Martin Henry, Contributor
Tomorrow we're 50, and it's time for sober reflections. What have been the achievements, failures, setbacks?
Any comprehensive review would be too voluminous for a newspaper column. But a manageably small number of critical data points can provide a pretty good snapshot of achievements, failures and setbacks. Selecting from ministerial portfolios is one good way to go.
Before we go there, our country has sustained a stable and functional parliamentary democracy, which is not exactly a minor achievement in the postcolonial world. But this has not been without the blot of garrisons, political tribalism, and political violence which has cost the lives of tens of thousands of citizens, directly or indirectly, has internally displaced multiple thousands more and hampered development.
We should, at the Grand Gala tomorrow, observe a minute's silence for the thousands dead from our nation's Independence politics.
We have closed 50 years of Independence with a comparatively robust democracy and a great deal of personal freedom as a people.
A very important out-turn of the first 50 years is the reduction in the rate of population growth and reduction in the fertility rate. Migration has assisted mightily in keeping our numbers down within manageable limits, but not without the loss of the majority of citizens who have acquired tertiary education, an outflow now running at some 85 per cent. A significant failure is that the Jamaican economy has never been able to absorb the majority of its trained people.
It is now the done thing to place economic management and economic performance at the top of the agenda. But even more vital and basic in a sovereign state is the security of its people, the protection of their rights and freedoms, and the delivery of justice to them. On these core axes of assessment, governance in independent Jamaica has been a miserable failure. In 50 years Jamaica has earned the unenviable distinction of being among the top three countries for its murder rate, moving from about four per 100,000 in 1962 to nearly 60 per 100,000.
We have come to the 50th anniversary with a string of curfews being imposed upon high-crime urban communities. Most other free countries reluctantly use the curfew under conditions of civil disturbance, not as a routine crime-fighting measure.
Police killing of citizens, both lawful and unlawful, is exceptionally high, and INDECOM, the agency recently created to deal with police abuses, is already overwhelmed with cases.
The country has spent many of the last 50 years haggling over the UK Privy Council being our final court of appeal and its replacement by the Caribbean Court of Appeal. Meanwhile, of far greater consequence to the delivery of justice, the lower levels of the judicial system are clogged at Year 50, with some 400,000 backlog cases. Accused persons, against the fundamental principle of habeas-corpus in English common law, are held in prolonged custody for under inhumane conditions.
Going back to 1838, 1865 and 1938, the majority of Jamaicans entered Independence with a deep sense of injustice - social, economic, political, and judicial - which 50 years of Independence have done little to remove. Late in the period, the legislature has voted an expanded Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms to replace Chapter III of the 1962 Constitution.
Ironically, once we get past the substantial risks to the security of life and property, Jamaicans have enjoyed a rambunctious degree of freedoms of thought and of expression (including media), of movement and of assembly, of religious and political belief, and of privacy, and freedom from a range of discriminations, which in some cases exceed levels in advanced democracies.
State failing citizens
On the downside is the critical failure of the State to protect citizens from trespasses upon their rights. From noise to squatting, from vending to building, from waste disposal to the use of public thoroughfares, Jamaica closes Year 50 with its people living in palpable chaos and ubiquitous trespass and a great sense of abandonment by the State to suffer at the hands of fellow citizens.
Jamaica has not managed to build a strong and secure economy. My critical indices of that failure are led by the near ninetyfold devaluation of the Jamaican dollar against its US$ counterpart since currency conversion in 1969, something hardly noted in the analysis. You cannot build a strong and secure economy on a sliding currency. Government hardly has any more basic economic responsibility than preserving the integrity of the national currency. Which is also a critical rights issue, since the value of property is measured in the currency and is seriously hurt by devaluation and inflation.
Other measures of poor eco-nomic performance include the progressively growing debt burden, with the current debt-to-GDP ratio of 140 per cent well into the crisis zone. Since the end of the 1970s, the national Budget has been built around debt servicing. Unemployment, which seldom dips into single digits, with a lot more underemployment, is another critical measure, as is remittances outperforming export earnings from most productive sectors.
Over the 50 years, agriculture has declined, with output on every traditional export crop declining. Manufacturing has risen and fallen. The lifeline tourism sector says it can only survive if Government provides it with lifeline subsidies.
Despite some progress in modernisation and diversification, there is the continued entrapment of too much capital and too many people in low-end economic activity. The vast majority of 'working' Jamaicans are still 'hustlers', living on the margins.
We have built a modern world-class bauxite industry which has now fallen upon hard times from external factors, but we have not used the bauxite levy targetedly for sustainable development. Other mining prospects have not been pursued with equal vigour or success.
Education ups and downs
Access to education has vastly increased over 50 years of Independence, with virtually every child having access to secondary education and some 30 per cent having access to some form of post-secondary education, all heavily subsidised or fully paid for by the State. But an inequitable system has been built which weeds out 85 per cent of children by the end of the secondary level, if success is measured as passing five CSEC subjects, including English and math, which qualify the student for tertiary matriculation. Some 85 per cent of those graduating from tertiary education leave the country with their skills.
While work-ready training has also expanded, some 70 per cent of the 'official' labour force has no certification. Education has not served as well as it could the imperative of national development.
We have a better track record in health. Malaria was eradicated in 1963, a year into Independence, and all other communicable diseases have been either eradicated or controlled at low incidences. Immunisation and primary health care have been world class. Child and maternal mortality have tumbled, as well as malnutrition. Life expectancy has risen by more than a dozen years to First-World levels. But trauma from violence and chronic diseases has been consuming more and more of health-care resources.
The country has failed to develop a national health-insurance system, and private schemes cover only a small fraction of the population, mostly the professional class. The social safety net is generally weak, with a low-benefit national insurance scheme available mostly to PAYE workers, and a succession of token programmes of assistance to the poor.
The Jamaican environment has come under increasing pressure. A number of problems like overfishing, deforestation and the preservation of endangered species have reached crisis proportions.
The country has significantly increased access to potable water, particularly through small rural systems, but is set to face a severe water crisis because of the failure to increase storage capacity for major urban centres to match population growth.
One of the greatest and most far-reaching failures is the failure of the State to radically reverse historical injustices and drive land reform and housing. A third of the population is living as squatters. More than 80 per cent of contributors to the NHT do not qualify for benefits. There has been a massive destruction of housing stock in the old inner-city areas during the political scorched-earth wars. The majority of parcels of land in the country remain untitled and is dead capital in the hands of the owners.
Over our 50 years of Independence, we have faced the paradox of modernisation and expansion of infrastructure alongside a disgraceful neglect and deterioration of older stock, from roads to courthouses.
Jamaica has had a strong and bold presence on the world stage, but not always a productive foreign policy. Our foreign policy has been too driven by friendship rather than by national interests and by aid rather than trade.
Jamaica has joined the modern world in telecommunications and has a higher cellphone density than many developed countries. The policy reversal of monopoly has driven down prices and improved service.
Many feel that our greatest triumphs have been in sports and culture, particularly music. Our 50th anniversary is wrapped in Olympic glory. We have not managed to convert sports and music into significant industries.
With culture, community has suffered serious decline, the worst manifestation being the pathology of the garrison.
Jamaica comes to the end of Year 50 at No. 79, out of 187 countries ranked on the UNDP's 2011 human development index. Our index number (expressed as a fraction of 1) has risen from 0.607 in 1980 to 0.727. The index for the whole world has been rising, with Jamaica outpacing the world average. Jamaica routinely sits in the middle of the HDI ranking, with a number of Caribbean states outranking us.
The rising tide lifts all ships. There has been a long upward swing in human development since at least the 1960s. Much of Jamaica's 'development' in Independence can simply be attributed to this rising tide, which would have lifted anyway and, perhaps, lift even better without the political deadweight which our own peculiar brand of politics has imposed.
Our politics and governance as a sovereign state could have delivered much more. But we are definitely not among the worse.
Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.