Mon | Jan 20, 2020

Mark Ricketts | Jamaica – Our confounding little island

Published:Sunday | December 29, 2019 | 12:27 AM

We can call it the paradox that is Jamaica or the little island of extremes that capture and display the best of us with the worst of us. How can that be? The Gleaner’s Thursday, December 19, 2019, front page said it all in juxtaposing the beauty and the beast.

A photo and a story of Toni-Ann Singh, Miss World, adorned the front page, providing insights into what would be her first trip home since her international success. Undoubtedly, the country, in anticipation of her arrival the next day, was as excited as she was in returning home to the country of her birth and to St Thomas, the parish of her early upbringing.

Such a feel-good story where a parish, deemed forgotten, and a person, beautiful, natural, and humble, are elevated to pre-eminence on the world stage. That’s Jamaica at its best.

Yet news to the left of her portrayed the beast, with a headline which read ‘$200 for sex with 12-y-o girl’. How painful, how cruel, but that is also Jamaica.

It confirmed some of the observations made by Harvard Professor Orlando Patterson in his recently launched book The Confounding Island, Jamaica and the Post-Colonial Predicament:

- In global comparisons, Jamaica has an unnerving way of ending up within either the best or the worst group of countries in the world;

- There are few places on earth more confounding than Jamaica. A little island barely the size of Connecticut, it has a larger global profile than countries hundreds of times its size;

- At times it is celebrated for the worldwide impact of its cultural creations and for the spectacular performance of its stars (a specific reference he might have made to Miss Singh had his book not been published prior to her copping the pageant title).

Nevertheless, Jamaica, which accomplishes great things and takes centre stage, “is condemned for the failures of its economy, the depravity of its gangsters and racketeers, and, based on its homicide rate, it remains in the top ten most murderous places in the world,” Patterson wrote in his book.

Another conundrum: “Although blessed with one of the richest deposits of bauxite in the world, extraordinary natural beauty, both on its beaches and in its lush, soaring mountains, which makes it a paradise for tourists, the island has had stagnant or negative growth rates since the 1970s.”

What he finds “equally perplexing is that after several decades of economic stagnation, the island’s economy has suddenly come to life under a new generation of young leaders”.

DUG DEEPER HOLES

In his book, he asked the question, “why has Jamaica trailed Barbados on the path to sustained growth?” He could just as well have included Jamaica trailing Panama, the Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Tobago, The Bahamas, and to say nothing of Singapore, Japan, and South Korea.

And what of this island, after fairly impressive growth performance in the decade of the ’50s and early ’60s, allowing its economy in post-Independence to be uninspiring.

Political scientist, the late Professor Carl Stone alerted the public and private sector leaders to likely pitfalls. Instead of listening and responding appropriately, they dug deeper holes, which set back the country.

Stone pointed out that “rapid economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s postponed the build-up of social tensions, which exploded mainly in the direction of crimes and violence in the 1960s and 1970s. “Accelerated rural to urban migration, urban overcrowding, and joblessness created urban ghetto communities, which became integrated into the two-party system through patronage politics.

“They provided as well community power bases for the street gangs who lived by crime and violence. The ghetto areas became the focal points of political and class militancy. The gang leaders became an integral part of the urban power base of the two major parties and were soon able to bully their way into large patronage benefits, organised crime, and illegal wealth and middle-class material affluence.”

Unfortunately, garrisons, guns, and tribal warfare, instead of being upended, took hold and expanded, and later, a force-fed social revolution, with a militant parasitic urban base and without leadership and management cadres in place, halted whatever expectations there might have been for an economic revival. The country is still hurting today, 40 years later.

There was development potential in the decade prior to and after Independence as well as demonstrated strength in emerging growth areas in transportation, mining, finance, tourism, manufacturing, government services, value added in agriculture, rural development, mechanisation of the sugar industry, construction, office services, retail and warehousing, and research and development.

PUNCH ABOVE OUR WEIGHT

Opportunities abounded, with needs increasing for management skills, business leaders, professional talent, certified skill sets, entrepreneurs, and regulators. But Jamaica’s education and training were misdirected and misplaced.

The country had no sense of the economic power and significance of the consumer revolution and capital investment and depreciation and the importance of competence, productivity gains, regulations, governance, and leadership in wealth creation.

A relevant social science faculty at our premier university was sorely needed. University of the West Indies, Mona, failed us in this regard, giving us little chance to catch up with tiny Barbados.

According to Professor Patterson, “The Barbados economy was already ahead of Jamaica at the start of the independence era, by every measure, including per capita GDP, the result of more efficient management, a highly disciplined elite, and a population with far greater human capital, which was educationally, psychologically, and culturally appropriate for the construction of a modern capitalist economy.”

Jamaica, on the other hand, though improving, has poor quality of labour inputs, inadequate capacity utilisation, and high debt. Over 60 per cent of the labour force has no certification.

Clearly, the country suffers from policy weaknesses and an implementation deficit, yet we punch above our weight – the recently crowned Miss World is a Jamaican.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com