Martin Henry, Contributor
On Tuesday, November 3, 1987, the exchange rate was J$5.51 to US$1. This bit of data is easy to find as the Bank of Jamaica publishes on the Internet historical exchange rates from December 31, 1971 to now. In 1987, there was no Internet, no cell phones, and only scarce access to landline phones from a monopoly provider.
It is hard to believe, but on December 31, 1971, the exchange rate was 77 Jamaican cents to the US dollar, a rate which did not budge by even one cent before January 17, 1973. Talk about currency stability! The rate on October 30, last Wednesday, was J$105.07 to US$1!
It is a little more difficult to find the number of murders for the year for 1987. But that was around 450. Three times that has been the norm over many recent years. Among those murdered in 1987 were Peter Tosh and his bredren Three-I.
Tosh had just returned from abroad when he was killed in a home robbery. The current minister of national security has let us know what was already well known - that home robberies of incoming travellers are being organised by airport workers.
Tosh was a strident advocate of freeing up the weed, a debate which still rages without resolution. Last week, the marine police were boasting their biggest ganja seizure ever, 3,285lb, allegedly bound for the drugs-for guns-trade between Jamaica and Haiti.
This column first appeared on November 3, 1987, 26 years ago to today. So, what has changed across the myriad fields with which I have interfered as a non-specialist citizen public commentator over the past 26 years?
OUT TO CHANGE THE WORLD
I, like many other young writers, set out to change society. Many who followed me have dropped out, disillusioned that their pen (now keyboard), which is supposed to be mightier than the sword, has not managed to change the world to their liking. In 1987, it was quite literally a pen first rough-drafting the column, then transcribing it into a fair copy which could be faxed, if a fax machine (what's that?) was available, or delivered by hand to the offices of The Daily Gleaner at 7 North Street. The paper changed its name to The Gleaner in 1993.
Many things have changed - both negatively and positively - although today's news, with the usual media overemphasis of the negative, has an eerie déjà vu quality to it. As I share my personal reflections of how things have changed over the last quarter-century and a year, I have opened up with the persistent Big Two on the negative side: the economy and crime. But years ago when I wrote a piece on what was right with Jamaica, Michael Manley sent me a warm note of commendation, a real letter on real paper in the pre-email era.
I started my column life with an alarmist piece on population growth, 'Three million by 2000'. The column referenced the 1983 National Population Policy Goal "to contain the population of Jamaica to within 3 million by the year 2000". It concluded that "a young poor country with 35 per cent of its population under 15 years old, and that population rapidly growing towards unsustainable numbers, has no great future unless we learn to regulate our reproduction - and soon!"
Well, by whatever means, the national population has been kept well below three million. The 2001 census gave the number as 2,607,632. And a decade later, according to another census, there had been only a modest 3.5 per cent growth to 2,697,983, with quite a bit of slack left before three million. Nearly 50 per cent of the population (48%) is younger than the column!
The slowing of population growth without disaster disease or war tells a big positive story. It means that the birth rate is falling as more young women have fewer children. This usually means they have better education and better economic opportunities, which means better control of reproduction. The proportion of older people in the population is increasing, which indicates better health care and greater life expectancy. But all is not well. Last week's news was reporting 'Motherhood in childhood - Ja's teen birth rate among region's highest'.
Jamaica is a thoroughly weird and contradictory place, and nowhere more so than in the economy. While the dollar may have devalued nineteenfold since 1987 and the IMF has gone and come back and the debt burden has grown to $1.7 trillion, we see Jamaica has created a thoroughly modern economy as far as the availability of goods and services is concerned. The revolutions in telecommunications access and motor-vehicle access and affordability are very visible markers.
Poverty of the 1987 kind has declined. While the official poverty measures tend to shift masking real change in people's real lives, my favourite visual poverty measures remain level of malnutrition and obesity from overnutrition! The increasing size of the Jamaican citizen does not suggest poverty!
FALLING DOLLAR, FLOURISHING CRIME
So the economy has not collapsed, nor has it flourished by one-eyed official data which measure the formal economy and completely miss the buzz and roar of activity in the massive informal sector. Parliamentarians were quite right to raise the proposed ceiling for cash transactions in new anti-money laundering legislation from the 'chicken feed' J$500,000 to J$1 million. Too low a ceiling in this cash economy is bound to have a crippling effect.
If the economy hasn't flourished over the last 26 years, crime certainly has. The situation in August Town now provides a good example of how violent crime has expanded beyond the boundaries of the old enclaves of political violence. The rural village of August Town has been transformed into a crime hotspot like many of the housing estates of the Portmore/south St Catherine area.
The Peace Management Initiative, which has been operating over many of the last 26 years, has claimed one of its biggest successes to be August Town. I have consistently warned in this column, and do so again now, that the dangerous extralegal, extrajudicial operations of the PMI can only defer crime till later, not control it. August Town and Jarrett Lane/Mountain View have grown tired of artificially contrived peace and are mobilised for war again.
The police, through one of its best commissioners in 26 years, are properly calling for more resources to cool crime hotspots and to bring criminals to justice. This column has consistently supported the police in the lawful discharge of their onerous
responsibilities and called for more resources to go to security, law and order, and justice as the core functions of responsible government. These calls have not been heeded. But we are not dead yet.
In the 26 years of this column, numerous civil-society groups (NGOs) have sprung up, performing the very valuable functions of scrutinising and challenging the actions of the State and Government and lobbying for change. The human-rights groups have often been unduly insensitive to the security forces' side of the very difficult crime situation this country faces, with few other comparisons on the planet.
Almost certainly, 26 years ago the Goat Islands development would have proceeded quietly without any public debate or challenge. During the life of this column, environmental awareness and concern have grown enormously. Government will never again be able to proceed with development plans by decree without public accountability for environmental impact. The role of media and public commentary, alongside the work of the environmental NGOs, with whom I often enough do not agree, have significantly contributed to this change, of course.
Despite my relentless criticisms, the operations of the country's Parliament have shown visible improvements - but there is a far way to go. The committee system is stronger and better. Openness to media and to the public is better. Government and Opposition work more collaboratively, but not enough.
DOING BETTER THAN WE THINKJamaicans who have not been there and are daily fed on a media diet of the negative, without historical context, will find it hard to believe that today, we have a far cleaner police force and a far cleaner political system and system of governance than 26 years ago. The police excesses of the years of the Suppression of Crime Act cannot happen now. And INDECOM, a relatively new institution to monitor police shootings, will rise to its stride if not starved of resources.
Electoral fraud and political violence for advantage have been effectively cured by the slow but steady successes of the Electoral Advisory Commission/Electoral Commission of Jamaica, which is now pushing for campaign-financing disclosure. The Office of the Contractor General has come into its own. But even more importantly, public awareness of the cost of corruption and public disaffection are growing.
In the course of the last 26 years, there has been massive expansion, some threefold growth in access to post-secondary education from around five per cent of cohort to around 15 per cent. While performance remains a serious issue, the broad-based expansion and upgrade of secondary education has provided more than 90 per cent of cohort a real high-school place.
If we could just get the economy right, restore and maintain law and order, fix the justice issues, and control the social vulgarity and disorder which have grown decidedly worse over the life of this column, and building on its real achievements, our country could get closer to the aim of the national pledge: "... that Jamaica may, under God, increase in beauty, fellowship and prosperity, and play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race".
Martin Henry is a communication
specialist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and