Commentary Jamaica Magazine

Heading into a New Decade, Jamaica Faces Formidable Challenges

With the world economy in a mess, Jamaica faces stiff challenges in the next few years. The new decade is off to a gloomy start internationally as giants like America, Europe and Japan struggle to cope with the aftermath of the meltdown that occurred toward the end of 2008. The ripple effect is still being felt around the globe, and Jamaica is no exception.

New taxes, resulting at least in part from an International Monetary Fund mandate, and high interest rates, imposed because of questions about Jamaica’s ability to meet its debt obligations, are a crippling combination. They tend to discourage the investment that creates jobs; and rising unemployment inevitably leads to greater poverty and more crime.

I am confident that Prime Minister Bruce Golding and his government are taking steps to counter this threat. But it will not be easy. The prevailing global climate is not favorable for private investment. And if the government steps in to fill the investment gap, as it probably will have to, the result would be more public debt, triggering a vicious cycle of higher interest rates and more taxes.

I am not an economist, and I haven’t lived in Jamaica for a long time, but it looks to me as if the island is in for a very difficult time. Of course, Jamaicans are resilient and innovative. The island has faced hard times before, and I am sure it will muddle through as it always has. But changes will be necessary.

New markets need to be found for Jamaican exports and new sources of tourism dollars must be tapped. New areas of development must be explored – perhaps in “green” energy, as Jamaica has an abundance of sunlight and wind.

But, most of all, new attitudes must be encouraged. Obviously, the island will have to grow more of its own food – and eat what it produces. Obviously, population growth must be addressed.

And, obviously, public servants must be held accountable.

I am sure there are many dedicated, honest, hard-working men and women in the island’s civil service. And they probably do not receive the credit they deserve. But the level of public service has deteriorated to the point where the Daily Gleaner is advocating drastic reforms, including an end to “security of tenure,” which protects incompetent civil servants from being fired.

“After 47 years of Jamaica’s Independence, it is more than obvious that we have not done a good job at managing our affairs. Jamaica is badly adrift and is on the verge of becoming a failed or rogue state,” the newspaper’s editors declared recently. “Saving our country requires strong leadership and an urgent overhaul of the public bureaucracy, which has failed at its job to effectively manage the country’s business and deliver first-rate services.”

There is also the deplorable problem of corruption. Jamaica simply cannot afford to tolerate corruption. The implications are too devastating. Corrupt politicians and public servants take the food out of the mouths of hungry children. They must be dealt with accordingly.

Jamaica is not the most corrupt country in the world. That dubious honor goes jointly to Somalia and Myanmar (formerly Burma) with Iraq coming in second. But the island ranks far too low on the list produced by the Berlin-based organization, Transparency International. The 2006 ranking puts the island at 84th among 180 countries surveyed, below places like Serbia. (The least corrupt countries are Finland, Denmark and New Zealand. )

When I was a boy, the Jamaican civil service was held in high esteem. I don’t recall anyone questioning the integrity of civil servants back then. And politicians were rarely caught with their hands in the till.

Somehow, that pride of service must be restored. Without it, Jamaica will be hard pressed to weather the storms ahead.

About the author

George Graham