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Owen Arthur: Social partnership key to development

Published:Friday | July 17, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Owen Arthur
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller hugs former prime minister, Bruce Golding, at a Partnership of Jamaica signing ceremony on August 2, 2013.
Portia Simpson Miller and trade unionist Lloyd Goodleigh sign the Partnership Agreement at King's House while then PSOJ President Chris Zacca looks on.

On the last occasion I spoke on matters concerning Jamaica in Jamaica, I unintentionally stirred up a controversy by stating, in 1999, that the conditions for macroeconomic stability had been re-established, but that the manner in which the crisis in the financial sector was being dealt with was likely to compromise the country's development prospects.

The latter part of the observation excited the media and the ensuing controversy held the attention of the public.

Suitably chastened, I promise not to wander into the paths of controversy.

So I will observe the proper spirit and begin by observing that the conditions for macroeconomic stability and sustainable development are being established in Jamaica. It is my expectation that the work of the institution that brings us together will contribute in a profound way to the achievement of those highly desirable goals.

It is with this goal in mind that I draw from the Barbadian experience to share with you a perspective as to what the Jamaica social partnership can be designed to accomplish.

It may, however, appear paradoxical that in the same breath that I highly commend the social partnership as a model of governance that Jamaica should embrace with enthusiasm, I have also to report that the two countries - Ireland and Barbados - that have sought to make the most use of it are among the countries which have fared the worst in recent times.

This, however, is not intended to depreciate the role the social partnership has played in Barbados or can play in Jamaica.

Indeed, I subscribe to the view expressed by another former prime minister of Barbados that the social partnership represents the most momentous and creative piece of public policy engineering in the history of Barbados, both symbolically and substantively. For it has taken the practice of democracy to its highest form. It has done so by creating an agency by which the various estates of the society are conjoined in mutually beneficial relationships for the common good, despite their divergent roles, functions and interests that are in many ways conflicted.

In the purest sense, the social partnership is a system of governance. It does not draw its authority or legitimacy from any constitution or set of laws. It draws them from an attribute that is even more profound, but that is especially delicate.

That attribute is the social capital.

In 1988, sociologist James Coleman, in the article 'Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital', was among the first to treat with the concept of 'social capital' as the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups and organisations.

Capital today is embodied less in land, factories, tools and machines, but increasingly in the knowledge and skills of human beings. Coleman argued that, in addition to skills and knowledge, a significant and distinct portion of human capital has to do with people's ability to associate with each other; a factor that is critical not only to economic life, but to virtually every other aspect of social existence itself. Such a capacity to associate, in turn, depends on the degree to which communities share norms and values and are able to subordinate individual interests to the larger common good.

Trust is what emerges as the asset from such shared values. And trust itself can generate a large and measurable economic and social output to underpin and foster a society's development.

In embracing the social partnership as an element of governance, Jamaica, like Barbados, has signalled its determination to cause its social capital, and the asset called trust, to be a greater factor in its efforts at socio-economic engineering than ever before.

It is in the context that it is important not to enlarge the social partnership beyond what it is, nor to ascribe to it functions which it cannot carry out.

rates of return

In this regard, as a mechanism which brings the State, the private sector, the labour movement and the civil society into a coalition to influence the formulation of public policy through social dialogue, the social partnership is most effective when used to add value to, rather than to replace or downgrade established processes for consultation, policymaking and implementation.

As such, it cannot and should not be seen as an agency to pre-empt or circumvent the pre-eminent place of Parliament in the making of society's laws.

In addition, it cannot stop the owners of enterprises from being concerned with rates of return on capital. Nor should it stop the labour movement from having as its chief concern the advancement of the interests of the workers it represents.

Equally, it does not prevent the economy from being susceptible to the influences of business cycles and changes in the level of demand.

Beyond such considerations, the extent of the obligations placed on a government to function faithfully and effectively as part of a social partnership is often not fully understood.

For the power of a government comes from the vote of the people to whom it is ultimately accountable. However, through a social partnership, it undertakes to share that power with entities which do not have to account to the people in the same way that political institutions do.

To be precise, social partnership requires the government to get involved in a power-sharing relationship with no certainty of a political return, save and except that by sharing its power, it can often get more achieved, to its political credit, than if it acted unilaterally.

Second, the obligation to be a part of a social partnership places a duty on the part of the government not to retreat where the exercise of its role is concerned, but to become more entrepreneurial.

It is now becoming fashionable to presume that the chief and highest ambition and purpose of governments should be to do no harm by restricting their activities largely to maintaining a stable money supply and controlling the size of their deficits.

However, the social contract which government enters with its social partners generally requires it to venture into new spheres of activity, and through collaboration with its partners, to find new ways of bringing about social and economic progress.

That said, the chief way by which the social partnership can add value to the work of the partners in their individual capacities, and to the overall national developmental endeavour, is by making consensus building, rather than divisiveness, a major force in national life.

At any given point in a society's development, there will always be a few key strategic things which, if dealt with in a coherent and constructive fashion, will make the decisive difference as to whether the society succeeds or fails.

The ultimate justification for the existence of a social partnership, therefore, is that, through it, a consensus can be forged on those few key strategic things which can make the decisive difference in a country's development.

The real strength of the social partnership ultimately resides in its capacity to hold those who join the consensus together as one, in order to ensure its successful implementation.

There are some nations that are rich enough to waste their democracy by shutting down their government, from time to time, for the pleasure of it, by making gridlock the normal and familiar feature of the functioning of their system of governance, and by making opposition to everything proposed by their leader the main political strategy of key political institutions.

In the Caribbean, we cannot afford such a luxury, especially since the countries have to grapple with a range of issues that go beyond the ordinary, and which threaten to overwhelm them.

For us, there can be no sensible option than to embed harmony and cooperation at the centre of our governance, and to do everything necessary to ensure that the partnership works.

Part Two, 'The Barbados experience', on Monday.

- Owen Arthur is a Barbadian MP and former prime minister of that country. Email feedback to