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Bouquets and brickbats

Published:Sunday | November 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Residents of De La Vega City in Spanish Town clean a drain on White Church Street in preparation for the passage of Tropical Storm Tomas last Thursday. - Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer

Martin Henry, Gleaner Writer

Up to the time of writing, 'Tomas', hurricane, tropical storm, weather system, whatever, was still doubtful. But the Government of Jamaica must be commended for the relatively smooth and comprehensive mobilisation for a possible natural disaster.

Public commentators run the serious risk of damaging their standing if they praise the Government for anything, or worse be labelled as a supporter of whichever party forms the administration being commended. There seems to be an unwritten rule somewhere, that the business of analyst/commentator is to find fault and to shout disaster. This column, from its very inception in 1987, 23 years ago to the month, has chosen to disregard that 'rule'. The finest compliment the column has been paid, consistently, is for fairness and balance.

Hurricane Gilbert taught us some bitter lessons about unpreparedness and complacency, and since the 1980s governments of Jamaica, on shoestring budgets, have built up an admirable system of disaster preparedness and emergency management around the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. Some of its finest results are the general awareness and responsiveness of the population, the reduction of loss of life, and the speed of restoration and rehabilitation.

Early last week, the head of the Government, Prime Minister Bruce Golding, with Tomas still several days and hundreds of miles away, pulled the "troops" together for a strategy meeting. He then got out of their way and was off to Barbados, after Tomas had visited there, for the funeral of David Thompson.

While the system of disaster preparedness and emergency management will need political direction, it does not require the executive management of the political arm of the Government, as the general delivery of state services does not. The integrated network of public agencies for disaster preparedness and emergency management should be allowed to get the job done.

Aid in squatting

But the Government has been a major contributor to natural events, like sustained rainfall or storms, turning into unnatural disasters, and deserves brickbats for that. With Tomas heading our way, a late storm in a whole series of active hurricane seasons, Mayor of Kingston Senator Desmond McKenzie was confessing before an area-council party audience, that politicians of both parties forming government had aided and abetted squatting in disaster-prone areas to secure "pockets of votes". But those pockets of votes have become "pockets of disaster and destruction for the country", McKenzie bluntly told his people.

The management of human settlements and the lack of access of a large segment of the population to land is one of the major disasters unleashed upon this country by its own government, going all the way back to Emancipation. The next major phase of disaster preparedness and emergency management, not to mention economic and social advancement for more Jamaicans, must be access to land and safe and decent housing.Government finds the money to restore and rehabilitate disaster-

damaged infrastructure, but cannot find the money for maintenance to prevent, or at least to mitigate the damage in the first place. This is just plain stupid and deserves brickbats. Little, low-cost things like cleaning drains don't get done. But then the costs from avoidable flooding and for rebuilding washed-out roads have to be met. As economic analyst Dennis Chung pointed out one day last week on the newest talk show, 'Jamaica Speaks', on the University of the West Indies' NewsTalk 93 FM radio station, the cost of restoration after Tropical Storm Nicole must be significantly higher than preventive maintenance would have been.

Dependent on aid

And we have grown dependent on foreign aid to bail us out. Badrul Haq, the World Bank representative in Jamaica, has pointed out the painfully obvious, that the country is depending on 100 per cent external financing for meeting recovery costs from Nicole damage.

To prepare for Tomas, the prime minister has invoked emergency powers that will permit the Government to waive some procurement guidelines which would slow down the preparation. Some of us have been pointing out for a while that the elaborate and grandiose system of procurement that the Government has devised to block 'tief' has become a serious handicap to efficiency in public administration.

The prime minister and Cabinet can wriggle through the legal loophole of emergency powers; agencies, under 'normal' circumstances, must face an obstacle course to order paper clips. The procurement system must be reformed, not stepped around when it suits the executive arm of government. The public service is catching hell with it.

Cholera has popped up in Haiti. And the Government of Jamaica has quickly and thoroughly mounted what appears to be an adequate response to keeping the disease out. Cholera was last here in 1851 with disastrous consequences, claiming the lives of up to 10 per cent of the population. Health Editor Eulalee Thompson, last Wednesday, treated Gleaner readers to an excellent flashback to 'Jamaica's 1851 cholera outbreak'.

The prime minister, 'Doctor' Golding, was well armed by his health technocrats for his cholera prevention speech to Parliament, right down to the biological Latin name for the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae. The Government should have listened more carefully to the health professionals in the national health service before removing user fees. A great deal of bad governance has been foisted upon this country because 'hard-ears' politicians believe that politics can overrule economic realities.

Eradicating disease

Jamaica has an enviable track record of eradicating and controlling infectious diseases. The re-appearance of malaria here was a cause of concern although they were imported cases with apparently no local transmission. The disease caused by a mosquito-transmitted protozoan parasite of the blood, was eradicated here in 1963, a year into independence.

Malaria is still present in Caribbean and Latin American neighbours. The Cornwall Regional Hospital is to be renamed in honour of the man who was minister of health when malaria was declared eradicated, Dr Herbert Eldemire.

While this newspaper has faced a spot of bother, over the manner in which it reported the presentation made to the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee by the head of the Public Sector Transformation Unit (PSTU), Mrs Patricia Sinclair McCalla, the Government is dragging its feet on the reform of the public service.

Prime Minister Golding set up the PSTU to advise on the overhaul of the public service, but, perhaps distracted by political and natural disasters, seems to have lost the drive to see the matter through.

The two biggest calls upon the national budget are debt servicing and public-service salaries. The Government has, commendably engineered the Jamaica Debt Exchange Programme to peg down interest payments on the domestic debt, and has successfully confounded the cavilers at home and abroad. For bouquets, similar bold action must now be swiftly taken on the reform of the public service for both efficiency and cost-savings.

Having laid out the critical issues, including the cost of leave and pensions and rental, and the recommendations for transformation, Mrs Sinclair McCalla did say, "What it needs is a policy decision by Cabinet to move the process forward in terms of some of these critical issues."

Sense of urgency

There are things, she said, "that can be done immediately; you don't need to wait on a green paper to act". Some of the sense of urgency which led to the invoking of emergency powers to circumvent the quagmire of procurement as Tomas approached, is clearly needed here.

There is any number of things to fling brickbats at the Government of Jamaica for. But one more bouquet for today. Education takes the biggest sector slice of the national Budget, but we seldom want to ask the tough return-on-investment questions.

Responding to the facts of high residual illiteracy and semi-literacy in the system, the current iteration of the Government of Jamaica is now rolling out a Grade Seven Intervention Programme (GSIP). This is something I have been advocating for years. The national average scores for language and mathematics in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) are bouncing around in the 50s per cent; and one out of five students, that is 20 per cent, scores less than 33 per cent in language arts.

Assistant chief education officer, D. Mary Campbell, tells us the obvious: "Many of our students transition into secondary schools ill-prepared to access the secondary curriculum." And they leave with little or nothing to show for five years of public, personal and parental investment in their education.

The GSIP is designed to confront head-on, the numeracy and literacy deficiencies these students have, and will use data-driven planning and instructional methods, including the use of culture and the arts, and the Internet, to fix the problems.

Minister of Education Andrew Holness has already declared that, come next year, no student will be allowed to sit the GSAT unless certified as literate. One of my early columns was, 'First teach them to read'. The GSIP definitely deserves a bouquet.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Feedback may be sent to and