Michael Witter | Focus on survival
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma demonstrated the vulnerability of both rich and poor societies and the extreme fragility of the poor-island societies. Barbudan society literally collapsed under the onslaught of Irma, and social chaos hovered over St Martin, the Virgin Islands, and other damaged Caribbean countries as greed and survival instincts intertwined.
The precariousness of life in Dominica and Puerto Rico after Maria will take some time to be fully understood. These crises raise what Norman Girvan called the existential question: whether the environmentally, economically, and socially vulnerable small Caribbean societies can survive climate change, high levels of indebtedness and crime, and other forms of social indiscipline, especially when these threats are inextricably woven together.
Here in Jamaica, we have had bad flooding from relatively moderate rains, which faded in our memories as an extreme crime wave drives fear into our hearts and minds. Maybe Jamaica has been sliding imperceptibly into the chaos that has erupted suddenly and violently in the aftermath of Irma elsewhere in the region.
The wonderment at the powers of nature is still gripping our minds now, but we will quickly be caught up in business as usual in the immediacy of the struggle for survival. Perhaps in this moment of catching our collective breath, we can contemplate the urgency of sustainable socio-economic development as the only strategy for survival.
It is easy to show the correlation between implementing IMF-type policies and passing the tests that condition loan assistance on the one hand with the persistence of inequalities and the sustained rise in crime on the other. For too many years, normal business for our governments has been repaying debts and servicing the IMF agreements. Dealing with crime and other related social problems are side events, inconvenient distractions from the main pursuits of government. The urgency of dealing with social issues has more to do with servicing the loan agreements than satisfying the inherent demands of the social problems themselves.
We have been chasing growth unsuccessfully for more than four of the five decades of Independence at the expense of income distribution. As a result, the socio-economic inequities have become more deeply embedded, more justified by so-called financial imperatives, and more extreme. This is not peculiar to Jamaica but appears to be endemic to the economic system that many governments of former colonies have embraced, with popular support.
Public policy assumes that the benefits of economic growth will trickle down to the ordinary people in the form of jobs and incomes. But even if the economy grows at desired rates, it is likely to be jobless growth in an era of labour-saving technologies.
Central to the IMF-type stabilisation and growth strategy is austerity for the majority of the people, which is particularly painful for the poor. It is a paradoxical argument, often propounded by the US government to justify its campaigns to bomb Vietnam, and later Iraq, to bring peace and democracy. So it is, austerity is imposed to bring prosperity. The arguments in support of this have swayed public opinion, despite the decades of failures, usually attributed to not enough austerity or to deviation from the strategy for some inconvenience like natural disasters.
In spite of a generally unfavourable international economy, a divisive partisan domestic politics, a business class that is yet to demonstrate its capabilities to innovate and take risks, a population that is increasingly enamoured with consumption of foreign goods, there has been significant social and economic development in Jamaica since Independence. Transport and telecommunications infrastructure, the quality of the housing stock, the capacity of the social services have all been transformed so as to make the colonial legacy unrecognisable, but they are still inadequate for the needs of the population.
The monocrop agricultural export economy of 1950 has been eclipsed by a far more diversified economy today, much more technologically sophisticated, but its capacity for export is far too weak. As everywhere else in the world, the labour market has changed. The number of occupations has mushroomed, but the security of job tenure has all but disappeared.
There has been social mobility based on education and new income sources from cultural activities, broadly speaking, and technology-based enterprises, but the traditional class-race hierarchy persists. In all these, and many other aspects, Jamaica is far from where it could reasonably expect to be after 50 years of self-governance. In some important respects, crime being the obvious example, the country is far worse off than at Independence.
The cost of pursuing economic growth to the majority of people has been high and has prompted many people to hustle survival livelihoods, and too many to ignore illegality. The growth strategies have benefited mainly foreign corporations and a narrow group of local business persons.
This is a moment when a government with vision will initiate and guide a process of public discussion on how to transform our economy and society in the given circumstances, rather than postpone development actions till the economy achieves sustained, and fairly high, rates of growth.
Some basic targets can be defined that will make the country a better place to live now. Public education and school curricula should be creating responsible citizens, with a consciousness of the conservation and care of the environment; a relatively greater orientation to economic production than consumption; and more respect for the rights of others and for public spaces.
Lessons to learn
Over recent decades, there has been much tinkering with the education curriculum. The lessons from these attempts should now enable our policymakers to make the bold leaps required to graduate critical thinkers with the values and attitudes to accelerate the socio-economic development of the country.
The Cubans are well known for their ability to manage the impact of hurricanes. In part, this is because of the collective consciousness cultivated in schools that natural hazards will strike, and only with proper preparation can the disasters be minimised and the recovery shortened. Accordingly, there is no time for complacency. Our society must be ever more alert as climate change unfolds with potential crises for the natural environment that we can no longer take for granted,
Fighting crime needs a long-term strategy for employment opportunities, education, and housing, coordinated to impact those groups with the greatest potential for social indiscipline. To be sure, immediate action to curb criminal behaviour and to nip trends in that direction in the bud must be primary, but they have little chance of permanent success without the consistent efforts at socio-economic development. This has long been recognised, and some of this lies behind the concept of zones of special operations now being tried.
But social and economic development must be the priority of the Government, and not a temporary diversion, from servicing IMF agreements. This must be the approach to security in the foreseeable future.
There is an undeniable correlation between the increasing militarisation of the police force and the increasing militarisation of the gangsters. Only by transforming the young people, primarily men, into productive citizens who see rewards from their labours will the criminal enterprises be undermined for lack of recruits and blind eyes.
What of the economy? After many years, government policy is now beginning to embrace small-scale producers and acknowledge the tremendous contribution of the farming community. It is well known that these small producers need capital, relevant and appropriate physical infrastructure, markets, and training to tap into opportunities.
The Caribbean tourism market and the imported consumption goods here in Jamaica offer abundant opportunities. A much more concerted effort needs to be made to support these genuine elements of the private sector even at the expense of courting big corporations, which seek to get as much as they can for as little as they can give up.
Clear signals to the working people that their interests are paramount will make mobilisation for sustainable development much easier and enhance the survival prospects for our island home and our people. For example, such a signal will come from clean, cool, attractive parochial markets where the majority of Jamaicans buy their basic food items, and where so many tourists would love to go, if only the dark, disorganised, foul-smelling conditions were not so offputting.
It will come from a cheap, secure, safe bus service (with Wi-Fi) for children between central points and school. It will come from a greater share of public procurement reserved for the small and medium-size producers who meet minimum quality standards.
What is needed now is an approach that seeks to find out how challenges like these can be met, rather than why they cannot be met. It is another opportunity for young people to lead the rethinking of our development strategy for the Jamaica in which they will live.