#COVID19Chronicles-93: July 16, 2020-Holland pull-up; ants will bite you if you eat sugar in bed

In Patois, we have the expression ‘Haul ‘n’ Pull-Up’—a messed up situation, applied to things or people. So, it’s a short linguistic step to ‘Holland pull-up’

Right now, no matter how you try, it seems you can’t miss that some Cabinet minister is putting his foot into his mouth. We have metaphors about you don’t know what it’s like until you walk in another person’s shoes. Well, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking I’d like to have on a pair of those size 10 loafers that these guys seem to wear. They’re comfortable, often leave no tell-tale footprints, and easy to clean, too. So, where’s that trail of mud coming from and why are sugar grains on the floor?

The answer is simple. A Cabinet minister, clearly lost in translation what ‘Dutch courage’ or ‘going Dutch’ or ‘double Dutch’ or ‘pass the Dutchie’ mean. He’s in charge of the agriculture portfolio and represents a seat in St. Elizabeth, where the Holland Estate sugar lands are located. Simply put, he let his closely connected ‘family’ get their hands on a sweet deal. The Gleaner kindly summarized the details in an editorial this morning—‘Holland Deal Doesn’t Pass Smell Test’. (As it involves sugar, I’m surprised they went for smell not taste test.)

Let’s just simplify the story by saying the minister let a company in which his ‘life partner’ is a director have a sweet deal on control of a 2400 acre piece land, and their son operates a supplies store on the property, apparently unbeknownst to the MD of the Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ). The MD is named ‘Mr. Shoucair’, which is so close to sugar that it’s almost ludicrous. Leaving the son aside for the moment, the ‘life partner’ is ‘a member of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) board, which, like the SCJ, falls under MICAF [Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries]. RADA provides extension and other support services to Jamaica’s farmers. Ms Marshall-Williams is also chairman of RADA’s advisory board for the parish of St Elizabeth, where Mr Lee, her co-director at Holland Producers, is RADA’s deputy parish manager according to the Gleaner.

The Gleaner is clear: ‘For the issue relates not only to Ms Marshall-Williams. It involves, too, a host of other connected parties, an absence of transparency and arm’s-length dealing, as well as, at the very least, poor judgement by public officials in their handling of taxpayers’ assets.’

The Holland Producers and the son’s company were registered/set up on the same day in 2019

Yet, No alarm bells started ringing.

Say what?!

Those of you who took ‘Principles of Elementary Ethics’ know the answer.

In many countries, this would be an appropriate reaction, and a call for smelling salts would be in order, plus a punkawalla to come fan the fevered brow. But, this is Jamaica, where people have eyes that look out to either side and never see what’s right in front of their noses.

I did not hear the minister give several interviews on the radio yesterday, but reports are they were a series of ‘car wrecks’ in communications terms. I just listened to the first 30 seconds of his interview on Nationwide Radio and I can see where the car was heading for the cliff.

Many will be blinking, listening to it, that the minister, living with his ‘partner’ and son, said he has nothing to do with their businesses and knows nothing at all about them. Well, just out of prudence, it’d be a good idea to know, so that one doesn’t unwittingly get into embarrassing dealing with those entities. Sitting back and saying the that ‘people’ elected his ‘partner’ to a position to transact, seems naive beyond comprehension. In that small, rural community, who would not think that having the minister’s wife in a leadership position was a great idea. C’mon man!

What is immediately apparent is that Jamaicans are so besotted by ends justifying means (in this case someone has control of the land and squatting is prevented) that they think that a good serving of a rotting herring (a closely connected person) is a good meal because a plate of food was provided for someone who had nothing to eat, and the stench it leaves or the upset stomach at best it leaves are just normal. This mentality clearly resides in the mind of senior politicians who can only see the deed and think nothing else matters. Brother, history is not so kind, you know.

Anyway, a lot of dust has to settle and many questions should be asked and adequately answered. For my part, I wondered aloud yesterday if the minister did any of these things or allowed them to happen with the advice of his senior civil servants as a public official, or in consultation with a lawyer, if we believe that he had the capacity to act as a private person.

If the lines in Jamaican politics were not already smudged like a two-year old trying to write its name on a wall with chocolate icing, it couldn’t get any more so.

Finally, I’ve long followed events and noticed a tendency for those involved to almost mark their trail with names that fit, so I have a #NameForTheFrame hashtag. So, look what I found out about the meaning of ‘Hutchinson’:ED327F89-8897-4483-A317-6CE623857CED

Don’t try to tell me that your name meaning ‘hug the son of kin’ is not meaningful! 😉

If truth be told.

Let’s start the new year of independent living in the manner we wish to proceed. It’s always interesting to consider what Jamaicans consider to be honesty. I was brought up to understand that it was an absolute. But, I find in Jamaica that it’s relative. (Before going too far, I know that honesty when it comes to things that affect the family is definitely relative, relatively speaking.)

How so? Well, for many Jamaicans, life’s path is about who you know. So, with truth and honesty. It’s also the case that honesty is a matter of who may be embarrassed by it. “You can’t say that. Don’t you know who’s…?” That goes hand-in-hand with the well-tried “Do you know who you’re talking to?” bombast that stands in the face of reasoned explanation.

Maybe, I’m wrong, but I was faced with some of this relative honesty first thing today. One of our main papers has an occasional regional section. I was surprised, therefore, to read an article that posed important national questions about the administration of our junior athletics programme. Was it a bit of editorial subterfuge? Good piece, but let us not make too many waves. Read the piece and think. The challenge will be whether this becomes another ‘nine-day wonder’. As we don’t do follow-up well, who will pursue these matters? Our media houses have a big role to play.

We will get more chances in coming months to see how truly honest we can be. The Minister of National Security introduced a new arrangement to deal with organized crime and corruption. Well, if ever something was clear then the fact that no high-level officials or politicians ever get cited in some instances would suggest that Jamaican people are so awfully honest that anti-corruption measures are a waste of time. Sorry, did you just choke on a peanut? Well, we have an off- island location to take confidential information, dialing 1-800-CORRUPT. We should watch calls flood in like people dashing to drive toll-free on the new Mount Rosser bypass.

On that latter topic, I listened to the Minister answer questions about the new structure. He sounded confident. He made reassuring statements, including a few that included red flag terms such as ‘trust me’, ‘believe me’, or other political sidesteps. The presenter thanked the Minister for his concern but asked him to answer the question. This is not typical journalism in Jamaica. The Press don’t press.

That approach has to change. Thanks to developments like social media, we can open other avenues of enquiry. They may not be well regarded worldwide, but can’t be ignored. News flows at light speed on the Internet and cannot easily be ignored. Just last week, our Ministry of Health (MoH) refused to offer comments on the spreading Ebola virus during a radio broadcast, claiming the media were spreading panic. That was immediate news and criticism flowed. Many felt ignorance was more likely to cause panic. Now, damage control had to be called upon. Honesty? It’s on hold. Then, this week, the MoH got out its statement, including how it wants to work with the media. Their spokeswoman made an appearance and said a few words. What did they fear a few days ago? Search me.

But, let’s give the various players a chance. They may be really stubborn and want to always wait for a crisis to arrive to see the need for openness, frankness and honesty. I hope not.

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The PM urged the nation in her Independence message thus, “We have to take responsibility and be accountable for our actions.” I recall the struggle to get answers some months ago about a little official travel. But, let’s try to be nice and forward-looking, and believe that this sentiment is plastered high and bright for all to see. I read in this morning’s paper a story of a man beaten to a pulp while in police custody. Those words above seem to want some serious reflection.

Serve me right: Do we need to put our rulers on social media?

Most politicians that I have ever noticed are sensitive to being portrayed in a bad light. When that happens, they are often very quick to rail against ‘the media’. Those with resources are quick to marshal their resources to ‘manage’ their image, back toward the good.

The world we have today is one where information travels very fast–quicker than humans can move. We also have a world where information flows as far as it can go, with little control by its originators over where it goes. I’m sure that, without globalisation, many people would not know about the heinous activities going on far away from them–brutality in South Sudan; attacks on shopping malls in Kenya; corruption in Russia; political shenanigans in the USA, etc.

For some people, all of that international information is too much. They have a hard enough time getting to grips with what is or is not happening outside their door. A broken water main that has been running for 5 days; no lights in their town for days; schools without desks; children without food, etc.

I focused on negatives in local life because that’s what usually gets people more excited, as opposed to the good news such as the birth of twins to the lady next door; the successful yam crops in Mr. McFarlane’s field for the ninth year in succession, etc.

Many people don’t have mental space to deal with international problems when local problems are not fixed. I couldn’t care two hoots about Chris Christie and ‘bridgegate’ while I have garbage piling up in my yard since Christmas, and the stench and flies and dogs ripping it up are turning where I live into a daily nightmare. I’m not to be accused of being ignorant of uninterested in what is going on because I cannot focus on ‘abroad’ because I have to deal with so much in my yard.

That’s where I want to think about what we would like from our political representatives. We want responsiveness.

I believe that naming and shaming can be effective, where gentle persuasion has failed. I want to suggest that people demand more use of the best communication tools by their elected officials. My initial thought was that all elected officials should be made to use social media. When I had that thought, I quickly searched the Internet and saw that this had already been proposed in the USA. Many American politicians have already put themselves to that test, but through personal choice.

Politicians may be quick to argue that this is an undue burden on their time and energy, and for each in person that may be true. They may argue that they do not have resources to finance the employment of someone to do that for them. That may also be true. But, can they redirect their resources to make it happen, and fast? In Jamaica, when we have a rate of 40 percent unemployment for young people, I think we have a pool of workers who may be ready to do such tasks for little pay at first, and for exposure and experience. We can think it through better.

If you listen to radio call-in programmes in countries like Jamaica, you get to understand very quickly that many people do not feel that elected officials or bureaucrats serve them very well. Nor do they seem ready to respond quickly and civilly to requests for help. Would that change if it became ‘news’ very quickly? I think so.

We have a great danger, however. The world is also full of people who just get a kick out of messing things up for others. Those people who would be making malicious accusations rather than just sticking to what is true. The pests who want to use an anonymous alias to be rude and insulting. We need to have ways to weed them out fast and clearly.

We also have an age-old problem that people do not feel that they are equal to politicians and bureaucrats and if they make public their grievances, they will be left unprotected and helpless to retribution or other forms of penalty. It’s a great hope, I know, that this would not happen.

But, what is the risk of trying to start something like this?

I’m going to ignore the problems and challenge those who feel they are too great to find a way around them, rather than use the challenge as a reason to not try.

On top of that, I want to see us be able to rate politicians and institutions, in the same way that we are ready to rate schools, or restaurants, or hotels. I want to know, for instance, what at any time are the ‘favourable’ and ‘unfavourable’ ratings of public persons and bodies. That’s a big task, but the sentiment of it need not be covered by a massive database at first. Let’s say that it can be done every three months. If you come out with bigoted comments, get called out on them. If you act like a saint, get praise for it. Politicians should not be able to hide from their citizens.

The more I listen to people’s complaints and the more I listen to politicians, the more I think that cannot keep leaving bad things to fester for years just because that’s when elections occur.

 

The good, bad, and the ugly (January 5, 2014)

All aspects of Jamaica’s public sector performance were laid bare in a set of reports issued last week. It was good that Jamaica’s Auditor General (AG), Pamela Monroe Ellis, took it to a swathe of government and public sector agencies in her reports for 2012/13. It was bad that so many public institutions seem to operate in disregard of their basic undertakings. It was ugly that some of the breaches are egregious and fit in with the worst impressions that Jamaicans have of their public institutions.MonroeEllisM20121129NG

She gave the Administrator General’s Department (AGD) a failing grade: while the AGD implemented a project in 2009 to reduce the number of backlog cases, over the four-year period, 2009 to May 2013, the department was only able to close 1,075, or 19 per cent, of the case files.

She questioned government procurement practices. Her department’s audits identified breaches of the Government’s prescribed rules for the procurement of goods and services, costing approximately J$24 million in the case of one entity. She also reported that failure, by several entities, to comply with the Government’s financial rules continued to result in inadequate control over stores, furniture and equipment, the custody of blank cheques, the preparation and payment of salaries and the purchase of petrol, thus undermining the objective of safeguarding Government’s resources.

The report paints a picture of a free-for-all at the Jamaica Customs Agency (JCA). Customs officers are reported as arbitrarily applying values and duties to imported items. It points to the absence of valid price-reference data for most imported products and a uniform research methodology for the valuations done by Customs officers, but were based on pricing-reference information maintained by individual officers, with copies of supplier invoices, catalogues, and prices from Internet sources, which they use to value imports. Auditors found that price-reference files maintained by Customs officers contained invoices that were outdated by up to 360 days, an occurrence that is in contravention of the Customs Act.

The auditor general is concerned about the exorbitant amount of money Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC)  has been paying to repair and maintain its Volvo buses. The company was forced to seek expert advice to do the repairs because it had no maintenance manuals for the buses. In addition, the company needs a V-CAD diagnostic tool, which is critical in detecting the problems. JUTC managing director, Colin Campbell, said the issue could be cleared up later this year, as the company has now acquired the manuals for all its maintenance departments, and only needs the equipment and the expertise to do the repairs. The AG also found that the JUTC does not have a system in place to track the operational efficiency of its fleet of buses. The absence of such a system prevented JUTC from assessing, for example, the operational cost per vehicle. She said that between 2008 and June 2013, JUTC spent J$331.7 million on expert guidance for the repair and maintenance of its Volvo buses, which constitute 66 per cent of its fleet.

The Ministry of Finance and Planning’s failure to reconcile information on both Jamaica Debt Exchange (JDX) and National Debt Exchange (NDX) investments could derail the Accountant General’s efforts to identify errors in both transactions. Differences of J$129.2 billion and US$109.4 million between the accounting records maintained at the ministry, and those maintained at the Accountant General. This would impair the Accountant General’s ability to prepare and present reliable statements on the public debt, and that these omissions would contribute to inaccurate reports, which might adversely affect the Government’s strategic decisions. She noted also that failure to maintain proper and accurate records also constitutes a breach of Section 24A of the Financial Administration and Audit Act.