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Jamaica a failed state? Get real!

Published:Sunday | November 9, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Grade six students Romario Jones (right) and Brandon Llewellyn read from a GSAT textbook at the Portsmouth Primary School in Portmore, St Catherine. Jamaica's literacy rates are too high for the country to be deemed a failed state, writes Ian Boyne.-File
Ian Boyne

Ian Boyne

Cliff Hughes, the country's pre-eminent newsman and one of our sharpest journalists, stirred some controversy on his Power 106 talk show last week by asserting that Jamaica was a "failed state".

I understand Cliff's frustration and sense of disillusionment as an idealistic journalist who was "dreaming of a new Jamaica" and his anger over our disappointing post-Independence experience. There is enough to drive bitterness and rage in anyone about contemporary Jamaica. A lot of things don't work and our political class has underperformed terribly. But, especially as journalists, we must exercise some intellectual and emotional discipline and not talk nonsense.

The phrase 'failed state' has a particular meaning and when someone of the calibre of Cliff Hughes uses it, he can't be as reckless as former banker Bill Clarke, who used that phrase to describe Jamaica some years ago. There are just some things which journalists are expected to know. We can't toss around words carelessly, oblivious to how well-informed people would interpret them. A state that is failing in certain respects is not a failed state. A state is not a failed state simply because it has social, political and economic deficits. It's not a matter of semantics. It is a matter of precision and speaking in globalised environment (Power 106 streams worldwide) in a way that you communicate accurately.

But too many of us are given to histrionics and dramatics and are less concerned about sober, calm, rational analysis. The screaming and the shouting drive traffic to talk shows and build newspaper readership. But serious journalism has nothing to do with sensationalism, as Cliff should know by now.

The origin of the term

The respected Foreign Policy magazine had for years been publishing its annual failed-state list. When political scientists talk about failed states, they have certain features in mind, such as state collapse, having whole parts of a country's territory controlled by rebel forces or outside of central control; a state where social and public services have totally collapsed; and where state authority cannot be asserted in critical areas. A state with military intervention, political manipulation of the judiciary, alienation from the international community, etc.

Failed states are places like South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Yemen, Central African Republic, Syria, and Iraq.

Now our garrison system, political corruption and high crime levels do threaten our stability. But we are nowhere near a failed state and it is partly our failure to educate ourselves thoroughly about global affairs and what is actually taking place in other states which leads us to be so hysterical in our commentary about Jamaica. I don't accuse Cliff of being driven by political bias and partisanship. Cliff's record of fairness and even-handedness is rich.

Cliff is also generally well-informed, but his characterisation of Jamaica as a failed state shows he needs to do some more serious reading. If he had not been slipping up in that, he would have known that not only has controversy long surrounded that phrase, 'failed state', but even Foreign Policy, for its 2014 report, has dropped the term and is now using 'fragile states'. As Foreign Policy explains: "In the beginning when we decided to call it the 'failed states index', we really wanted to bring attention to the fact that people were living in these countries with poor conditions in terms of human rights, violence and terrorism. But over time, we realised that the name 'failed states' started to become an issue itself ... ... . It made more sense to talk about fragility because that puts the emphasis on the human beings who are suffering in many of these states."

First, no failed state has a liberal democracy. I don't mean just an electoral democracy. It is not a full democracy, as my leftist friends would say, and I totally agree. But it has been a liberal democracy. One that allows Cliff Hughes to speak his mind as boldly and even as wrong-headedly as he likes, without any repercussions as long as he does not libel anyone.

We don't jail journalists or murder them for telling the truth and standing against corruption. Respected international organisations which monitor press freedom give us the highest marks in this entire Western Hemisphere - even putting us ahead of the Untied States. Failed states don't have a free press.

Democracies worldwide

Regarding electoral democracy, our political parties came together and fashioned an electoral system with an integrity and probity that has been a model to other states. It came through political struggle and agitation, but give the political class its due: the PNP and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) came together and developed a system with credibility and independent oversight.

Regarding human rights, the Mario Deane issue sparked massive, sustained outrage precisely because we now have an environment so sensitive to human-rights violations that what used to be standard and commonplace is no longer seen as tolerable once brought to light. We have an INDECOM that helps to send state security officers to jail and which is openly and boisterously challenging the constitutionally protected Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions on human-rights issues. We have a Charter of Rights.

We have unrestricted freedom of assembly; freedom to demonstrate against any government policy. And when we were damn mad last Easter about a proposed bank tax, Peter Phillips had to beat a hasty retreat with that! We have an independent judiciary that makes decisions that might rankle politicians on both sides of the fence, but they dare do nothing about those decisions or the judges who made them. We have a professional, politically neutral civil service (political appointees are the exceptions). The bulk serves successive political administrations.

Cliff talks about our failing in education. Of course, there are serious challenges and gross areas of underperformance. But while in 1962, three out of 10 Jamaicans were illiterate, today illiteracy is less than 10 per cent. And as Peter Phillips pointed out in that CIN lecture in New York recently, Jamaica has moved from a position where only five per cent of the relevant cohort used to access tertiary education to the point where more than 30 per cent is now enrolled.

Our health system is woefully inadequate, but our infant and maternal mortality rates are impressive and our life expectancy is now at 75 years.

In economic management, for sure, our IMF-inspired contractionary policies must be modified for growth, but let us not be hesitant to acknowledge certain achievements - without which there can be no growth. Just last Thursday, Richard Byles told us that Jamaica even outperformed our IMF targets in critical areas. In the quarter ending September, our primary balance stood at $43.6 billion, nearly $6 billion better than what the IMF targeted. Our net international reserves stood at US$2.2 billion, way above the IMF's target of US$968.3 billion. (Tax collection is down, not unexpectedly, in a contractionary economy).

In one year alone, Jamaica has moved up appreciably in the foreign direct investment index, the Global Competitiveness Index, the logistics development index and now the previously much-belaboured Ease of Doing Business index. STATIN has reported that unemployment has declined and we now have positive growth, single-digit inflation, a balanced budget for the first time in many years, and debt, our albatross, has been declining - finally. Interest rates are trending down. The balance of payments deficit has been declining also.

Growth plan

These indices don't say all is well. But they are not the characteristics of a failed state! And for those who are wailing that there is no growth plan, please acknowledge that while these austerity measures being applied are definitely not sufficient to produce growth - in fact, if continued, they are literally counter-productive - they are, in the main, necessary for growth.

Aubyn Hill and Claude Clarke need to acknowledge that these achievements are necessary prerequisites to any growth they are calling for. I agree with Ralston Hyman about Government's lobbying the IMF to reduce our primary surplus target. The just-released report from the Independent Evaluation Office of the IMF which criticises the Fund for its post-crisis recommendations shows these fellows are not infallible or the font of all wisdom. And Peter Phillips and this political directorate had better learn that and have the guts to press them to make adjustments.

But, please, Cliff, resist the urge of the herd to use your guts rather than your head in doing public commentary.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.