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Editorial: Jamaica’s American friends

Published:Thursday | April 30, 2015 | 4:00 AM

A little over a week ago in Miami, Richard Byles, the president of Sagicor Jamaica, and Gregory Ramkisoon, the founder of the Mustard Seed Communities, were feted at a gala dinner.

That, of itself, is hardly surprising. Monsignor Ramkisoon runs a multinational charity, which he started in Jamaica and which does outstanding work among the poor here and elsewhere. Mr Byles is a highly respected corporate executive, who is also lauded for the skill and frankness with which he has gone about his chairmanship of the Economic Programme Oversight Committee, a unique group that monitors Jamaica's adherence to economic reform agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

Our especial is on who did the honouring and what it says about the goodwill that exists for Jamaica and how this country can further leverage its good fortune for economic and human development. We refer the American Friends of Jamaica (AFJ), a 33-year-old non-profit organisation driven largely by former US ambassadors to the island and supported by private individuals and American firms with interests in the island.

AFJ's mission is to assist Jamaican institutions and individuals in the areas of education, health care and economic development to help spur the country's advancement. So, at the Florida event, J$26 million was disbursed to several organisations. The AFJ's donations over the past three decades would run into the hundreds of millions.

It would be difficult, this newspaper believes, to find an organisation similar in character to AFJ. Diplomats, when they complete assignments, may carry fond memories of specific countries in which they were posted, and may even engage in efforts for the advancement of those countries. But it is hardly usual, as is the case with AFJ, for a succession of ambassadors - who, for the most part, were not career diplomats and were appointed by different party administrations - to jointly pursue the interests of their former host countries for several years after they leave.

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Indeed, the late - often the pushy and sometimes abrasive - Anne Saba, the 1980s public relations consultant to the Edward Seaga administration, could hardly have imagined the success and longevity of the AFJ when she engineered its establishment, with the serving US ambassador as its patron/president. In that regard, Jamaica owes Ms Sabo a debt of gratitude, which it will best discharge by making optimum use of the support offered by the AFJ, not only the cash, but also the expertise and influence of its individual members.

For instance, in the wake of President Barack Obama's recent visit to Jamaica, this newspaper has urged aggressive action on the part of the Government to take advantage of the positive momentum of the trip and the US president's broad endorsement of the administration's economic-reform programme. The question, in that regard, is how an organisation like AFJ might help without doing violence to its mission and legal status as a non-profit, focusing primarily on social development.

AFJ, we believe, is, at the very least, a potential pathway to corporate America via its individual members. For example, Stan McLelland, who served as ambassador during the Bill Clinton years from 1998 to 2001, was no lightweight in Texas' business and Democratic circles. Neither is Sue Cobb, McLelland's successor under George Bush's Republican presidency, insignificant in Florida. Similarly, Brenda La Grange Johnson is not without substantive contacts in New York. And they all share a soft spot for Jamaica.