The challenge of change: Interview with Jeremy Cresswell (Part II)
Published: Sunday | December 13, 2009
Leaving Jamaica after four and a half years as British high commissioner and after interacting with three different prime ministers, as well as people of all walks of society during that time, Jeremy Cresswell has come to the conclusion that one of Jamaica's most serious obstacles to development is a reluctance to change. He acknowledges:
"One of the things that I've very much appreciated here in Jamaica has been the openness of Jamaican politicians from both the main parties, whether they have been ministers of government, members of parliament, whether they've been opposition spokespeople - including many from the younger generation - who have always been willing to talk in a very, very open way about the issues and problems of Jamaica and the ways we can best work together. That's something which I've deeply appreciated in my time here."
Despite their willingness to talk, he observes:
"What I see as the challenges facing Jamaica seem to be primarily those of addressing and implementing change. Whenever you look at any of the issues that face Jamaica, whether they're economic, whether they're political, whether they're social, the changes that need to be made are out there. They're often discussed, many solutions have been proposed, many speeches have been made, but it seems sometimes quite difficult to actually achieve change. In every country and society, change is difficult. But across the board, it seems to be really quite difficult for Jamaican society to move forward."
He continues: "When there are issues, like tax reform, for example, which are clearly accepted by everybody as being really crucial as one aspect of government business and society's responsibility that needs to be changed - and dare I say needs to be improved - if you improve the tax system, you can help to deal with the massive debt problem. If you look at the debt problem, where an unusually high proportion of debt is domestic, these are issues which need to be sorted out with and by Jamaicans, more within Jamaica than externally.
"When you look at Jamaican efforts to reform the security and justice sectors, where a lot of excellent work has been done in analysing the problems, and you're trying to move things forward, I see and have to acknowledge the frustration of those who are trying to lead this change. I think it's still a bit of a conundrum why a country like Jamaica, which is so articulate and has so many people who have a flexible way of looking at things, that still change and reform seem to be such a challenge."
He points out that, on Jamaica's external debt with Britain, the British government has for several years been contributing five million pounds in debt forgiveness every year and, with that debt now at 12 million pounds, within the next couple of years it will be dealt with. He also points out:
"There are broader issues about the way in which you handle debt. The European Commission and the British government have been seeking to work with the Jamaican Government to see how there are technical ways of improving the debt situation. Certainly, to the extent that the IMF can be part of the solution, we, as a major lender of the IMF, will be willing and wanting to work with Jamaica on this way forward. We'll be wanting to see whether there are ways in which we can provide appropriate support for the reforms which Mr Golding has been talking about as being necessary, in light of the current economic crisis, which I imagine will come particularly strongly to the fore when negotiations with the IMF have been completed."
In discussing the issue of change, Cresswell says: "Corruption is clearly one of those challenges. But I would say governance generally. One hears people here, both in the political and academic spheres, talking a lot about the need to improve governance, improve accountability, which is a crucial element. I put that all very much in the context of change in Jamaica, because these are areas where I know many Jamaicans are conscious of the need for this. All I can say is that I observe and listen to what people say and I can see that these are important issues."
He concedes that, over time, the British government has become a bit more sceptical about broad modernisation programmes, not always convinced that they provide the most successful way of moving forward. In response to a question about whether the international police officers (IPOs) have been effective, he says:
"That's been a high profile programme which continues, which we're willing to consider continuing, as certain officers leave at the end of their contracts. We've been in discussion over the recent period with the police and other authorities about how best to contribute to the reform and modernisation of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). Before their contracts are finished, we will be looking with the Jamaican authorities to see whether direct replacements are the best and most effective way of using that resource. I think the work that each of the five IPOs who have been here - Mark Shields left the JCF very recently so we currently have four - the work that they've been doing has been effective.
"Whether you always achieve the goals that you set yourself is another question. Should you set your expectations slightly lower or not? At what point do you say: 'Well, we're actually still continuing to get value for money. Or should that resource be deployed elsewhere?' That's a discussion that still needs to be had. The contracts of three of the officers were extended at the request of the JCF and the Jamaican authorities not that long ago and that means that question doesn't arise in the immediate future. I know that the acting commissioner is aware and conscious of the programme. He is supportive of it. And we want to continue the discussion with the commissioner in the months to come."
On the question of whether Jamaica would be penalised for its stance on the death penalty and on homosexuality, since Jamaican laws differ from those of the UK, Cresswell states: "We're not going to impose our views or policy decisions on other friendly governments. The death penalty we regard as an inappropriate form of punishment in all circumstances. What Jamaica and Jamaicans and other countries in the region decide to do is a matter for them.
"We regard the issue of an individual's sexual orientation as being entirely their own choice. Now, I'm not talking about the law in Jamaica. There is a law on the statute books and that again is for Jamaicans to decide upon whenever they feel it is right to do so. But from the British and European perspective, discrimination against homosexual people is not compliant with human rights as we understand it."
most interesting job
Cresswell later revealed that the single most interesting part of his tenure in London from 1998 to 2001 occurred when he served as a United Kingdom representative on the International Task Force for Holocaust Education and Remembrance, initially to determine how Europe, the United States of America and Israel would deal with the holocaust of the Jewish people historically and actively, but later extended to cover issues of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
He relates: "I like to think that, in a small way at that time, we were working - particularly in Eastern Europe - towards helping civil society come to terms with their own historical issues and seeing how worldwide issues of genocide, racism and discrimination affect us all. We're all foreigners in every other country that we live in. Whatever our background and provenance, we all have equal rights in the countries we live in. All of us fall short, more or less, of the standards that we'd like to achieve. That work I found both gratifying and also extremely moving."
Although he was reluctant to cite any one Jamaican group with whom he'd worked over another, perhaps because of his own work on human-rights, when I asked about Jamaicans for Justice, he responds: "I know you're trying to nail the jelly again. But Jamaicans for Justice is an organisation we've worked with and to whom we've provided support over the time that I've been here, along with other organisations. To the extent that they're working to a universal human-rights agenda I certainly get the impression that during the time they have been active here, they've made a big contribution not only in individual cases they've worked on, but in contributing towards the continuing dialogue and discussion in Jamaica about the way in which Jamaican society should develop. I have to say, I have great respect for people in any country who are prepared to put themselves forward and say: 'This is what we believe is right, this is what we believe should change'."
Jeremy Cresswell and his much-admired German bride, Dr Barbara Munske-Cresswell, left Jamaica on December 4 for his next posting in London while Jamaica awaits the arrival of the new British High Commissioner Howard Drake and his wife in early January 2010.