Very little time for thinking today. But, Jamaica is rarely short of a few moments worth noting.
The golf camp is on for a week and its organizers want to give awards to the participating children. That’s the easy part. The coaches have come up with categories of activity to grade, and the kids will play tournaments on the last day.
So, yesterday, someone went to check a local sports store for possible awards–trophies, medals, and certificates. They got some pricing and arranged some tentative deals. Today, they went to place the orders. Oh, boy! They came back at midday to report on progress. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.
Well, the medals were only for display and would have to be ordered, taking two weeks to complete. Nah! The trophies could be available for a 9 piece deal. Well, we have 10 kids. I asked our reporters about the 10th. Only a deal on 9. I’m on the fringe of these arrangements, and happily pulled my cap over my eyes and slid away.
So, we have to revert to another plan. Last I heard was some items were going to be air-packed to us from Kingston.
I’ve nowhere to take this other than to the hall of fame of failed understanding in business.
I have no grand designs for my youngest daughter, but I’ve told her she wont fail in life because of me. We are now in France, spending a week with a family we met some 8 years ago, when we lived in Guinea (French-speaking west Africa). The overall idea is for her to be immersed in another language and culture for a short while, to help her with her French. She spent three years of her life living in such an environment, but as a baby through age 3. Our hosts used to visit us almost every Sunday to play tennis in the morning, then have brunch; their eldest daughter used to babysit during the tennis. My daughter remembers none of this. So, she’s supposed to speak French as much as possible for the next seven days. Our hosts love it that they all get the chance to practice their English with us. We are being very flexible and tolerant of mistakes; it’s a learning opportunity for everyone.
Yesterday, we arrived by high-speed train from Paris, a simple thing normally but a relief when the rail workers are on strike. We were greeted with typical French hugs and kisses when we got off the train. (Jamaicans will be curling up in fetal positions qt the thought of two men kissing on the cheek, but it’s a common greeting worldwide, especially amongst French-speaking people even in west Africa, where the norm is two kisses each cheek.) Within minutes of our arrival, my daughter was headed to a swimming pool.
It’s heated, which is great because summer is still on its way here: 65-70 degrees fahrenheit is on the cards, a far cry from the 90+ we left in Kingston. A short while later, the two young women of the house (now 19 and 23) came home and greeted my daughter with more hugs and kisses. It was mid-afternoon.
We talked for a while, then the young ladies took my daughter out to look at the town centre, while the father and I headed off to a golf course. He’s retired early, too, and recently started to play. He has plans for my week that sound ideal 😉 The mother was left to relax for a while. When we all got back, it was time for the young ladies to have their own time. My daughter and I then talked with the parents, while getting ready to watch the first World Cup match of the day. France is seven hours ahead of Jamaica and I am not yet adjusted to watching games later in the day.
The parents and I talked freely in French, my daughter listened mostly. I suggested that she try to just pick up words and see how she went. We then decided it would be good to have everyone speak English so that my daughter could see and hear that the difficulties were shared. It was funny. We went through a period when I tried to make clear the differences between English words with the same sounds, but some had the same spelling but different meanings (sew, for instance), while some were spelt differently (so, for instance). It got interesting when I tried to pronounce clearly some words beginning with w (double v sound in French): word, world, weird, wash wish, whirl, etc. We played with some English chestnuts, like they’re, their, and there. Our hosts were getting a headache and it was dinner time.
Food is usually good to get people more relaxed. We continued our word play.
I’d brought some hot pepper sauce as a token gift. Everyone tried it, but only the father didn’t need an extinguisher. Our hosts told us what was in the meal (vegetable lasagna), and they learned that English people say pepper for both the vegetable (or fruit, green red, or yellow) and the spice. French has two words. Aubergine was the same in both languages. Onion (oignon) sounded similar. Garlic (ail, pronounced aye, in French) was not at all alike. So, we went on all evening. My daughter was getting bolder and began to name things in French, mostly cognates such as chocolate, or words she knew well like glace (ice cream). Everything we touched, we named in both languages.
The match between Brazil and Mexico started and we put language lessons aside in place of easily understood yells and groans. The French TV ads were interesting, not least because they focused on things different to the publicity in Jamaica. No LIME browse and talk or Grace products.
I was about 12 when I first went to France; my daughter is 10. I went on a school trip with a class and teachers, and we spent our time with French counterparts. We slept in our own lodgings, though had French catering, such as hot chocolate, bread and jam for breakfast. We toured with the French children and spent free time with them. We had a good command of French from our first year at secondary school. Most of the French children spoke English well. We learned how they lived: going to bars was allowed, but no alcohol; riding two-stroke motorcycles (mobilettes) was the norm; uniforms were never worn by most French children. Being in a small family may seem intimidating to a child when everyone is older and not familiar. My daughter was very at ease with the family dog, even if she really didn’t understand English commands. The little one will progress, little by little.
My hosts had cancelled their visit to Jamaica planned for early this year; they wanted to have that and looked forward to improving their English. I warned them that Jamaican English may be easier for them to understand and speak, but was not like most other English. I gave a few examples, such as ‘wata’. They laughed as that was close to how many French people pronounced the word water.
I’m no linguist, but have a hard time not being able to communicate verbally when I travel, so I relish trying to learn a new language. Most people are not like me, and quail up if they have to try to speak. I told my daughter to free her voice box. Let the mistakes flow and fill in with whatever you know. Make sentences with gestures. Draw pictures. Whatever it takes, do it. I often talked to myself in a mirror, on the advice of a Russian teacher. Need often helps speed learning. My daughter wants to find some boutiques (a good French word) and look for arts and crafts (artisanat) items. She has some money and will find ways to spend it 🙂
Most Jamaicans have lived under the shelter of English and not embraced their foreign language neighbours, either French or Spanish. Jamaicans travel to non-English speaking countries to support our athletes, but not with much linguistic backing. I’m a firm believer that our lack of progress since Independence was made harder to break because of our reluctance to understand that we had some language gifts, being notionally bilingual. In my world, I would have had more young people going to non-English speaking countries to study, and made use of their language skills, like my Jamaican friend who studied medicine in Russia and is fluent in Russian. Small countries like ours need leverage in our people’s skills. Just doing what others do wont get us far. We need an edge. Language skills is one such. Look at small European countries and how they use their surrounding foreigner neighbours to make learning their languages seem so sensible. When you flip over several borders in a day it’s useful.
The children in most of Europe (and worldwide) learn English as the language of business. We have it already but cannot compete with it alone. In that sense, being Anglophone is a curse. Listen to many top athletes and how they function in English, if it’s not their mother tongue. Listen, too, to how they can often function in a third language. How do our stars stack up, for instance? How is Tuffy Anderson doing in El Salvador? I hope his Spanish is functional now. If Real Madrid want him next will he fall over his tongue?
We make light of our deficiencies, but the world doesn’t. We don’t see many of the lights that shine straight into our eyes.
I was in one of my “don’t give me that rubbish” moods yesterday afternoon, and two people got the brunt of it. I was set off by a request from my high command to get photos of our daughter taken for a visa application, lickety-split, when they could have been done over the weekend by the high command (when I was away from town). I was firing. I went to collect my daughter midway through her play date at a friend’s house, and headed to Barbican. While the photos were being processed, I went to a LIME store to pay my monthly phone bill.
It turned out that my bill had been settled. But, I took the opportunity to check on some information I had been promised several weeks ago, relating to a previous month’s bill. My phone usage changes little: I don’t spend much time talking on it, but I am often using the data package, which has a high limit included in the tariff. So, my bill is really unchanged each month; I’m within my usage limits. But, a couple of months ago, my bill spiked, and went to double its normal amount. That alone made my non-existent hair stand up. It bristled more, when the next bill went back to normal levels. Alarm bells went off. I checked the accounts online, and saw that I had exceeded my data package usage limits. Well, nothing much had changed. I had travelled but had switched off data roaming–a killer, if I ever met one. So, I asked LIME to give me the details of data usage, which I cannot see online. A manager told me that she would ‘investigate’ and get back to me.
Well, in the land-of-no-follow-through, I was a monkey on a pole waiting. I had no phone number for her so had waited for a return visit to check. This was it. A ‘representative’ got my “please do this now, and stop joshing” mood and went to a computer screen to look at my account. He saw what I had seen. Abnormal use. But, he had seen something else. “Your overage caused the spike,” he said, “We’ve had this problem with some other accounts.” Well, that was music to my ears. My suspicions were getting some support. Glitch. He told me that I would get an ‘adjustment’ for the excess usage and a refund of J$4007, once it was approved by a “second party”. He gave me his name and phone number. My daughter and I thanked him and went back to get her photographs. We got that done, and I took her back to happy land. I then headed to the hospital to check on my father, who’d had another emergency on Sunday while I had been on the north coast.
I walked toward the ward where he was lying. I met his caregiver, who had been following up on her own medical problem, and was standing outside the ward. I thought of her, and suggested I get her a chair to sit on: one was just a few feet away. She was with another lady and a hospital maintenance man. We all noticed that the plastic chair had its seat split by a corner. “Watch out, when you sit. You don’t want to cut yourself,” Mr. Maintenance told us. I asked him why it had not been fixed. He said it was not for him to do. Who told him to say that? I asked him if he could fix chairs. In typical Jamaican fashion, he did not answer the question but went on about who he would have to send it to and what processes he would have to pass through. I asked him to give me a one word answer, yes or no. I knew when that came out of my mouth that I was simmering.
I asked him again. Another long ramble. I tried a third time–I said he was being like Peter. We still never got one word. I tried once again. “No,” he said. Thanks. I asked if he knew someone who could fix chairs. He told me yes. I suggested he take the chair to be fixed. “Ah nuh so it go, here,” he then said. He went on about how he would have to fill in (work) orders, and get papers signed, etc. That was not his job. Oh, sweet mother of mercy. I had him in my sights now. “Not your job?” I asked. I asked if he was happier with the person sitting on the chair, cutting themselves, then having to be admitted to the hospital. He went on about how the chair should not have been there, because it was broken, and someone must have brought it there to sit on. Well, I knew where to go for our next astrophysicist. I took a breath. He added that someone would want to be paid for doing the job. That seemed odd in an institution full of paid employees. I did not presume that he meant that a bribe was needed, but maybe I was wrong.
I asked him if he had leaking pipes at his home. He told me “a little”. I asked him what he proposed to do. He said he was fixing them. I asked why he could not do the same with the chair. More of ‘the system’, blah-blah. I asked him why he could not treat things that were wrong at his work the same as those at home. “The home is mine, sir,” came the reply. So, we explored more. “This country is yours, too,” I told him, “Care for it the same way.” He went back to ‘the system’. I told him that I would take the chair and get it fixed and bring it back. “You can’t take it off the premises,” he told me. I said that was a different problem and I would be ready to deal with that. (If this chair was in the trunk of my car, no one would see it and the hospital security do not do car checks on exit. Contrast that to the golf course I visited at the weekend, where I was put under good scrutiny: “We do it as routine, sir”, I had been told.) I gave my man a few more nuggets to consider.
In my eyes, the maintenance man tolerated the broken chair and refused to do anything because he was afraid to have that responsibility for taking action. He was adamant that he was afraid of nothing, but ‘the system’ was hard to break.
Alright, I can understand the crippling numbness of a bureaucracy that may have him fill out forms in triplicate and make a report of how and where the chair was broken before anyone would life a screwdriver to mend it. Normally, however, someone would just do the right thing and fix the blessed chair. The same way that the man at the UWI pool had jerry-rigged a pulley lever to make the water fountain work, for want of the right part. He was still waiting for that after months, but swimmers needed water and the machine would give it, if the pulley worked. Bravo, for him. Boo, for UWI. But, back to the chair.
My basic point was that this lack of willingness to act on small fixes was pervasive. It was not apathy but the kind of paralysis one used to see in the Soviet Union, whose bureaucracy was like kudzu (see a recent article in The Guardian that suggest little has changed in Russia). Nothing would happen because there was no personal incentive for things to happen; the common good under communism was no driver of actions. The plan was in place and it would be fulfilled, even if nothing happened. Numbers would be created that made it appear that things had happened. No one got more rewards for doing more. No one suffered losses for doing less. In Russian, the way to reply if asked how things were going, is “Normal”. Don’t stand out. Don’t do what you are not told to do. The soviet system produced people who knew how to do everything but then put a huge premium on information, so it was better to hoard that. You never got a full answer, only information for the specific question. “Do you have the time?” Yes, would be the reply; no more. “What time is it, then?” might have followed. A good reply would be “Then? You mean now?” The process of extracting the information in droplets was part of the merry dance that kept people busy doing very little. If it came to that, we could spend weeks trying to get the answer to something that was stated on a piece of paper in front of someone, but would not be given unless and until the right questions had been asked. At its ultimate absurdity, people would even pretend not to be there so that they would not have to deal with more questions. I recall waiting with a team to see the finance minister in Moscow. “He’s travelling,” his secretary told us. We saw him through a glass partition walking into and out of his office. I guess that was travelling. We told her that we had seen him in the office. She denied that he was there. We waited and waited for hours. Then went back to our hotel and came back the next day for the same treatment. We got to see him on the third day. Our time had been lost. His time had not been wasted.
Jamaica had a spell when some elements of socialism was getting a foothold in the country, but we were never fully under such a system. Something else has been going on. It’s pan-Caribbean. It may be that the whole ‘jobs for people’ move to keep slots filled in the public sector, irrespective of people being able and willing to do work has a lot to do with it. Dead-end jobs. No thanks for jobs well done. Shoddy working conditions. Crummy pay. All of that and more may be playing out. But, the bottom line is that we have ended up disabling ourselves and our society. People may do things if they get some extra money for doing what they should do.
I get heartily annoyed when I drive along a stretch of Washington Boulevard. There’s a man at his ‘station’ by the stop lights. As the cars stop, he eases himself off the kerbside and goes to the windows to beg for money. He taps on the windows and puts out his hand. He wants a gift, no doubt about it. He does not plead. He is one of several I see at various points; he’s a bit better dressed than some. This is not about the problems that put people into desperate situations, and it’s not about whether someone can really do something that would warrant pay. It’s just the assumption of an entitlement and a willingness to prey on the good nature of any and all. I may be out of time and touch with the idea that if you offer to do something instead of just putting out your hand that would be a bit more respectful of those whose earned money you want to share. In that sense, I will never criticise the windscreen washers. They want money and are prepared to earn it. Our social safety net is not great so many can and do fall through the cracks. But, the system is also badly cracked and we do not seem ready in large enough numbers to put our fingers in the dykes. Rather, we let the leaks continue and eventually the dam will break.
I did not realise it at the time but I had seen two opposites at work. My LIME experience was in the end about how ‘the system’ can work, but maybe only in parts of the private sector. Problem seen. Problem analysed. Solution proposed (subject to ‘second party’ approval). MyUWI hospital experience showed that another world, maybe just the public sector, had ‘the system’ that was bereft of push to find solutions.
When we come down to it, our inability to be productive has been and is crippling. Not just for what it does to make our society function worse than it should do, but also in the mindset that is needed for people to endure and perpetuate it. I told the maintenance man that he lived with a system that did not fix things because he lived with a system that did not fix things. No amount of saying that things don’t work differently would change that. He was called away by a student nurse to perform some task. He eventually came back to me and shook my hand and said “You’re absolutely right.”
I don’t need to know I am right, but I would like this country to see what is so simply wrong and get off its collective tush.
When I got home from hospital visiting and picking up daughter, I pointed out to my little one that the handrest on the chair that is by a desktop computer had been fixed. I’d been annoyed that it had fallen off, and the two screws that held it in place were nowhere to be found. While hunting for something else that a person who likes to touch people’s things had moved, I found two screws: one in a plastic cup containing a range of other gubbings, the other in a draw. I put the screws back into the handrest, and check that it was tight and not wobbling. I didn’t have to fill any forms and I don’t even use the chair myself much at all. But, that’s not the point of my motivation to fix the blessed thing. Like my man, I want my home to be right. I just want him to step past his own door frame and realise that outside is all his home, too.
I don’t want to give the impression that I do not care what happens to the Jamaican dollar exchange rate; nothing could be further from the truth. I just see things from a particular perspective: I am an economist and I used to trade foreign exchange. One of the first lessons I was given about foreign exchange markets as a trader was that traders are not good at picking tops or bottoms to trends. Also, markets tend to latch onto the prevailing direction more easily than go against it. Think also about metaphors concerning catching a falling knife. I am not surprised that more comments appear to be coming about the current level and direction of the J$. Anyone living through a 20 percent decline in the value of their currency during the short period of two years or less should be worried. It’s like living in a period of rapid inflation: the loss in value of the money you hold is almost visible. In some sense, the exchange rate slide is just that, of course. Our prices have risen too fast relative to most of the countries with which we trade; or our costs have not been as well contained as theirs. Our competitiveness has declined. The exchange rate is a price, and it regulates the prices in our country in comparison to those overseas. If we fall out of line with our relative prices/cost, the exchange rate should move to keep the prices/costs the same for foreigners.
Several government politicians have noted recently that the exchange rate is an outcome that reflects fundamental conditions in the Jamaican economy. I would not disagree with that: at its base, that should be the case. But, fundamentals do not affect the exchange rate in any clear and simple way. More worrying, improving fundamentals need not show up in an improving exchange rate either quickly or fully. In that sense, markets are capricious. They also take account–sometimes, too much–of sentiment (call that confidence, or lack of it, in the policy makers). If markets do not believe that policies are credible, they tend to hammer an exchange rate. Despite the success in sticking to the current IMF programme, the government has not seen that translated into improved business and consumer confidence. Such confidence is rising in Jamaica, but still remains very low, according to the last set of data, for the first quarter of 2014. Despite the increases for almost all areas, confidence levels are “nowhere near the highs” of previous periods and are coming from two quarters of extremely low levels, Don Anderson, managing director of Market Research Services was reported to have said.
But, people are often afraid when they see no end to things they dislike, and the exchange rate is no different. Well, it is different because people often put a lot of national pride in the level of their currency, and feel it personally when the currency seems to be weak. That’s no different for countries with large, strong economies, compared to those that are small or weak. Many of neighbouring countries are quick to see the Jamaican dollar rate as a clear indication of how far down the hole this country has fallen. Those with fixed exchange rates, such as The Bahamas and Barbados, often do not relish any notion of having a floating exchange rate, given the kind of slide that has happened with Jamaica’s currency. They also do not fully appreciate that they are living a lie–their economies have not stood still relative to the USA since the day the rates were fixed, so their currencies should have fallen too, more so, because they have not made policy changes to offset the differences that have occurred. They are paying for that in other ways–unemployment, for example. They also still need to deal with some of their core problems, such as the level of their budget deficits and a ballooning debt burden.
I don’t envy the Bank of Jamaica’s governor or our minister of finance. They are in a hard place sitting under a falling rock. The country does not have the means to ‘defend’ the exchange rate.
Our net international reserves–the amount of foreign exchange available to finance imports–sit at about 14 weeks of imports (that’s close to an internationally accepted satisfactory level of about 3 months of imports), see a recent press report on that level, though for concern that they are slipping. I would rather see that stock used to help buy what the country needs, rather than trying to hold a price that may not be right. I suspect the government agrees. So, the ‘slide’ wont stop because the government throws foreign exchange at it.
Some press reports caught yesterday that the Inter-American Development Bank commented that the slide in the currency was affecting adversely business and consumers in the short-term. Well, sorry, that is part of the expected effect. Importers and consumers of imports are not supposed to feel good when the exchange rate falls; they are meant to consider changing their behaviour because the national demand for foreign goods is too high. Now, the current structure of Jamaican businesses and Jamaican consumer tastes may have a strong liking or need for imports, but that’s what has to shift. Of course, it cannot happen instantaneously. The businesses need to figure out if their inputs need the foreign content. The consumers have to consider if their tastes for foreign things cannot go down. I’m not into the drama scene of hand on brow. I read a tweet yesterday about no radishes and cilantro in the supermarket. Well, find another local salad vegetable and get growing with substitutes like mint leaves in the near-term, or if we really cannot live without those items, start growing them. But, then we get back to how well can we do that at prices that make us competitive. It’s not enough that our ground is fertile, but at what cost do we get the stuff out of the ground or off the trees?
I am not going to scream as the dollar declines. We have been very good at laughing and joking for decades about what needed to be fixed in Jamaica’s economy. Governments have lied about the state of affairs, and people have lapped up the lies like a cat with a bowl of milk, because it was much easier to do that. Change is a great source of fear. But, often when you don’t change voluntarily when you should have, then the forced change is often more drastic than it would have been and more sudden. We are going through that phase. It’s really painful, like tight shoes are, or even tight briefs, if you are a man. But, like with those sartorial problem, you can either wince and not get into something more comfortable, or make the adjustments to walk comfortably.
Government hasn’t quite got it right in making people see that they need to make those adjustments, I think.
It’s far too early to talk about much else than Tessanne Chin’s victory in NBC’s The Voice. We are entitled to bask a little longer in the warm afterglow of that event, as we move towards Christmas and all of our thoughts of goodwill to all men.
We have much to think about in terms of what opportunities have been opened for this wonderful singer and what opportunities have been opened for this country. We yearn for such opportunities, and they come along rarely, and often without our really having been part of them. With this victory–and it was a contest–many of us can say that we played a part, helped, brought home the prize, etc. by our votes and our purchases of music. That’s a new feel-good aspect. It is really about us, too. We can really say that we carried our hopes on our shoulders. But, now we are likely to be out of the process, at least in such a direct way. Yet, we will want to be part of the continued success that we hope will come.
Already, politicians are looking to hitch their wagons to the ‘Tessanne effect’. That’s natural, and as a country that has based much of its modern development on tourism, we have to see what natural and cultural attractions we have for foreigners to want to come and enjoy. We have a new brand image that is breaking into one of our major markets for foreign travelers. That can build on what people already like about Jamaica.
Some people are also showing concerns–legitimate–about how things will go post-The Voice. That should not be seen as the all-too-common pulling down at which we are very good. Successes are not guaranteed. My karate coach once said that a black belt (expert) is just a white belt (beginner) who never gave up. Can Tessanne’s win be leveraged into a fabulous international career as she wants? There’s no answer that can be given now. However, I mentioned to one of our excellent journalists yesterday that it would be good to recall some of Malcolm Gladwell’s arguments about what was behind many successes. Both of his books, Outliers and The Tipping Point, have salient points, not least his pointing to the so-called ‘10,000 hours’ rule. We know that the adage ‘Success before work? Only in a dictionary’ has much sense. We know that Tessanne has been putting in her hours, so maybe she will get the success that often follows much hard work. Things have a way of being attracted to the right place at the right time. But, we know that leeches and scorpions and snakes and other kinds of predators are always lurking.
Since her win, Tessanne Chin has been on the usual media whirlwind of appearing on TV talk shows and interviews. People are now getting the chance to see and hear the artiste again without focusing on her singing. For many, it may be the first sighting and hearing of this budding star. How will they react? She needs them to be attracted because good words and smiles will not buy her any more ‘bread and butter’. She can build her image as being genuine and humble. Many will seek to present her as otherwise. It’s a competitive world out there, and dog eating dog is the order of the day. Last night, she was on with Jay Leno. This morning, she’s on NBC’s Today. Americans will get a longer look at her for the next few days, and so will the rest of the world through access to cable and satellite broadcasts and the Internet. The clips will be circulated. She’ll go viral, or nearly. Good for her. I wish her and those who will help her build on her success all the very best.
However, we tend to view any questioning of ourselves as ‘betrayal’? Does thinking aloud about Tessanne’s future walk that thin line? Maybe. I get the impression that many people in Jamaica–and elsewhere, for sure–do not understand what it takes to become big successes outside Jamaica, or that being well-regarded in Jamaica translates naturally into accolades and plaudits abroad. We see our national stars succeed once and then think that the celestial stars are the limit and will be reached naturally, as night follows day. The many factors that have to come into play to make things work out well are probably not known or understand. We perhaps think that it’s enough to be popular amongst ourselves. We fail to understand that other countries and cultures see us differently and have to be convinced that we should be in their hearts. We sometimes bridle when people focus on our accents, but that is often all that they can do to place us in their world.
We have stereotypes to overcome. Tessanne fits a certain stereotype for Jamaicans: she’s a singer. But, she is not stereotypical in other ways: she’s married, in her late 20s, and clearly of Chinese descent. The world has managed to put that into a package that they like–so far. But, it’s a real part of her and has to be built upon. How the image managers do that may surprise and annoy us, even divide us. I don’t know how that will be done, but I can imagine some ways. It’s not out of the realm of possibilites that her Chinese characteristics become a major selling point: China means a lot to Jamaica and has an enormous market that is waiting to be entered by any doorway possible. Would Jamaicans feel slighted by that? Tessanne is not reggae, or dance hall. She is not pop. She is not gospel or country. She’s transcending several genres. That’s good and may be bad too. By having no easy bracket she may appeal to many, but she may also fail to get enough traction with any major group of buyers.
It’s all complicated and interesting.
Tessanne’s success will be looked at for what it may teach or tell us about what we do and don’t do to nurture talent. Let’s not forget that in every activity there are many more failures than successes. All I know, without knowing much, is that a lot of sacrifices have had to be made. Grind has been the norm. Nothing comes easy. Are we ready to be like that?
Jamaica has not been built around the notion of orderliness: it does not resemble paragons in that league, such as Germany or Switzerland. It is not so different in that regard from many developing countries. Roaming around other Caribbean countries, Jamaica seems not that different. It has many characteristics that I’ve seen in west Africa. Whether our cultural background from Africa has determined that I will not venture into now. Improved education and wealth have brought changes, as the country has tried to introduce ‘good’ things that could be seen abroad, and were available through imports. However, Jamaica and many developing countries cannot buy themselves into a developed country because they lacks the finance to import the trappings and output needed to bridge that gap? Many developing countries understand that while imported goods may give a better look to life, ideas and practices need to change to move from being under developed and poor. But, bringing in ideas and processes is much harder than just paying for goods from abroad.
In the areas of process and ideas, Jamaica has a lot to do to make significant progress. One necessary change is that Jamaica has to grapple with its love of disorder. When I read that Finance Minister Phillips wants to improve the business climate, I ponder what that really means for many budding entrepreneurs and customers in Jamaica. I also think about what it means in terms of ‘brand Jamaica’ as an economic agent.
In the business world, ‘time is money’ should have real meaning. So, how can a nation notorious for being liberal in its interpretation of timeliness hope to succeed if it takes that attitude to the world? If ‘Jamaica time’ is always behind everyone else’s time, we will always be missing the boat.
Take also our attitude of ‘Soon come’ (also known as ‘never reach’). If we can’t be relied upon to do something and do it promptly, why would we think we have a fighting chance in a world where some are striving to do jobs ‘ahead of time’?
I laughed last week when I read stories of high school students in Kingston being locked out of school for being late. I wondered where they had had timeliness reinforced in their lives.
My wife told me about some meetings she was due to attend, and people preparing to leave their offices to travel to the venue elsewhere in Kingston well after the meeting was due to have begun. Or persons arriving late and being surprised to see people leaving when they arrived, asking if the meeting had really finished.
We are notorious for arriving on time for dinners or parties, and still can’t get used to people being shocked and unprepared when we show up, as scheduled. I always think about what one does when hoping to get a train or plane. Go on, be late! Again, that is as much a Caribbean trait, as it is evident in Jamaica, and we’ve also seen plenty of it in tropical countries.
The island image of everything being cool and easy with no need to hurry is perfect as a selling
point for holiday getaways, but it’s dangerous for business. Jamaica is not alone in this, by the way. I’ve had my unfair share of people in the USA not showing up for scheduled appointments. If I have the option to choose someone else, I will take it and the business can go hang. But, we are often captive when it comes to public utility companies or specialists serving us.
I always laugh when I travel past the little settlement in Clarendon named ‘Wait a bit’. I wonder if it should be the centre of our attentions and be marked as the new capital.
So, go ahead and make it easier for businesses to operate, but make sure that we don’t get more of the same old attitude to how things will operate.
I not a stickler for good service, but I do get irritated quickly by poor service, whoever delivers it.
Much of the discussion about Jamaica’s economic woes focuses on our evident lack of competitiveness. We saw it upfront and lamentably last week, when the national senior football team squeaked out a draw with Costa Rica in a World Cup Qualifier. Not many local fans went to the match, believing that the team had little chance of qualifying. I was on the road and listened to the commentary on radio. The broadcasters kept on saying how the team was not playing with any fire or sense of urgency and giving no sign that they wanted to win. Any other result would mean the death of our chances, realistically. The draw left us mathematically still able to make it. But, we did not compete well.
The hero for Jamaica, with his goal in added time was “Tuffy” Anderson. He is a battler. In his word he said afterwards that his style was to inflict pain on his opponents and let them know that he was ever present. He has a simple objective–to score goals. Man on a mission. Jamaica now loves “Tuffy”, another symbol of endeavour which we can admire.
Service quality is one of those measures people like to consider when talking about competitiveness, especially for countries that live off tourism or some other activity with a lot of personal contact. A long debate has raged in the Caribbean about whether former colonies, like Jamaica, have a hang up about serving, confusing service with servitude. Of course, the discussion gets complicated when most of the visitors are white and come from the UK or USA. It may not take much for a service worker to bridle and get angry when asked to do something and yell “I’m not a slave!” or “Slavery days done!” Let’s not worry about the ‘N’ word. We dread the ‘S’ word. The legacy of slavery is hard to shift, and it will take much for its bitterness to be drawn out of our blood. However, many Jamaicans love to serve. We have a society filled with people who have to make a living from getting customers to buy from them directly, and that won’t work if service is bad.
I was buying fruit at the weekend, but my regular lady was not at her stall. Yet, the stall was open and ready for my business. I bought and left. I’d been well served. I got what I wanted. Everything was nicely put into bags. My daughter got her jelly coconut and a straw and did not have to move from the back seat of the car. I was about to pay, but noted that the lady had totaled wrongly, too low; she rechecked but then decided to round down the total. Give her an A.
Street traders are usually careful to not offend customers. Often, competition is a mere few steps away. Poor value for money usually ends with fewer sales.
I also went to a pharmacy over the weekend. One of the staff asked me if I was “getting through” and finding what I needed. I told her I was okay. The pharmacist was very funny and helped us get what we needed, checking if we were happy with generic medicines or other brands. I checked with her about getting a senior citizen discount. She laughed, when she looked at me, but went to check. The price she’d quoted dropped like a rock after she came back. “They hadn’t put in the discount because your father’s age wasn’t on the prescription,” she said. I told her that I knew the store manager and would let him know how she and others had been very attentive. By chance, he called me the next morning. I passed on my compliments. He told me he was trying to focus on better customer service, so was pleased it seemed to be working. Give them A+.
On Monday, I had to act as a medical courier, trying to get some nutrition medication for my father, who’s in hospital. I ended up on a mini tour of West Kingston. In the process, I found myself doing battle with companies who would only take cash payments. I argued the case about risks; inefficiencies of their having to handle cash and then make bank deposits; how customers could be inconvenienced at point of sale even when they had ample funds on debit or credit cards. In the end, I made partial payment for one item, could not get another item until I had trekked over town to find a bank and withdraw a load of cash, returned to buy the second item and then went to complete the purchase of the first item. It took me about three hours to do that and a lot of driving around. With cards accepted, I would have been done in about an hour. Going to the bank added an hour to my task, and the time it took to get through in line was long, say 15 minutes. That’s costly, overall. Admitted, the sellers normally dealt with companies or hospitals, but to have no means to take other payments than cash seemed stuck in time. Give the bank a B. Give the pharmaceutical distributors a B-.
These were just spontaneous examples of service delivery. Of course, the matter of service delivery is much broader and more complicated. However, I’ve been struck in recent months how few instances of irate customer reactions I’ve seen. I’ve had some very good experiences with companies, big and small, on the phone, and also in person: helpfulness has been very apparent. Good humour has also been quick to appear.
I mentioned to an aunt last week how I had been well treated when I was buying ice cream. She laughed and jabbed that the girls obviously liked me, meaning young men get treated well but older women didn’t get anything special. I couldn’t deny that. But, I know that older people get some extra care, even if it’s just the senior citizen area in the banks, with comfortable chairs, while others have to stand in line.
Our poor competitiveness shows up in the speed with which things get done. It’s slower and
part of that comes from a willingness to engage. Many more things only happen here if you see someone in person, and better if it’s the right person. But some engagement may be inappropriate. I can’t say if it’s too much, but when you overhear chatter about relatives or friends mixed with the business you may feel miffed. That’s part of being a small country. We also tend to be deliberate. It seems that it’s showing extra care, but it means more time. We’re often not too upset if things take time, but worth the wait. This all begs a question about whether this means we are worse at doing things than, say, Americans or Europeans or southeast Asians. Would we be getting much better service with more speed?
My gut feeling is that organizational systems need some serious overhaul. Inertia has dug itself in nicely in many activities. I loved the look on the manager’s face when I went through all the reasons why cash only seemed bad for business. “Thanks for your suggestion,” he’d said. Why do I feel that nothing will change there? Maybe, for the same reason I think he felt comfortable with his feet up talking to a woman in his office.
The World Economic Forum’s 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report was released yesterday: it assesses institutions, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country. This year’s report places Switzerland first, for the fifth year running; Singapore remains in second position and Finland in third. The rest of the top ten are Germany, the United States, Sweden, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Jamaica ranked 94th; it was 97th out of 144 countries last year and 107th out of 142 the previous year. The report notes that the most problematic factors for doing business in Jamaica are inefficient government bureaucracy and crime and theft. The report also notes that corruption, tax rates, access to financing and the poor work ethic of the national labour force are also affecting the country’s competitiveness.
For context, it’s worth noting that the report states that Latin America and the Caribbena is a region with low productivity and slow productivity growth, which requires urgent action in many areas to improve its competitiveness.
People who know the country will quickly see reasonableness in the areas cited as weak.
Inefficient government bureaucracy: ‘Red tape’ is known to be a problem and supposed to be on the list of things to be tackled under the current IMF arrangement. So, success there should see a stronger pillar for competitiveness. Is Jamaica worse served by public servants than in most other countries? Some systems are old fashioned and involve too much paper handling. Electronic processes are less common than they could be. Too many procedures require face-to-face transactions, and may falter because the relevant person is absent. Do public servants care about the quality of service given? The work ethic issues suggest this has to be less than it could be.
Crime and theft: The headlines focus on murders, and at some 1,500 a year, or about 55/1,000 people, it’s easy to see that the country is decimating itself. Add to that, shootings, robberies of persons, agricultural produce, personal property and other things. Credit card frauds and lottery scams are common sport. Do many citizens see petty crime as normal and too tolerant of something that really makes the country less effective than it could be? Conversely, I can cite many instances of scrupulously honest behaviour in instances where a little slightness of hand or lightness of fingers would be easy.
Corruption: I wonder how much of this is actual or apocryphal. Poiticians or covil servants taking their ‘piece’ of deals? Let’s watch the Cuban light bulb scheme trials carefully. I’ve noted press reports about fraud and malfeasance. Let’s watch the case develop with the missing funds from the Jamaican Teachers Association. I’ve not lived here long enough recently to see many instances of possible corruption. I’ve not had any official indicate that a little grease will help a process go faster. No policeman has offered to turn a blind eye to an infraction, or let it slide for ‘some considerations’. Just a matter of time?
Tax rates: They are high. The country has a huge debt burden. Rock and a hard place.
Access to financing: Small business and farmers constantly complain about this. But, I’ve never been in a country where that’s not the case. Everyone wants more to borrow on easier terms?
The poor work ethic of the national labour force:We know that there are many people who work crazily hard. We also know there are many people who cannot wait to just give the minimum or nothing at all. How do they balance? The policeman who warned me that my csr would be towed if I parked it in a no parking zone was doing more than his duty? The crossing guard who just waved his finger at cars that would not stop to let the school children cross instead of stepping out and hauling up his sign was doing less than he should? The bank employees who cannot figure out how to issue my check books after three months are indolent? The Rasta who buys peanuts from St. Elizabeth and roasts them in a drum made from an old butane gas cylinder to sell in Mandeville is doing just enough? I don’t want to harp on about it, but I really wish Minister Hylton had not so proudly been late for his meeting because he wanted to watch TV. That could have set such a bad example and undone many a good set of lessons about taking work seriously. Alas…
We will have a hard time finding better examples of what competitiveness looks like than any of the athletes who’ve participated in major events over the past decade. Or, just look at the students pushing to perform well in GSAT exams. We’re brought up knowing what to do, then go off track as we grow?
Time to fess up and take responsibility and be the best that is possible.
I have to laugh out loud sometimes. Humans amaze me for their supposed ability to solve complex problems coupled with an incredible inability to resolve simple issues. That awful combination sometimes makes my blood boil and that of others, though not necessarily for the same reasons. I suspect there is a reality show in the making, which looks at international comparisons of what failures of public administration drive people crazy. I suspect that Jamaica would do well–or is it badly?–when pitted against other countries.
Yesterday’s papers had two letters, which struck me between the eyes as possible candidates, though the first would struggle in the qualifying rounds One letter was from an irate woman, who was offended and could not understand why she and her group of workers were asked for their ID documents before entering some famed national attraction. The bottom line was that, as is common in many countries, nationals or residents are charged less than foreigners and visitors for visiting such sites, and ID is usually needed to proof eligibility for the lower price. The default price is the higher one. She found it biased and ridiculous, and got all huffy and hissy about it. Biased? Yes. Ridiculous? No. Nationals in some sense own such attractions and have in some sense already paid for the provision and upkeep of them, though taxes; foreign visitors have not. It could also be about perceived ability to pay higher prices, but that is dicier logic. A cynic could say it is an appropriate ‘nuisance tax’, with foreigner placing more stress on the resources than national. That one, too, is not for my plate today.
Similar discriminatory practices are often seen when it come to national provision of health care or education: for example, Britain is contemplating imposing higher charges on non-EU nationals to access the National Health Service. I wonder if the lady would think that ridiculous. Price discrimination is a normal part of business, and people who have not experienced it either don’t realize what’s going on or decide that in certain circumstances it is acceptable: student discounts, loyalty discounts, employee discounts, discounts for certain times, discounts for volume–the list is long.
The other letter was from an irate man, who could not understand why he and others could not get their taxpayer registration numbers (TRN) because the cards were signed by the former commissioner of the Inland Revenue Department, who is in some dispute with her employer, the government. As if she had some personal responsibility in a matter that should just be simple public administration. This seems about as idiotic as saying that bank notes bearing the signature of a former governor who’s in dispute with his employer, the central bank, are no longer legal tender. But, it’s also in the vein of “The lady who does refunds is on holiday and won’t be back for two weeks.”
These two instances struck chords elsewhere, judging by the fact that the latter letter was today published in the other main daily paper, and the former generated a lot of online comments, many in support of the policy.
I wonder if as much bile rises when people try to drive around Kingston. (I won’t attack yet how one tries to navigate the bus system, which appears to offer no route guidance to riders.) I say to people who say they are leery about dealing with seemingly Kamikaze drivers in Jamaica, that it’s a wonder there aren’t more road accidents due to people trying to crane their necks looking for road signs, which are either not there, or obliterated. Where do you turn at an intersection when the street signs are both blank. Given that residents in some areas have already taken on the task of repairing roads (and here they may have the responsibilities because the road is actually private though open to the public), why don’t some pick up some tins of Sherwin-Williams and get painting? I wonder if the tolerance for this is deeply ingrained in a society, which for the longest time had few road signs on major routes (let alone on something easy to maneuver as city streets). Many a trip towards Montego Bay was made more adventurous by having to remember the right turn to head over the hills north. My little daughter understands fully why we note landmarks as we drive round town–purple wall, orange house, etc. After all, we live in a land where directions are often of the form “Go till you reach the mango tree, then turn up till you cross old Mr. Thomas house with the broken fence…” That’s understandable in standard English, but wait till it comes at you in labrish.
I’m sure plenty of other examples are out there, and Jamaica needs to get into serious shape to be able to fend off the competition. I’d love to track some other instances that are more bilious, whether they are Jamaican or foreign.
IMF staff include some of the best-trained economists on this planet. So, I am not going to put my head in a noose and say that they don’t know what they are talking about. The latest staff report includes one of those phrases which those who are being trained to write should see in a class called ‘How to not say what you mean’: ‘To support growth, it [the IMF] called for measures to boost competitiveness, including structural reforms as well as greater exchange rate flexibility.’ When most people think about ‘flexibility’, they imagine some lithe body, writhing and being put into positions that sometimes seem to defy physics. When economists use the term, it also means movement, but not necessarily back and forth. In this case, I will call a euphemism a euphemism: flexibility means depreciation or devaluation. It takes a while, but those latter words are actually used in the report: ‘A flexible exchange rate regime should play a central role in Jamaica’s macroeconomic policy framework and its structural agenda going forward. The recent nominal exchange rate depreciation has been useful, by reversing part of the overvaluation of the real exchange rate that has emerged in recent years, thus supporting price competitiveness…’ Now, that we understand what the ‘medicine’ is…
Just as I arrived back in Jamaica, after 50 plus years abroad, I witnessed a new milestone for its currency: it touched a low point against the US dollar of 100. There were no cheers on the street. Thankfully, my arrival was low-key and no one has put together my arrival and this milestone and made cause and effect.
Countries, rightly, feel a sense of pride in the international value of their currency. However, in trying to hold onto a particular value when pressures are building for it to be ‘flexible’ (and I do mean in either direction), resistance may be useless and can be downright dangerous to the health of politicians and central bank governors. I remember one of the famous occasions in UK economic history, when in 1967 the British Pound was devalued from US$2.40 to $2.80: the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (a pretty decent economist and Oxford don), famously said “It does not mean that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued.” (It’s worth listening to the broadcast as a lesson in how a politician may try to tell a population some bitter news.) The British gnashed their teeth. Stiff upper lips quivered. Chips fell where they would (but not out of bags of fish :-)) Now, some 45 years later, Britain has not become annexed to the US, but the pound is worth about US$1.50–much stronger than in Harold’s day. Unfortunately, Britain paid a heavy price of higher inflation along the way, and the pounds in the pocket of most people are now worth much less, and weigh very heavily when you’re standing at the bar waiting to order a pint.
Jamaican cartoonists are very good at vivid imagery and the falling Jamaican dollar has not been spared their taunting. I’m not one who believes that the planned depreciation will have a major impact on Jamaica’s root problems of low productivity growth and competitiveness. Those things need to improve but that needs to come from people having a different mindset. Granted, the experience of having the value of their money being worth much less may give them pause for thought. Overall, I don’t believe that Jamaicans don’t want to do better for themselves and their country. My experiences this past week gave me an insight into what is good and not so good about some parts of the economy.
I needed a cell phone repaired. On Thursday afternoon, I took it to a store in New Kingston that sells and repairs phones. I’d bought a phone case from them and thought they were very attentive, whatever the situation. The young lady (early 20s) there told me the cost of repair and how long it would take. She also told me that I could trade-in the phone and get another one, paying a difference in price, if needed. I did the sums of cost of repair (and no certainty the damaged phone would work) against cost of new phone (with 30 day guarantee). I went for the trade-in. She gave the damaged phone to a technician to evaluate and meanwhile contacted their warehouse to get the new phone delivered. She told me the process would be about an hour. I waited, hoping that things would move faster. In the meantime, people came in and asked for things, and I noticed how the lady answered crisply and courteously to every question, including “We deal with everything but Blackberry; for that you need to go next door.” She spent about five minutes on the phone with a customer who was apparently not able to get the phone she wanted for her daughter: “It’s the shippers, Miss. We rely on them and if they don’t deliver the product, it’s we and you who suffer.” My kid was at swim practice, so after waiting a while, I left to pick her up. When I got back, the new phone was there, but the lady’s face signalled a problem: “The case is cracked. It must have been damaged in shipping. I don’t want to sell it to you and compromise our business.” We then spent half an hour trying to decide what phone in the shop would be an acceptable substitute. It was now well past 6pm, when the store should have been closed. Eventually, with the help of my 9 year-old, we decided on a new phone and wrapped up the deal. It was now 6:30, and we were late for dinner. I noticed that some other customers were in the store and still dealing with their problems–all happy to spend a bit more time given the prospect that things would work out. On Friday afternoon, just as I got back from a trip to Mandeville, my phone rang; I saw the number and knew it was the lady from the phone store: “Hello, Mr. Jones. I just wanted to check how things were going with the phone and if everything was alright.” We chatted for a few minutes. I was impressed: it was service that went a little further than expected or really needed and it made me (the customer) feel good.
On Saturday, I needed to round off the repair by having the SIM card replaced by the phone company: the new phone needed a different size SIM. I took the phone to a LIME store in Half Way Tree, where I was told initially that the change would be a “24 hour process”. Then the representative realised that the account was not in my name, but was for an organization, so I couldn’t make the change there but would have to go to the ‘main office’, which was just a few minutes down the road. Off I went. “Well, to make this change, Mr. Jones, you’ll need a letter from the organization…” I frowned 😦 We talked a little and after a few sentences, and I was asked for some ID. I gave two documents. Moments later, computer keyboards were being tapped, forms were being completed, new SIM card was being processed, phone was in full working order. The man gave me an invoice that showed ‘J$0’, and told me that the normal J$300 fee did not apply. Happy camper.
My mother-in-law is visiting from The Bahamas. She’s flabbergasted that the Jamaican currency “gawn don so”. “How can The Bahamian dollar be worth one US and the Jamaican is 100?” she’d asked me when arriving a week ago. She’d studied here in the mid-1980s and remembered better days for the J$. I gave a quick Econ 101 lesson about fixed and floating exchange rates. “I don’t know. It’s a crying shame,” she said after my attempted explanation. She bought green coconuts in Mandeville (for J$125 each) and wanted them chopped to get at the meat so that she could make a coconut cake. “We need a cutliss!” she told me on Saturday morning. She knew I didn’t have one and we’d joked during the car ride that I shouldn’t think bad of my father for never having bought me one earlier in my life :-). I went to a fancy-looking ‘hardware’ store near Manor Park: they really only sell interior fixtures and tiles, but the man there told me to go to a real hardware store just down the road. I asked him where I could get a gas for our grill. He was perplexed that I had asked for ‘a bottle’, and after some head scratching realised I needed ‘a canister’. He suggested the gas station across the road; no joy, as I’d tried there already. He asked a colleague, then another; no joy. He called a friend; no joy, but he got a name and number. He called and spoke for a while, then passed the phone to me. The lady asked where I lived and when I needed the canister, then said she’d call me back. I headed off to get my cutlass. My phone rang as I entered the store. “We have our supplies in Rockfort and Portmore…” I explained that these places were a long way away and I was not going to drive to either today. She told me they would deliver. Good. She told me to call a number and ask for ‘Ramon’. I called; no answer. Voice mail. I left a message. I called again a few hours later; no answer; voice mail, again. Ramon has not called me back. It’s Saturday, maybe he went to the beach. It looks like the grill will not be firing today, but we will have coconut cake.
While in the hardware store, I noticed that they had a sign stating ‘Dear customers, we accept US dollars as payment for goods, at an exchange rate of $96.00’. I paid in local currency.
I don’t see where depreciating the exchange rate is going to help make these kind of experiences better (in the cases where something needs changing). The ‘good’ in these stories are things which I would like in most dealings; the ‘bad’ are not terrible (but I have a few of those already and will ‘deal wi dem layta’). Maybe foreign enterprises will see the Jamaican worker as truly superior and want to employ them and invest more here.
My cell phone was certainly much more expensive to buy than it would have been otherwise. My cutlass, too, though it was considerably cheaper–I could have bought 100 for the price of the phone and could have started my own bushing business. I need to see if sales of cell phones get hit by the depreciation: Jamaicans love their phones. Maybe, next time, I buy a cheapie cell phone, like I did for my father-in-law, when we passed a LIME roadside promotion in Mandeville, for the princely sum of J$1250 (including SIM and J$100 credit).
My jelly coconuts don’t seem to have gone up in price much, and drinking one of those on Friday was a good lunch. The J$300 I paid the roadside vendor for my sugarloaf pineapple seems to be money well spent judging by the absence of it in the fruit bowl 🙂 The falling J$ hasn’t affected much the price of local produce and may hopefully keep us away from all of that ‘inferior’ foreign stuff.
It’s hard to measure productivity in services, but ‘quality’ and ‘efficiency’ have to be there. Willingness to give good service is not always evident in any country–believe me when I say that it’s hard to imagine more service dysfunction than I’ve experienced in the USA. In tourism, can I see a real difference between what The Bahamas offers me at a top-end hotel such as Atlantis versus what I got in Jamaica at the Hilton in Montego Bay? Is my wife ready to back me up on this when we complete the survey about Atlantis? Good service–and often with a laugh and a joke and a nice word, not some sourpuss or phony ‘Is everything ok with your meal’-ism, quickly followed by scowls if the tip is less than 15%–is not a dead art in Jamaica, by any stretch, so for the moment. On that score, I will say I have high hopes. But, how is the exchange rate ‘flexibility’ really going to price Jamaica into a better competitive position world-wide? The question is not rhetorical.