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EDITORIAL - Government by squalor

Published:Sunday | August 31, 2014 | 12:00 AM

In many respects, the Simpson Miller administration is a paradox. On the one hand, 32 months into its current term, it has demonstrated greater commitment and has done more than any recent government to reverse the poor fiscal behaviour and general management of the Jamaican economy that resulted in a huge debt and very meagre growth in GDP.

Under the direction of the International Monetary Fund, the Government has been disciplined in how it borrows and how it spends and establishing legal rules for its economic comportment.

But those are big things. Mrs Simpson Miller and her ministers just can't seem to get the small things right, which some, not unjustifiably, might claim to be a trait of Jamaican governments formed by the People's National Party. Things like maintaining a relatively clean environment, ensuring a semblance of order in our urban environment, or clearly articulating the ultimate goals of the policies being pursued by the administration.

There is a presumption, it appears, that nothing, or only little, can be done in the absence of lots of money.

Jennifer Edwards, the politician and a former aide to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who was catapulted to the job of executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA), the agency that is supposed to collect garbage and operate what in Jamaica passes as landfills, is a good example of the second element of the paradox.

On a television programme last week, she offered a stunning piece of (il)logic for the toleration of squalor in Jamaica's cities and towns.

politicisation of the agency

It is a long time since, we feel, the NSWMA has been properly managed, with the appropriate technical leadership at its helm. Its problems have been worsened by the politicisation of the agency, its corruption, and its shortage of resources, now exacerbated by the Government's austerity. So, the NSWMA is collecting garbage even less frequently than it used to. It shows in the pile-up on the streets, on the verges, in the gullies.

That, in part, is a reflection of the attitude of many Jamaicans towards waste management. But there was Ms Edwards' response to the argument that it needn't be that bad. Why not have skips on the streets into which people can place refuse? Ms Edwards' response: Her agency used to have skips, but people often put inappropriate material in them, so they were removed. Investing energy in changing behaviour, by argumentation and example, is too hard. Throw big bucks at it.

Or, take King Street in downtown Kingston, a wide avenue studded with Georgian architecture and public buildings on either side of the road. The place is a dump. Ficus trees on its sidewalks are overgrown and unkempt. But the city's mayor and the chairman of the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, the city's local government, doesn't notice. Trimming those trees requires minimum wage labour.

Then there is the National Water Commission, the state water company, whose crews dig into paved roads to repair underground pipes - small, routine work, not big projects. These remain unrepaired for months, to be transformed into gaping trenches. Upfront repairs would be far cheaper. If drains are cleaned, verges cut and trees trimmed, this would leave communities with a better sense of themselves. But that requires concentrated effort. That's too wearying for those in charge.

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