Errol Hewitt, Guest Columnist
I knew (recognised, understood, and had regard for) you in the wilderness, in the land of great drought." ( Hosea 13:5, Amplified Bible)
We have successfully navigated the first quarterly test of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but the task before us is considerable. Do we have the resolve, the ability, to work together and to utilise the best people available? Can we set aside the tribalism, favouritism and greedy self-interest to put country and people first?
The signs are not good, judging from the timbre of the recent leadership campaign in the Jamaica Labour Party, the tranquiliser taken by the current Government, and the rapidly diminishing national work ethic at a time when the country is in deep crisis. In truth, Prime Minister Portia has macka inna she han'.
How are we prepared for the IMF and our future?
Regrettably, all attention seems focused on passing the IMF's quarterly tests, which will assist us to survive - but only just. The tax-reform bill is important, but it is only one step forward. There is, therefore, grave concern that despite the industry minister's posturings, a sufficiently concentrated focus on developing small and medium-size businesses is not being taken, and especially not with the urgency required.
The fact that these are mostly labour-intensive and generate a high multiplying effect on secondary and tertiary investments/purchases and employment make them particularly needed at this time, with unemployment at 15.4 per cent.
But we have a fundamental defect which stands in the way of our progress. Traditionally, Jamaica's most consistently obstinate obstacle to sustainable socio-economic growth and development has been its political leadership's lack of serious and persevering commitment to the mass of the population. This is unarguably acknowledged, and no longer contested - not even, it would seem, after the recent Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) leadership elections. But we will see.
Yet, this crucial problem is still unsurprisingly unassailed, and there is no positive indication for change, either from the current sedated, secluded, sated Government or the divided and fractious opposition party. Nor is there comfort from a national plan approved by Parliament to attain economic development status by 2030, until and unless it has agreed fixed schedules indicating that it has 'legs on the ground', i.e., is tangible and measurable and not just an aspiration. The sceptic would say this is a politician's dream to announce an altruistic national plan which has no fixed schedule measuring accountability within his/her expected political lifetime.
Struggling only to pass the quarterly IMF tests, without positive action to accelerate socio-economic growth and development, is simply surviving and surrendering in the battle for the deserving future of a people who are journeying from the Middle Passage and slavery.
But that battle for the people's future must involve a structured approach and the involvement of the masses. This requires a vision, a work plan, and a leader to captivate and motivate the people; a definite job description for the internationally reputed charismatic leadership of dear Portia.
Then why is she not observably in the forefront of this struggle to not only meet the IMF requirements but to really establish that place where we can "live, work, do business and raise a family"? Not only are key social and economic development agencies within her own portfolio, but as prime minister, she has the power to command the hands of her Cabinet ministers. And this is the largest collection of ministers of government in our history!
Yet, at a time when she is most needed, she remains far from public view. At a time when distress and going hungry for yet another day is common; when unemployment is high, as are prices when children still see the future as grimly uncertain, we are without a vision, an agreed schedule of action, and a leader, palpable to view and ready to motivate us to serve and to hope. Is Portia up to it? Can she fill this bill?
It also has its negative effects as the work of Cabinet members seems so uncoordinated, with each marching to his/her own drumbeat. It seems to have been this lack of cohesion and forward movement which prompted many to suggest a reshuffling of ministers. This, however, is not simple, as new talent seems limited. Not only is the number of backbenchers few, but they are there because that's where they have been decidedly placed.
Agriculture - whither to?
Agriculture is of foundational importance and at its core are the numerous small farmers. The former JLP minister's major error seems to have been the insufficiency of actually applied policies that focused on our small farmers. Is Portia satisfied with the current direction of agriculture, and are efforts being made to truly involve small farmers?
Let's face it: Until and unless an appropriate marketing programme is designed and implemented, involving our small farmers and focused on widening and increasing the range of crops exported - including exotics, then our success with this crucially important sector will always be inadequate.
Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy & Mining
Is Portia satisfied with the role of the Scientific Research Council (SRC)? How involved is it with encouraging the development of scientific research in Jamaica and, in particular, our schools? God has blessed us with unique flora which Dr Aubrey Lowe and others have been demonstrating to us, can be critical to our economic development. What meaningful role is the SRC playing in laying a widening sustainable foundation for scientific research in our country? As important as is extending the shelf life of sorrel, it is but a shadow to the importance of widening the base for scientific research and the development of young scientists.
The importance of this ministry cannot be overstated, as within it, the programmes personified to the minister are seen to be in a downward spiral which recent events in the Office of Utilities Regulation, in respect of energy, the paucity of gold in 'them there hills' around Bellas Gate, and black gold (oil) beneath our sea floor (to name but a few), seem to confirm.
The relative success of the Universal Service Fund in providing money for a number of projects islandwide is continuingly threatened by the fact that it is seen in the United States of America to be a tax against its residents within their own country. The United States' aversion to 'taxation without representation' is well known historically, and its lack of action to date seems due more to its strategic politics than lack of substance to its legal case.
The minister is linked to a long string of failing portfolios and seems more gifted in voicing ideas (perhaps from the Office of the Prime Minister) than running portfolio ministries. We are in serious times and must get serious.
The Chaos of Transport
Portia should know that the transport portfolio is in chaos and needs new thinking urgently. As it is, there seems to be a continuous on-the-ground confusion with the red-plate route taxicabs which, irrespective of their assigned routes congregate around a handful of routes and shamelessly drive in front of the buses collecting passengers from bus stops and wherever else, pushing the taxpayers' bus company towards bankruptcy.
The majority of road users are well aware that these route taxicabs have, for a long time, been loose cannons on our roads. The practice of subleasing one car multiple times in any one day places other road users in grave danger and makes a mockery of insurance when the anonymous third subleaser runs away from the scene of an accident.
Anecdotal stories suggest that some of these cabs are a challenge to the lowest minimum standards of public health. Transportation is of critical importance to the economy and the current performance of the sector (especially in the metropolitan areas) is unacceptable.
The way forward in terms of nationwide transportation is still in hiatus, apparently reflective of indecisiveness, while continued high transportation costs unrelentingly reduce our nation's competitiveness.
THE TIMES WE'RE IN
The major question is how can we change the culture of our political leaders to that of a positive commitment to the mass of our people and making their interest Parliament's priority? The culture, over the decades, has seen the political authorities increasingly placing their own party members in as many important positions as possible.
This has frustrated the career goals of many of the people's sons and daughters who, in seeking to build careers, have been discouraged from entering the public sector, where many top positions are capped; conversely, it has influenced many to see entry into politics as the way to an assured lifestyle and access to power.
The problem with this is that what Jamaica needs are politicians whose feet are solidly placed in our history, whose minds are committed to the cause of the people, and hearts devoted to the Creator. The political leadership, regrettably, is the only authority able to change their own culture, and it is only when and if this happens that real sustained socio-economic development will take place.
The truth is that the success of these and, in fact, all the portfolios of government depends on the quality and commitment of the staff in the public sector. While never before in history have we had in the public sector the level and numbers of qualified staff members as we do today, mediocrity exists as never before. The need for public-sector reform is now more urgent than ever before
Portia, macka inna yuh han', but nevertheless your role is clear. Are you up to it? If you and your team are prepared to accept the challenges, please remember help is available. ("I knew (recognised, understood, and had regard for) you in the wilderness, in the land of great drought.")
Errol Hewitt is an information and communication technology planning consultant. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.