A challenging year for the Government
Delano Franklyn, GUEST COLUMNIST
Last year was an extremely challenging one for the Portia Simpson Miller-led Government. In fact, it can arguably be categorized as a year of ups and downs. This, of course, is not unusual for most governments, especially one in its third year.
Its probably fair to say that one of the most successful areas of government during 2014 was the maintenance of the macro-economic programme it embarked upon as a consequence of the agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The reform programme is concentrated on macro-economic stability through the elimination of the fiscal deficit, reduction of the national debt and the promotion of fiscal discipline as a solid foundation for achieving the much sought-after growth and development.
Having so far successfully passed six quarterly IMF tests, there were signs in 2014 of positive developments within the economy. Employment, albeit small, is on the increase, inflation within the targeted range, the current account deficit narrowed, and the Net International Reserves stood at US$2 billion.
From all indications, the Government will, in 2015, be pursuing even more relentlessly its economic reform. However, there are two major issues which it, by necessity, will have to continue to contend with.
Firstly, the effort to reduce the countrys debt and to implement the required economic reform has come about as a result of tremendous sacrifice by the people of Jamaica, including workers, pensioners, bond-holders, and consumers. They have all experienced tremendous economic hardship as a result of wage contractions and the increased cost of basic goods and services. This is especially so for public-sector workers, who have undertaken more than their fair share of belt tightening. Creative methods will have to be found to ease the burden of our citizens.
Secondly, although there are emerging signs of economic growth, much more needs to be done to generate the levels of sustainable growth required. This will require getting all planned projects off the ground and fine-tuning the climate for increased local and foreign investments.
In 2013, the World Banks Global Financial Prospects revised upward the growth prospects for Jamaica, projecting growth of 1.1 per cent in 2014, 1.3 per cent in 2015 and 1.7 per cent in 2016. According to the report, Jamaica experienced the largest fiscal improvement in the region, going from a deficit of more than 4 per cent in 2012 to a surplus of 0.1 per cent of GDP in 2013. This was the best performance since 1995.
The Governments economic programme, therefore, must be continuously driven on the twin pillars of fiscal consolidation and the encouragement of equity-capital investment in a range of productive activities.
The continued drive to improve the countrys infrastructure marked another area of positive development for the Government in 2014.
Perhaps the most noteworthy and impactful being the completion and opening of the leg of the North Coast Highway from Linstead to Moneague. The US$610 million project, executed under a public-private partnership agreement between the Government and China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), has significantly reduced travel time and provides for several spin-off investment opportunities.
Of importance also, is the continued major expansion of port facilities, geared at maximizing our geographic positioning and establishing Jamaica as an integrated global logistics hub. The expansion of the Panama Canal and further development of Jamaicas ports, cargo and maritime facilities, as well as special economic zones, will position the country to capitalize on the opportunities that will arise from the initiative.
Tablets in Schools
Another strong area of development during 2014 was the continued changes taking place in the area of education, especially the distribution of tablets to school children.
National development and personal growth cannot take place, much less succeed, without educational transformation. Nearly 700,000 children and young people are in schools, and over $75 billion from the central budget was invested last year in education.
For educational transformation to be really effective, the participation of all sectors in the society and all areas of Government is required.
In this regard, the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy, and Mining awarded contracts totalling over $800 million to four service providers for the supply of tablets in schools.
A pilot project designed to last for a year was launched and will be implemented in 38 educational institutions. The initial phase will benefit 24,000 students and 1,200 teachers in 6 pre-primary schools, 13 primary schools, 5 all-age and junior high schools, 12 high schools, one teachers college, as well as one special-education institution. Tablets are now being distributed to these students, teachers and institutions and will ultimately reach over 600,000 students and teachers.
The potential impact of this programme should not be underestimated. If properly implemented, it can radically transform our education system, as the technology provides a pathway to the modernization of an education system which still largely organizes its programmes around the utilization of books and pens.
Crime and Violence
There were indications that the Governments efforts to reduce violent crimes are heading in the right direction. One person murdered is one too many, but in 2014, some 192 less murders were committed when compared to 2013.
Of importance also was the significant reduction in the number of fatal shootings by the police; 300 less persons were killed by the police a 50 per cent reduction when compared to 2013.
It is noteworthy that the reductions in both murders and fatal shootings by the police have come about as a result of less draconian restrictions on the movement of the general populace, as far less curfews were instituted.
There is still a far way to go to rid Jamaica of crime and violence. Let us not fool ourselves; there are criminal elements in the society who must be dealt with, using the full force of the law. However, this requires a mixture of intelligence and hardcore policing, coupled with improving the social conditions of many of our communities.
The introduction of the multi-sectorial Unite for Change campaign is an important step in combating crime by reshaping social norms. This is not the first such programme created to address the social re-engineering of our communities, but it is definitely the most extensive. It must be made to work.
The Government also found itself having to deal with issues during 2014 which tested its management and leadership capabilities. The three most debilitating, and which proved most pressing, were the creeping devaluation of the Jamaican dollar, the outbreak of chikungunya and the National Housing Trust saga. These issues, as they unfolded, diverted the attention of the people from the positive programmes being pursued by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and her administration.
Unfortunate developments will take place during the reign of any government, and when these occur, they must be dealt with. One of the most effective ways to deal with adversities, especially in government, is through effective communication. When things go wrong, a government must disseminate information in a manner which will enable the general populace to understand very clearly what the issues are and what measures will be taken to address the problem.
Even the most loyal supporter of the Government, using the three issues cited, will agree that much more could have been done to communicate the respective issues. The need for improvement in this area, particularly as the Government moves into its fourth year, is without question.
On the party political front, the governing PNP experienced a bitter-sweet experience.
Two national polls in 2014 indicated that the PNP was trailing the JLP. The Bill Johnson polls had the PNP at 15 per cent and the JLP at 27 per cent, while the Don Anderson polls had the PNP at 17 per cent and the JLP at 25 per cent.
It is important to note that the polls showed, at the time they were taken, that 58 per cent of those polled did not express support for either party. The polls must not be the basis of alarm and disenchantment; instead, they should be used as a tool to re-examine and review the approach to governance and, where necessary, adjustments made.
On a positive note for the Government, the PNP retained the seat in Central Westmoreland left vacant as a result of the untimely passing of our beloved Roger Clarke. Not that the PNP would have lost the by-election, but it was able to retain it by a majority of nearly 2,500, which many naysayers thought could not happen.
During 2014, the Government continued to demonstrate the resolve to deal with the countrys fiscal deficits and the high debt which impedes sustainable growth and development. Mrs. Simpson-Miller and her team must continue the structural reforms aimed at improving the competitiveness of our businesses and the general economy.
Much consideration must be given to the social impact these reforms will have on our most burdened citizens. Polls are already showing that the public is not responding favourably to the prevailing economic realities. Further creative ways will have to be found to reduce the misery index without altering the speed and nature of the economic reform.
Although most things will revolve around the performance or non-performance of the economy, during 2015, the general issue of leadership, and in particular the positioning of the Prime Minister on the various national issues, will come under greater and further scrutiny as the Government pursues its plans and programmes during the course of this year.