or raise any alerts. Why? A complex set of reasons can explain such apparent indifference, including animosity between Pottinger and his neighbours, the call being interpreted as part of a pattern of raucous behaviour and therefore ‘normal’, a general fear of ‘getting involved’, distrust of the police, and more.

But, are those the feelings of people who feel that violent crime is a real concern? I’d argue no. Or, if it is, then the fear of possible retribution for taking action against violent crime is greater than the fear of the crimes itself.

If so, then the police’s calling on citizens to be ‘nosey’ and help in fighting crime is empty posturing. Something psychological and maybe physical or ‘moral’ is stopping people putting themselves into the mix to help fight or solve crimes.

The inaction of people in close proximity to crimes is compounded by their unwillingness to help oil the wheels of justice, by being witnesses or testifying in criminal cases.  

For some time now, I have been puzzled by the way many ordinary people do not seem affected by an apparent crime wave. In general, I wonder why people would continue to put themselves in harm’s way if they really believed that they were going to be the subject of a violent crime. Why, for example, would people risk their lives by traveling in vehicles driven by unlicensed taxi operators? Why would ordinary people risk their lives by walking alone at night on dark streets? (Before someone jumps up and tells me how they dare not venture out from their homes, I suggest he/she go out with a security detail and check many areas of Kingston/St. Andrew at night. I cannot speak for every other heavily populated parts of the countrym but I have seen the same in Mandeville, and if one drives across Jamaica at night, it is a common feature in rural areas.) Why would many people choose to drive alone rather than in the company of others, if they really felt that they would be the subject of random violent attacks?

I ask these questions in part because I read the analyses of Dr. Herbert Gayle and noted that many of our violent crime statistics make parts of Jamaica seem like ‘war zones’, but then the other elements that would confirm the war zones status seem missing. I’ve lived in and travelled to areas that were war zones, and they are not like many parts of Jamaica. Maybe, the war zone-like areas of Jamaica are so small that one has to live within them to get a sense of those features. In which case, I think we need to have these areas pulled out in front of us so that we can really see up-close what is going on there.

Another piece of the puzzle over crime is the role of the police force. If this were a truly-engaged effort, why would we still see reports in the media that police are themselves engaged in criminal activities, or even implicated or suspected of being so involved? People talk about police morale being low because some have concerns about the ‘burdens’ put on them by the oversight body, INDECOM. But, is police morale not low because a significant part of the force is corrupt? I’m merely asking what seems an obvious question. How can one feel proud to be part of a corps that is meant to ‘serve and protect’ and be comfortable with colleagues who have little intention of doing so?

One does not need to have a perfect world for the police to be seen as above reproach. That, in Jamaica, we often have police on charges of killing citizens is a peculiarity, to put it mildly.


Jamaica has been mired for decades by low rates of economic growth, according to official data. Yet, many signs exist that suggest growth hasn’t been so sluggish. We know many of the general explanatory factors, such as size and growth of informal economic activities, much of which is illegal, so doesn’t get counted for several obvious reasons. This hiding of economic activity makes economic policy less likely to succeed, if people have taken themselves out of circuits affected by variables controlled by the State.

What is clear, however, is that many Jamaicans do not have regular employment, which is not the same as saying they do not have jobs or work that they do. Many people ‘get by’ ‘doing a thing’: that may be odd jobs that come along, or as vendors, or hustling in some way (and that does not imply they are doing illegal things). Getting jobs like that, however, depends on other groups having tasks that need doing and means to pay for them. Jamaica does have a lot of economic ‘trickle down’ in the form of its middle- and upper-classes employing lower classes to do a range of menial and domestic work. But that higher income and social group needs to be doing well enough to pay for such services. Judging by the way that many upscale communities have not fallen into disrepair, or that many so-called ‘gully communities’ adjacent to such areas keep expanding, money must still be flowing through them at a good rate. Judging, too, by the construction activity going on in many of them, money is flowing in to want to buy or rent residences in such areas. Again, as anecdotal evidence, one doesn’t see the average car parked in such areas going down in quality from newer saloons and SUVs to beat-up bangers.

Many young people are not employed, and official data show that rate to be around 30 percent of the workforce. Anecdotal evidence will point to the many young men who can be found loitering on street corners, or walking around doing apparently nothing during what would normally be seen as working hours. Those in regular employment need not be much better off in terms of what that work may bring by way of income.


Are Jamaicans sado-masochists? Perhaps, it’s a consequence of a society that is semi-literate that people do not seem ot learn much from printed warnings. In such circumstances, for information to seep into people’s consciousness, it needs to be visual and direct. But, we have many visual warnings that seem to go unheeded. Road traffic accidents in one area where people seem to have learned little. The reports of carnage have been many, and judging by the way that people flock to accident sites, many have seen the physical results of bad crashes. However, has any of that seeped into how people approach travelling on roads? I’d say ‘not much’.

As one moves around it’s easy to see people jumping into taxis, huddled together on seats without one passenger wearing a belt. Ironically, sometimes, the driver is seen wearing his (it’s mainoy men taxi drivers) belt, with his other hand stretched outside the vehicle witha wad of bills and waving his direction. On many stretches of road, it’s common place to see excessive speeding (by which I mean some 20 km/hour above the posted limits). [In passing, I do not subscribe to the view that Jamaicans generally drive fast. Our speed limit is often between 50-80 kph (between about 30-50 mph). People don’t genearlly drive at 100 kph (about 60+ mph) for extended periods, because our roads (except our few highways, and some stretches of road on the north coast) don’t support such speeds. The sense of speed may be an illusion simply because most of our roads are narrow and it seems that vehicles zip past each other. I was driving in the USA, recently, and was suprised how casually my speed went up to 60 mph (100 kph) as I ‘cruised’ along the freeways that are the standard roadways.

But, we often have many inconsistent and inconsiderate drivers. Cases in point:

  1. I was leaving Exchange, Ocho Rios, yesterday afternoon and passed two cars that seemed to be together, but driving downhill at about 40 kph. At a good point, I and several cars behind me tooted and passed the cars to get to the main road. Once on the main road, heading west towawrds Ocho Rios centre, the two cars that had been passed came racing past a line of cars on the single lane section, revving at about 110 kph (70 mph) as we approached the busy town centre. What! They raced through the lighted junctions, as if racing and were soon mere dots in the distance. 
  2. Coming south last night on the NS highway, a car with four men were hogging the outside lane (a common piece of ‘bad’ or inconsiderate driving), driving at about 70 kph, in part because oncoming drivers had singalled a police speed check was ahead. After the check point the car continued to cruise along. I flashed and hoped the car would move over. It didn’t. I and several other drivers did what is now commonplace: we undertook (i.e. did the passing manouevre on the inside, not outside of the vehicle being passed); this is generally regarded as a dangerous manoeuvre and in some countries would elicit a fine and a ticket. Within moments, the car that had been cruising, zipped passed everyone at about 140-150 kph (86-93 mph), then settled back at around 90 kph. What was that all about? Machismo? Hurt pride? 

Fortunately, none of the cars and their drivers in these episodes were seen overturned on the road and making another set of statistics.

What is government doing in these and other areas of concern? Is it really trying to get citizens to behave in a better way, by creating incentives for such behaviour and penalties for behaviour that goes counter to that? I’m deeply unsure, not least because I often see less-than-full commitment from those who are charged with implementing policies. Public servants should not be holding such positions if they are more focused on making it more difficult for citizens to get quality public goods and services than the opposite. In that regard, I look too at how the police force implements laws that it has at its disposal: if they are not enforced, then society suffers and that sufferance can be worsened if the police gain from not implementing laws–that’s a form of corruption. By contrast, we can applaud loudly those public servants and agencies that have made great efforts to change image and quality of service delivery; in that regard, I’ve cited before the Registrar General’s Department, Tax Administration Jamaica, and the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA).

Do Jamaican citizens do all they can to help government in its tasks, or do they work as hard as possible to thwart such efforts? If much energy is put into bypassing regulations, then Jamaicans are working on being ungovernable. The creation and maintenance of informal economic activities fits into that category. So, too, do practices such as operating ‘robot’ (unlicensed) taxis. That ordinary citizens see these things as normal suggest they would rather not be ‘governed’, except in those instances when they feel that they have no options but to follow government strictures.

The pace at which some government policy gets made makes me think that poor governance is one of the crosses we have to bear. Few problems being addressed today are new. Why some of them have not been subject to real measures (i.e., things that look likely to change behaviour) goes to the heart of many Jamaican political processes and ambitions, which may be more about wielding power and influence (and maybe feathering some nests), than bettering the lives of all.