Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Poor me and you!

Published:Sunday | August 31, 2014 | 8:00 AM
Gordon Robinson

Prime Minister Portia loves me.

Gordon Robinson

I know because she told me so. Well, it sounds more like she loves me when I'm poor, which, these days, is always. According to Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), 9.9% of Jamaicans lived below the poverty line in 2007. By 2009, the figure was 16.9%; and, by 2011, over 20%. Today, more than 1.1 million Jamaicans live below the poverty line. Jamaica has dropped, on the Human Development Index, from 79th in the world (2011) to 86th since 2013. Barbados is ranked 36th; Haiti 100th.

In 2011, the PIOJ blamed the increase on "fiscal stabilisation measures, due to measures undertaken under the IMF standby arrangement, reduced external demand for exports of goods and services, reflecting the 'long-tailed global recession', extreme weather conditions in late 2010, and the civil unrest in May". So, apart from Tivoli, it's all external and unavoidable? Right?

Wrong. The most recent poverty calculations didn't come from PIOJ. They originate from a study conducted by Dr Alanzo Smith, member of the American Counselling Association and Association of Adventist Family Life ('Jamaica's poverty rating worsens', Gleaner, March 26, 2014). Dr Smith, speaking at a psychology conference held at NCU, was reported as saying, "Intergenerational poverty stems from a breakdown in family structure, lack of education, and economics."

As simple as that. If we're to believe Dr Smith (and his reasoning is as superior to PIOJ's as are cable broadcasts of Scandal/The Good Wife to local television's), Jamaica's poverty levels have nothing to do with the May 2010 Tivoli invasion. OMG! Who'd have thunk it? He's saying that whether or not security forces prematurely invaded Tivoli and slaughtered at least 76 civilians in search of one man we'd be as poor. In case you missed it, PIOJ would have us believe we're poor(er) because JLP made a ham-fisted disaster of catching Dudus. Anybody else not seeing an immediate connection?

Based on Dr Smith's study, the "long-tailed global recession" (whatever that is) has NOTHING to do with Jamaica's poverty levels. Nor did it reduce demand for exports, which has more to do with the high cost of inputs and lack of local imagination than anything resembling Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler). This makes simple common sense since no global recession has ever stopped the rich from getting richer. Why should it make the poor poorer?

PIOJ's attempt to blame the IMF standby agreement is another non-starter, especially as it's more fashionable than acrylic nails to bash JLP for ignoring that agreement. Since when is "fiscal stabilisation" a poverty-booster? It's EXACTLY what this Government is trying to do. Sounds like PIOJ's poverty plan involves return to fiscal destabilisation.

Dr Smith is 100% correct, but his reasoning is too simple for complicated, textbook-driven commentators and bureaucrats. There's a direct link between poverty and education, but, for 35 years, Jamaica's education has been missing in action, presumed dead. Under our anti-democratic Westminster system, governments, unshackled by accountability, have reduced too many schools to garbage-infested, pit latrine-serviced hellholes where undisciplined robots fall off assembly lines manned by undertrained, underpaid, underappreciated teachers rarely present, except for extra lessons to supplement their own poverty-stricken pockets.

unfettered dictatorships

For those still struggling to connect the dots in last Sunday's column on Westminster, the point about Westminster is that in small countries, it translates into unfettered dictatorships. If we want accountability, we need a different system. Which one? The one named anything but Westminster. Westminster works in Canada and Australia for the same reasons (large Parliaments; settled traditions) as in Britain. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Westminster's unsuitability is somewhat camouflaged by superior education levels and superior economics, but it's still inappropriate.

In Trinidad, where political tribalism, based on race, is at its highest, former PM Patrick Manning resigned as party leader the day after he was voted out, thus handing party and country credible Opposition led by new blood able to criticise without baggage. When will we see THAT in Jamaica?

Until we can vote for the MP and prime minister of our choice separately; until our Senate is elected (proportional representation?); until the best and brightest from our limited talent pool can be recruited to Cabinet regardless of political affiliation, we're doomed. None of this is possible in Westminster. Our poverty problems can't be blamed on outside forces. It's all us. Unless we close several frivolous ministries and get serious about education, WE WILL NOT STEM THE POVERTY SLIDE.

Pretending we need 20 ministers (including four 'without portfolio') and eight ministers of state from a Parliament in which 32 MPs would form a majority is completely ridiculous! In small countries, straitjacketed by Westminster, who'll force a PM to appoint fewer ministers?

Dr Smith also blames breakdown of family structures and lack of economics. All are connected and driven by 25 years of fiscal recklessness by governments protected from accountability by Westminster. Political leaders whip impoverished products of their neglect for education into frenzies at party rallies by proclaiming love for the poor while boasting of massive foreign borrowings certain to increase poverty. Like dancehall audiences, followers experience temporary highs then return home to devastatingly impoverished realities.

stroke of genius

Last Sunday, online reader 'caleb' commented: "Ridiculous. You can't just immediately cut off borrowing ... . You complain about bus fares going up but you want zero borrowing? Idiocy." Well, apparently, his hero, Peter Phillips, wasn't aware of that stroke of genius because it was Peter who said we cannot borrow anymore. Abolishing Westminster won't stop borrowing. What it'll do is force finance ministers to think before making "ridiculous" promises not to borrow as precursors to massive new tax impositions followed by enormous additional borrowings to cover current expenditures. It's the reckless contrariness used, without discernible restraint, to build verbal smokescreens that so rankles the populace and engenders despair. Accountable governance promotes responsibility and discourages 'mouth-cuts'.

We must insist on change. We must demand accountability. Why do we fund the water, land, environment and climate change; and agriculture & fisheries? What does an agriculture ministry do that a land ministry can't? Furthermore, isn't agriculture an industry? Why're there separate ministries of agriculture, land, etc, AND a third Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce? Why separate ministries of commerce AND foreign trade? Is foreign trade not commerce?

Jamaica's GDP is less than 0.02% of the world's GDP. Never before in human history have so many collected so much to produce so little. Agriculture contributes about 6% of Jamaica's GDP; industry 29%. Which ministry should swallow which?

World Bank stats report Jamaica's GDP during January 2012 to January 2014 fell from US$14.43 billion to US$14.36 billion. That's the result of at least 28 'ministers' working, working, working. According to the World Bank, "Bureaucracy, high energy costs and a slow, inefficient legal system are hampering foreign direct investment and private initiative."

So, we counter with more bureaucracy, higher energy costs and a legal system that's moved from slow to dead stop. Recently (legally speaking), I led the conduct of a libel suit for a local businessman whose integrity as a businessman was irresponsibly vilified in 2008. He sued promptly, but judgment was delivered on August 15, 2014. This is libel, NOT a broken foot. This man's business depends on his good name.

Another case involving a Caribbean supplier suing a Jamaican purchaser for debt has languished for four years awaiting a judicial decision on a preliminary issue. Salaries owed to judges since 2009 remain unpaid. Guess why we don't have more foreign direct investment or private initiative.

We've separate ministries of youth/culture and education. Why? If those were one (Education), hands up who believes over $50 million would've been spent on a Grand Gala. Good God, there's a Ministry of Local Government! Really? Seriously? Isn't local government's raison d'être that it's local?

Why won't we scrap many of these ministries, send the bureaucrats (and ministers) home to start small businesses, and concentrate on Education, Security/Justice, Transport/Infrastructure, and Health/Welfare, which are the four essentials to government, growth and improved poverty statistics?

But don't worry. All is copacetic. Prime Minister Portia loves you. You know this because she told you so.

Peace and love.

PS: I'm so sad to learn of Roger Clarke's passing. He was a true Jamaican hero who gave his life in service to Jamaica. The good news is he's free from the trials of this mortal toil. Go with God, Rog.

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.