Jamaican Higglers:... Time for a new story
Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Contributor
Insanity is doing the same thing, the same way, and expecting different results. Throughout Jamaica's history, battles have been waged between the State and higglers over the use of city space. These battles often occur at various moments, but they tend to intensify around Christmas - the busiest shopping season of the year.
The story is always the same: the Government, usually under pressure from businesses, assigns the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC) and security forces the task of cleaning up downtown Kingston by removing higglers from the streets and relocating them to designated marketplaces. These efforts usually result in the destruction of higglers' property and their primary means of generating income.
The results are always short-lived. Higglers return to the streets preferring to sell there as opposed to government-appointed markets, which are often unsafe, unsanitary and unattractive to potential customers. So the events that unfolded on October 14 are not new.
But the story has got old and worn. We need a new story, one that resists common assumptions of higglers as simply nuisances and lawbreakers, and instead employs a holistic approach to understanding their conditions and to creating strategies that can benefit all Jamaicans. The same old strategies simply do not work.
A first step would involve understanding higglering within a broader social and economic context. Like many Caribbean nations, Jamaica, since Independence, has pursued an economic-development strategy that has entrenched the economy in a dependent relationship in the global market. Over the last several decades, Jamaica has experienced a sharp downturn in the economy, which that has contracted under pressures of increasing debt.
High national debt
Today, Jamaica's debt burden is the fourth highest per capita; its debt-to-GDP ratio is greater than 130 per cent (CIA - The World Factbook, 2010). The destructive effects of structural-adjustment policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund over the years have undermined previous solutions to urbanisation and economic development, and have weakened the purchasing power of local wages. Jamaicans work hard, but many can't make ends meet.
The Government's inability to rebuild its failing public-school system has limited traditional routes to social mobility for most Jamaicans. Drastically curtailed public services, health, and welfare programmes have produced incredible hardships, especially for the poor and working poor. All this, plus questionable practices by both political parties, have weakened government in the eyes of the public. Many wonder whether Jamaica is fast becoming a failed sate.
Of the many outcomes of Jamaica's debt crisis, including the expansion of the drug trade and a high murder rate, two directly have an impact on higglering: (1)16.5 per cent of Jamaicans are living below the poverty line, the highest since 2004, and (2) the unemployment rate stands roughly at 12.4 per cent, in large part due to the loss of jobs in the formal economy, especially those in the manufacturing sector.
This situation is particularly difficult for Jamaican women who experience almost twice the level of unemployment (16.2 per cent) in comparison to men (9.3 per cent), and yet are left with the task of providing for their households. To make matters worse, Jamaicans are additionally burdened by the Government's fiscal policies, especially exorbitant tax packages, the effects of which have been devastating for Jamaica's poor. What all this suggests is that the Jamaican economy is seriously burdened by debt, and that its people, particularly poor Jamaican women, are struggling under its weight.
No wonder we see an expanding informal economy. Many Jamaicans, especially poor women, turn to the rich tradition of higglering as a response to deteriorating economic conditions. As the informal economy expands, however, the formal business community and city residents become anxious about higglers on the streets of Kingston and tensions build among these groups.
A closer look at these tensions reveals that public perceptions of higglers are fraught with contradictions. On the one hand, higglers are admired for their ability to survive in the face of great adversity; they are thought to exemplify the strength and resilience of Jamaicans. On the other hand, higglers are scorned for their presumed indiscipline and are treated like pariahs.
Such perceptions have long plagued higglers throughout Jamaica's history. There are numerous examples from Jamaica's colonial past to today of higglers described and treated as nuisances and as diseases. These ugly descriptions often fuel debates that call on the government of the day to remove higglers from the streets.
But we need a more imaginative approach to higglering and all kinds of street vending. We need to understand that higglers are not simply nuisances or lawbreakers, but rather, entrepreneurs trying to make a way out of no way. While I do not condone illegality, I implore the Jamaican Government and the wider public to ask themselves honestly: What alternatives are there given the current state of the Jamaican economy?
We simply cannot employ 19th- century strategies to solve 21st-century challenges. We need a new vision. A good place to begin is by developing a more nuanced approach to managing higglering, an approach that includes, but is not limited to, the KSAC. A primary objective of the KSAC is to keep the city clean and orderly, as such, its approach to higglers generally, is to remove them from public spaces. What is needed, however, is a collaboration of the best and brightest minds in the areas of business, marketing, green technology, security personnel, and credit unions to work with the KSAC to create multifaceted approaches that will be beneficial to both higglers and the larger society.
New strategies needed
Common sense tells us where customers gravitate, higglers will follow. Business and marketing experts must occupy a leading role in the development of market spaces that will attract customers. If market areas, which are usually dark, dirty, poorly roofed, not secure, and unsanitary, are not attractive to customers, then higglers will not remain in them because their businesses will fail. This is a primary reason why removal efforts in the past have not succeeded. And the efforts on October 14 will not succeed either. Why do we keep doing the same thing the same way?
Higglers can pool their monies each week to collectively pay for utilities associated with the market. Through this partner-like, or co-operative, system, higglers share the cost burdens and monitor themselves through a system of enforceable trust. All of this creates a safe and orderly environment in the markets and increases the likelihood of customers from all walks of life. Put simply: if you build the markets correctly, the customers will come, and the higglers will stay.
All of this requires significant investment. Carefully thought-out short-term investments can yield long-term gains for all concerned. The Government has already committed to rebuilding markets in the area, but we can be more imaginative (the Digicel-sponsored renovation at 'Curry' is a great beginning). This is an opportunity for Jamaica to position itself as a leader among Caribbean nations in reimagining the 21st-century marketplace. What a wonderful way to rebuild downtown Kingston and our nation!
Winnifred Brown-Glaude is a Jamaican national and an assistant professor at The College of New Jersey (USA). She is currently a faculty fellow at Princeton University in the Sociology Department. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.