Claude Clarke, Contributor
More and more Jamaicans are moving towards a collective concern that the foundations of the country's economy are crumbling.
The Jamaican economy is among the worst performing in the world. Our currency is sliding without beneficial purpose and our foreign reserves are being rapidly consumed in a desperate and vain attempt to stop it. As employment stagnates among our population, the Government has little to spend on the vital services used by the poor after servicing our massive debt. And all this is happening as we seem incapable of closing a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that might provide the essential lifeline to recovery.
It is, therefore, not surprising that concerned Jamaicans have been seeking solutions that might help the Government to stem the deep decline. Among the most recent is the idea of a superministry to drive economic development.
Superministries are not without precedent. When Michael Manley created the Ministry of Mobilisation in the 1970s, it was intended to be a superministry that would give impetus to his agenda of social reform. It ended ignominiously in failure, achieving nothing but the lesson that it should never be repeated.
Manley was to again apply the highly persuasive logic of a superministry in 1989, this time to drive economic development. He created the Ministry of Development, Planning and Production and appointed to lead it, his deputy P.J. Patterson, the man who would go on to become the longest-serving prime minister in Jamaica's history. It, too, did not achieve its hopeful expectations.
By contrast, Norman Manley's 1950s Cabinet and Bustamante's of the 1960s featured no such portfolio configuration. Instead, their Cabinets reflected the standard structure inherited from the British. It is with this Cabinet arrangement that Jamaica led the world's developing countries in economic performance in the late 1950s and the 1960s.
Yet, despite this success, subsequent Jamaican administrations have reformulated their Cabinets using a variety of highly imaginative configurations. They achieved little beyond changed stationery and a fair bit of confusion. What is clear is that Jamaica's post-1960s experience has yielded little in the way of economic and social advancement.
To be sure, these efforts to reshape the Cabinet for greater effectiveness have been well meaning and sometimes persuasively logical. But they have manifestly failed to address the ineffectiveness of Government in advancing the country's economic and social development.
After just a few months into my tenure in the 1989 Cabinet, I found myself privately exchanging concerns with a fellow Cabinet member about our shared impression that the Government seemed to be operating without a clear sense of direction. This lack of direction, in my view, was the missing ingredient that caused the sound idea of a superministry to fail to achieve the economic outcomes that were expected, although it included key departments and subjects from the ministries of Finance and Planning, Agriculture, Industry and Commerce, and Tourism and was headed by the most politically powerful member of the Cabinet after the prime minister.
Failure of leadership
This has led me to believe that the country's failure to perform economically has been far less a function of the configuration or size of our Cabinets than it has been the failure of leadership to define a clear mission for the nation, plot the pathway to accomplish it, and engage the entire population in pursuing it. Today, more than ever, the challenge of the global economic environment, our deepening economic predicament and the people's fading hope for a better life demand leadership that is driven by a mission.
The challenge of defining the national mission and designing the pathway to achieve it is both the gift and the responsibility of the country's political leadership. The mission needn't be more complicated than committing to outcompete our neighbours and create an economy that affords our citizens the opportunity of a quality life. But too often we have seen leaders whose view of success is defined by a political endgame rather than an economic one.
Many leaders in other parts of the world were able to avoid this tendency toward myopic politics and have achieved spectacularly positive results. Leaders in the mould of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Brazil's Lula da Silva, though politicians to the core, knew that politics, at its best, is no more than the vehicle through which a mission for a country's advancement can best be accomplished. They recognised that it must be the mission that drives the politics, and not the other way around. The mission comes first. The Cabinet, its size and configuration and the personnel selected can follow.
The mission and its pathway are critical to national development and cannot be hidden in complicated technical documents or trivialised by slick but superficial slogans. Both must be clearly explained to the people. A government operating without this kind of clear and coherent mission cannot explain difficult decisions without seeming disingenuous and deceptive. Without this, its explanations will be seen merely as excuses for failure and its proposed remedies will be unconvincing.
Since assuming office 12 months ago, the Government has distinguished itself by its failure to effectively communicate with the people about the economy. So far, its statements about the problems of the economy have hovered somewhere between blaming the past administration and promising a new agreement with the IMF.
For some time now, Jamaica has had no alternative but to seek a financing accommodation with the IMF: the only bank that will assist true economic basket cases. Those who flirt with the idea that there is an alternative to the IMF besides utter economic devastation should disabuse themselves of that fantasy.
I am in no position to comment on the demands the IMF has placed on the Government, but I can say with some certainty that if the Fund's mandate is to protect international creditors, it must be in its interest to help the country's economy recover and develop. Its demands must, therefore, be consistent with improving Jamaica's economic strength and capacity to service its debt, including the new debt that will have to be taken on to fuel the recovery.
Had the Government presented the country with a clear mission and prepared the people for the difficulties that would be involved in accomplishing it, it would be far less difficult now to convince the public to accept the unpleasantness of the necessary measures.
But the mission and its implications have not been clearly stated and there is, therefore, no basis on which to ask the public to sacrifice. Sacrifice without purpose is not an acceptable option for anyone and the Government must, even at this late stage, frame an acceptable but credible set of goals worth the sacrifices the people are going to be asked to make.
Had both the Golding and Simpson Miller administrations been realistic in their preparation for Government, they would have approached their negotiations with the IMF with credible and pragmatic plans for economic development, incorporating some of the same "bitter medicine" from the IMF. They might have achieved stronger partnership with the Fund and attracted greater sympathy and support of the public. After all, the IMF, the Government and the people must have a shared objective, representing all their interests: the recovery and growth of the Jamaican economy.
Most commentary on the prime minister's recent national broadcast has been negative. And it is easy to understand why. Absent was anything to do with a credible mission or a call for our people to join a defined effort to accomplish it. My hope is that the PM's next national broadcast will deliver that message. It could mark the restart of what has so far been a stalled premiership and begin the process of delivering on the people's investment of their trust in her for a better economic future.
Strategies, including Cabinet reconfigurations that do not incorporate a credible and coherent mission, will be no more than cosmetic and could lead to further public cynicism and distrust of the Government. It is the mission that will ultimately determine the effectiveness of the Government.
Claude Clarke is a businessman and former minister of industry. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.