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Damion Gordon | Is Jamaica a failed state? An academic perspective

Published:Sunday | February 11, 2018 | 12:00 AMDamion Gordon
A motorcycle driver whizzes through traffic without a helmet on April 24, 2017. From traffic and vending breaches to extortion and murder, there are umpteen examples of Jamaica's social dysfunction. But is that enough to label the country a failed state?

The current crisis of public insecurity that afflicts the country has caused many to revisit the perennial debate about Jamaica being a failed state. Of course, even before the recent upsurge in violent crimes, many Jamaicans had already diagnosed the country a failed state.

There seems to be a general feeling among many average Jamaicans that the country has slumped into a desolate place full of 'sufferation' and hopelessness. Very few have faith in the capacity and will of the political directorate to effect social and economic transformation. Many seem to now think the only escape route is to get out.

This would partly explain why the country has one of the highest rates of human flight in the world. It is estimated that 85 per cent of tertiary graduates migrate. It would thus be obviously self-defeating to attempt to convince many Jamaicans that the country is not a failed state. Emotions aside, however, I will attempt to add an academic perspective to the discourse.

What is state failure?

In the academic world, state failure is measured by the performance of the state in two areas: capacity and legitimacy. Capacity simply refers to the ability of the State to fulfil its obligations to its citizens, while legitimacy measures the extent to which citizens have confidence in the authority and ability of their governments.

There is obviously a correlation between capacity and legitimacy. If the government of a country demonstrates weak capacity to protect and improve the quality of life of its citizens, that government will lose the confidence and faith of its citizens. Therefore, as capacity decreases, so does legitimacy.

Jamaica, like most other Caribbean states, satisfies the most basic tenets of a stable liberal democracy such as universal adult suffrage, peaceful transfer of power, the holding of free and fair elections, the observance of majoritarian rule, respect for basic human rights, and the peaceful coexistence of political parties. The post-Independence Jamaican State has never experienced an unconstitutional change in government. Jamaica boasts a vibrant and vocal civil society and an impressive record of media, academic and religious freedom and also privacy protection (Universal Periodic Review 2010).

Despite these favourable findings, however, many point to a broken and subversive political system in Jamaica that continues to undermine democratic values and contributes to a lack of confidence in the integrity of elected and public officials. Political dysfunction is evident in the country's clientelistic and tribal political culture, lack of accountable and transparent political institutions, pervasive public-sector corruption, and the rise of the garrison phenomenon, which has been linked to the country's two major political parties and which constitutes the most serious threat to democracy and law and order in Jamaica.


Economic Indicators


The performance of the post-Independence Jamaican economy has been one of, if not, the weakest link in the country's development. The Jamaican economy, at political Independence in 1962, was vibrant. In the 1950s, the Jamaican economy was the world's leading producer of bauxite and was singled out as a model economy for developing states. Between the1950s and 1960s, Jamaica had the highest per capita GDP growth in Latin America and the Caribbean and was ranked in the top 10 in the world in terms of human development.

Since the 1990s, however, the Jamaican economy has been trapped in a vicious cycle of low growth and indebtedness, averaging per annum real GDP growth of one per cent over the last 30 years and 0.8 per cent over the last decade (against the Caribbean average of 2.6 per cent), making Jamaica one of the slowest growing economies in the world. In the 2000s, Jamaica's debt-to-GDP ratio was described as being far above that of the 17 countries identified by the World Bank as highly indebted middle-income countries" and "substantially higher than the debt-to-GNP ratio of low-income African countries. Jamaica's debt to GDP remains one of the highest in the world. Low growth and high debt have resulted in sustained unemployment rates, large-scale emigration of the labour force, and high poverty rates.

Social Indicators.

Social indicators are important determinants of well-being and quality of life. In terms of the country's ranking on the Human Development Index, Jamaica has consistently ranked among countries with high human development with an average index score of 0.74 since 2000. The country has high literacy (87 per cent), has high life expectancy (75 per cent), has already eradicated absolute poverty, malnutrition and hunger, has achieved universal access to primary education, has high rate of immunisation and vaccination, and has universal access to reproductive health, safe drinking water and sanitation.

Although the country's poverty rate of 14.5 per cent is considered to be very high, national poverty has dropped from 44.6 per cent in 1990 to a low of 9.9 per cent in 2007. The country's unemployment rate is, however, described as chronic and averaged 13.7 per cent from 1991 to 2017 with youth unemployment averaging around 30.7 per cent between 2012 and 2017.

With almost 40,000 Jamaicans murdered between 1962 and 2017, the Jamaican State can no longer claim a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. UNDOC regards countries with a homicide rate of more than 30 per 100000 as being extremely dangerous, as such a homicidal rate is "higher than the rate of conflict-related killings in some conflict zones. Jamaica's homicide rate has averaged 55 per 100,000 over the past 20 years, making it one of the most murderous countries in the world".


Is Jamaica a failed state?


So should the Jamaican State be classified as a failed state? Using strictly academic and technical rubrics, the post-Independence Jamaican state does not exhibit the loss of state control, the denial of civil and political freedoms, the absolute social and economic depravity, and the severe humanitarian crises that usually characterise so-called failed states such as South Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and others. Jamaica is thus not technically classified as a failed state. However, all labels are relative.

Many observers argue that in spite of the country's geographical proximity to major trade markets, its valuable natural resources, its highly educated population and its investor-friendly climate, the once vibrant Jamaican economy has become one of the most stagnant and indebted in the world. The brightest and most skilled Jamaicans continue to migrate in droves because of lack of social and economic opportunities.

Jamaica has not experienced experienced extreme and prolonged political, social and economic volatility (civil wars, armed conflicts, military coups, terrorism, famines, international isolation, low human development, etc.), yet its security and economic indicators are comparable to those of some of the war-torn, disease-ravaged, politically unstable countries that have been classified as failed states.

What many Jamaicans ultimately see is a country that has squandered its tremendous potential to be great. So while academically Jamaica is not classified as a failed state, the subjective realities of many Jamaicans may beg to differ. Ultimately, the debate boils down to a matter of semantics and personal feelings. As the saying goes, 'he who feels it, knows it.'

- Damion Gordon is assistant lecturer of public policy/political leadership and strategy at the UWI, Mona. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and dam36033@yahoo.com.