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Digging Ja out of doldrums

Published:Tuesday | February 12, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Byron Blake, Guest Columnist

Six months ago, Jamaica basked in Olympic glory and celebrated its jubilee anniversary of Independence. The milestones were marked with much euphoria.

But, we now face a second reality. The minister of finance must prepare his first post-jubilee Budget. He has not, and will not, get any debt forgiveness in global recognition of Jamaica's 50th anniversary of Independence. Instead, the creditor has been saying, "Demonstrate to me how you are going to pay."

Harsh, but it is the reality. In the last 33 years, Jamaica has had a debt stock larger than its annual production in 26 of those years. In fact, only in seven years - 1994 to 2000 - was our total annual production greater than our stock of debt. So our creditor is saying, "Convince me how you are going to get back to that late 1990s state!"

The minister has both a 'country credibility' and a reality problem. In 2011, the country got significant debt relief with the Jamaica Debt Exchange and ended with a higher total debt, even as it was negotiating with the International Monetary Fund. The tax take for 2012-13 is well below Budget, even as we are positing improved fiscal performance.

The Office of Utilities Regulation has called off action on the current plan for an energy source to reduce the uncompetitive price of energy to local producers, even as it is accepted that energy costs are among the most important constraints to growth.

The ministers of agriculture and of industry are reconciling to the price increases and shortages which are certain to rise from the drought and consequent corn and wheat failures in Midwest United States in 2012, as the Chamber of Commerce predicts price increases.

The public servants have not yet all accepted even a single-year wage freeze. The Opposition considers it its responsibility to add fuel at every turn to a charged environment.

Increased agricultural drive

In that situation, one would have expected to see at least four strong lines of peremptory action. One is a massive educational effort to sensitise the large majority of the population to the realities, to solicit ideas, and to test reactions to alternative courses of action. But, there is silence.

Two, a massive campaign to increase production in certain areas with low new-capital requirements should already be under way. Agricultural crops for food, energy and animal feed such as lucaena (or wild tamarind), cassava, cane tops, bananas, red kidney beans, lemon grass, corn and yams come readily to mind. Also, the encouragement of backyard gardening, as well as investment in greenhouse production by those who can mobilise the initial capital, should be a priority.

The agricultural initiative should be accompanied by a massive and sustained drive against farm theft. The latter should be low cost, as the police are already mobilised against drugs and the movement of criminals, motor vehicle accidents, and general lawlessness on the roads. It is motor vehicles that move the stolen agricultural produce. There is no need for additional capital or manpower, but only to make this somebody's responsibility and for coordination and vigilance.

Three, a targeted effort should be made by the Ministry of Finance to collect and have transferred to the Consolidated Fund all taxes due. There should have been a very significant increase in customs duties in the last quarter of 2012, for example, given the volume of foreign exchange taken from the system, presumably to procure imports for the Christmas season.

Four, a campaign against corruption, duplication and waste, especially of energy in all departments and segments of Government, should also have been under way. The educational campaign for energy efficiency, involving road transportation, should, in fact, be national. The conversion of waste to energy ought to have high priority.

Those are examples of the kinds of self-determined actions which can begin to buy credibility and provide the backdrop for the upcoming Budget. These are neither austere nor threatening and would hopefully signal that we can, in fact, manage the next 50 years more efficiently than we did the first.

Byron Blake is a former assistant secretary general of CARICOM. Email feedback to