Going for the W

My wife had a new staff member join her office team in Jamaica this week. The young economist came to our house for dinner, with his wife, and several other guests. We welcomed them and I got talking to him about Jamaica and tried to give a few insights to this country, that I happily described as being an economic conundrum, but also one that had astonishing features, given its size. Someone commented that Jamaica punched well above its weight–a metaphor for our impact on many aspects of worldwide cultural, political and social life. I mentioned that as part of our national character, with our pride often well to the fore, we would rarely shirk from conflicts when we believed that right was on our side; not acting like zealots, but standing on our horses high on matters of principle. I mentioned our stance on Apartheid, which for me was a quintessential one, that marked our PM at the time, Michael Manley, as one of the great statesmen. Fear is not something that Jamaicans often display publicly. Our stance is often taken as arrogant. We are truly exceptional as a nation and not afraid to express that, despite the many internal struggles that we have to be at peace with ourselves. We are not fence sitters. Or, so I thought.

Why did Ian Borne have to leave us this week? His mind and voice and words and thoughts would be anticipated with a yearning, I think, that would be stronger than many we have had in years.

When I started my working life, I was told to park my ego at the door, in a sense. My boss told me that I had been recruited as a bright, young graduate, to do something special: it was not that I was expected to have the right answers, but I was expected to ask the right questions. Gradually, and continually, that’s what I was asked to do, and after several decades of doing it in several walks of life, it’s now how I proceed, normally. I was told, basically: Go for the W!

Why? Who? What? When?

That’s what I took from the approach adopted by Ian Boyne. It’s what it means to think critically. It’s a feature that Jamaicans don’t display often or well, however. We tend to take too many things as they are presented to us. We fail to ask enough questions and we do not hold enough people to account for their actions.

Today’s Gleaner editorial begins to do what our media does often, which is ask pertinent questions. But, it also tends not to follow-up with enough vigour, in my opinion; it’s not a mauling guard dog, often enough. But, that’s for another day.

The piece, What’s The Deal With Jamaica’s Jerusalem Vote?, states a position with which I agree fully: ‘…we are disappointed that the island didn’t find the courage at the United Nations yesterday to repudiate the United States’ move that effectively declares Jerusalem to be sovereign Israeli territory.’ For context, the editorial sets out what happened:

‘Yesterday’s General Assembly essentially reaffirmed that position [Israel’s right to exist in security, but within the borders prior to the 1967 war] by declaring that “decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void, and must be rescinded in compliance with relevant resolutions of the Security Council”.

Mr Trump, in character with his presidency, threatened to cut aid to countries that supported the resolution. “… We’ll save a lot,” he said. His UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, issued similar dire warnings. Yet 128 countries voted in favour of the resolution, with only nine in against. Thirty-five countries, including Jamaica and four other CARICOM members, abstained.

Our Government did not offer an explanation for its vote.’ (my emphasis).

So, in the absence of that explanation, Jamaicans need to step up, individually and collectively, and go for the W? Why has our government made this decision?

We are not budding revolutionaries to ask that simple question. I would hope that, as part of the normal business of running an administration, the PM will make a statement to set out the rationale for our decision to ‘sit of a fence’. If there is a ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’ or ‘When?’ that drove our decisions, speak up on them, too.

I would hope that Ian, not yet in his grave, is turning, hoping to find another breath of life to join his voice calling for those answers. But, I should not disturb him anymore. RIP, Ian

The state we’re in. If not ‘failed’, then what?

Renowned journalist, Ian Boyne, has been lecturing renowned journalist, Cliff Hughes on whether Jamaica is a failed state. This may seem to be arcane stuff just for intellectuals. However, I suggest everyone think about it, carefully.

Boyne understandably goes for the books to find the official definition of a failed state. He wrote (my stress):

‘The respected Foreign Policy magazine had for years been publishing its annual failed-state list. When political scientists talk about failed states, they have certain features in mind, such as state collapse, having whole parts of a country’s territory controlled by rebel forces or outside of central control; a state where social and public services have totally collapsed; and where state authority cannot be asserted in critical areas. A state with military intervention, political manipulation of the judiciary, alienation from the international community, etc.’

Naturally, by that standard, Jamaica is not officially classed as a failed state. Boyne goes on to stress that the term of art used by political scientists has now moved to look at the fragility of states. The map below shows the world according to this fragility measure. Jamaica is ranked amongst the less fragile (#119, where a high number is a good mark, with South Sudan being #1 and Somalia #2; Sweden is #177).

Fragile states compared
Fragile states compared

In defence of Jamaica’s not officially making the failed state grade, he cites our freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and our liberal democracy. But, all of that is well and good, in the realm of discussion by political scientists. However, they make up such a small portion of the world’s thinking people, and of those who have to live their lives under different regimes. So, I think that, while they may try to help us codify and understand things in a certain way, theirs is not the final word. I think what the general population believes makes a lot more sense. I will come back to that.

Boyne acknowledges our many social and economic failings in a follow-up article, where he wrote (my stress):

‘There is a strong, overwhelming sense that Jamaica’s Independence dream has been betrayed; that it has become a nightmare, with many wishing they could turn back the clock. There is a high degree of political disillusionment in the country, and this is not confined to disappointment with the present administration, but with the political system and political class in general.’

That indictment gets to what many see as a clear failure of the state. Jamaica has not made a success of itself. Boyne touches on some of the reasons, not least the awkward convenience of crime and politics rubbing shoulders and our garrison politics.

So, what is Jamaica? If we want to live by official definitions, then we may have to create a category for states that have failed miserably to deliver much by way of quality of life for the majority of its population. Should it be the ‘mediocre’ state? It could be the ‘disenchantment’ state. Or, the ‘never really tried, so give us another chance’ state? How about ‘we look after our friends and stuff the rest of you’ state. I’m sure that a ranking could be found that slots us in well. In the same way that measuring GDP does not capture well what is really happening in a country in terms of quality of live, notwithstanding the general agreement on the measurement elements, the ‘failed’ state definition is not the end of the debate. Rather, it is a point for discussion. As Bhutan has decided to try to measure gross national happiness, so we should think about measuring our ‘gross national disenchantment’ (If I wanted to use a more profane term, such as p***ed-offness, we could get a new measure of GNP.)

I think that the refuge taken in official definitions in an interesting piece of positioning. (It’s not consistently done, as some have noted, because the use of ‘terrorist’ is a rather loose one. But, let me leave that piece of semantics alone, for the moment.)

Like with the notion of corruption, we have to move away from a strict definition of something to a point that many understand to be very acceptable. Transparency International does not try to measure actual corruption, but perceptions of corruption. The world runs with this, quite well. Likewise, I think we can, at least, live without the strict definition of ‘failed’ state, and work with the perception of a ‘failed’ state, in ways that really affect the lives of most.

In another vein, we may have the skeleton of acceptable governance, but the body has very little by way of solid flesh. It’s that way in many countries, where they have met the letter of the laws, but have not put in place mechanisms to have those laws applied effectively.

I write all of that in the wake of the latest piece that suggests that the state fails its population, the running sore that is the NHT purchase of Outameni Experience/Orange Grove.

It’s important to see Jamaica for what it is. It is not a success. It has many trappings of failure in the broadest sense. We are not in some middle ground, though some would say that life in the country is like purgatory

How else do you categorise a country that has the high levels of murder per head of population that we have? We were not so long ago, deemed the ‘murder capital’ of the world. A failure to ensure a high level of safety from crime. Reducing slightly the rate of killings does not erase the high stock deaths that have been at the hands of murderers.

How else do you categorise a country that has had almost the highest rate of killings of civilians by its security forces? The official, legal definition of ‘extra judicial killing’ fits Jamaica.

How else do you categorise a country that woefully underserves its school and college graduates?

Pontificating about the political scientists’ definition of a failed state may read well, but it misses the essential point. Jamaica has failed. Merriam Webster defines ‘fail’ as:

  • to not succeed
  • to end without success
  • to not succeed as a business
  • to become bankrupt
  • to not do (something that you should do or are expected to do)

We meet the definition, fully.

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