By Jaevion Nelson
WE ARE all experiencing the 'catastrophic effects of borrowing way too much, and the painful choices that follow' (Chicago Tribune). As a consequence, we are spending about $0.55 of every dollar on debt repayment, $0.25 for public-sector wages and the remaining $0.20 for road repairs and maintenance of schools and hospitals, as well as providing for other critical services.
Every man, woman, boy and girl now knows that Jamaica is entrapped by debt and that our economy is abysmal. Since the 1980s, total public debt as a percentage of GDP (gross domestic product) has been over 100 per cent, except for the period 1994 to 2000. We have been borrowing to pay our debt instead of generating revenue to do so. It's like taking a credit card from one bank to pay for the one you exhausted at another. Now every one of the 2.7 million Jamaicans owe over $500,000 in debt, which is the annual salary for two minimum wage earners.
There is no question as to who will continue to feel the gravest effects of the restructuring and fiscal prudence that must be done to set us on the right path. My grandmother always said 'wen chobble tek yuh, pickney shut fit yuh' and poor Jamaicans will have to fit into baby 'shut'. As young Jamaicans, educated and uneducated, we are in one of the most precarious positions in this economic travesty. We urgently need to recognise that our economic future is our business inasmuch as it is the Government's. It is our responsibility to ensure that this administration, to borrow from the prime minister, "implements the sound management practices our economy requires".
Broadcast inspired hope
The joint national broadcast with the prime minister and minister of finance inspired much hope. However, I am concerned that we are so focused on debt reduction over the seven years that we might end up neglecting the important role of a robust and coherent growth strategy in all of this. One can only hope that the Ministry of Education will facilitate training in a wide range of subject areas and skill sets so it can be a catalyst for human development in this country. People are already anxious that we lack the capacity to take advantage of all the investment opportunities being sought by the minister of industry and commerce.
According to the 2011 National Youth Survey, 80 per cent of young people reported attaining secondary education but 55 per cent of them graduated with no qualification and 70 per cent of high-school leavers have had no skills training. According to Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI), only 53 per cent of fifth-form students are registered to sit four or more Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) subjects and one in every five students graduate without having sat even one CSEC exam in 2010.
Only three per cent of the education budget goes towards early childhood education and very few teachers at this level are appropriately trained/qualified, yet everyone has agreed on the importance of this. As a result, many of our children start primary school ill-equipped. One would think that the challenge is a matter of money, but, according to a recent CAPRI report, this is not so. The report states that "between 2005 and 2010, public investment in education as a percentage of GDP increased from 5.3 to 6.1 per cent, more than the average for developed countries (5.2 per cent)".
Will we get it right?
Jamaica has had about 14 agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and only two have been completed successfully. We are busy courting the IMF for an extended loan facility but what assurance do Jamaicans have that this time we will get it right? We have to grow our way out of this monstrous debt, while simultaneously cutting waste and corruption. I'm no economist, but the national Budget is my business and it should be your business too. We are the ones who will have to pay for the economic mistakes of our parents and grandparents' past.
Inequity has been one of our biggest problems. Better performing schools are more equipped and attended by wealthier children, many of whom attended prep school and outperformed children in public schools in all five GSAT subjects, by up to 30 percentage points, according to the CAPRI 2013 report. The situation is similar across the board where expenditure on infrastructure is concerned (for example). It is my hope that this new programme "to achieve [the] necessary level of debt reduction, greater levels of accountability and [fiscal] discipline" and grow the economy will benefit every Jamaican and not just a few.
Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, human rights and HIV Advocate. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com