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Editorial: The truth of Mr Lee Chin’s remark

Published:Thursday | July 2, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Quite understandably, Michael Lee-Chin received quite a bit of notice the other day for his demonstration of physical fitness with 50 push-ups that hardly broke a sweat. But in-between this bout of lightheartedness, Mr Lee-Chin, the majority owner and chairman of Jamaica's National Commercial Bank (NCB), made an important observation that is not only worthy of attention, but of repeating - often.

It is important because it addresses two related issues with which Jamaica has, and continues, to struggle and the resolution of which are important to the country's long-term economic and social development: the matters of entrepreneurism and wealth creation.

Speaking to the background of the NCB Foundation's contribution over the past decade, of J$1 billion to beneficiaries, Mr Lee-Chin remarked: "If NCB was not going well, they would not be able to do good." We dare say that as much as to the NCB, the sentiment applies to anyone, corporate or individual, engaged in charitable giving.

Corporate social-responsibility giving is an area of increasing focus of large Jamaican firms. Mr Lee-Chin's bank, for instance, concentrates primarily on education, while Pan-Jamaican Investment Trust's Cecil Boswell Facey Foundation is particularly good to the arts. Others support a host of social and community causes.

Two things are obvious in such giving in Jamaica. First, it is mostly by the island's large enterprises. Or, put another way, there is relatively little structured, charitable giving by wealthy individuals or family trusts, as is often the case in developed countries. Second, the giving, generally, is by large, obviously profitable or marketing-driven enterprises. Or, as Mr Lee-Chin noted, those that can really afford to do so.

There are no readily available data in Jamaica on how much firms and individuals donate to good causes or spend on their corporate social-responsibility projects. But we assume that whatever the ratio is, it is relatively small in relation to net earnings and what obtains in developed economies, the result, we believe, of a culture that makes structured, public giving difficult, especially for wealthy individuals.

Or, perhaps more to the point, there is a curious attitude towards wealth. Most people wish it, celebrate those who readily flaunt it in the context of popular culture, but seem distinctly wary and uncomfortable, if not suspicious, of those who gain wealth in the context of enterprise. Our sense is that this attitude constrains people's engagement in formal entrepreneurial efforts, and helps to limit the growth of successful ones. This, in part, is a legacy of old socialist notions of national development. Jamaica, in this respect, has a job to do in changing attitudes and creating an environment where enterprise is encouraged and wealth creation from legitimate effort is not bad.

For, as Mr Lee-Chin said: "... Let us celebrate when people do well (and make profit), because people who do well do good ..."

At the same time, the Jamaican authorities engage in a campaign, highlighting taxation and other potential benefits that might be derived by individuals or family trusts from charitable giving. It is likely that in many circumstances, the utilisation of such benefits will be more efficient than when the Government taxes and spends in the targeted areas.