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If the business sector is to deliver ...

Published:Monday | April 12, 2010 | 12:00 AM


THOUGH OVERDUE, it was still refreshingly encouraging to read Dr Densil A. Williams' piece on 'Micro foundations for economic growth', in the Sunday Gleaner of April 4. At this critical stage in the life of our country, there is an overwhelming national dependence on the business sector as 'the engine of growth'. As the saying goes, 'free the private sector and see the economy grow'. This notion is truer now than at any other time in the nation's history, what with the return to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the advent of the Jamaica Debt Exchange Programme.

An examination of the nature and capability of the business sector is, therefore, urgent and indispensable. Even with an efficient public sector, the society cannot survive IMF tests, improve productivity of labour and capital, build a viable export sector, satisfy domestic demand for goods and services and curb crime and other social ills, unless the private sector is up to the task. But is it? And if not, what should or can be done to find the solution?

There may be cause for optimism that there have been, and still are, Jamaican business persons who rank among the very best anywhere in the world, whether as entrepreneurs or managers. The question that begs an answer is whether these excellent achievers and their exemplary accomplishments typify the Jamaican private sector. If they do, we are in fine shape. If not, we are in big trouble, with an over-dependence on subsidiaries of foreign companies. While to some the answer to the question might be self-evident, on what evidence do they base this point of view? And in what historical context do they locate the reasons for their opinion?

A history lesson

In order to arrive at a credible evaluation of the sector, one needs to revisit the history of the country's economy, its structure, development and performance over time. That history of course begins with the economic, psychological and managerial legacy of slavery, an institution that required only a very simple economic and social organisation built on the plantation system that was in turn based on forced unpaid labour and racial stratification.

It would take into account the mercantilist approach to trade exclusively in raw material exports from Jamaica and importation of finished goods in order to support the economy of the Mother country and avoid competing with the manufacturing sector in England. Of relevance also would be, the types of locally spawned financial and commercial enterprises that emerged to complement this system and which characterise the business sector and its mindset even today; the relative lack of emphasis on productivity; low entrepreneurial acumen, competence, creativity, and a neglect of innovative utilisation of indigenous natural and human resources; a constricting indenture-ship system, together with restricted employment opportunities as the economy failed to diversify and expand.

Sector not analysed

Fast forward to today when, regrettably, it is not fashionable to discuss the business sector in any informed, objective and clinical way. Every other area of the society comes in for close public scrutiny, most vigorously by the private sector itself. Weaknesses in the public sector and in civil society, social indiscipline, a poor and inappropriate educational system, for instance, have all been given unrelenting prominence in the media and interpersonal discourse. This is necessary and should be taken even further, with greater analytical incisiveness. The overall impression, however, is that whatever inadequacies there are in the business sector result from imperfections in the public sector. This might very well be true. But it seems that probing evidence-based analysis and critique of the nature and functioning of Jamaican business enterprises, which could verify this assertion, is hardly ever directed at this critically important sector, not even by our universities anymore.

Yet, such an examination is useful for a balanced debate, as well as for a comprehensive understanding and appreciation of the society and of the private sector itself. If it turns out that there is need for retooling, this ought to be done now, since the success of the IMF programme, and indeed, our future as a viable society depend so heavily on the ability of the business sector to deliver the goods.

I am, etc.,