This is how we do it

Independence Day came and went yesterday. The positive messages that were sent out by politicians and others prominent in the business of leading the country should prevail for more than a few days. I started writing this several days ago, and feel better about what follows, after seeing a news bulletin last night reporting that PM Portia Simpson-Miller stopped her motorcade on its way to the National Stadium to console a woman driver whose car had overturned not far from Jamaica House. It made for good viewing to see the PM put her arm around the woman, apparently slip a little something into the woman’s hand, and talk to her and hear her story for several minutes before going on to the Gala. Yes, I could be a cynic and say that a good politician would not pass up a prime moment to show a compassionate face, especially when cameras are around, but I wont go there.

For a country that has so many social problems and suffers so much violent crime, Jamaica is a very interesting blend of nice behaviour, rather than constant anger. I travelled roundtrip between Kingston and Mandeville on Monday and a few things caught my eyes and ears.

  • At the Highway 2000 toll booths, the collectors are always cheerful and smiling, with a greeting and a wish for safe travel. There’s not much real need to associate with every driver, so if this is training at work, wonderful; if it is just good manners, even more wonderful. (A friend confirmed my impression by telling a story yesterday of how she’d been helped by the highway staff once when she was lost and headed the wrong way, then needed to turn back and find her way. She got enough help and guidance to maneuver her way even though she still had to pay the tolls in each direction–“Tek di tikit, maybi yu cyan get a refun’,” was the advice she got 🙂
  • In a country known for its high rates of violent crime, an astonishing number of people still stand on the roadside hoping to get a ride from a passing vehicle, and often show displeasure if a lone driver passes without stopping.
  • A Rasta, selling from the back of his van in a Mandeville car park, said to me that “people have money for medicine, and I sell medicine”. He actually sold fresh fruit and vegetables. Buying from street vendors is still big business. Customers expect value for money and good quality and would be very surprised if the vendors were not engaging–which they are, usually. Vendors of food are as popular as vendors of raw produce. Everyone has a licence? I doubt it. Anyone concerned about that? I doubt it.
  • Giving and getting something for nothing is still a big part of social interaction between buyers and sellers. Jamaicans know and love ‘brawta’ – an extra for free (in Jamaica they sometimes offer an extra 1 of something for free if you have already bought something). It can sometimes come with some ‘up selling’ (being urged to buy a little more). Win-win?Choices_BRAWTA_Plan_5x35
  • It’s turning into a little funny tidbit to point out to visitors that the National Anthem is played before public events start, including at plays and films. I went to the Independence Gala at the National Stadium last night and did not bat an eyelid as the National Anthem was played to start the proceedings. (For all its woes, the USA still has this tradition at many sporting venues. I’ve never heard it at the movies.)
  • At the theatre, there is (always) an intermission: during plays, this will be at some halfway point; during films, the breaks do not follow any strict rule. Intermission is time to go to the bathroom, refill drinks, get popcorn and other snacks, or have a chat about whatever. During a play, you may even meet some of the cast also taking a break. Very civilised, I’d say.
  • Hardly surprising in a country that is not really that well-off, money matters. People are very particular about getting the prices correct, and with it the right amount of change. Jamaicans are not really into tipping (tourist areas apart), and you should not be surprised if someone chases you down if you walk off before getting your change so that they can give you your money.
  • I love it that patty shops now have drive-through windows as an option. Even better, the food is often ready to pick-up when you get to the pick-up window, no matter how busy the main shop is.
  • Jamaicans have some funny lack of sensibilities. How else do you describe the selling of bras and panties out of the back of a van or from a black plastic bag on the sidewalk? No time for shyness or modesty.

I may not have travelled around enough yet, and I don’t make a habit of hitting tourist areas, but I also don’t get the impression that people are trying to rip me off, or not too badly. That betrays a certain mindset, which is not being crabs in a barrel. Yes, the man selling me bananas at 5 for J$150 may give me a story that I dont believe, given that I’ve been buying them at 5 for J$100, but after I bought two bags from him, the price for the third changed to J$100. Understood, if he has a little extra in his pocket.

You can still bargain in a number of places, not usually in stores, food outlets, or the supermarket, but in lots of other places: “That is your best price?” is usually a good opener. I know that the tendency to do so was ingrained at an early age, and I gladly admit that I tried it in some unlikely places in the UK and USA and was never surprised when it worked: “Do you do discount for bulk?” is something that often gets a bargain going.

Caring and sharing takes on a new meaning. I meet some ladies selling newspapers at one of the busy road junctions. I never buy and always tell them that I have the paper at home–true. But, one lady always tries to get me to buy the paper, or some of the sweets she’s selling–“Buy the paper for your wife,” was one suggestion that made me chuckle. Come to think of it, maybe harmony can be secured this way.

Being small has many advantages. Caribbean countries, for the most part, are small places and that has allowed much of the community that exists in small places to persist. It is very much the norm to greet people, and woe betide you if you fail to do so. Even hailing someone with the blowing of a car horn as you pass their gate will do. Better still, though, pull up and have a few words: that will save you from a mauling when you mention that you passed but didn’t stop, not to mention losing out on the fruit or vegetables that may come your way for extending a simple courtesy :-).

Yesterday, The Gleaner had a front page that stressed the positives about Jamaica, and inside it was a real ‘feel good’ edition. Yes, Independence Day was a perfect opportunity to do that, and it was noted by some radio commentators, who asked for more of it. I sense that people are yearning for a change for the better and it may start with taking a better view-point of what we do. Change wont come overnight, but let’s try one step at a time.

Independence 2013: KISS Jamaica

Today, Jamaica celebrates its 51st anniversary of Independence.GrandGalaU20120806RB Although, born here and slightly older than the independent nation, I have never been here for Independence, so this will be a first. My 9 year-old gets to do something I haven’t ever done–go to the Grand Gala and Float Parade at the National Stadium. I hope it will be a thrilling and colorful spectacle and that she can come home and tell me excitedly what she saw and heard, and who and what she saw and heard. I will get the benefit of “improved coverage” on television.tj876-jamaica-50-grand-gala-48

A little local brouhaha has broken out about the government spending J$100 million (US$1 million) on the independence celebrations, not just the gala. I will ask those who go to the gala if they feel it was money well spent in the spirit of cultural education.

Many questions have been asked about what Jamaica has to show for over 50 years of independence, and recently, some have looked at how it has fared compared to Singapore–soon to be 48. Relative to Jamaica, Singapore made its life simple–it applied a lot of the KISS principle. Its ruling party kept political opposition in check–never losing an election. It kept tight rules in place over much of the nation’s life. Singapore started with very little land and very few people. Now it still has very little land, but many more people, and they are considerably richer than Jamaicans in financial terms. They are better educated that Jamaicans. They are more honest than Jamaicans. They produce more than Jamaicans, individually and collectively. But, are they better off than Jamaicans? I’ll think about that a little today.

If I ask myself “For what is Singapore known?” I struggle to come up with five things. I think of food–and Singapore noodles are not Singaporean, as far as I know. I think of rules, especially some seemingly strange ones, such as no chewing gum allowed, or some interesting applications of modesty (no nudity, or hugging in public without permission). I’d applaud the heavy fines for littering, though. I think of Lee Kwan Yew, credited as being the founder of modern Singapore: a clear thinker with a philosophy that was well-focused and consistently applied as a national leader. But, that’s not really a lot, and maybe Singapore, in good Asian fashion, prefers to be less-noticeable, and somewhat self-effacing, and is happy to be judged by what it has done and done. PM Lee made a pact with the people, when he assured them of good education, housing and health provisions, and in return they would give the country their hardest and best work.

That is not Jamaica or Jamaicans, whether it’s from our largely African heritage, years of slavery that needed to be unbound, the impact of too much rum and sun and sand and sea. We love fun and brashness. We love music and wild public display. We love to show off our bodies–though some really ought to stay covered up. We have super egos (“No one is better than me”). We’re happy to be considered inferior, because we believe we are superior, and we will try to show doubters they are wrong. We have a great landscape, from almost every position you care to look, especially from the air. We don’t have a lot of skyscrapers, thank God. We have a lot of bad people, who seem to have no conscience, but they are much fewer than the really good and thoughtful people.

I’ve visited Singapore, and I liked it. I stayed with English, Singaporean Chinese and Malay friends. It was only a week, but I saw a lot and experienced a lot, formally and informally. The food was truly fabulous. I’m sad that I have not been back. I could live there, for the order and cleanliness that surrounds everything, much like in Switzerland. But, give me Jamaica any day. I grew up accustomed to seeing goats on the roadside, and whenever I drive around nothing seems more normal than the simplicity of goats grazing wherever they may be in town or country. I hate litter, and stand gobsmacked when I see gullies strewn with styrofoam boxes and plastic bottles or other garbage. I laugh at the reckless bravado shown by young people hanging out of the back of a truck flying along a dusty road, and hope that they don’t come to any harm, but hanker for a lift up to get in there with them. I love the mayhem of a market or a busy street in Jamaica. Wares and wears for sale. What can you say when a man waves a pair of huge bloomers in the air and yells “Briefs and panties for sale!”? Stephen Stills had it right, “Love the one you’re with“.

That my be easier that trying to be what you’re not and perhaps feeling the need to adopt Stephen Covey’s principles.

So, today, with its tarnished self on stage, Jamaica can try to love itself for what it is, and give itself a big kiss. Who knows, this ugly frog may still turn out to be a handsome prince 🙂

Tipping Points. Is Jamaica ready to change?

One of my favourite people of Jamaican heritage is Malcolm Gladwell, whose mother was born in Jamaica, but who’s classed as British-Canadian. He’s written some bestselling books, which would really fall gladly into the term ‘nerdy’. One of those books is The Tipping Point, tipping-ptwhich explores how ideas spread. If one could identify tipping points before they are reached, then betting would be a great sport. The important elements of Gladwell’s arguments centre on the importance of a ‘few’ people, how an idea becomes memorable, and the context or social conditions. Put simply, you need the right people to spread a message; it has to have something special to help it take hold; the time must be right (or ripe). I have a feeling that Jamaica is nearing some important tipping points.

Can Jamaican get out of its economic malaise? On a good day, if you ask me what I am, I’ll say “An economist.” If you ask me where do I work, I’ll say “I’m retired. I used to work for the International Monetary Fund.” In Jamaica, that last statement could be the excuse used for people to hail a handful of rocks at a person. So far, it hasn’t happened to me. I do not believe that Jamaica has made a dramatic change of heart and fallen in love with the IMF, but I think people have begun to better understand that the IMF tends to get blamed for things governments need to do but find difficult–the blame is often put on the messenger. Ultimately, the IMF does nothing but dispense advice and dole out some money for what it feels is the right things being done. Governments have to act, and citizens need to get used to taking governments and politicians to task for policy failures.

In coming weeks, the IMF will have a team of economists assess formally how the government has performed under the current arrangement with the IMF (stiffly termed the ‘quarterly test under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) Agreement’). I have not seen any figures or internal reports of policy actions, but clearly the government is very confident. Within days of the test date (June 30), officials went official saying they were confident the tests would be passed. That message has been repeated at very high levels for a good month. Now, you generally don’t blast out such impressions unless you’re locked into them being true: the cost of failure is high, but the cost of false promise is worse.

One of my bosses at the IMF once told me that one of his bosses only ever needed to see three numbers to know how an economy was doing, so he did not relish sitting in meetings with his team members poring over reams of data. In the same way, some people (me, for instance) believe that you can sense when people are going about things differently. That may not show up in figures we like to consider, not least because the changes are subtle and widespread and are represented in attitudes and behaviour, which don’t lend themselves to clear measurement.

People often lament that certain things didn’t happen when they should have. They then rail that things would be better if action had been taken earlier. I wont disagree with that sentiment. I just say that sometimes the time is not quite right and things have a habit of happening when conditions are right. That’s Gladwellian, but I thought that way long before reading Gladwell’s book.

Jamaica is on the cusp of pulling itself out of its economic malaise. I will look at the three numbers but have nothing else that can prove that. I feel it in my bones.dog_with_a_seriously_large_bone I wont be proved right within the next weeks, nor will I be proved wrong by year-end. This process takes time, but I sense the process is working. Like Usain Bolt, putting his finger to his lips when winning the 200 metres final in last year’s Olympics as a way of silencing the critics, I have an inkling that Jamaican officials feel they can walk the walk. About time!

Is Jamaica ready to get up and stand up for (their) rights? I believe that there is a limit to the degree of self-delusion. No doubt, the light bulb may not go off for a long while, but it usually does. Jamaicans readily cry and wail when their fellow citizens fall foul of some heinous deed by another citizens. Look at the regular outpouring of grief as innocent people lose their lives when gangs or criminals of another stripe have a shoot-out and a stray bullet takes a life, especially that of a child. We are living that now as Denham Town in west Kingston mourns an 11 year-old girl who was shot and killed as a hail of bullets sought some other target. The local MP, Desmond Mackenzie, came out publicly against this latest tragedy and his constituency office has offered a J$300,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the shooters. (He’s also paying the funeral expenses.) Local residents are crying “Enough!” Will this be the straw that breaks the back of the camel of gang violence? Which will be stronger, the disgust that people feel that some come into their midst and have no respect for life and limb or the sentiment that “Infomer fi dead!” You can’t have it both way.

Don’t even think that the homophobia that is part of Jamaica’s image is going to disappear. Things like that are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of this country that it has to take generations to move to another state. But, I sense that the public comments condemning the recent brutal killing by party goers of a young man who was dressed in women’s clothes at a dance. Reason is not going to affect immediately those who were involved in the beating, chopping and dumping of the body. The person who exposed the cross-dresser has to live with their role–proudly, of course. Reason is not what matters in such cases. It’s passion, as in rage. You cannot reason with a crazy person, and for sure, not with crazed people. While you may leave a two-year old, who gets into a tantrum over custard spilled onto a favourite toy, to cry itself to sleep, when you’re dealing with much older people, you have to take some clear actions to make them understand that ‘this foolishness’ has to stop. Religious organizations have a sorry role to play in the lack of understanding of the rights of homosexuals, and no amount of twisting and scripture-turning can excuse the abuses of logic that come from accepting one kind of ‘sin‘ and condemning what are deemed to be others. For sure, we do not have the means to bring back a life taken, but we have the means to use that loss in positive ways. The Justice Minister openly condemned the killing. Other ‘opinion makers’ are joining their voices. Are they the important ‘few’? But, so-called ordinary people need to lift their voices and their heads to say whether they condone or condemn–they need to make the message stick. No more sitting comfortably on the fence and merely tut-tutting. Some have called for a show of public disobedience on this issue. Is the social environment better positioned? The time may well be right.

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’).