Economic Growth Council Signing Ceremony and Call to Action: Some thoughts on the illusion of optics

I did not attend the Economic Growth Council’s (EGC) ‘Signing Ceremony and Call to Action’, held at the Courtleigh Auditorium on November 7, but I was able to watch the Livestream video of the event, which you can watch here https://www.facebook.com/EGCJamaica/posts/275339559528471. There’s lots to applaud in how the EGC packages what it’s doing, and its slickness is one of the positives that can be taken from what they are doing. As I’ve noted before, I’m interested in aspect of the process of getting Jamaica onto a much faster growth path. Achieving that should be important in getting more Jamaicans contributing to the well-being of the island. Traditionally, high growth rates would be translated into faster and broader jobs growth, but many things have changed in the local and world economy, so that the prospect of ‘jobless’ growth is a real risk. That’s an outcome that Jamaica needs to avoid.

One thing that struck me in the presentations was how much of Jamaica seemed to matter. Now, I might not have been looking or listening with as much care as I could, but if so, please correct me. I saw only a few representatives of many of Jamaica’s important people. Who do I mean?

I mean farmers, vendors, schoolchildren, young single mothers with many children, the sick, the unemployed, the young men whom we often talk about as being disaffected or alienated.

Now, as is the way with many events, the process of ‘reaching out’ is often done hastily or incompletely. But, to me, this series of omissions is telling. When I watched the video ‘testimonials’ of young people telling me what they were expecting and hoping I heard what seemed like a narrow cross-section of those who are also yearning. Again, these ‘sound bites’ cannot be comprehensive, but they should give the impression of being broadly spread. I did not get that impression. Why do I think that matters?

One of my big concerns is that amongst the mistakes that we have made in the past and are in danger of repeating is somehow acting as if the change we want to see will be organic. Time was, when economies grew, people knew work would be created across a wide area of the country, so that no or few special measures were needed to see that flow occur. My belief is that those days are long gone, partly due to technology, but also due to the fact that the structure of the country has changed, both geographically and culturally. What that suggests, to me, is that some careful funneling needs to happen. That cannot be like in a planned economy, where you direct resources very specifically to areas and people, but it may need to be something similar.

I think the notion of inclusion is important, but do not see it happening spontaneously. My belief is that a large swathe of the country has actively excluded itself, or felt it was excluded, and so needs to be actively included

Some of those who need to be included live in the ‘shadows’ of our society, but that does not make they trivial; on the contrary. They have significant influence on many people’s lives. If crime is seen as the biggest challenge to getting Jamaica’s economy onto a much firmer footing, that cannot happen without addressing the flow of young people into crime. The motives for following that sort of life are complex, but talking about ‘opportunities’ in some glib, or amorphous way will miss the target massively. 

I do not have the answers to this problem, but I see what is happening in many areas as a sign that all cannot be well if the process does not reach deep down into daily lives. I just cite a simple set of experiences.

I drove across the middle of Jamaica on Sunday, from the tourist hub in Montego Bay, through our Trelawny agricultural heartland that grows sugar cane and yam, into the capital. I saw many men and women doing what they do almost daily: 

  • Sitting playing dominoes, or drinking and eating; 
  • Standing at water pipes or walking with drums on their heads to and from water tanks;
  • Living in homes that are barely fit for purpose;
  • Putting piles of produces onto roadsides, hoping for sales;
  • Getting into overcrowded taxis to head to their activities;
  • Begging on the road, at traffic lights;
  • Walking along potholed roads, long distances, to their activities;
  • Making phone calls to people on a list, plying them for money.

I just cite those snippets because they are representative of what many people are doing.

The idea of moving from ‘third world to first’ is attractive, but what does it mean, and is it something that means that people’s lives will be transformed dramatically AWAY from some of these daily activities within the next four years?

If the answer to those questions is to mean anything, those people need to know what will change in their lives and what they need to do to make it happen faster and look likely to be a permanent feature of their lives. 

Eroding our own future

Some news commentary on the radio this morning has been with me all day. Criminals have been evicting people from their homes, then forcing the persons to rent back the premises from them. Jamaicans have some strange ways of extortion and making lives of so-called fellow citizens unbearable.

Those involved in crime are finding new areas of activity. There’s really no limit to where crime can take place, in terms of what can be used as the lever with which to force people into uncomfortable positions. The idea of being able to get away from crime by living in certain areas or closing areas off from the general public is a fallacy. Living in gated communities or the other common practice of locked doors to business premises provide a degree of security only at those places–and it’s only a degree. A friend told me how neighbours in his gated complex had been held up and robbed. It seemed that what happened must have needed ‘inside help’.

Here is the crux of what seems to have happened to Jamaica. Crime has become a tourniquet. The recent newspaper article in the Gleaner about the existence of ‘death squads’ in the police force, who receive instructions from senior officers to kill criminals points to an unending circle. The extraordinary levels of killings of civilians by security forces now had a more sinister context. With a day of the press report, another police killing occurred, in downtown Kingston (Orange Villa) this time the victim might have suffered from ‘mistaken identity’.

Crime seems to be everywhere. Crime seems to involve almost any and everyone, including those who are appointed to fight crime and protect the rest of us. This is a maddening dilemma to face. Lawlessness is so ingrained in what passes for normal life that it becomes difficult to understand how the country can really function.

We hear reports of extensive gang activity. We hear and read about drugs trading. We are constantly informed about thefts, often with violence: nothing is safe if it can be moved. Livestock; electrical goods; money; cars; household contents. We are so aware of theft that reports of sand mining at Duncans (Trelawny) quickly brought concern that the beach was being stolen. Government sources indicate that the mining was all legitimate. But, our suspicions were raised quickly; it had happened before.

Crime has taken a deep hold of the society and much economic activity. It is inevitable, in many respects. People have had little hope for so long and have decided to ‘make hope’. The easiest way to make that hope real, is to take away the hopes and dreams of others. Nothing need be created besides fear. Then, extract. It’s a cynical way to live, but there we’ve gone.

I believe that poor economic performance over decades has pushed many Jamaicans to a brink over which they then tumbled. Others followed, thinking that the gains far exceeded the risks of loss. Things wont change much unless that economic malaise ends.

Another piece of news struck me today. The UK recorded much better than expected employment data. Britain’s Prime Minister (@Number10gov) took to Twitter quickly to record his reactions: “Biggest quarterly increase in employment on record. More jobs means more security, peace of mind & opportunity for the British people.”

Britain has high unemployment by western European standards–7 percent; with youth unemployment (16 to 24-year-olds) at 21 percent. Compared this to Jamaica’s 16 percent and 40 percent, respectively. That island economy’s leader understands what poses major dangers and what is needed to avoid that. To repeat: “More jobs means more security, peace of mind & opportunity“. It’s not that simple, but it’s that simple.

Cut my grass? Take my shirt. Why not more barter in Jamaica?

We shouldn’t be surprised that hard times lead to creative solutions. Several years ago, a spate of articles focused on the development of bartering in developed countries when the recession started to pinch people.

One inventive idea in New York, ‘Art Barter’, was an art exhibition where pieces could be acquired for anything BUT money: art was presented anonymously, only with reference numbers.

Another idea, in Pennsylvania, was ‘time dollars’, where members were credited for services they provide to other members–cooking, housekeeping, car rides, home repairs, etc.. For each hour of work, one ‘time dollar’ is deposited into a member’s account, good for services offered by other membersone-good-turn-a3Time Banks USA, which was formed in 1995,  indicated that well over 100 such schemes existed across the USA in 2011. As its website reports “TimeBanking is a medium of exchange — like money, but having its own qualities. It was designed in 1980 by TimeBanking founder Edgar Cahn to reward “decency, caring, and a passion for justice.” Cahn was a law fellow at the London School of Economics and a famous social justice advocate. Time banks or ‘community exchanges’ have developed worldwide.

While I can find evidence of formalised community exchange or time banking in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, I cannot find any information about such schemes in Jamaica, West Indies. To clarify, Jamaica has a barter exchange, Anbell Trade Exchange Limited, recently created in June 2012, but it’s aim is to trade Jamaican goods internationally. As the government minister said, it was Jamaica bartering to the world.

However, I know that people in Jamaica are bartering. I’ve known of this happening here for decades, well back into the history of the country. People in my family talk about bringing produce up from St. Elizabeth, known as the nation’s bread basket (especially mangoes), to exchange with people in Manchester, well-known for its citrus and Irish potatoes. It was simple and gave people what they needed directly.

More recently, I heard of a Kingston city dweller who could not pay his landscaper so traded some used shoes and shirts for the man’s grass cutting and lawn care services: the ‘seller’ was happy as the clothing and footwear were not much worn by him, and the ‘buyer’ was very happy with his new gears.

Barter in such circumstances is not as sustainable as when you offer time or produce as your assets will be depleted, and when you end up naked or just with the socks you got last Christmas, you may still need to ‘pay’ for things.

I have some hefty medical bills to pay, after my father spent a few weeks at the University hospital in Kingston. I jokingly offered to work off some of the money due by washing dishes. What was funny was that one of the hospital administrators said “Nothing is off the table”. Maybe, I need to take her at her word.

I know that one of Jamaica’s major problems in a high rate of unemployment, especially amongst young people. Bartering for them may not be a cool option, but if it’s about getting food into their bellies. Of course, hunger is only one of the needs to be satisfied, but one step at a time. Working is one of those social actions that make a person aware that they have some significant worth, and if it’s in exchange for some goods instead of money shouldnt make it an unacceptable option.  Europe and other major developed areas also have ‘work for food and accommodation’ schemes are also popular.

Jamaica’s economy and society have been boxed in by many problems, so maybe it’s time for more ‘out of the box’ thinking to get out of some of these problems.

Have you done it, yet? Stop digging!

Most adults know the feeling that comes when you have an assignment to do, and a good amount of time to get it done, but somehow time has been allowed to slip, and the deadline is fast approaching. In some cases, it’s clear that doom is just around the corner: you have 30 oranges to peel, each takes 20 seconds, and you have only five minutes left. You can only peel half of the amount. Let’s be brutal, and accept that time was wasted and really you’ve shown a clear inability to set priorities properly.

Those adults who are parents or often with children may be familiar with this situation when it comes to school homework. The child says he or she has three things to do and they should take an hour. The child comes home at 3pm, then eats for half an hour, then decides to go and play with some toys, or read a book. Five o’clock comes along and you hear nothing. You check on your child. She’s in the bathroom with green moose in her hair, and trying to use a shower head to rinse it out. The mousse just keeps foaming. An hour later, the mousse is all out. It’s now six o’clock. The child goes to the school bag and looks for the homework folder. You hear some frantic shrieking and some loud noises as books are pulled off shelves and draws are opened and shut. You hear a grunted “I can’t find my homework!” You take another sip of coconut water and turn the page of the book you had been reading. “I CAN’T find my homework!” now comes with more volume and clear tone of panic. You muster the energy to go to the sound. A little conversation ensues, ending with your saying “It’s now 6:30 and we’re not heading back to school to find your homework.” Tears follow and the evening descends into a sort of chaos, with a sobbing child being tucked into bed and kissed goodnight. A piece of the adult brain is thinking “I hope you’ve learned a lesson.”

It’s a good hope. Of course, no lesson might have been learned.

20130903-124743.jpgThere shouldn’t have been any problems and things ended up much worse than should have been the case. You know what went wrong, but trying to point that out and discuss it with the child ends with raised voices and more tears. You leave it alone, but keep on giving the little reminders about timing, and planning, and checking, and preparing. For years, and years, and years. How does the child turn out? I wont go there, yet.

Those images of the oranges or the child and its homework make me think of Jamaica and its attempts to deal with a range of events: eventually, time takes control and things either don’t get done partly, or done at all.

Public schools started their new year yesterday, and the Minster of Education mentioned that it was a “smooth start” for most schools.

20130903-130217.jpgThat seems generous given talk of incomplete schools and lack of adequate furniture in some schools, as well as awkward issues about payments of supplementary fees, higher bus and taxi fares, struggles to get text books, etc.

This morning, there was a report that only about half of the 40,000 graduates from high school and universities this year would be able to find jobs in the private sector. So, time spent on education for successful students seems to hold the prospect of limited employment opportunities, for half of them. We also have to accept that those who don’t succeed in education are more likely to fall into the unemployed heap.

So, what has Jamaica been doing? Idling away its time to prepare for the employment of its students? We know that the general economy has not been capable of absorbing new potential employees–hence, unemployment at 16 percent and youth employment around 38 percent. One hears little beyond the hope that big projects will come along to offer work. Yes, there’s some vague talk about ramping up ‘growth sectors’ such as information technology and communication. But, Jamaica has dug itself into a deep economic hole and keeps digging.

20130903-131913.jpg

That we haven’t prepared very well is clear. We keep letting time slip by without using it to prepare well. We end up on our tush, too often. When you keep digging in a hole, it’s really hard to climb out.

Problems of assimilation

When I woke at 4.30 this morning, I was thrown by how dark it was. I’d not adjusted to the one hour time difference with Jamaica. I went back to sleep and got up again at 6.30 (my usual 5.30 wake up time). I didn’t hesitate to put on my swim trunks and tee-shirt and head out for a walk. I fancied walking south along the boardwalk to the area near the Lincoln Road shopping and party spots. Before I got out, I met four ‘people of the night’ who were just getting home, not quit doing the ‘walk of shame‘. One young lady was opening and closing her eyes as if they had sand in them. Everyone in the group spoke in a deep voice: the effect of talking over loud music  for hours, I suspected. I laughed to myself and headed on.

I met two acquaintances; the lady soon left me and another man, as she ran ahead and we walked and talked. The man and I had only met a few times before and recently, but we got talking about my early retirement. He asked me for my advice about doing the same. I gave him my take, emphasising that he needed to feel confident in his decision and embracing the new opportunities that would be presented to him. He was planning to take over a business in Europe from his very aged parents, though he knew very little about the business. Interestingly, one of two major concerns was loss of ‘exposure’ and some ‘lifestyle’ changes that may occur as he fell into the world of ‘ordinary people’. Gone privileged access to people and places, etc. I understood. It was easy to envisage him as a very successful businessman in a few years. I told him that he’d get new exposure and may find new doors opening, or interesting or influential new people, in the most unexpected places and ways. If he found that the loss of ‘exposure’ was really bothering him, I suggested that he and his ego go and have a good long talk to each other.

Unexpectedly, I went further into an understanding of Miami. At lunch, I sat with two ladies who were both Miami natives, one black (in her 20s), one white (in her 50s). Both now lived in different cities, and had felt the need to leave Miami to get on with their lives and careers. They shared several similar views about some of the social aspects of the city:

  • The influence of the population of  Cuban origin (about 860,000 in south Florida)–who had much business and political influence in the city, but despite this, had a strong desire to return to Cuba to ‘take over’ from the Castro regime.
  • The capture of culture by large waves of near-refugees from regional civil disruptions and natural disasters (eg, in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Haiti). This mixed with Latin American drug-related funds flowing in to fuel the local economy.
  • Young people of many races living a life of conspicuous consumption, exemplified by driving flashy new cars, where they ‘live large’ and party hearty.
  • People living way beyond their means, or having ‘fallen off the cliff’.

Where do Jamaicans feature in this? I didn’t get a very clear answer and it did not appear that they were sharing fully in this characterisation or benefiting much from the fact that others in the area were making up this picture. But, there was some support for the idea that they did not mingle fully with the area’s population, living in ‘their’ areas in Miami-Dade county (and shifting increasingly northward to neighbouring Broward county.

I was struck even more today by what appears to be an absence of English-speaking Caribbean people present in the Miami Beach area. They may be hidden inside hotels doing various jobs, but judging by the hotel in which I’m staying that’s not the case. So, if they have been ‘shut out’ of what should be a vibrant part of the Florida economy, what is happening to them?

Welcome to Miami!

There’s a simple logic behind many episodes of voluntary migration: a search for better opportunities. My parents sought the same when they left Jamaica for England just before Independence. Before that and since, Jamaicans have traveled far and wide; they and their offspring can now be found in many different places. Jamaica has lost much human capital through emigration, and it’s hard to see that drain of people and their intellectual and physical talent as being an overall positive for Jamaica’s development, even if in cash terms it could be shown that remittances have become the largest source of funds to the economy and provided immense support to families all over the island.imageI find myself in a location to which Jamaicans have flocked–south Florida. Here I am in Miami. I acknowledge openly that, after all the travel I have done through Miami International Airport over two decades, I had never set foot outside of those hallowed concourses. Today, that changed.

It does not take much to understand the attraction of this area for Caribbean people: sun, sand, sea, hot temperatures, jobs, jobs and more jobs, nice places to live and work, and more jobs. Don’t get me wrong: the place was not immune from the general downturn in the US economy, but by comparison with the Caribbean, things look very good for employment seekers most of the time. True, it’s America and its attitudes and ethos are different to those of the Caribbean, but it’s relatively laid back, in an industrialised way.

It is hard to verify the exact number of people of Jamaican descent living in the USA because most of them assimilate into the wider so-called ‘African-American’ communities. US census data suggest that documented Americans of Jamaican descent and (the high number of) Jamaican “illegal aliens” total close to 1 million ‘Jamaicans’ living in the United States.

Jamaicans refer colloquially to the Miami metropolitan area as “Kingston 21”.

I haven’t seen enough of the Miami Beach area to support that title, but I won’t challenge it. Maybe, as I move around Dade County in coming days, that view will change.

The early morning flight from Kingston today was full–and I understand it’s almost always that way. Makes sense: you pay about US$300 to fly from Kingston to MoBay, but about US$600 to get to Miami. You can do a lot here, even in a day, and if you’ve shopping at affordable prices on your mind, then the US consumer is your friend by needing to change with the seasons, when Jamaicans don’t have the same reasons. Autumn fashions are coming out and the sales are on to move those summer clothes. Buy yuh tikit!

Jamaica’s loss of citizens to other countries has meant considerable gains to those countries. As I walked around this afternoon, I could hear a distinct Jamaican lilt, but not as often as I heard a trace of Haiti or some Spanish. Whatever the Jamaicans here are achieving, it’s on a crowded playground, and some parts Jamaicans just aren’t touching: I only heard Haitian creole amongst the corps of taxi drivers who were standing and hoping most of the day. I heard only Spanish in the shops I entered in a nearby retail area. For that matter, what is striking about Miami is that it feels and sounds like a non-English speaking part of the USA. So, I’m left pondering, after a few hours here, how Jamaicans are faring and how they are maneuvering around this landscape.
Continue reading “Welcome to Miami!”

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