By Martin Henry
So at long last a social partnership agreement has been signed by various sectors of the society. The document itself is called Partnership for Jamaica Agreement.
For some perverse - or proper - reason, the newspaper which made the July 31 signing its lead story on Emancipation Day, August 1, chose a picture in which the grim-looking participants, except for the bubbly youth advocate/civil-society representative Kemesha Kelly, appear to have just witnessed a tragedy and were struggling to put a brave face on a bad situation.
The preamble of the agreement acknowledges "the urgent national economic and social crisis the country presently faces, evidenced by, inter alia, an unsustainable debt-to-GDP ratio, declining rates of productivity and competitiveness vis-à-vis trading partners, high unemployment; high energy costs, environmental degradation, gender power imbalances, growing inequality, and very high levels of violent crime, including an increase in gender-based violence and femicides."
Furthermore, the partners said they "understand only too well that growth in Jamaica has been extremely elusive over the last 40 years. Indeed, this period has witnessed only seven years in which growth of real gross domestic product (GDP) has exceeded 2% per annum (p/a) and featured 18 years in which real GDP has declined. The erosion of social capital, intractability of Jamaica's growth challenge, and resulting increasing inequality are important reasons behind the need for a Partnership for Jamaica in which 'all hands are on deck' in seeking to create a more prosperous and equitable Jamaica."
These are hardly matters warranting light-hearted smiles. So the selected newspaper photo may have been the most appropriate.
Actually, what the political philosophers call a notional 'social contract', and have disagreed about for centuries, already exists for Jamaica. I have gone back to take another look at Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Adam Smith in that monumental text, 'Great Political Thinkers: Plato to the Present', by the father-and-son team of William and Alan Ebenstein.
Under universal adult suffrage, elected representatives of the people negotiated an Independence Constitution with the British colonial government. OK, the consultation may not have been as democratic as some modern critics would have liked, but the process was certainly a long shot more democratic than, say, the promulgation of the American constitution which excluded women and slaves and Native Americans and white men without the vote. Or the force and violence which David Hume, in his denial of any social contract, claimed was the basis of the establishment of states.
"Almost all the governments which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in story," Hume wrote, "have been founded originally, either on usurpation or conquest or both, without any pretence of a fair consent, or voluntary subjection of the people."
And even when elections are held, "Why is this election so highly vaunted? It is either the combination of a few great men, who decide for the whole, and will allow of no opposition, or it is the fury of a multitude that follows a seditious ringleader."
Beyond Hume's cynicism, which is not without foundation, the citizens of Jamaica were offered the 'contract' of a 'Five-Year Independence Development Plan, 1963-1968', to which I have often referred and which had broad cross-party consensus. The plan was intended to begin to fix the historical injustices, gross and indecent inequalities, and oppression in Jamaican society, and to set the path to development for all as the goal of Independence.
The most recent development plan, Vision 2030, the most widely consultative plan ever for Jamaica and with cross-party support and ownership, offered a similar compact with the Jamaican people, as all the other plans in-between these two have done. The Partnership Agreement is replete with the language, the situation analysis and the propositions of Vision 2030.
The 'partners' of the agreement make a curious and interesting list: the State, represented by the Government and the Opposition; the private sector; the trade unions, and civil society. The Opposition did not sign, creating questions about the validity of the partnership agreement. And is there a role for the head of state, the Queen, constitutionally represented by the governor general?
The 'private sector' was represented by the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, a private club of larger business operators, with all other business operators left out. The trade unions, collectively, represent only about 18 per cent of Jamaican workers; and, of course, nobody represents the masses of the unemployed. Nor are employers, as opposed to the 'private sector', represented as counterpart to unionised employee.
And where is the judicial arm of Government, so critical to the delivery of the justice spoken of throughout the agreement. And the public-service arm so critical for delivery on policy?
'Civil society' presents the most interesting grouping. On whose behalf, among the myriads of diverse civil-society groups, has youth advocate Ms Kemesha Kelly signed?
The notional social contract is between the state/government and all citizens of the state, not sectoral groups of the society. Its fundamental expression is in a Constitution, particularly a bill of rights which enumerates the rights and freedoms of citizens which the State and its government pledge to uphold and defend.
AFFAIRS OF THE STATE
It is government alone which has the authority to direct the affairs of State and is universally responsible for the political welfare of all the people. The other partners have little more to do than to pledge to cooperate and not to obstruct, and to obey just laws made "for the peace, order and good government of Jamaica" [Jamaica Constitution, 48 (1)]. Which, in any case, is what every good citizen is pledged to do. Locke advanced a right to rebel against unjust and oppressive laws, a view which deeply influenced the US Declaration of Independence, War of Independence, and Constitution.
The critical things which the partners have agreed should be undertaken in the first phase of the agreement are all government things: "The partners agree that, in this first period of partnership, priority in monitoring and accountability will be placed on the following areas in which Jamaica's global ranking is very low, and in which poor performance has been particularly responsible for Jamaica's anaemic record of growth.
Fiscal consolidation (with social protection and inclusion)
Rule of law adherence (and timely justice outcomes)
Ease of doing business and employment creation
Energy diversification and conservation
The private sector has no responsibility to grow the economy. And certainly none to bail out a floundering government. Their business is growing their own businesses and doing so within the law, including the tax laws, labour laws, environmental laws, and the trade agreements of the country. It is the business of the legislative arm of government to enact laws under which businesses can flourish, playing by the rules. Perhaps the sector could reasonably pledge not to make any demands upon the government for special favours and concessions for their group.
Trade unions should pledge not to use their political affiliations where these exist and have been so used in the past to obstruct transformations in the Jamaican economy which may hurt their members short term but are good for development.
While the wording sounds nice, reading between the lines, the commitments of the private sector, and the trade union sector in the agreement may be nothing short of alarming:
"The private sector, reaffirming that shared responsibility, improved enterprise productivity and competitiveness, fair play, margin restraint, youth engagement, effective consultation with unions and workers, employment creation based on the International Labour Organisation principles of decent work, the creation of an environment of equality of opportunity for participation of men and women in leadership and decision-making, environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility in business decision-making, impact upon national development, commits to bring these elements to the partnership process;
"The trade unions, reaffirming that innovative solutions are needed to the issues of economic stabilisation, effective environmental stewardship, low productivity, enhancement of enterprise success, creation of decent working conditions, the creation of equality of opportunity for men and women in leadership, youth engagement and enhancement of worker well-being, commit to initiating, and collaborating in the identification of such solutions;
"Most of these commitments are matters of law and public policy to be determined by government exercising its authority under the extant 'social contract' and binding all citizens, rather than matters of negotiated 'agreement' among non-equal 'partners'. Pledges of cooperation may be nice and have some utility but cannot be substitutes for the undelegatable role of government in the social contract."
Noting that "the levels of trust across the Jamaican society are extremely low", an elaborate mechanism has been set up "to redress any disagreements among the partners or challenges to consensus". Yes?
Underscoring the monumental underperformance of the Jamaican State and its governments since Independence, failure might be a better choice of word, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean is predicting that Jamaica will record the lowest growth in the entire Americas for 2013.
Adam Smith, in his take on the 'social contract', set out three core functions of the State and government which justify the payment of fair taxes: 1) to protect against violence and invasion; 2) to protect every member of the society from injustice and to establish an exact administration of justice; and 3) erecting and maintaining public institutions and public works which private enterprise can't or won't.
The destruction of life and property in independent Jamaica from crime and violence, aided and abetted by politics; the loss of property value through the debasement of the currency hundredfold against the US dollar, the failure to deliver justice and the injustice heaped upon some citizens in their politically garrisonised communities; and the failure to maintain public infrastructure speak volumes to the failure of the Jamaican State to honour its most basic obligations of the real social contract.
If a redundant social partnership agreement can help the dominant partner to do better and get the others to more willingly cooperate, it is to be welcomed.
Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.