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The business of government

Published:Sunday | October 7, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, September 27. - AP

Martin Henry, Contributor

"The Government has little money to do anything. That is the plain truth." - Portia Simpson Miller, PNP 74th annual national conference, September 16, 2012

What should a government do when it has little money to do anything, as has been the situation with the Government of Jamaica through most of the 50-year period of 'Independence'?

At just about the time when members of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) country team were packing their bags for travelling to Jamaica, Portia Simpson Miller was elected as a vice-president of Socialist International (SI). It goes without saying that SI and the IMF will have substantially different answers on the question of the role of the state and government. Our own political leadership had better answer this basic question in sensible fashion. And there is no better time to do it than when the Government has been declared by its very head to "have little money to do anything".

While the IMF team was here, the country was plunged into a fresh spasm of concern over crime. This time, rape was the headline-grabber and the talk of the country. We had scarcely come to grips with the rape of five women and children in St James when a young sales representative hustling a living in the hard business of selling door to door was murdered in neighbouring Trelawny after being possibly sexually assaulted.

Last year, more than 1,200 persons were murdered, and this number is lower than several previous years'. The national campaign now is to keep our women and children and old people safe. This leaves young men free to kill each other without too much of a fuss, as they have been doing for decades.

As the IMF talked to Government, to business and to civil society, a fresh debate on the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) broke out. Several members of Parliament rose to its defence. Contributor to this newspaper, Robert Wynter, joined The Gleaner and I and a few others to point out the dangers to constitutional politics posed by the CDF.

Meanwhile, MP for East Rural St Andrew, Damion Crawford, has been locked in wranglings with some of his constituents and parish councillors about how di money fi go. And over in the west, elements of Central St James MP Lloyd B. Smith's political outfit, are accusing him of being mean because ''im have the money fi help them but 'im nah spen' it'.


On September 30, 2012, The Sunday Gleaner resurrected Tivoli Gardens with two pages of stories. Tivoli Gardens is the quintessential paternalistic and clientelistic political enclave with overwhelming dependence. Many residents are deeply longing for Papa Eddie, who built Tivoli Gardens as minister of development and welfare.

Some are longing for Dudus, the last 'community leader', who is now serving a 23-year sentence in a United States prison on gunrunning and drug-trafficking charges. Crimes of a certain kind are gaining a foothold in the absence of the leadership vacuum. Most of the rest of the country has had to cope with rising levels of crime for years. The people want work. In an area with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, most of them are without formal employment, and there is only so much lawful hustling possible in the market district downtown.

While the IMF team was wrapping up its two-week visit, rains again wreaked havoc on the country's road system, which is already in advanced decay. Roads, including parochial footpaths, were better maintained in colonial Jamaica than they are now.

Contrary to media reports that Government was shelving plans for introducing LNG, Minister of Energy Phillip Paulwell provided abundant clarity in Parliament last Tuesday that Government was not abandoning LNG but pulling out of involvement with fuel-source selection, leaving that to the private-sector monopoly which supplies electricity. But at the last PNP annual conference, a major bragging point for the prime minister and party president was the Government building houses, albeit far fewer than the many thousands per year of demand.

No government ever in Jamaica, before and after Independence Day, has ever tackled in radical fashion the post-Emancipation problem of access to land and to titles of ownership, which would do so much to not only allow people to construct their own shelter but would drive capital mobilisation for growth and development as no other single intervention could.

A third of the Jamaican population live as squatters, nearly a million people. In the last couple of weeks, attorney Linton Gordon has been writing in The Sunday Gleaner from the landowners' side on 'The social and economic costs of squatting'. To balance di ting, social and economic costing of squatting should also be done from the perspective of squatters.

Last week in Parliament, also, the audit of the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP) was presented by Works Minister Dr Omar Davies and has been sent to the Office of the Contractor General for decisions on findings of breaches. But the outgoing contractor general, Greg Christie, says the office does not have strong enough teeth. A clean and efficient public administration is a core business of government.


I have raised all of these - and much more could be pulled from recent news on the operations of Government - to get back to that basic question of the business of government. All kinds of answers can be, and have been, proffered, making up the various political ideologies with which humankind has been afflicted. But when Government, like the single mother, with little money to spend, has to make tough decisions about priorities, the matter of core responsibilities tends to get very much clearer. The undelegatable monopoly functions of the State have to be the core responsibilities of government, any government in any state. Let us identify some of these.

The government is responsible for public safety and public order and assumes monopoly right to have security forces. The State is responsible for justice through the courts and for providing a just legal system. There has been major outcry against private vigilante justice and against private 'armies' in the garrisons, arrangements which make rational sense when the State falls down on the job. One of the greatest failures of the Jamaican State and its succession of governments has been in these core functions of security and justice.

Government assumes sole right to produce a national currency, the store of people's property value, the means of economic transactions. The debasement of the Jamaican dollar, with a ninetyfold loss of value against its US counterpart in the 43 years since currency decimalisation in 1969, is perhaps the single greatest economic failure of government in Jamaica, though you won't hear this discussed in Parliament.

As Adam Smith pointed out in The Wealth of Nations 236 years ago, a core function of the State is to undertake public infrastructure development too large and not profitable for private enterprise to want or be able to undertake. A lot can be tucked under this heading. A related obligation is to regulate 'natural' private monopolies, and competing businesses, in the interest of consumer and country.

Good roads, good telecommunications, adequate airports and seaports and a railroad system, cheap energy, efficient public transport, a skilled labour force, provided by a public/private mix will work wonders for economic growth and development.

Government is the sole keeper of the Constitution and the sole maker of laws. At the heart of the Constitution are citizens' fundamental rights and freedoms. A vigorous defence of human rights and a bold legislative agenda for development would fix many of our problems. One critical area of legislation is to place a cap on government borrowing.

Government has sole control of the borders and of foreign relations. Jamaica's external relations have, for a long time, been dominated by seeking loans and aid and various unproductive solidarities, rather than being driven by an aggressive trade and cooperation agenda. Fortunately for us, migration has provided a major safety valve in an unprogressive economy and chaotic society, and the back flow of remittances has been a lifeline source of hard currency.

Suppose, just suppose, that the state of the economy is symptom rather than cause? What would happen if Government focused, really focused, on its core functions and, without the one-upmanship so characteristic of our tribal politics, acknowledge, with Opposition support, that many of the non-core functions cannot be sustained at current levels?

What if Government focused, really focused, on reforming the tax system to generate more revenue for its operations with less pain to the most burdened taxpayers? What if Government focused, really focused, on reforming its delivery arm, the public service, for greater efficiency at lower costs?

We shouldn't need an IMF to force us to do these necessary and sensible things.

Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to and