National Poetry Day: The State we’re in

Today is National Poetry Day. If I were a literary dictator, I would insist that every citizen write some verse. But, I’m not, and I’m no renowned poet, either, but a few lines, doggerel form or with flowing imagery should be in my head.

So, with spontaneous zeal, I search for my muse.

The world seeks justice, but not poetic justice.
No one deserves to suffer,
We have the State as a buffer,
To the random chips that we hold.
Our hand plays the cards we are dealt.

But, unless we’re blind, we know that life is not kind to all mankind.

Born poor? Out the door.
Born lame? Out of the game.
Born black? Sit at the back.
Born white? You’re all right.
Born male? You won’t fail.
Born a girl? Show your twirl.

The world seems cut this way.
The world needs this cut away.

Fairness? Stuff of dreams.
Hunger, that makes children scream is too common.
We grow what we eat? No land? Then starve.
The State is the buffer?
But, then why do we suffer?

What a state to be in.

Hunger games, Jamaica-style

If anyone asked “How many Jamaicans are living in Poverty?” or “How many Jamaicans go hungry every day?” No one could give an answer. That’s common in any country. Large national and international organizations collect survey data, which try to measure these statistics. The World Bank reported that 17.6 percent of the population was in poverty in 2010, having risen sharply from 10 percent in 2007.

Classic view of urban poverty in Jamaica
Classic view of urban poverty in Jamaica

To make it easier to visualise, that’s about one person in five.

But, every day, it is easy to meet hungry and poor people in Jamaica. Take this morning. I was out, about to take some exercise. Up to me sidled a young man whom I know. “Beg you a food, Missa Dennis.” I told him, honestly, that I did not have any money. His eyes looked at the ground; he shuffled then headed back to where he had been sitting.

We know that many school children go to school each day hungry in Jamaica. Some are covered part of the time by school feeding programs. An article I read last year stated: The Government has budgeted J$4 billion to feed public school students, 30 per cent of whom often count the State-sponsored meal services as their only chance to eat. The Education Ministry and Ministry of Social Security carry the heavy financial burden to provide at least one meal per day to hungry children within the island’s public school system.

A child with a plate of food in Jamaica
A schoolchild with a plate of food in Jamaica

Many children, especially at the primary levels, eat only half of the meal at school, while taking home the other half for dinner. So, thousands of early childhood students come to school hungry; an estimated over 30 per cent.

Children currently being fed include 136,000 who get meals through Nutrition Products Limited; 175,000 across all school types who get cooked lunches; and a further 211,000 who get Programme for the Advancement Through Health and Education nutritional support.

Currently, 5,000 students getting nutritional support from the State are in early childhood institutions; 206,000 in primary, all-age, and secondary schools.

In addition, a pilot breakfast programme was also implemented in 37 schools in the Corporate Area and included 8,156 students. That meal is supported by locally produced foods such as ripe bananas, plantains, potatoes, carrots, and liquid eggs. Bananas are to be used for baked products and discussions are under way for sausage or chicken to minimise the use of imported chicken back, corn beef, and mackerel.

Poverty has several features in any country. People who are on the street, naked, half-naked, dirty, somewhat or totally deranged, may be one image of poverty, but it’s a certain visible form. Others, look clean, and as indicated above, may look like regular school children. They may not look emaciated, as we have seen with images of starving children in many African countries. Many poor people have rough lives with poor housing or other amenities, trying to work hard to make a living. They may be in urban areas, or in fields around the country.

Some communities have no running water: a news report this week lauded the arrival of piped water in a rural area, and the joy was palpable when people talked about not having to go to the river each morning to fetch water, including children who did this before walking to school.

I read a comment last week from someone–let’s call him ‘comfortably off’–who was annoyed that his offer of food was refused by a street person. It never seemed to occur to the person concerned that at that moment, hunger might not have been the problem. Bus fare to get somewhere? An offer of work to stave off the daily grind of begging? The bottom line was the supposed beneficiary was never asked about his/her needs.

Conversely, it is easy to find people who will devour any morsel of food that’s offered. As in other places where hungry people are visible, we may see the discomforting sight of people going through garbage to find something to eat.

For too many, it’s a very hard life.

 

Jamaica is…

I’m an avid sports fan, and I woke early, as I have a lot in recent weeks, to watch top-level international athletes. This time, it is Winter Olympians in Sochi, Russia. Last month, it was Australian Open tennis. The early hours of the day are great times for thinking.

Jamaica is often synonymous with coolness. But, like many places, reality is otherwise. I find it hard to stop making comparisons between Jamaica and Guinea–an extremely poor west African country, where I lived and worked for almost four years. It’s more about carrying on with dogged determination in a country that has so much natural charm and beauty, which compensate for the many harsh realities of daily life.

Jamaica is categorised is a ‘middle income’ country. The reality is that we’ve a strong mix of highly sophisticated features in our lives, but also some abject poverty that is near the lowest of the lows. We also have infrastructure that is barely able to function.

This morning, I wanted to have some water. I turned on the taps: nothing. Water lock-offs are part of life. Many people have near permanent ‘lock off’, in that they have no regular running water. Other areas have no water during periods to repair leaks. I was surprised, but not shocked. I have large bottles of water. That may not be the case for others, in rural or urban areas. Fetching water from a well or river is part of daily life in some communities. Water from standpipes is the norm in some other areas. Collect what you need, in buckets or pails, and haul it home. In some places, that still what children have to do before heading to school each day. No time lolling around in front of a television or video game. They may have to tend to some animals, too.

A debate is raging over the approval of a new foreign investor to develop a new 360 megawatt power station in Jamaica. This concerns information that will be made available to the population about the accepted investor. Lots of transparency and governance issues are involved. But, the bottom line is that the country needs more generating and distribution of electricity. Many people cannot afford electricity and get it by using ‘throw ups’. Other people who can afford electricity also steal it: saving money, is saving. Life has moved towards the expectancy of many modern appliances, but for many it’s just about the basic need for light. Electricity is very expensive (about 40 US cents a kilowatt hour). I try to do what I can to curb our costs: I turn off lights and urge members of my household to use solar power when at all possible. It’s not easy, not least from habits that are born from convenience. However, something is wrong with our systems. I noted how much lower our bills became during the relatively cool recent months, but also because I’d ‘negotiated’ the turning off of air conditioners. However, a friend and I had a discussion about this last week: he’d given up trying to save, after cutting off the air conditioners in his house, but the bill barely changing. Either someone was tapping into his source, or his meter was dicky.

When I was growing up in Jamaica in the late-1950s, my grandparents home in deep rural St. Elizabeth had no electricity. I could not see an electricity pole anywhere. We lived by sunlight and kerosene lamp. That was in the time before television in most homes. Of course, we couldn’t have a radio, either. News was by word of mouth or by newspapers. News travelled slowly, not at today’s near instantaneous speeds. Life seemed slower. Rural Jamaica still has much of that slowness, best shown in the way people give directions: landmarks are more used, including the homes of families, which don’t change much. “Go up so. Turn at Mas’ Cambell’s house–the red one. Look for the mango tree down so. Then pass that and head toward the river…” How long this trip will take is not a matter of interest. “You’ll soon reach.” Take any fruit or food offered, because it could be a long walk, if on foot.

Throw-up wires to steal electricity in Jamaica
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Cows grazing on roadside verge between Kingston and Spanish Town

That slowness of life is still part of Jamaica. Even though I now live in the capital, it’s not all high-rise buildings, roads filled with cars and people, large homes with manicured gardens. Just on the edge of Kingston, life is lived at the pace of a deep rural community. Even in the city, trappings of rural life abound. I live with goats, and occasionally pigs or cows, being a feature of my surroundings. It’s nothing odd to see cows tethered on the roadside, grazing for the day.

Jamaica has a large population by Caribbean standards, but is still a small place. People tend to notice who they are with. I went to the bank yesterday afternoon. Banking is a slow process, even though we’ve seen much automation. As I stood in line, two men hailed each other. “Where’ve you been, man?” one asked. “In the country. I don’t come to Kingston much,” came the reply. Both men looked older than me, and I presumed were retired. As I noted above, country-life is slower paced and many people like getting back to that kind of environment.

However, when I got to the front, I joked that it was morning when I came into the bank, but it was now mid-afternoon. The cashier smiled with a wrinkled brow, then immediately asked “Do you remember me?” I took another look at her face. It seemed vaguely familiar. “We were at the swim meet on Saturday,” she added. She was right. Just one meeting, albeit over an hour or so, and my face was in her memory bank. We talked about how our children had performed, and parted, looking forward to the next swim meet. All of a sudden, my visit to the bank had taken on a different feel. I parted with my wad of cash–another aspect of how life has to be led. I could now pay a series of service workers whom I would meet in coming days. Cash is king.

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Young athletes waiting at National Stadium, ahead of Camperdown Classic

Her mentioning the swim event reminded me that at the Stadium complex this past weekend, we’d seen the place used to the maximum. Swimming at the Aquatic Centre, over three days. Track and field going on in the main stadium during Saturday–Camperdown Classic. Netball matches going on at the adjacent hard courts. Jamaica’s youths were out in full force. They are not all feckless, sex-crazed, good-for-nothing individuals. Here was a hard core of hard-working people, looking to enjoy themselves and show off their skills. The young runners and jumpers would be alongside some of their idols, now international stars, who had begun doing similar events when at school. The netballers and runners were mainly teenagers, and we never saw one arrive in a car; on foot, by bus, they had made their way. The swimmers, mainly prep or primary schoolers, were the ones who’d arrived by car.

But, big events mean big sales in Jamaica. When my daughter and I arrived at the pool on Saturday morning, at about 7am, we noticed that the vendors were just setting up their stands. Food of all sorts. Trinkets of many types. A chance to make money during the next 12 hours. More than a day’s work and maybe more than a day’s earnings. It was a bumper weekend, because on the Friday night a concert had been taking place adjacent to the stadium. No fancy concession stands with name burgers or pizza. Soup. Rice and peas. Jerk food. Drinks. Staples of the Jamaican road diner.

This story has a new page turning every day.

Jamaica is a constant bag of fun and frustrations.

Poor life, all around

Everyone in Jamaica is a ‘sufferer’. Life in Jamaica is always hard. The music business lets us know this. Songs about how ‘they’ are downpressing ‘us’ have been in vogue for decades. I guess that it’s not really the done thing to sing a song that goes something like:

“My life is so sweet,

On my little street,

Where all that I do is just drink and eat

Chicken, beef and all kinds of meat…”

Official data show that Jamaica is not riddled with abject poverty, taking that as people living on less that US$ 1.25 a day. Jamaica has about 17 percent of its population below that level. Jamaica ranks a decent 117th out of 157 countries on that scale. Taiwan has the least (just over 1 percent), while Chad, Haiti and Liberia have the most (each at 80 percent).

However, one sees so many people struggling that the poverty line indicators don’t really tell much of a story. Yesterday, I was in a market when a young man walked in and tried to buy some vegetables.

Man: “Sell mi wun poun a yam, Mummi!”

Vendor: “Dis wun poun an half. Hundred twenty dolla.” She shows him the piece that has been cut from the foot of yam.

Man: “Mi cyan afford dat. Is poun mi want…” He then goes on about how his budget cant stretch to make it easy for him to buy more than a pound of yam. After he’s bought the salt fish to go with it, he’ll be broke.

I wrote previously that people always seem to be hustling. It’s become a sort of second nature or knee jerk reaction. Something like:

“What’s the weather like today?”

“Man, how you can talk about weather when I can’t rub two red cents together. You know times hard. You can help me with a small something?”

But, the reality is that we can’t take for granted that life is hard for a lot of people. On a daily basis I see things that tell me that people are pushing their hardest with the slimmest of means, or trying to make the most of what little they have. Some random examples since the weekend:

Taxi drivers washing their cars in gullies. This makes perfect sense. The rain water is generally clean and free flowing, and free.

People taking baths by standpipes. I was the lucky witness to a man taking his full bath in front of me and a lady friend on Sunday. He washed thoroughly and then proceeded to put on his two pairs of dry underpants and went on his daily way, I imagine. Yes. he wore nothing but boxer shorts.

I cite those two instances because one was by someone who to all intents and purposes was ‘doing normal things’ being a taxi driver. The other instance involved someone whom we could regard as marginalized from society, judging by his unconventional practices.

But, that ‘kiss my teeth’ attitude is also abundant. The fish lady I met in the market yesterday clearly wanted to sell whatever made money. Her speciality is fish, but her business card–I kid you not– shows that she sells toilet paper, too. Whatever the people need.

When the read the reports of how jet ski operators had their vehicles confiscated by police over the weekend, I can’t help but think that some officials really don’t see that poor life is all around and the few opportunities people have to make some money and feed and clothes themselves and family are slim and dwindling.

Tear down this wall?

One intriguing aspect of the informality that characterizes Jamaican economic and social life is housing. If you’ve visited the island and not noticed the galvanized zinc/corrugated iron surroundings for some communities, and the plyboard sidings for many homes, which mark shanty towns, then you were asleep or not paying attention. If you’ve missed them, then drive near some of the gullies on lower ground in Kingston, or alongside rivers around the island.

“I would tear them down,” I heard someone utter last night as we approached Kingston from the west, along Washington Boulevard. “Then what would you do?” I asked. Unsightly, they may be, but important they are, too. They display very clearly some of the strains put on a nation as it develops. Poor people looking for work and new opportunities far outstripping available housing. With a large enough housing stock, one could see more rooms to let absorbing most of the newcomers, if they were able to afford rents. When Caribbean migrants went to the UK, USA, and Canada, after the mid-1940s, that’s what many found, and they did not need to make shanty towns. They often lived in substandard and overcrowded conditions, at least, initially.

Shanty dwellings or similar are not new, historically or geographically, especially as urban areas developed and people left the land to find work in larger towns and cities.

Estimates put squatter populations at about 1 billion, worldwide, about 1/6 of world total. Other estimates put the number of squatters in Jamaica at about 1 million, about a third of the total population. Poor services, limited amenities, high-density living, drugs, crime, diseases–all are part of daily squatter life.

Those squatters, despite their parlous and shambolic housing, often mean votes. They certainly do in Jamaica. Who’d want to dislodge voters from their homes? Keeping people in such circumstances, however, keeps the embers burning under a possible tinderbox, so, periodic social explosions should not come as a surprise. These communities can also be the source of many vibrant and creative social elements, as people claw and scrape to rise from the slums.

Last year, sociologist Peter Espuit wrote an article about Jamaica’s housing challenges. It explained much of the social and economic origin of the migration from rural areas to urban ones, especially Kingston. He also focused on the inequalities to which housing added. Importantly, he looked at the political significance of squatter and low-income communities in the tribal cauldron of Jamaican politics.

Maybe, if you have no constituents or no national links then you can talk glibly about tearing down the zinc. I don’t see any spanking new housing sprouting up to take any of the shanty dwellers. Clearing the areas without any provision for the new homeless is tantamount to insanity.

Perhaps, it was propitious that today’s Daily Observer included an article about Digicel’s role in revitalizing downtown Kingston. By bringing business activity back into the long-rundown waterfront area, hopes have been raised. Digicel added to life by investing in rehabilitating Coronation Market. Interesting, revitalizing housing downtown doesn’t get much mention. Poor people adjacent to budding business areas often sit awkwardly. Think about the City of London or Wall Street.

However, for life to be brought back into downtown housing, which now has swathes of slum housing in what were once good housing areas, one would need something like gentrification to occur. Is that likely? This phenomenon, common in developed countries, has featured little in developing nations, including the Caribbean. Developing countries have focused more on new housing rather than rehabilitation of existing housing.20130825-141804.jpgJamaica may not have a substantial enough cohort of identified gentrification types for that to be a realistic trend, near-term–affluent singles or childless couples, homosexuals, and artists or ‘Bohemian’ types.

Enough Jamaicans know what it is to live in poor housing, or to have limited services. I know many who drive past the shanty dwellings and think back to either childhood days or life in deep rural communities, if not their own, then for someone close. Go, ahead! Think about tearing them down.

Eat cake? Give me chicken back!

Jamaica has an Agriculture Minister named Roger Clarke. He is what Jamaicans would call ‘full-bodied’, ‘big boned’, or in modern slang, ‘fluffy’. If I had been the Prime Minister, I would have chosen someone whose figure did not offer so many easy chances to fling stones, despite his very good credentials in agricultural activities. A man of his girth may well eat rice by the acre, but don’t tell that to your people. That seems Romneyesque, if I could be so unkind.

Even though I’m not ready to accept that Jamaica has a major problem with hunger and food availability, I won’t argue that many people find it hard to put good meals on their plates. Examples abound of people who have this difficulty daily. Jamaica was honored recently for being among 38 countries to have met UN hunger eradication targets earlier than set. So, it seems that we have another of those conundrums with food appearing to be abundant, yet many people claiming hunger, and statistics suggesting that things are getting better. We may also be witnessing situations where people hide behind their social status and pretend that all is well, though they struggle to eat well. I watched a rerun last night of a current affairs program, which looked at the high incidence of skin bleaching in Jamaica, especially amongst some socioeconomic groups, sometimes spending relatively large sums on lightening creams when they struggle to spend money on food or other basics.

Jamaicans will quickly put themselves up as sufferers. Music is often used as the platform for protest. Songs about hunger often gain popularity.

Minister Clarke seems to be too ready to appear out of touch with the so-called sufferers. Right now, he’s having his “let them eat cake” moment, by telling Jamacans not to worry about getting chicken back to cook (about J$80-100 a pound) but should get ready to buy more-expensive meat like oxtail (J$300-400 a pound).

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Most North Americans and Europeans may roll their eyes or snigger at the thought that chicken back or ox tail could become such hot potatoes–excuse my mixed metaphor. Aren’t these the stuff of so-called ‘bizarre’ food TV shows? But, these foods are still staples in Jamaica, and in many other parts of the Caribbean. Let’s not get into whether we eat food that others in the developed world may see as only fit for their dogs, these things are much desired here, so don’t take lightly the concerns.

The opposition JLP are crowing that chicken back was much cheaper and more plentiful when they were last in power. The ruling PNP know that their feathers can be ruffled by either an indifferent attitude to the underlying issues or the appearance of inaction, if prices and supplies don’t improve. We may see a rerun of the French revolution, but food riots could easily erupt. PM Portia Simpson-Miller puts herself up as a champion of the poor: the economy in general and food in particular may knock her medal chances as her feet are put to the fire.

What shambles?

I don’t want to be an apologist for poor government decision-making, especially economic policy management, but I will scream the next time I hear someone say that “Jamaica is in shambles”. It’s not true. It has been in political chaos, most notably in the mid-late 1970s; the tribalism that was evident then, is still there now, but Jamaicans always accept the party that has won the elections as being that which will form the next government. That is not shambolic; that’s democracy at work. The USA is not my favourite benchmark, but by comparison, political expression and participation by the population works better in Jamaica than it does in much of the USA.

We have seen economic shambles. Michael Manley‘s socialist ‘experiment’ was a downright disaster–the man admitted as much years later. Those who were around, permanently or as visitors, can remember the times in the 1970s/80s when many shop shelves were bare because of the low-level of foreign reserves, after the shock of the ‘first oil crisis’. Jamaica was spiralling down the proverbial toilet bowl. But, that is not modern Jamaica. This is not a country of ‘nothing to buy’. Admittedly, life looks better from uptown Kingston than it does in Tivoli Gardens. But things also look better in St. Elizabeth, reeling from the decline in the fortunes of the bauxite industry, than they do in Guinea (another major bauxite producer), which has natural resources to die for but cannot seem to figure out how to feed, educate, water or light most of its population. Jamaica is not dirt poor, by international standards; it’s classed as ‘middle-income’. That does not make us rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we are a much better position that many countries.

I can walk around, or better drive around, and find dozens of examples of things done badly in Jamaica. But, guess what? I can do the same in the very well-endowed part of the USA from where I have recently arrived: Maryland and Northern Virginia have counties with some of the highest per capita income and educational standards in the USA. Yet, I could find myself struggling to get through my daily life without meeting some form of economic or social dysfunction. When it rains heavily, roads flood in many neighbourhoods. When there are high winds and thunderstorms, power lines go down and may cut off electricity to large chunks of the area for days, not just hours. This is a common and recurring problem. Would you say “Maryland is in shambles”?

When I drive around, I find very few instances of traffic lights not working and chaos at many road junctions. I may see lots of beggars or men wanting to wash my windscreen as a way of making a few dollars. I don’t see many signs of road anarchy, which I have seen in countries not regarded as in a shambles. Admittedly, when I spent a summer in Italy and Greece in the 1970s and 1980s, I was awakened to crazy Mediterranean driving patterns, and that should have been a warning of what may happen to a country’s economy. Let people drive around madly on the roads and you will get into an economic mess. Jamaican driving is fast but not utterly brainless, so perhaps a problem looms.

True, in the USA or the UK, I had many more ways of doing most things. For example, I can now perform many economic transactions online, from the comfort of my lounge chair using my computer or my smartphone; I cannot do that in Jamaica. I still have to go physically to places of business or sometimes to a ‘bill pay’ location to do those similar things. Yes, that’s frustrating, but it’s not an indication of shambles. Jamaica is still largely rural, and even with very good educational standards, the spread of technology has not been as broad as in many industrial countries; in that sense, the country reflects its level of development. I turn on my TV in the US and I get a zillion channels to surf; but I get just under a zillion from Flow in Jamaica. But, in the US, many of them are now in HD. True. Flow, pull yourself up! I can go to the movies in the US and get my fill of new films every week. The films are preceded by an array of trailers and some really bad adverts, plus reminders to turn off cell phones. The theatres are poky and people jump up and leave as soon as the film ends, racing to get their cars from the parking lot to avoid the jam that they fear. In Jamaica, we still have films preceded by the national anthem; we get an intermission–true, its timing seems random–but, it’s a nice time to socialize and talk a little about what you are seeing and looking forward to seeing; patrons usually don’t feel to need to stampede to get to their cars. That’s a shambles? Bring me more popcorn, Beverly, and another bag of mints!

I can pick up the telephone in the US and call anywhere in the world. Jamaica offers me the same geographical options. I don’t have just one company to choose from for my landline or mobile service, either. The cell companies have figured out that Jamaicans love to talk and text and are falling over themselves to offer new ways to do the same, and often for less. Shambles? What’re you smoking, Winston? When I try to change my address online in the US, my options are often limited to another state or some US military post. What arrogance! At least, in Jamaica, we are so small as to see it’s ridiculous to think that people only move from parish to parish. Bring on the shambles.

When I want to head out in my car, I do not have a problem filling it with gasolene: I may need a second mortgage to afford to do that. It’s no use lamenting how little I used to pay in the US because I cannot convince the US government to stop subsidizing gas prices; after all, the country is a major oil producer. Jamaicans face high taxes on gasolene, as do many Europeans; Americans, do not. Relative to many of our English-speaking neighbours, Jamaica is a slouch when it comes to car ownership, a mere 188 per 1000, compared to 469 for Barbados and 353 for Trinidad, but surprisingly way ahead of The Bahamas (81). You’d never believe that, if you try to negotiate Nassau in a car. But, that is more a reflection of income levels. Despite the costs and tribulations that may be involved in importing, insuring, licensing and taxing a car, Jamaicans can get them relatively easily–and the governments have tried to do something about the quality by limits on the age of imports.

When I’m looking for something I need (or want, if I am wholly honest), can I find it in Jamaica at a reasonable price? Most of the time, I can. Now, I may want to say that the quality is not as high as I have seen elsewhere, but I think the choices are very good. I lived for three years in Barbados, and I would argue that the choices available there are fewer. That’s not meant to rubbish that small island neighbour, but just to use it as a reference given its place often noted as ‘better’ than Jamaica in terms of economic management. Whether it’s the big merchants or the higglers bringing in wares that keep my choices up, I’m not arguing; whether the labels are ‘Gucci’ or ‘Gucki’, I’m not too bothered if it seems that there’s real value for money. It seems to be much the same as whether I go to a mall in the US or take my chances with a street vendor in Washington DC. Is that a real Kate Spade bag for US$10. Do Movados really retail at US$5?

I need cash–I really do, as I write. I head out to a shopping plaza two minutes from my house. I put my card into a money machine and out comes what dribbling of cash I still have in my current account, after my wife has done shopping at the weekend 🙂 There’s a banking system that works. It may be a brute of a thing in terms of how it may operate on a daily basis. But, are the long lines that are common a reflection of how the banks force us to operate or a sign of our preferences for ‘touchy feely’ banking? It may be the latter, as I see the same in so-called financial centres like The Bahamas and Barbados.

Alright, the international value of the currency may make me hide my head in shame, but being an economist, I have no problem living with the exchange rate at 100 to the US dollar. I like that for computational purposes. I know that the government could decide to redenominate the currency and, with the strokes of a few pens, put the ‘new’ Jamaican dollar (or we rename it, too, to ‘The Marley’ or ‘The Reggae’) at, say, parity, with the US. But, I also know that some of our Caribbean neighbours have been living a lie with their fixed exchange rates. With all due respect to my wife, there is no way that The Bahamas has kept economic pace with the US since the former’s exchange rate was pegged at parity.  Likewise, with Barbados and its fixed rate. I have to smile at all the squirming and stomach clenching that comes when people talk of moving from those fixed rates. But, let’s leave raking those leaves for another day.

Jamaica has economic woes aplenty. The country has lived beyond its means in a big way–we like to live large. We have a near-crippling external debt burden, with one of the world’s highest ratios of public debt to GDP. I want to say it’s the government’s fault, not least because it has more means to curb spending or try to raise revenues, as well as ways to change the behaviour of the population. But, I always say that politicians are craven, so hard choices do not make good bedfellows for most politicians. They’ve long mastered the art of the empty promise. Sadly, the public–not just in Jamaica–seems to love an empty promise, especially if it can come with some free tee shirts and a good jump up.

Unemployment is troublingly high and has been that way for a very long time, sitting (or lying down) at around 14%. It’s hard to find the right comparisons, but look at the UK or the USA where unemployment is hovering around 7-8 percent. The rate for the European Union is 11%. I wont try to get cute and figure out what the number looks like if you try to measure the so-called ‘underemployed’. Jamaica cannot grow very fast in a world that is growing slowly and it surely cannot when some of its major markets are also under the economic cosh. We do not have the means to absorb all those who want to and can work: whether in major private sector activities such as tourism, bauxite, agriculture, financial services or in government services. We’ve endured higher unemployment for much longer than many industrialised countries. Even with a lesser social welfare system, I suspect that the out-of-work in Jamaica are faring not much worse, if at all, compared with unemployed people in Lyons or Topeka.

Jamaica has not been able to grow fast enough (as far as official data show) to absorb its fast-growing population and provide for them, whether with jobs, schools, housing or other social services. That is a failure–not a shambles.

Inflation has been stuck in the 6-12% range for a couple of decades now. This, too, shows a failure of economic management. But, it’s not the shambles that comes from hyper-inflation.

True enough, really shambolic countries can manage to do good and great things. But, I don’t think that a shambolic Jamaica would be producing the artistic, sporting and literary talent that it has done for the past 50 years if it was truly a shambles. Shambolic countries have their artistes stuck in national airports with no planes flying out of the country and no means to get out by road either because of social chaos or because the road network is a disaster. It also would not be educating people who could consider the option of going abroad to study, not because they have money to do so, but because they have the intelligence or other skills to impress other countries to let them come and study.

Outside of the economy, Jamaicans are well aware of the country’s image for violent crime and the savagely intolerant attitudes towards homosexuality. The country also has a reputation for being very religious. Figuring out that conundrum, or seeming contradiction has been hard, but they do not make the place a shambles. The USA is also crime-ridden. Attitudes towards homosexuality are not universally liberal. Religious observance is a mixed bag: church and state are supposedly separated, but “In God we trust” is inscribed on the currency. You go figure that out.

Jamaica is not a basket case, by any stretch of the imagination. Rubbish it, if you must, but don’t call it a shambles. Get the perspective right.

Jumayka, nuff prablem…but wi ‘appy tu rahtid…

I imagine that many people think of Jamaica as a happy and wonderful place. The images of smiling, laughing, dancing, singing, “Nuh prablem, man!” people attract foreign tourists. It would seem that these images are not wholly a myth. The UN commissioned Gallup to poll people and construct a World Happiness Report: Jamaica ranked 40th out 0f 156 countries, after the negative effects of corruption and lacklustre growth were discounted–not trivial impediments, but let’s leave that alone for the moment. Northern European countries took the top three spots (though given the high suicide rate usually associated with Finland, I find their 2nd position a bit suspect).happy

Is this high happiness something the country should exploit further? Those who try to market health and wellness tourism know that such environments may represent future boom areas. It could draw in more tourists, but also a particular breed of entrepreneurs. Look at the recent story of Randolph Cheeks, who returned to Jamaica, after studying and working abroad, to help with its development and who is ‘happy with his decision to return home,… he believes that Jamaica’s future lies in its ability to attract back and retain its human talent’. VW recently tried to exploit this happiness image in one of its adverts. “Chill, Winston!” could be a catchphrase for the ages.


But, being fair, consider Mark Wignall’s counter arguments that Jamaicans may be happy for the wrong reasons. The country has a litany of problems, and while my own philosophy is to see ‘problems’ as opportunities or challenges to be overcome, there’s no doubting the weight these put on people. I always thought, when I was working and living in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world, that despite the beauty and natural richness of the land, life was often so hard that it just wore people down. Limited access to safe running water for many. Limited access to stable and regular electricity for many. A political regime that made many capricious decisions. Corruption in many walks of life. Growth that had been faltering for years. A plummeting exchange rate. Roads that sometimes turned into open pits, and which could be the scene of some horrific accidents. A growing sense of tension between ethnic groups (‘tribes’ in some senses). What Guineans suffer is not so different from what many experience in Jamaica, though I sense that government actions do not have anything resembling a similar level of capriciousness. But, Jamaicans do not seem worn down in any similar way, even though you’ll often hear “Mi a suffa!”

Income inequality in Jamaica is not much different from for many middle-income countries. Many Jamaicans have a quality of life that would be the envy of many people, with the generally great climate, abundant local foods and plenty more imported, whether raw or cooked, and a picturesque vista from almost anywhere on the island. I’m not trying to lack sensitivity for those whose plight is dire–of which there are too many, in shanty towns, gully communities, or just indigent on the road.1004097_10151574688934022_2029884106_n-1 Is the country too tolerant of beggars? No country or its citizens can feel happy with the kind of abject poverty that can sometimes be seen on a street in Kingston, whatever its cause. But, for what it’s worth and whatever the individual motivations, many Jamaicans are ready and willing to address such situations as they see best. They don’t seek to institutionalize such people. They often offer direct help, and that may be a few dollars in the hand, or some food, or some clothes, or the offer of some ‘work’–help. It may get rejected, which may seem surprising, but it’s a free country.

Many families remain close and support each other, whether with the help of remittances (in-cash or in-kind) from abroad or without. People still seem to have a great regard for rest and recreation: evenings and weekends can form important down time, and when chance comes to leave the city and head ‘to country’, it’s taken. Some anachronistic things seem in keeping with the slower pace: movies still have an intermission, when people go to get their drinks and snacks. Church and religion are important in the life balance for most people: after church in the morning comes family lunch, before or after a nap. This Sunday, we had friends and some family over for lunch in the mid-afternoon, and by about 7.30pm, the last guests were slowly leaving. Kids had played all the time, when they were not eating. Adults talked or just cooled out. We’d done the same the week before, but as guests not hosts.  Most business places are closed and roads are very quiet on Sundays.

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.