Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #5: Back to Africa, again

Africa is a massive continent and its countries have incredible variations.

I’m really pleased that my first visit to Africa wasn’t as an IMF staff member; it pays to see things from a different perspective. Having said that, I’d gone to the continent first as a staff member of the Bank of England, as a footballer, mainly, during an international 40th anniversary celebration of Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) in the mid-1980s. Its highlight was playing the top two teams in the country, Silver Strikers (sponsored by the RBM, which had started as a social club for central bank staff) in the ‘Silver stadium‘ in Lilongwe, with a crowd of about 20,000 and live radio broadcast. Nothing like hearing your name over the loudspeaker: “Dennis Jones…on the ball…” 🙂 We also played the many-times national champions, Bata (now ‘Big’) Bullets in Blantyre, the other main city.

What was incredible about these matches was our opponents included several national team players, some of whom had trained in Brazil. They were shocked that our team had players in or over their late-20s; for them, retirement by 24 was normal. It was also an exhausting experience to play football at altitude, both dealing with a ball that flew so fast and far, and sucking on thin air. Lilongwe is on a plateau, 1,050 metres (3,440 ft) above sea level. Blantyre lies at an elevation 1,039 metres (3,409 feet).

Three things were extraordinary about Malawi, still under the iron-fist autocratic rule of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. First, was the conservative dress code, notably, the policy that women were expected to dress “modestly”, that is no bare shoulders, and legs covered to below the knee, Second, was the creation (in 1981) of Kamuzu Academy, a private boarding school that was founded by, and named after, Banda, and described by its proponents as “The Eton of Africa”. Third, was Chibuku shake-shake, a beer made from sorghum grain, about which I’ve written before.

But, Fund work sent me to the continent many times.

My first mission was to Kampala, Uganda, doing technical assistance on international reserves, for the Statistics Department, about which I’ve already shared some stories. But, it was where I discovered the ‘double’ massage: two masseuses working the body at once 😳I’d wanted an hour but only a 1/2 hour slot was available, so…Undoubtedly, the best massage ever 👍🏾🤔

I also played squash for the first time on a court with no roof, at the residence of the World Bank country manager. In those days, I travelled with my squash racket like people travel with a tennis racket.

Madagascar was my next place to visit for Fund work, negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program; my responsibilities were for the balance of payments and external debt (I was working in the Fund’s Policy Development and Review Department (PDR), which developed and oversaw the application of Fund policies, including reviewing mission briefings and staff documents at HQ, and on missions being a mix of ‘internal audit’, ‘policy integrity’, expertise on all things general policy, and working on the external accounts). It’s an odd situation to be part of mission teams, but not working to the dictates of the country department, but being ‘above’ them in many ways, representing the institution. My love (not) of doing debt sustainability analyses began there 😦

Madagascar is an island, to the east of the continental land mass and its population has ethnic traits from across the Indian Ocean. It’s the source of most of the world’s vanilla—originally from the Americas and now the 2nd most expensive spice in the world (after saffron). It’s losing its forests at an alarming rate—1-2% a year, and up to 90% of forests are burned each year. It has some of the world’s rarest and most-threatened species of animals and plant life. I was thrilled to see lemurs in the wild.

It’s where I had to work in French for the first time and in a country with long family names, the longest recorded being Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra, you can imagine note-taking wasn’t a breeze. Its capital, Antananarivo, is referred to as ‘Tana. My notes were filled with ‘FM A said’ etc, ie finance minister [name]. It’s another elevated capital, and sits at 1,280 menters (4,199 ft) above sea level in the centre of the island. When I worked there, Marc Ravalomanana, a Malagasy entrepreneur and politician was president of Madagascar, having won election in 2002.

Mauritania always sticks in my mind because of Saharan sand in Nouakchott and because desert life is so different from anything else. For example, at the weekend, residents of Nouakchott prefer to head into the desert instead of to the beach. Pitching a tent and cooking lamb (méchoui) under the open sky, and in relative solitude.

Its ethnic mix is mainly Moors, originating from the north, and black Africans. originating from the south.

It’s a country where slavery was only outlawed in 1981, but is practised nationwide.

My missions there were negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program, and I was again Mr. Balance of Payments and Debt. It’s where I was on 9/11/2001. I was recently kicking the French by now, and its use as one of my working languages was now well-established.

It was where I first saw a parallel exchange rate market working, live and large, in the streets and shops with rates calculated rapidly on calculators and money exchanged in huge volumes.

It’s where I experienced my first sandstorms and happened to be out running with my colleague to and from the airport one morning, and we had to navigate by sound and our voices. It‘s where I first saw women openly vilified for running and chastised for their wearing athletic gear, even long pants and long sleeves.

Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was president during my mission (having held office since 1984).

Guinea will feature more in its own right, because of my living there for nearly 4 years as the IMF’s resident representative. Sierra Leone will also feature apart as I had dual responsibilities as resident representative there, though non-resident. Travel between these neighbouring countries was not easy, and complicated because vehicles drive on the right in Guinea and on the left in Sierra Leone, and crossing the borders was always fun for the first 10 minutes.

Angola’s capital Luanda, has long had the reputation of being the most expensive city in the world. Coming out of the chaos of civil war in the mid-1970s and discovering oil, shortages and expatriates with high incomes made for a spiralling of costs, most notably for rental accommodation. Oil wealth does odd things to property values. I knew no Portuguese, and fortunately could work in English. I was on only one mission to Luanda (again, for PDR), not long after the end of my res rep assignment in late-2006. The odd thing about it was the authorities did not want a mission at that time and were not at all interested in borrowing from the Fund, but, we went through our hoops and loops. Though Fund thoughts were on a post-oil future, oil revenues were still gushing. So, it goes, sometimes, when economics and politics are at loggerheads.

South Africa was a transit point for the mission to Angola and also some regional meetings. I stayed in Johannesburg and had the chance to visit Cape Town, see Table Top Mountain and penguins at the Cape of Good Hope. I also got to see what a plane load of off-duty oil sector workers looks like on a long-distance flight from there to London. If you cannot take the liquor bought in duty-free onto the flight, what else to do but drink it before getting on the plane. To say the sight and sound of jolly, drunken British oil riggers for over 8 hours is not my idea of fun is an understatement!

Libya holds a special place as we visited soon after the embargo on US travel was lifted (February 2004). I met ‘Brother Leader’, Colonel Ghadaffi, who spoke to a conference of African central bank governors. Rhian was just 6 months old and she (one of the first Americans to visit) and Therese came along for the junket.

We had to fly from Conakry to London to Tripoli. On arrival, we were met at the plane door by Libyan officials and whisked through security to a VIP lounge. We waited there while other people arrived, some I recognized as governors. When the ‘group’ was complete, we were ushered out to a fleet of black Mercedes outside the airport arrivals. We got into the back of our car and greeted our driver. I don’t speak Arabic, so I used English and French. Then, off we sped, and I mean sped. Motorcycle outriders cleared our route as we hurtled along at 140 km an hour into Tripoli 😳‘This is new’ was the expression on our faces; Rhian was blissfully ignorant. We pulled up at a glitzy 5-star hotel that was the conference venue,checked in and went to our palatial room. Not bad!

Libya is strictly Muslim, and though Guinea is predominantly Muslim, Islam is practised there with a lighter touch, eg its main domestic business is beer making 🤔😳🍺 It took some getting used to having fake gin and tonic. More than any of the other Muslim countries, I’ve visited, with maybe the exception of Mauritania, Libya is incredibly chauvinistic, and my wife couldn’t stop marvelling at men alone sitting at tables of coffee shops, and women, alone, seen in markets and stores.

But, as trips went, the visit was on a different plane for splendor and history and political enigma. My baby daughter became a star and featured in lots of pictures being passed around by central bank governors 🙂 I suspect she recalls nothing about visiting the old Roman city of Leptis Magna.

Morocco was never a work location, but a favourite stopover en route to/from Mauritania, because a Tunisian colleague and I loved the food and feel of Casablanca. No Bogart-like experiences with Lauren Bacall. I discovered the literally moorish delights of pastillia. 

To offset that, I have fond memories of being steamed and massaged in a hammam.

Sénégal was also not a work location but Dakar was a transit point for Guinea and South Africa. We took a vacation there from Guinea, made better because the Fund rep there was a good friend and a Guinean, Ousmane Doré, who later was Guinea’s finance and planning minister (2007), and whose residence became our ‘hotel’.

In Sénégal, we visited Goree Island (Île de Gorée) the site from where slaves were shipped across the Atlantic during the 15th-19th centuries —a hard emotional visit as tourists. 😩

No two countries the same or remotely similar.

Jamaica’s growth puzzle: Trying to find some of the right pieces 

I’ve written before that I find it disturbing that Jamaica’s academic economists don’t seem to spend much time outlining to the public problems with the local economy and possible ways to fix them. 

I had an exchange with a Jamaican businessman yesterday about the exchange rate, and how it is badly misunderstood by many Jamaicans, who are fixated on the nominal rate of the J$ against the US$. He added that over many years he had ananlaysed the exchange rate trends and tried to explain them. He found many politicians, sadly, out of their depth in being able to understand notions such as purchasing power parity and the real effective exchange rate. He concluded that many Jamaicans are numerically illiterate. I agreed. 

One of the problems with that illiteracy is that people focus on the wrong variables, and do not understand what changes in variables tell us. 

Now, being a confirmed skeptic, I do not rely on politicians to be the guiding lights for much of what I think is important, except sometimes in the negativ. If a politician. says something is good, chances are it’s the opposite. Their vested interests get in the way of honest discourse. So, I’m having to listen to politicians talk about the economy and growth and productivity, and so forth, and then take a view opposite to what they say is happening. 

Right now, I’m trying to figure out why Jamaica may, one, not be growing as fast as politicians have said (just over 2 percent) and why it may be that Jamaica will grow faster than politicians have said (currently focusing on #5in4–when it’s a hashtag, it must be important :))

The slower-than-reported growth problem. GDP measures economic activity from the data on income, spending, or production. Depending on which measure is used, the story can be different. So, my argument about slower growth is about which of those measures we look at. 

I think that spending will give a truer picture in a country like Jamaica, because we know that much activity is informal and thus under-recorded. That would suggest that data on income is understated in both levels and changes, especially as more information about income means more information about taxable capacity, and people dont like paying taxes. Spending data can be captured more readily and widely, even if it’s based on household surveys. Production is harder to measure, not least because many enterprises are loath to report data, so the series are often of spotty quality and less timely.We also have the age-old problem of whether the simple units of measuring output–prices–are really capturing all we want them to, especially if quality is changing. 

So, my concern about how fast we are growing now is all about what do the three measures show. We could be at 2.3% quarterly growth, plus or minus a lot.

I also think that, flaky as it may seem, people’s sentiments about growth matter, and I think most people don’t feel that they are living with faster growth.

Will Jamaica grow much faster than 5 percent? Some people have noted, recently, that 5 percent annual growth is really a low bar for Jamaica. I am tending to agree. I think that there is more dynamism in the country than people seem to suggest. I also think that some of the faster growth will show up if we get better data about what’s going on. Now that is a taller order than many things, because data collection systems don’t just improve at the drop of a hat. But, here are areas where I think we need to look carefully.

1. Watch electricity consumption. This is often a leading indicator of what is going on, because almost everything in modern economies needs electrical power. Even if it’s being used illegally without payment or proper connection, the turbines are working and juice is going to all corners of the country.

2. Get a better handle on construction. My wife, who’s a pretty decent economist, said last night that construction is well-measured, because building work needs permits. I disagreed, because we know that much building goes on and has gone on without permits. We know, through the tragic deaths of workers, that a major hotel was being constructed in Negril without the requisite building and other permits. So, one can assume that data on this project was not being captured in official statistics. We can readily assume that a major project being derelict in its legality can be but the tip ofthe  iceberg. 

We know also that a major growth area in the corporate area, Portmore, has recently extended its building approval amnesty. So, again, we know that significant amounts of construction were going on ‘under the radar’. If we could capture that well, we could find that construction alone has been moving ahead very fast. Anecdotal evidence suggests that’s true in the corporate area, where I’ve seen over the past three years a swathe of hosuing complexes go up and also a bevy of commercial spaces being built or extended. Similar trends are evident across the island.

3. Bring more informal activity into the formal sector. Ha! Fat chance! My hunch is that this is where some faster growth may be lurking. My supposition is that, while not a ‘silicon valley’ in Jamaica, by its nature, the informal sector in its many forms has had to move faster to keep people afloat. Of course, we could find that a lot of informal activity (say, vending) is just at subsistence level. However, anecdotal stories of how people have used their ‘little jobs’ to support families, in general, and to do things like pay for children to go through schooling to university, suggests that ‘raising chcikens’ etc has provided a significant life-line. How the various activities get captured in data is a massive headache, because the incentives are strong to stay out of sight. Moves like having more taxation based on spending, rather than income, may offer a second-best way of capturing more informal activity, though. 

4. Pay more attention to what income inequality tells us. This is tricky. It’s clear that those Jamaicans who live in upscale areas have done more than get by. Large houses, more cars, private schools, foreign trip, etc, all reflect a life-style that is supported by growing financial resources (whether self-generated or through credit).  Whether they are reflective of the robustness of professional and business life, they have done much better than average in a material sense. It may be that they have both higher income/spending levels than average, and that these have grown faster than average. If that’s so, we then. Need to go to the other end of the scale to see how the ‘dirt poor’ (no value judgement) have fared. Maybe, the best we can do there is to get more sectoral information from the banking sector about deposit holder and borrowers.

So, let’s don some thinking caps and see what can be done to get a better understanding of this oh-so-important set of issues.

The Jamaican economic paradox: how a stagnant economy can not look that bad

One of the conundrums that has puzzled some economists for decades is how it is that Jamaica, supposedly mired in stagnant growth for decades looks as good as it does. Admitted, that Jamaica does not look very good everywhere, and the places where it looks terrible are really pitiful to see.

Several suggestions have gone on the rounds: 

  • Informal economy is large and many real economic activities are not measured fully. This covers the many activities, like vending, where small operators do not register formally their activities, but also includes things like illegal drugs trading. 
  • Remittances are significant, so domestic economic activity can seem sluggish, but private inflows from abroad keep many afloat.
  • The economy has many layers–income inequality is high: those much better off can and do live well; those very poor can suffer enormously. 

There are other factors that may be at play, but these cover many of the significant options, I think.

The idea that Jamaica can grow much faster, as measured by official data, is exciting, and as the Economic Growth Council gets the mantra of ‘5 in 4’ rolling more, people may be energized to look for signs that faster-than-anemic growth is soon to arrive. I’d like to see it, but I will not be holding my breath. However, I’ve been pondering a few things in recent months.

The seeming weakness of the Jamaican dollar against the US dollar is a boon to many people. I’ve written about this before. Those with US dollar assets have made significant gains in recent years, especially with domestic inflation falling sharply. Put simply, those bananas that cost J$300 a dozen 3 years ago, were costing just over US$3.30 when the J$ was at 90 to the US, but now cost US2.35, when the J$ is about 128 to the US. That’s a 30% gain in a world of minuscule gains. Of course, the cost of imports has tended to go up in J$ terms, as the rate fell. 

I also made the point that one has to look at the basket of currencies to really appreciate what the exchange rate has been doing. So, for instance, those many people who had work links with the UK and now are retired in Jamaica, have seen lesser gains, as the pound has been pummeled against the US dollar. Nevertheless, they have done better than if they just had J$ assets. 

Those with access to foreign travel–and they may well be largely the same group who have US dollar assets–can keep the quality of their live higher by sourcing goods and services directly from the US. But, that group is supplemented by those who get goods (and some services) directly from relatives and friends abroad–call them ‘barrel people’. 

Construction in many places has been going on quite rapidly, mainly residential, but also commercial (plazas, here and there) and bigger projects, like hotels. 

We also have the paradox of seeming to grow because we are inefficient. As I wrote recently, digging holes and refilling them is inefficient, but shows up as more economic activity. Farming is hard to judge, but the data show that recent good weather has boosted agriculture, coming off a severe drought.

Services are even harder to judge. Financial services may well be growing well, in terms of profits and balance sheet. But, I would always want to know about the quality of financial services, where I get the impression many are unhappy. That’s not easily measured. 

Telecom services would be another fast growing area, as many Jamaicans love their mobile phones, and are getting to love more cable TV and internet access in many forms. 

Anecdotally, we can come to lots of conclusions about growth. It was never utterly flat, I think but the spread was uneven. I’m not taken by notions that traffic is a good indicator (weak pun), given that we are disastrous at planning road works and have lots of roads that get jammed for the silliest things. 

So, let’s see what data for 2016 Q4 show. I think they wont be so pretty. There! I’ve said it.

So, what will we become? Fear of moral decay gets tongues wagging.

A series of interesting conversations is underway in Jamaica. They have in common a search for higher ground on which to build a better society. That would seem to be a good thing.

I write ‘seems’ because I know that many such conversations often do not occur with all voices having equal weight. Those of us who have done well in the educational system often find it easier to express our views and engage others on theirs. Likewise, those who have ‘higher’ social status can carry discussions their (our) way. Those with political and important business positions also get the floor more readily. Others, who fall outside such groups, may struggle to get their voices heard. So, the conversations need to reach those groups, somehow.

Jamaica is always in danger of making any issue a matter of partisan politics. I can’t stop that, but I don’t have my feet planted in any party camp.

The whole notion of social and moral failings has been an issue in Jamaica as long as I can remember. In much the same way, economic problems have been a part of the national status for decades to the extent that people readily say how they are struggling, or how they have to hustle to get along

Hard times are part of the national narrative
Hard times are part of the national narrative

.I began the day thinking about the notion that Jamaica had misused its independence from Britain. As the day went on and I listened to a part of current affairs discussion about social issues, I thought that these were connected.

Independence premium wasted.

1962: The British handed us our independence, but what did we do with it?
1962: The British handed us our independence, but what did we do with it?

My basic view is that Independence gave us the ‘clean slate’ that many countries need to set a true course for themselves. My impression is that Jamaica never made use of that. Much of modern Jamaica reflects the fact that we took the legacy of the colonisers and just ran with it. Take the nature of our Parliamentary ‘democracy’. What thought had been given at the outset and since to the kind of democracy that really suited a small island society. As time has gone on, we have held on to the winner-take-all system of voting that is largely confined to former British colonies. It is a polarizing system. The tribalism, which we see in our local politics is very much supported by such as  system. The Westminster-style debating chamber lends itself to this polarization, too.

Look at our road system and traffic laws. We have what the British used and left us. As we developed, did we try to change that? As we deal with congested roads, do we seek to break away from that model? I’d say no. As an example, the British do not allow turning on red lights; the Americans do. Do we conceive of allowing that on our roads? No, it seems. Would it help free some congestion? Yes. Why not try it?

Lust for the lustiness. No doubt about it, we used our independence in one special way, We fell in love with ourselves falling in love with each other. It may not even be love. It’s sex and sexual performance. It pervades much of our popular music and has done for decades. As a music scholar, Frederick R Dannaway, wrote: ‘Sex and music go together like ackee and saltfish, and Jamaica is saturated with both from the rent-a-dreads trysting with white women, to the orgies of the Hedonism resort and the indigenous sexuality of the dancehall.’

Mento had the ‘big bamboo’. Ska and Rock Steady (developing during the 1960s) had Prince Buster ‘wreck a pum-pum’:

We had Max Romeo and his ‘Wet Dream’, banned in the UK for its overt sexual references, despite Romeo claiming the song was about a leaking roof. 🙂 He had other songs on similar themes. He must have wanted to be a plumber. 😛

Later genres made much less of overt sexual references, with smooth ‘Lover’s Rock’ developing in the UK in the 1970s, and the more mystical and conscious lyrics of reggae music reflecting aspects of the Rastafarian faith. But the late 1970s, saw the emergence of ‘Ranking Slackness’; slackness is generally sexual, violent or secular. This was ‘ushering in the era of Joe Grine, or Joe Grind, who would cuckold men while they were at work’. From the 1980s, sexuality was made rampant, both in terms of what was promoted (heterosexual acts) and what it decried (homosexual acts and oral sex), and that has carried through into the 21st century, with Dancehall holding sway over such utterances and even stage displays, by artistes and even more by fans. The specifics of the lyrics is less important that the general theme and tone of them. (Read Dunnaway’s article for a fuller discussion.)

So, from Max Romeo, it was a short step to the ‘romping shops’ and ‘pimper’s paradise’. Dancehall, in general, was a battleground for sexual declarations. ‘Daggering’, in particular, and ‘winding’, in general, were dance styles that left little to the imagination. That sexual expressiveness was classless (and lacking in class?), though social groups had their preferences. All of this against a background that is the land with more churches per hectare than anywhere in the world, and which holds strongly that it is a Christian nation.

Maybe, the social nadir of this whole attraction was the sight a few months ago of a Cabinet minister giving a constituent his ‘position statement’ on tree planting policy, if I could quip. What was he thinking?

Agriculture Minister, Roger Clarke, showing new seed planting methods?
Agriculture Minister, Roger Clarke, showing new seed planting methods?

The answer to that question goes far in explaining where the country has gone totally astray.

Globalisation found us asleep. As a small, but beautiful island, whose main attraction to the outside world was the raw materials it could provide for processing (agricultural and mineral), its exotic foods (mainly fruit for a captive market in Britain and the former colonies), its wonderful liqour (rum that is renowed worldwide), and its natural beauty (which helped spawn a new industry of mass tourism on the island), Jamaica engaged the world in a relatively limited way. With the spread of ‘globalisation’ and faster international communications and movement of people, goods, services, and ideas, we were less than well prepared. On one hand, we did not have good defences to protect the things that we cherished. On the other hand, we were not well armed to mount our own attacks. Part of that weakness was a legacy of colonialism: we lost many of our brightest people to other countries.

Migration saved us from facing our real problems. We could not satisfy the economic aspirations of the nation for many years. When the British came begging for workers, we gladly took the offers, and with that went much skill and intelligence. Many thought it would be a short-term trip, but it was not so. Most did not return, and on top, they created a new generation of ‘Jamaicans abroad’. That happened first with the UK, but then as the British doors closed, the USA and Canada had doors that were still open. We now find that some 80-odd percent of Jamaican graduates migrate. That ‘brain drain‘ and wider migration had a domestic upside by providing remittances back to Jamaica. However, those inflows of money and goods themselves created a new kind of dependency in Jamaica, even to the point of spawning ‘barrel children’. But, I am of the view that migration robbed us of talent that could not and was not replaced, so we were substantially poorer and less-developed than we could have been. The minds left the grapple with national problems were fewer and, even if very good, clearly were not all the best.

A ‘brawn drain’ also occurred, and we lost many technically skilled people whose talents were not necessarily well used abroad, and were totally unavailable ‘back home’. Look at the life of many artisans (eg, carpenters) who left Jamaica, to then work in public sector jobs and private factories in England. That broke a chain of training and development that had been an important part of how our society had been renewing itself for decades.

Jamaicans have long shown that they are inventive, however. Yet, that too, helped our downfall. We replaced those brains and artisanal skills with those of the ‘dealer’ and ‘hustler’. That meant we saw people finding ways to turn goods around to make money quickly–a classic form of development evident in many economies, which creates incomes but not much lasting value. It also lent itself to the drive to bring goods in from overseas to satisfy demands that were not being met at home: cars, appliances, reading material, clothing, etc. Higglers made money, so too did car importers. It was easier to procure than produceBut, we also had more money to be made from things illegal, exploiting some of the agricultural products that carried premium prices abroad–drugs, especially marijuana. We grew and sold it, and we also became a conduit for other drugs, and the influences of those who wanted to trade those to bigger and richer markets in industrialised countries.

That link created one of the loudest peals in what was a death knell to those who heard it. The link between drugs and other crimes, and the influx of guns into Jamaica is well documented. So too is the link between these things and politics. This would be a dangerous admixture almost anywhere, but has to be a crippling thing in a place so small. Lay on top of that our tendency to polarize our political positions and you see the origins and sustenance of the ‘garrison’ constituencies (especially in Kingston). That has become so enshrined into the political fabric that it’s impossible to see how any meaningful socioeconomic progress could occur with garrisons in place and vibrant.

Come, cross the river with me? A little later, maybe. (Courtesy of The Jamaica Observer.)
Come, cross the river with me? A little later, maybe. (Courtesy of The Jamaica Observer.)

Jamaica saw the emergence of ‘dons’, and with them the creation of control systems that were not part of the established State, though they could be important to, and supported by the political party machines. 

That nexus of crime, guns, politics, and don control, had its recent best showing in the so-called ‘Tivoli War’ over attempts to extradite a known and wanted gang leader, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. That incident, its preceding developments, and its subsequent repercussions, wreaked havoc on a community and a country. But, politicians helped build and sustain the essential fabric of those communities and the lifestyles that became common place.

Tivoli War: wreaking havoc on a community and a country
Tivoli War: wreaking havoc on a community and a country

It’s related aspect, a form of ‘welfare entitlement’ (freeness), raised its known and ugly face recently, in a ‘war’ that had no bullets fired and no persons killed. The local power company, Jamaica Public Service (JPS), had suffered electricity theft and revenue loss from it for many years. The company’s efforts were not making a dent. The major thieves were in areas of Kingston that were co-terminous with the political garrisons. Then, JPS’s CEO had enough: she decided to go rogue. She shut off power to whole communities, laying waste to all who did not and would not pay, as well as those who did pay. Uproar ensued. Within days that move was over. Garrisons ‘under siege’ with no one armed against them? How so? The complaints of the payers were heard most loudly in public. But, clearly, the howls of the non-payers were being heard loud and clear in the ears of the MPs. Strange how many of the major MPs have seats in these areas. Curious and curiouser. So, ‘time to sit down and talk’. We await the outcome of ideas sought and will see what is implemented. But, Ms. Tomblin showed clearly that she had something akin to a ‘nuclear option’ or a ‘weapon of mass (political) destruction’ and was ready and willing to use it.

Living in the political wasteland of fiscal deficits, borrowing and debt. Jamaica quickly began to live beyond its means after independence. It’s not alone in suffering that, especially being a developing nation. It suffered from a series of bad political decisions, which  had severe financial consequences. Tax revenue and borrowed funds were not used in the most productive ways. That’s a catch-all for ‘government waste’. Where the money went, precisely, is worthy of a good forensic analysis. That it was poorly utilised is shown by the level of indebtedness coupled with the state of the economy. Put simply, had the money been well used, we would all be better off than we are: services would be better and infrastructure would be better, at least. We would be wealthier, too, because the money would have been better distributed throughout the population. This is a good topic to discuss itself and some have done it clearly.

This profligacy has made us very good friends of somebody that we see as an enemy–The International Monetary Fund. The Fund has a mandate that is about managing national and international finances well. It was set up to deal with balance of payments problems, and these were seen as mainly the result of mismanaged public finances. To fix these problems, the Fund urges austerity. Webster’s defines it nicely: a situation in which there is not much money and it is spent only on things that are necessary. ‘Belt-tightening’ is a common metaphor. It means financial pain for most of a nation. They end up hating the IMF. They often cannot bear the pain. Politicians get scared they will lose power, as a result. They bend or break the agreements. The people sigh with relief. The problems remain, however, and in short order, the politicians and technicians are back on a plane to Washington to discuss again how to fix what they did not deal with properly before. The process starts over. People squeal. Politicians reel. The international airlines and hotels do very nicely, thank you. This process can go on for years, even decades, with no end to the problems, because countries have election cycles and politicians are sensitive to these. They like to have their pants and skirts loose coming up to such times when ‘party’ is the word of the moment, in more ways than one. Elections over, they have to deal with the hangovers. “Hello, is that the IMF? I have this really bad headache…” So, Dr. Fund is back in the consultation room.

Jamaica has been on that merry-go-round so often that it’s dizzy and ready to throw up. With wobbly legs, it’s now trying again to see if it can walk away from that sugar-induced desire to have just one more ride. So, ‘Hello, Austerity!” This time it will be different? So far, it has been. But, frankly, the time of good behaviour has been really short. Having myself been one of the dreaded ‘doctors’, I see Jamaica needing to be on the medicine much longer than it has shown the stomach for in the past. Jamaica’s major problems with this style of economic problem solving are several, but most important are:

  • Lack of national consensus that it will help (economic policy is an easy political football);
  • Credibility (governments have been ‘economical with the truth’ so often that they lie first and tell the truth afterwards as a matter of routine) [what countries often fail to realise is that the lies are usually quite transparent and the Fund sees through them quickly, and has all the time in the world, usually, for that realisation to take hold because it holds the purse strings];
  • Leadership: not the sort that has people saying airy-fairy things and meaning none or few of them, or the absent type which involves large amounts of handwaving, kissing babies, and smiling into camera lenses. But the sort that involves standing up in front of the nation and stating firmly and often that “I believe that this is the right thing to do. It will hurt us all. We all have to make sacrifices, including me and my ministers,” That last part is often missing, so the nation says “Yeah, right!” as they see the grandeur undiminished: new SUVs for all often mean that leadership is absent;

    Tighten YOUR belts
    Tighten YOUR belts

    large delegations on foreign trips often give the same signal. Everyone travelling abroad in economy often gets a smile and a loud clap. Tell me what you see, and tell me how much applause you’ve heard. Take your time.

The jury is out on Jamaica and its current IMF programme. As they say, Jamaica comes with a pedigree that is not that good.

A clear consequence of all or most of these developments, which is not exhaustive, is Jamaica is paddling a boat in very rough waters, with some oars that are rickety and a boat that has leaked badly and often. It’s more likely to sink that stay afloat. Those aboard the boat are mainly poor swimmers, so most wont survive.

Jamaica has not faced up to its deficiencies very well or often. It has a hard time looking in the mirror and seeing what most of the world sees. So, all of the above rolled into one means what? Jamaica is a laughing-stock, but has not seen that it’s role as a jester hasn’t altered much in the minds of others, despite a few performances that are of stunning brilliance. Take that to be the emergence of ‘stars’, like Bob Marley in music, or Usain Bolt in athletics. They make the nation look and feel good, but they do not reflect necessarily any underlying process that says “look at what and who is pressing behind me who is as good or even better”.

Why are we the laughing-stock?

Which Jamaican understands what integrity means? Clearly, we have problems identifying what it means to have integrity–the quality of being honest and fair; the state of being complete or whole. Our record of failed IMF programmes is essentially about our lack of integrity. We may start well, but look at our finish. In the world of politics, we need not look far to see that (and I cite this simply because it’s an obvious example, caring not one jot about the person or the party. Junior minister, Richard Azan, and the Spalding market scandal. Yes, there was no criminal case to answer according to the DPP, but the Contractor General’s finding of political corruption still stands. The minster’s reinstatement by the PM says that perceptions of inappropriate political behaviour do not matter to domestic rulers. That is the clear message, whether or not it appears in the New York Times or London’s Guardian. The problem is that, the rest of the world does worry about that perception. Jamaica is seen as a place where corruption is not taken seriously: vote-buying, cronyism, and other such activities are in the same vein. I would be shocked of the next edition of Transparency International’s Index does not show a marked decline for Jamaica. It keeps itself in the room of ‘undesirables’

Jamaicans do not understand conflict of interest as it is accepted internationally. The size of Caribbean (or other small) countries poses problems less present in larger countries. Our human resources are spread thinly. It is not uncommon for sitting MPs to still function in their professional capacities, eg as lawyers. This could raise all sorts of questions in many countries, but in the Caribbean, we just roll with it. In Jamaica, we do not see this problem, but we also do not see the general problem of conflicts of interest because we look at people in posts and to judge them as people and what we think of what may be their intent–if that is good, we see few or no problems. But it’s what they do, not who they are, that cause the conflicts. This is the essence of most corruption. The policeman with a long and exemplary record, who tries to ‘help’ someone avoid a charge is guilty of trying to pervert the course of justice. Jamaicans will lament the loss of a ‘good man’ and not see that he did a ‘bad thing’, maybe even finding reasons to somehow justify the acts because of the small amounts of money or value of items involved. I could mention the actions of the minister overseeing energy policy and his trying to get another government agency to ‘change’ its views. We can search and find too many instances that are recent, let alone delving into the past.

Jamaicans want to hold up religion as a shield and act badly and leave the judgement to God (or whatever equivalent deity is chosen). The world, even if on the same religious wavelength, will want to make its judgements sooner. Our mantra could be “We are a Christian nation. We want to sin so that we can all be saved.” So, we rack up a catalogue of sins that are so long and horrible they need to be shared out amongst several countries to seem tolerable, but we have them all hanging on our backs: murders, rapes, violence against children, robberies, scams or other financial malfeasance.

Our discussions on sexual and family matters is mostly disingenous. We focus on many things wrong sexually, but most often we want to touch the fringe of the bedspread, but not the mattress. Our general licentiousness is not what we want to talk about, but prefer to look at the marginal behaviours that we want to tell ourselves are about to ‘destroy’ our society. So, good old heterosexual libidinous behaviour is not up for discussion. Over 80 percent of children born in Jamaica are out of wedlock, yet we get all sanctimonious about the value of families and the importance of marriage. That herb is really good!

We love bun and cheese, well, the bun mostly. I sleep with your girl; my wife mustn’t know. My wife sleeps with my best friend; but I’m too ‘busy’ to know. We all lie about it. I father a baby and give the mother some money, if I feel good. Or, I fight to defend the fact that it may not be my baby. We wrap our concerns in religion so long as that does not stop us doing what we do–a little wrong is alright, don’t it (to use the Jamaican phrasing).

See a man dressed as a woman in a play and we get all frothy and screaming for the hills: “Lock up your children!”. But, wait. Isn’t that Usain Bolt dressed up for a lucrative ad?

Beat our women, and our children too. Call it ‘discipline’. Like the slaves from which many of us came, we know how to keep the minor persons in their place. Show them who is control: grown men. Don’t forget it.

These ‘blockages’, at the very least, stop us having what is necessary, an honest talk with ourselves. 

I hear people calling for all kinds of reconsideration of where the nation is going. It is a hard thing to solve without laying out all the pieces of fabric that are to be stitched back together. Much focus is on some social shreds: parental responsibilities; education systems; family structures; etc. These are all important, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Their relevance is not uniform and the problems are not solved by one set of actions. If I am employed, live in a nice and comfortable home, with good amenities around me, and have enough income to step over many of the national barriers, my life will be easier to redirect that if I am unemployed, live in a wooden shack with a dirt floor, have no sewerage, and have violence facing me at every turn.

The conversations are needed, but we have a long way to go to set them in what I think are the right frames of reference. Those are, however, the ones that I see and think are important. Lucky me, if I can get others to agree on all or even some. Remember, I have said I have no political axe to grind. Once people take their partisan stances, the discussions can go on as long as they like and the colour of the glasses will drive them where they will. I wish I could see enough people stepping out of their red/orange or green skins long enough to figure out what is really common and focus on that. But, they are often tight-fitting and really hard to pull off. Maybe, that piece of adjustment needs to be seen first, if the talk is going to go anywhere. Am I optimistic that can take place? Short of a natural cataclysm, not really.

A former PM speaks. A nation listens…for a while, anyway.



Meat me at the corner

Roger Clarke, Minister of Agriculture, is one of my favourite Jamaican politicians. He is a man seemingly made for the role he has to play. He’s jocular and rotund, and seems to me to be the very image of ‘Jolly Roger’. He often gives the impression of being a little bumbling, but he knows his onions. I get the impression, however, that he’s struggling to carry the country to market with him. Maybe, that’s because he was twerking while the PM was working. I’m not sure.

Fool the farmer? Never!
Fool the farmer? Never!

Jamaica has a whopping food import bill–let’s call it US$1billion. We have been urged to eat into that, and for a decade we have had the Eat Jamaica campaign, with its motto ‘grow what we eat and eat what we grow’. Much as I love to eat Jamaican food, I keep getting shocked by the fact that what I think is Jamaican is foreign.

Minister Clarke urged us to belly up and eat more pork. It was in plentiful supply, I heard him say on the radio about 10 days ago. Today, I see Roger’s telling me another indigestible fact: “We are self-sufficient in pork and in poultry, but we import a lot of mutton. We eat a lot of curry goat, but some 80 per cent of the goat meat we eat is imported.” You’re kidding!

Thankfully, it’s meatless Monday for me, so I wont add to my newly discovered misery and have to stomach a plate of foreign goat. More sheep and goats are to be reared, and a project (in year two) to raise the levels of local goat meat is at 50 percent of the required level; the rest should be complete by month-end.

I see goats running in the roads every day and have the impression that we are in danger of seeing them run the country and ramming through their policy choices, instead of the current crop of politicians. Images of Animal Farm suddenly come flooding back into my mind. All the talk of ‘pork barrel’ politics.animal-farm1 The idea of politicians with their noses in the trough all seem to take on a hideous reality.

Jamaica is an agricultural country, yet we seem to have betrayed that characteristic and fallen foul of the dreaded cheaper imported foods. Roger is trying to get us back to the land and to take back our land.

Kingston was all-a-flutter a few weeks ago with a stunning new trend. Actually, not Kingston, but New Kingston–haven of the office and the pristine coffee shop. Maggi brought a farmers market there. The bush was being brought to the stush–a little plug for Stush in the Bush :-). Everything ‘sell off’ by 11am. Wonderful! I hope the vendors in Coronation Market were not too miffed. Maybe, the solution is to bus groups of office workers from their suites to the stalls there a few days a week. That would put a crimp in the lives of the so-called extortionists in downtown Kingston, who prey on people wanting to park cars nearby when they seek their home-grown fare.

I know a few growers in Jamaica, some are old-thymers, some are new. Some are in the furnace of St. Elizabeth, some are in the cool hills of St. Andrew and Portland. They all work like mad people. They never seem unable to meet needs. Some even bring produce to the home, from the hills. I’ve taken to going to market, like my father used to. I’m not good at picking out yam and sweet potatoes, or knowing the best soursop, but I get by. I noticed some months ago that all the garlic was from China. I had a long talk with the vendor about why we cannot produce garlic locally. We hear all the time about the health benefits of this bulb, but the light has gone out in terms of our share of the market.

I’ve tried a little–very little–market gardening in my yard; the house is rented, but I’m reconfiguring little by little. Friends of mine in other islands regale me with pictures of how they have raised tomatoes, sweet peppers, aubergines, and more over the past year. Yeah!

The problem of growing enough to feed ourselves in not new in Jamaica, and it’s not the fault of any one person. Things were not helped by our push into tourism, where the links between the stomach of the foreigner and the breadbasket of Jamaica were too thin. We have a great food processing company, Grace Kennedy, which is now pushing Jamaican products into west Africa. I saw adverts yesterday for frozen Jamaican meals. I hope that they are all or mainly sourced with local inputs.

I read last week some online anger at St. Mary’s, who make banana and plantain chips. The packages show ‘produce of Dominican Republic’. Horror! The company tried to explain that local bananas were hit hard by recent hurricanes (again) are not always available, but they have a plant in the DR, which they use to fill their needs–aka our bellies. Now, the local, native, Irie brand, Chippies, needs to push itself more into our faces–and improve that packaging.

What about those people selling Jamaica Producer bananas on the roads? They are local, right?

So, it’s for each of us to do our part. Eat what we grow and help grow what we eat.

Is Jamaica held in CHEC?

So, the good Dr. Omar Davies, Jamaica’s Transport, Works and Housing Minister, gave us some of what for which we had been longing. He told Parliament about the preliminary stages of plans, by China Harbour Engineering Company Limited (CHEC) to develop a logistics hub on the Goat Islands. The Port Authority of Jamaica will be responsible for project development and implementation. The Minister called this preliminary thingy an Initial Framework Agreement (we may call it ‘IFA’…IFA this…).

The project is expected to create 2000 jobs during construction; 10000 jobs will be there at the end. The government will negotiate ratios of Jamaican to Chinese workers. What kind of jobs, sir? Wait boy! There will be jobs.

We were ‘warned’ that Jamaica is not the only ‘game in town’. CHEC is ready to mate with other suitors, though Jamaica has certain ‘advantages’ (unspecified). I wonder if it’s our wonderful jerk chicken or maybe some of our other greenfield developments sprouting in our countryside.

CHEC can go ahead and conduct geotechnical studies and engineering surveys. A technical feasibility study should be completed by April 2014, then preliminary designs of phase 1 will begin and completed by end-June 2014. Then CHEC will present to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), to seek terms of reference for an environmental impact analysis (EIA). At completion of the EIA, the project will be ready for presentation to Cabinet. Phew!

Oh, I nearly forgot. CHEC want to develop a coal-fired power plant on the Goat Islands. Imagine them not wanting to pay the current rate of US42 cents a kilowatt-hour.

If people were nervous about the whole development before, I think they are super worried now. “Look at that, Cheryl! Jamaica dun got itself some smoke stacks way off in the yonder that used to be blue.” Did I hear someone mention China’s record on pollution on coal-powered energy production? Turn up the gramaphone, dear. I love that song ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’.

Is there any chance the Chinese developers will produce some extra electricity to sell to other Jamaicans at a lower rate? That would be interesting to set aside current discussions on a 360 megawatt plant. What? Mega What!

Jamaica’s environmental lobby, mainly the Jamaica Environmental Trust (JET) has already raised its concerns about the whole concept of developing on the Goat Islands. Their CEO, Diana McCaulay, has already been quick to raise that “Coal is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels, so there are emissions of mercury, arsenic, ash, a long list of them, and it is also the main greenhouse gas; the main gas that causes global climate change.” Will the ‘fight’ over this project also have to get dirty and dusty?

Johnny Nash was a great Jamaican singer and he had many songs still memorable today. I feel that his time may be coming again, after the little expose we got yesterday. There are more questions than answers.

The more I find out, the less I know.