Martin Henry, Contributor
This is very definitely not a good time for good news! The IMF is in town, coming straight from hell with a menacing pitchfork to force a beneficent Government to undertake a long-overdue reform agenda which will cause severe pain, particularly for the beloved poor.
The Government, last week, not only imposed another debt-exchange programme on everybody who has a sliding dollar invested in government paper but a new round of taxation, leaving the Church frothing over reliance on increased taxes on gambling to help finance the Budget.
The springing of the taxes upon the nation late on the eve of Ash Wednesday, when mobilisation for protest on the following public holiday would be very unlikely, may reveal "the deceptive nature of the Government" as the Opposition JLP, not without its own history, described the action. But it is hardly a Nicodemus action. Nicodemus went to Jesus, by night, true, but for advice, and was advised how to be born again, advice which he apparently took. Not so our government in successive administrations.
Meanwhile, both the dollar and murder continue their gallop; the dollar towards 100:1, murder towards the now normal 1,000+ for the year, including a rising count of children, with one case last week of a 16-year-old schoolgirl living with a 40-year-old man right next door to her mother. And long before summer and its usual drought conditions triggering water lock-offs, water-conservation measures have been introduced at the start of the year.
"It was 36 years ago," the prime minister told us, "that Jamaica signed its first loan agreement with the IMF." The majority of Jamaicans have been born since then. Some 53 per cent of the population, by the 2011 census, are under 30. It is around 70 per cent which is under 50.
I 'wuz' there. And I am here. An engaged adult observer over the entire period.
How are things different now from then?
Informed by the media, with their overwhelming focus on the bad and the negative, and by politicians cussing each other, the average Jamaican who wuzn't there honestly believes that it has been a steady slide downhill since then, from some good old days into the mess that we are advised that we now live in. When I say that almost everything is better - with a few critical exceptions - people think I am a madman or a spokesman for whichever government is in power.
THE NUMBERS SPEAK
Let the metrics along the usual axes of analysis tell the story. We start with external data. The UNDP human development index for Jamaica has steadily grown from 0.6 to 0.7 (out of a maximum score of 1) from 1980 to 2012, well ahead of the world average and paralleling, although trailing, the growth line for high human development.
If we continue with factors of human well-being, which are the real reasons why an 'economy' exists rather than human needs serving an abstract 'economy', life expectancy has progressively increased over the last 36 years, indeed, since Independence, from 70.5 years in 1980 to 73.1 years in 2012 - up there with the developed countries.
Jamaica has had nothing short of a spectacular track record in reducing and eliminating infectious diseases. The killer diseases profile now is the non-communicable lifestyle diseases of affluence! Infant mortality and maternal mortality have gone down. The fertility rate has gone down - dramatically. The level of childhood immunisation matches the the developed world's. Access to primary and secondary health care has greatly increased and is free. Check the Medicare debacle in the United States.
The media are crying murder over a one to two percentage-point movement in the unemployment rate. Since data have been kept, the rate has never fallen to single digit and has mostly bounced around 12-14 per cent. But in the mid-1970s, around the time of the first IMF deal, unemployment was pushing 25 per cent as the Jamaican economy was imploding.
With the intervention of JAMAL at around the same time of the first IMF deal and improvements in primary education, the literacy rate has jumped up to its current 86.4 per cent. The problems in education are real. But over the period there has been near universal access to secondary education and better than a tripling of access to tertiary.
The HEART Trust came on stream in 1982, celebrating 30 years last year, and has grown into a global model for post-secondary training of youth, never mind its shortcomings. I pause to congratulate my former colleague and continuing friend, Dr Wayne Wesley, who has just been appointed head of the Trust.
Access to potable water has increased dramatically over the last 36 years, although the Government has set up a major water crisis for the future by its failure to develop supplies to match growing demand. Demand for water is a significant index of development.
Rural electrification has brought power to most Jamaican households over the last 36 years. In 1977, the wait time - without inside links or priority ranking - for a landline phone from a monopoly provider could stretch from years to forever. The phone density today is greater than the adult population, which means many people have two or more phones! And 'poverty' and taxes have not stopped Jamaica from being a world leader in cellphone-per-capita call minutes!
The Government's own estimate is that up to a third of the Jamaican population is living as squatters (which is not quite the same as living in hovels! People just don't have legal access to the land on which their house sits.) The National Housing Trust, established the year before the first IMF deal, 1976, and now being raided again by a desperate Government, has rewritten access to housing, despite its significant shortcomings against intentions and expectations.
Despite the shameful neglect of very many secondary and tertiary roads, the already dense road network (one of the most dense in the world) has been greatly expanded over the last 36 years and real highways have been built to world-class levels.
In the 1976 general election, the year before the first IMF deal, a number of constituencies polled in excess of 100 per cent of the number of registered voters. Political violence at street level was rising to its stride with daily body counts for the 1976 election. Political warfare at party leadership level was the order of the day.
Today's bickering and disagreements are minor! The establishment of the Electoral Advisory Commission, which has progressed into the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, was two years after the IMF deal, in 1979. Today, no politician can sit in Gordon House by fraudulent votes.
The Office of the Contractor General was established in 1986 to stamp out corruption in Government. If we think corruption is bad now, just remember the murder of Permanent Secretary Edward 'Ted' O'Gilvie over McGregor Gully work the same year the IMF was first invited.
NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL
Now for the macroeconomy: Proportionally, the dollar was losing value at a much faster rate in the mid-1970s than it is now. The Jamaican currency precipitously lost 85 per cent of its value between the beginning of 1977 and the end of 1978, moving from a value of US$0.91 to US$1.69. Yes, these numbers are correct! Check the BOJ's Historical Exchange Rates on the Web. Stringent foreign-exchange controls criminalised leaving the country with more than pocket money US dollars.
Inflation was chronically double-digit, but hasn't been so for a while recently. There was no NIR to be depleted. The Treasury was empty. The debt could not be serviced. Hence the desperate need for the IMF by a Government which bitterly hated the Bretton-Woods institutions as instruments of colonial oppression and obstacles to the New International Economic Order then being pushed by the Group of 77 in which Jamaica was a respected leader, despite its size.
Consumer goods were in short supply with some very interesting marriages made between pairs of them, when Jamaica, "not for sale", crept to the IMF in 1977 like Nicodemus by night. With high inflation and a sliding dollar, prices moved weekly, savaging the poor most, despite the Government's great love for them. The shelves today are awash with goods with stronger consumer purchasing power and more stable prices. Motor vehicle prices appreciated with age because of scarcity. Today, there is a flood of affordable cars.
Except for that recent strange period of 2008-2010 with the global financial crisis and recession, oil prices rose more sharply between about 1974 and 1979 with the Arab oil embargo and the manipulations of the OPEC cartel, whose members were also members of the solidarity Group of 77. The Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica was established in 1979 with the objectives of prospecting for oil, creating alternatives to oil, and purchasing oil at best prices on the world market.
What's worse today? The debt burden, which has progressively grown under every administration since the early 1970s and now stands at 140 per cent of GDP, will crush this country, setting back the gains of the last 36 years. On this the prime minister, an MP since 1976, is dead right. By the international metrics, we are in the red zone of danger!
The garrisonisation which really took off in the 1970s has spawned and sustained very high levels of crime, indexed by the murder rate. Crime is not only socially destructive but imposes significant economic costs.
High levels of social disorder, again gaining momentum in the 1970s, do not only hurt the quality of life but impose significant economic costs.
The politics is better. The economy, broadly speaking, is better. Human welfare, broadly speaking, is better. The problem of escalating expectations, a problem which bedevils every democracy, obscures progress made.
But we could have done much better. Others have. The big problems are big but are not unfixable with the prudence, discipline and boldness which the prime minister and Government have been threatening to unleash upon us, for the first time at last. IMF heavy manners may be just what we need.
Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com