Tue | Jun 15, 2021

The missing element in our development

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Errol Hewitt, Contributor

Will you condemn the just and mighty One? Is He not the One who says to kings, "You are worthless," and to nobles, "You are wicked, who shows no partiality to princes and does not favour the rich over the poor." Job. 34:17b-19

We are months into the New Year, yet we are still suspended in the midst of a period of new beginnings which seems stuck, constantly repeating ourselves. But this is nothing new given the penchant of our politics to leave worthy projects started by a preceding administration uncompleted in order to blow its own trumpet on something new. This wasteful luxury can no longer be afforded, as we are now in an undeniable crisis; time seems to have caught up with us.

Developing countries need strong, sensible governments to establish broad foundations from which to launch sustainable economic development. Our politics, however, has been at a distance from this, and for decades has been a major contributor to our socio-economic underperformance; bleeding our country's finances, setting us back in time, damaging our people's prospects. And it is the people - the masses - which have been the missing element in our economic development effort. A crucial challenge then is for the transformation of the people as serious producers and contributors to national development.

Positive changes

The new political administration has an opportunity to do right by our country (and itself politically) by turning away from the old selfish politics. Mindful of our history, it must commit to our people, accept the challenges and, with bit in its teeth, generate traction and power on with a plan. And while its focus on the matters relevant to the IMF, tax reform, the national debt, energy, etc. is justified, the continuing ignoring of the productive capability of the people will continue to negate progress.

If truth be told, for decades successive governments have ruled as neocolonialists, attempting development while seemingly stubbornly minimising the meaningful participation of the people. They have misinterpreted the phrase 'government for the people' as literally governing without the people, insisting they remain on the periphery.

The stark truth, if we dare to confront it, is that while we need the masses as consumers, we mostly think of them as low-income workers and hardly ever as potential self-employed profitable producers. We have for decades attempted development with an arrogantly self-imposed handicap. This is lunacy! How can we affect socio-economic development with this crucial element missing?

But how?

The decades of an underperforming economy and inadequate national leadership have contributed to widening ranks of increasing numbers of emigrants. Repatriation of funds is useful, but grievous is the loss of our qualified, talented and creative. Our experience asserts that lack of economic development and growth places great burden on the people, triggering widespread emigration, the fragmentation of families, and deepening national challenges.

The United Nations Human Development Report - 2011 shows the Caribbean as having the greatest gap between the rich and the poor, and Jamaica being one of those with the greatest disparities within the region. Our situation was not arrived at by accident but by the ineptitude of policies adopted by successive governments, which believed that curry-favouring through benefits to the private-sector elite will, inevitably, trickle down to the masses.

The former housing minister, Horace Chang, lamented, ironically, that of a population of just fewer than three million, about one million are squatters - many cynically employed in the tourism industry. Across from the University Hospital in Kingston is a squatter settlement which is an arresting symbol of the despicable, subhuman circumstance in which people live and the dire public-health challenge to both the squatters and those in the community, in this case, the teaching hospital. But who cares?

The public understands the re-election strategy of politicians to be a key factor for the continuing survival of squatting communities. What they fail to see is the potential of our people if they are given the chance to progress into contributing producers.

The politically seasoned veteran and former minister of labour, Pearnel Charles, expressed surprise in noting that about 800,000 workers are without any formal training certification. The masses today with largely unchanged power layers above them face the daunting task of seeking to wield change to their benefit. An added disadvantage is a church which seems unenthusiastic about accepting that the 'government shall be upon his (its) shoulders' and a middle class whose size and influence have been reducing substantially over the last few decades, especially through migration. It is understood that up to 80 per cent of tertiary graduates emigrate, which, together with the increasing percentage of the 'officially poor', places even more obstacles in the path of any sustained effort for economic development.

The frustration

Interestingly, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante had laid the framework for a viable and impressive social network to undergird the poor and which was heavily influenced by the Jamaica Welfare Act. Apart from this beginning of a worthwhile social network in those early years, there was also an undeniably good education system which was the core of a firm foundation for a viable and productive middle class, whose benefit was quite obvious at that time. But what has gone wrong?

Succeeding administrations, through political/economic compromises (which were likely heavily influenced by the private-sector elite, symbolised by the so-called '21 families'), regrettably did not consistently build on this beginning. They did not sustain that broad-based focus to uplift the masses, as was evident in that early social network. This now-lessened interest further lowered hopes of an accelerated progress of the people. This perception of our leaders as the coloniser and us as the colonised hardened with the emergence of inner-city dons and armed criminals perceived as the politician's militia.

Looking forward

Our situation is not irretrievable, but not only must we renew our commitment to morality and civility, we must prioritise the interest of our people.

Our current housing minister, Omar Davies, must see fixing the squatter problem as an opportunity for large-scale public housing, not only to meet the urgent need of our people but also as an important tool for economic development and a powerful multiplier of jobs in multiple sectors such as furniture making, etc. Surely the prime minister's Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme, or JEEP, could be a useful tool to use efficiently in the construction of public housing and, effectively, lower the delivery prices.

The present minister of labour, Derrick Kellier, must urgently coordinate with Ronnie Thwaites, the minister of education, in the organising of a broad range of training programmes for both existing workers and those entering the labour market.

Our education is still shaped along colonial lines instead of being focused for national development. One of the core issues, the Grade Six Achievement Test model, must be addressed, as all children must have a real opportunity to fully realise their potential. A model must be found which assures this while accommodating the variety of talent and the creativity so essential for sustainable broad-based socio-economic development. The children 'lost' by our insufficiencies must not remain part of the missing element in our socio-economic development.

There are so many clear arguments for a change in orientation, but a simple practical example is as follows:

The Scientific Research Council (SRC) could seek finance from government and/or grant a funding institution for high schools which have laboratories and qualified tutors, providing them with a stipend and any required equipment to do SRC/university-guided research in areas such as, perhaps, assessing and listing the chemical content of plants and herbs and their possible commercial exploitation, etc.

The minimum that this would accomplish is the needed complete assessment of our plants and herbs and a growing number of promising Jamaican scientists.

Tourism has been a benefactor, but it has largely underperformed because of a low assimilation of its benefit into our economy. The model needs urgent revision and rationalisation to effect an acceptable balance between the proper utilisation of land space, protection of the environment and citizens' rights so that a meaningful multiplying effect benefiting the width of local industry can be realised.

There seems to be no escaping the need for a major marketing centre (with farmers among the shareholders) to coordinate the sale of agricultural products locally and overseas. As individuals, our farmers, in general, cannot produce on the scale required to compete in the global market. Pulling them together under a single umbrella in which they have a stake would improve our competitive capability (our bargaining power, production costs, adequacy of supplies) considerably.

We need to return to our earlier practice centuries ago, of exploring and exploiting our economic interests with our geographically nearer and substantially populous neighbours in the northern Caribbean and Central America. It was beneficial then, and, with creativity and resolve, can be found so today, especially in comparison to the long-term prospects of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy. This could have positive implications for especially western Jamaica, for example, the abandoned port of Savanna-la-Mar, etc.

There was a time

There was a time, still within living memory, when our nation was known internationally for its high quality of life, despite the then reality of a low standard of living as measured by the comparative rarity of labour-saving devices such as washing machines, dishwashers, etc.

We need to seriously seek to unlock the productive capabilities of our people through focused training and venture-capital approaches. These could be sponsored by the Government but administered apolitically, which would seek to engender sustained, wide-based productivity within the masses. It is only as we focus on the best interest of all our people that we will seriously begin to trek the path to sustained development and, hopefully, bring to practice the civility and morality required of us all as citizens.

Errol Hewitt is an ICT consultant. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.