IMF deal: openness or secrecy?
Lambert Brown, Contributor
Jamaica anxiously awaits the results of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) negotiations. That the talks have been protracted is no secret. That the self-imposed deadline for completing the negotiation has passed is worrying to the populace.
Many people want to know the details. Some would wish the negotiations to take place in the public square. That approach is never always in the best interest of the process. The Government has indicated that the negotiations are at a delicate stage, and revealing too much to the populace is inimical to good governance.
The problem the Government faces is that, despite its own effort of keeping its negotiation strategy close to its chest, bits and pieces are dribbling out to the public. Rumours of a Jamaica Debt Exchange 2, as well as differences over discretionary waivers between the Government and the IMF, surfaced. The finance minister has issued a statement indicating that "prior actions" will be necessary before any IMF deal is realised.
Many persons are asking what these prior actions are. Most Jamaicans expect that these prior actions are going to be painful. We were once promised "bitter medicine" by the current leader of the Opposition. People, it would appear, want to be prepared in advance as to how they will be affected by these measures. They prefer to hear, before the necessary surgery, what will be done; what the likely side effects are; and what are our chances of recovery after the bitter medicine or painful surgery.
This is a reasonable position on the part of the people. It clashes, however, with the desires of both the IMF and Government of Jamaica for negotiations to take place in privacy. How we resolve this contradiction between the people's demand - some say, right to know - and the normal negotiating processes is a major issue impatient of resolution.
The Government is in a catch-22; anyway it goes, macca is likely to jook it. First, the IMF is playing hardball. They want their pound of flesh. In 2010, the IMF loaned Jamaica, through the Bank of Jamaica and the Ministry of Finance headed by Audley Shaw, a significant sum of money. In return for the loan, Mr Shaw and the Government undertook to make some painful decisions such as tax reform, pension reform, firing public-sector workers, among other things.
By September 2010, it became clear to the IMF that the Government was not meeting its end of the deal, even though the IMF had given the Government the lion's share of the loan up front. The IMF and other multilaterals essentially stopped further financial assistance to Jamaica. That is what the present Government inherited. That is what it is trying to fix.
Inexplicably, however, the present Government took more or less the same technical team used by the former Government to conduct negotiations with the IMF. Somehow, we expected the IMF to trust the same people who, in its eyes, failed to keep the bargain of 2010. The fact that the JLP was replaced as Government by the PNP did not matter much to the IMF. We Jamaicans may put a lot of store on party differences, but when the IMF negotiates, it does so with countries - not parties.
In negotiations, confidence between negotiators is critical to a successful outcome. That is why Vice-President Joe Biden was critical in the recent fiscal cliff negotiations in the United States. Trust of your negotiating counterparts, as well as knowing the real interests of the other side, is a critical tool in the armour of a negotiator. Taking the same team as that which did the 2010 negotiation with the failed deal appears to have been a mistake.
A second dilemma faced by the Government is that the population is more mature and informed than many years before. They want to be trusted and they want to be kept constantly informed. This is good for our democracy. It is consistent with progressive views which say trust the people every time.
In the US, people were kept abreast of the developments in the fiscal cliff negotiations. In Jamaica, we have for too long practised the policy of secrecy in governance. Our Budget process must stop being a game of secrets and surprises.
It is time to move to people's participation in the Budget process. Let the people weigh the pros and cons. Let them be part of the choices in policy decisions. This approach is likely more than any other to lead to the necessary buy-in of otherwise painful decisions by the citizens. People are more likely to support painful and bitter medicine when consent is sought rather than ministerial imposition.
SHARE WITH THE PEOPLE
It is against this background that in moments like the current negotiations with the IMF, when the overwhelming majority of the population expects tough decisions, the prudent thing to do is begin sharing with the people all the options involved in the IMF negotiations. If the Opposition, private sector and civil society demand to know what the prior actions being demanded are, the Government will have nothing to lose by such disclosure if it leads to constructive dialogue.
From this dialogue, we can find the best fit for Jamaica. I believe constructive dialogue is possible. It will lead to buy-in by a critical mass of the population; it will expose the failings of the previous Government; and it will avoid the weaknesses of ministerial imposition. It could be the door to social stability which is a precondition for economic growth.
Indeed, it is economic growth more than mere survival why an IMF agreement is important. The IMF agreement, which is not a panacea, will complement and facilitate the growth strategy which the prime minister announced in her Budget speech in June and at her party conference in September.
Jamaica will benefit from greater openness. We will face the challenge with the knowledge that the choice, as painful as it may have been, was ours. We are a resilient people. We will overcome.