Sun | Jun 16, 2019

Arnold Bertram | Who is on the road to prosperity?

Published:Sunday | June 9, 2019 | 12:15 AM
Andrew Wheatley
Ruel Reid
Arnold Bertram
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Prime Minister Andrew Holness keeps telling the Jamaican people that they are on “the road to prosperity”. However, given their daily struggle to survive, the overwhelming majority of Jamaicans would see the promise of prosperity more as a standard public relations technique which uses repetition to seduce an unsuspecting electorate.

The projected economic growth has not materialised, and the minister of finance, Nigel Clarke, after confidently asserting that the economy was “bubbling up”, has been forced to join the administration’s Economic Growth Council in abandoning the ‘5 in 4’ slogan and replacing it with a revised growth target of 1.5 per cent.

With a population of just over 2.7 million, Jamaica has a labour force of some 1.35 million, of which some 1.22 million are employed. However, with employment defined as “all persons over 14 years of age who were employed in any form of economic activity for one hour or more during the survey week”, what is assumed to be regular employment is more often just ‘hustling’. This is confirmed by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, which reported that “the largest increase in the employed labour force between April 2017 and April 2018 occurred in elementary occupations … which includes, among other jobs, car washers and street vendors”.

The growing practice of contract employment denies workers their hard-won rights, including maternity leave and a pension to support them in their old age. If the employed labour force faces these challenges, the 122,000 unemployed could well be on the road to penury. One bright spot is the surge in the construction industry that has brought about sustained employment for both artisans and unskilled labour at market rates.

Given the long hours of work in low-paying jobs and the abuse of their hard-won rights, the employed labour force would hardly consider themselves as being on the road to prosperity. They are increasingly victims of the present ‘trickle down’ economic policy which inevitably concentrates wealth at the top, indebtedness in the middle and incarceration among the poor.

The ‘HAVES AND THE HAVE NOTS’

The concentration of wealth at the top did not begin with the Holness administration. As early as 1959, after a decade of unequalled economic expansion, a study on income distribution in Jamaica by Efrayim Ahiram showed that “the upper five per cent of households accounted for 30 per cent of the total income ... while the 60 per cent of households at the lower end of the scale shared 19 per cent ...”.

Two years later, in the 1961 State of the Nation Debate, the young Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) senator, Edward Seaga, made his landmark “haves and have nots” speech which presented data to show that “seven per cent of the population was better off by 172 per cent and 93 per cent worse off by 72 per cent”.

Despite the weaknesses in the data, this speech focused the growing inequity in the public’s mind. Ironically, the gap between the “haves and have nots” widened during the JLP administration of the 1960s, as unemployment nearly doubled and today, despite the crusade to make the society more equitable, Jamaica remains among the most inequitable societies in the world.

This inequity is being further widened by an administration which siphons off choice public assets like the Bernard Lodge sugar lands to connected interests, while displacing enterprising farmers who previously occupied the land, without consultation and consideration.

This is also the case with the sale of Rooms on the Beach together with other beach lands to Puerto Caribe Properties Limited for US$4.6 million below the lowest valuation. Were these choice public assets offered at concessionary prices to Jamaican entrepreneurs?

RAMPANT CORRUPTION

This administration may well have already earned the reputation of being the most corrupt since Universal Adult Suffrage. Former Minister of Energy Andrew Wheatley has been relieved of his portfolio after mounting evidence of rampant corruption in agencies for which he had responsibility. The minister of education, Ruel Reid, has also been relieved of his portfolio and is the subject of criminal investigation.

Even more serious, however, is the fact that Prime Minister Holness is the first prime minister who has failed to satisfy the Integrity Commission with his statutory declaration of assets and liabilities. As a consequence, he no longer has the moral authority to lead the fight against corruption, which accounts for an estimated leakage of J$95.6 billion from the Jamaican economy.

The growing inequity together with rampant public corruption is fuelling a crisis of governance even as the “road to prosperity” remains the exclusive highway of a chosen few. The collapse of the rural economy has opened the door for the proliferation of crime islandwide. In both the capital city and rural townships, public order has disappeared, leaving a growing criminal lumpen proletariat to rob, murder and maim with impunity. These criminals are recruited from the 325,000 young Jamaicans between 15 and 34, who are “neither working nor looking for work”, and who for the most part are without certification in a single subject after four or more years of secondary school.

As the minister of national security now admits, our homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 of the population is a “national crisis way beyond the capacity of normal policing”. Our undermanned and under-resourced police force of less than 10,000 is clearly without the capacity to respond adequately to the threat of anarchy.

Police reform remains on the back burner, while resignations continue to deplete the ranks, leaving some 4,000 posts unfilled, while corruption undermines its authority.

The weaponry in the hands of criminals today is also cause for deep concern. In the 1990s, raids on Tivoli Gardens and Arnett Gardens unearthed M16 assault rifles, AK-47 assault rifles with telescopic lens. Since then the ‘guns for drugs trade’ has modernised and expanded the underground arsenal in every parish.

LEADERSHIP IS THE KEY

If Jamaica is to avoid impending anarchy and build a society that is socially cohesive and economically productive, leadership is the key. The relevant criteria are a proven record of performance, the integrity and courage to dismantle the criminal networks irrespective of political affiliation, and the capacity to mobilise the nation around the national priorities.

Based on the criteria outlined, Peter Phillips stands out among his 62 parliamentary colleagues, and even he would find the road ahead “a hard row to hoe”.

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and former minister of government. Email feedback to redev.atb@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com.