Weh wi a go?

The optimistic tone I left in yesterday’s post, by writing ‘Jamaica offers a good life to many–not the best, perhaps in terms of certain material things, but far from the worst for most things’ should not be taken as a mark of complacency. Remember, I started out by stating that there are many problems. Dinner conversation last night with some Jamaican friends who are visiting from abroad brought up some of those problems–though the problems did not overshadow or outweigh the many good things people also noted. The group included people who have been living for a long while in two of the Caribbean region’s countries, which have had relatively more success than Jamaica–The Bahamas and Barbados–so, in some respects had a perspective of what should be possible for a Caribbean middle-income country. The visitors still have strong family and friendship ties here, and visit often. All of us have much experience and knowledge of the economic and social circumstances of many other countries. The conversations never focused on Jamaica needing to be like other countries (which prompts me to think about recent suggestions to follow the Singapore model). Among the big problems that surfaced were:

  • A perceived lack of vision by national political leaders: I say ‘perceived’ because no doubt leaders such as Edward Seaga and Micheal Manley had a big vision of the Jamaica they wanted to see, but neither managed to mobilise most of the nation behind their views and policies and left a nation deeply divided along political lines, which have left deep scars on the body national. We struggled to discern easily what was the vision held by other leaders.
  • Government inaction and wrong action: this has plagued many aspects of national life, and showed itself in big and small ways–unfilled potholes (which has allowed the mushrooming of business in road repairs by citizens); unfinished road repairs; incomplete repairs of phyiscal structures; poor services across many fields of government operation; skewed distribution of services (maybe reflecting political favouritism); public servants who are not really vested in serving the public; inefficiencies coming from the need to pass many ‘gatekeepers’; inefficiencies coming from unwillingness to change practices (please do not ask me to go to a tax office).
  • Political tribalism: at its worst, this left a trail of bitterness coming from a ‘victor takes the spoils’ mentality (“A fi wi time now!”) that punished those who supported the losing political party in national elections.
  • Lowering the bar on expectations as a means of dealing with serious national problems: this could perhaps be seen as apathy, or resignation, in the face of seemingly intractable economic and social problems, the worst of which were a constantly faltering economy with persistent foreign exchange shortages and ballooning debt burden, and intolerable levels of violent (especially, homicidal) crimes (“Is only 3 dem kill dis time”).
  • Weak commitment to work together: the well-know ‘crabs in a barrel’ mentality is still prevalent. That may be simply an indication of an immature nation: it’s always hard to be willing to ‘share’ when the resources are evidently scarce. (My young daughter reminded me this morning that ‘There is no I in TEAM” :-))

To solve any problem, you need to make sure you can identify what is really the issue. The list above is not meant to cover comprehensively what needs to be fixed. But, it puts plenty of grist into the mill of things that need to be made better. Jamaica has come a long way from the depths to which it sank in the mid-1970s, when many shop shelves were bare and many people wanted to flee. By contrast, it’s hard to distinguish today the stock of a Jamaican supermarket from those of its North American neighbours, and there is plenty of evidence that Jamaica is attractive as a home for returning residents or foreigners who feel that they can make a good future for themselves, their families and their businesses. Sure, Jamaica has real problems, but how should we approach trying to solve them?

Yesterday, I was with my kid at swim practice at the UWI Mona Bowl, and she was working on some techniques and cooling off before the coaches arrived. Some young men marvelled at how she was treading water: “How yu do dat? Yu is like a fish,” one of the men said. She started to show them how to do the arm and leg movements; they then tried but did not make much progress immediately. I sidled up to them and made a few suggestions about what they needed to try: relax and believe that they would float not sink; move slowly, not frantically; try to breathe regularly; remember that it’s easier to swim under the water than on top, so embrace going down a little, knowing that you can come up again. They tried again, and within 15 minutes were able to swim under water for half the width of the pool, and then to swim on top of the water about 15 metres. Progress. “Yu is a coach?” one of the men asked me. I smiled and replied that “I try to teach all the time.”

My kid and I left them and she headed to her group for practice. I started talking to the pool supervisor. I gently took him to task about a water cooler, whose dispenser had been broken and was now ‘functioning’ with a key ring as a pulley–it had now opened and offered two sharp points on which to hold. I’d tried to get a drink and nearly had my finger sliced. I was afraid that a child would try the same and end up badly hurt. The supervisor lamented how he had tried to get the UWI maintenance department to help repair the cooler, to no avail. He told me that it was a matter of money. I disagreed: “It’s a lack of application!” I told him. Money would be found if a child had a serious injury and some parent of lawyer started screaming about “Yu rekless peeple” He agreed and decided that the best thing to do immediately was to lock the cooler and to try to see if he could find an old one to get a replacement part.

Did we identify the real problems in these cases? Did we find solutions that were sustainable (and also simple)? I don’t think Jamaica’s problems are so intractable that we ought not try to play a part in finding solutions.

As we tucked into our jerk dinner, my mind turned to an issue that could fit into the problem bag we had identified. Jamaica has a huge food import bill (US1 billion–about 15 percent of all imports, ranking second after oil (about 40 percent)).  Tourism must be a large contributor to that bill, so any measures to try to reduce that bill should look at how that sector can raise its level of local foods and drinks. I personally lament that one of the pillars of Jamaica’s recent economic development, tourism, appears to have not been a driver for integrating economic activity. For example, local agriculture and manufacturing could have been boosted greatly by being brought more into the supply chain for the ‘sun, sea and sand’ tourism that Jamaica offers. That could have offered an important spur to setting high standards for the quality and presentation of local goods, in the face of the strong temptation to import. I was interested to read a report that the government now wants to push for better such linkages. The reports noted that the ‘tourism sector’s current overall consumption of local fresh produce, fruits and meats is at 10 per cent’. A task force has been set up to work on this issue and a unit will be established within the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment that will facilitate the linkages. Jamaica Agricultural Society, President, Senator Norman Grant has proposed an incentive to the hotels that use locally grown produce. One important change which would help any plan work would be a sharp reduction in the 60 days waiting period that farmers pay to receive payments from hotels, which poses sharp cash flow problems. The challenge will be to attempt this without seriously impairing the real or perceived quality of what is offered to foreign tourists. It will be worth watching if the recent pronouncements are followed by action and what results emerge. We can try to do our part, too, on the import bill. We don’t have to boycott imported food, but really should give a hard thought to buying it instead of ‘local’ (I know the local label needs to be checked, as many items common on the island and now supplemented by imports).

I know that Jamaica is not the best at all things, even if we want to say “Nuh wun no betta dan wi!” The challenge I see now is to take that idea and make it real in every way possible. Jamaica may need to be more like a new swimmer and embrace the essence of a famous qoute from the Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu (who is credited with the founding of Taoism): “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand” (often translated as ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’).