Commentary Jamaica Magazine

The Link Between Timely Road Repairs And National Development

It was with intense interest that I read the headlines “Roadblock rage – Protests against hikes, decaying infrastructure” in the August 30 Edition of the Daily Gleaner. As a former transportation planner with the state of California and an academic with a special interest in the spatial efficiency of government in general and Jamaica’s in particular, it bothers me deeply that little (if any) serious thought or dialogue is being pursued towards rectifying the island’s essentially archaic and wasteful colonial-type structure of government: one which exhibits an acute dysfunctional level of centralized public sector (developmental) resources. The moribund structure of Jamaica’s excessively centralized government (proactive) decision-making bureaucracy has in effect rendered the island’s parish councils hostage to the legacy of (what is partially the consequence of) central government’s mismanagement/lack of grassroots accountability: an 800 million dollar public sector debt; one that precipitates ongoing borrowing from foreign financial sources in order to finance such local government services as community road repair and the collection of garbage in a non-sustainable structural mode of bureaucratic paternalism and dependency. Given my training in transportation policy analysis and an academic background in the geography of economic development, it is with the reality of Jamaica’s poor roads however that I am most concerned. Properly maintained roads are vital for the effective socioeconomic development of individual communities as well as the nation as a whole. Good roads facilitate the effective movement of people and their goods and services. Poorly maintained roads retard development in myriad ways. Restricted mobility for fire, police, ambulance and public transportation services due to poor road surfaces harm the safety, health, welfare of the general population thereby lowering the island’s overall economic productivity, the capacity to effectively meet national debt obligations: realities that ultimately impact the island’s attendant quality-of-life indices in a negative manner. A regular argument put forward by members of government for Jamaica’s poor roads is the argument that the island lacks the resources to fix its roads and other public infrastructure in a timely manner. A critical argument overlooked however is that Jamaica’s present structure of government with its highly centralized bureaucracy tends to retard timely service delivery thus driving up the eventual costs of community road repair islandwide. This administrative reality is based on the “time value of money” economic principle. In order to better appreciate the nature of the spatial administrative problem (of effective developmental resource distribution) facing Jamaica it is useful to define the value of the geographical concept of spatial administrative boundaries. From a spatial administrative standpoint administrative zones legally delineated by boundaries serve to spatially differentiate and separate human and physical resources for increased administrative focus. In Jamaica such local government boundaries tend to be “passive” or reactive in nature given a historical lack of grassroots driven (bottom up) empowerment. In contrast, (fiscally) empowered administrative boundaries are used to effectively capture and target scarce resources in order to cost effectively meet the specific service demands of affected constituents in a grassroots inclusive (and proactive) manner. Thus, fiscally empowered and functionally focused administrative boundaries can be employed to focus/harness elusive or scarce developmental resources (like a nozzle on a hose) towards speeding up the rate of service delivery in a more grassroots/community sensitive manner. Boundary-focused taxes, ones tied to specific service delivery, serve to deepen transparency and accountability at the grassroots level in terms of how scarce, critical resources are effectively employed in community development. This strategy is critical in order to capture and retain regionally at the community level, elements of scarce fiscal resources that tend to get misdirected/wasted by central government’s sometimes (grassroots) insensitive bureaucracy. It is generally argued that Jamaica is too small for effective decentralization. In a recent geography paper on the essence of spatial administration I made the groundbreaking point that the concept of smallness is relative and in essence based on the critical nature of the service desired to be delivered. Thus, services that are in nature subject to rapid, fluctuating demand levels (like effective road repair and garbage collection) are in essence volatile/unpredictable and therefore best decentralized closer to the affected constituency in a bottom-up decision-making administrative structure. Given the above arguments it is clear that there exist a clear intermediate administrative role for Jamaica’s three counties given the need to better coordinate and strengthen the parish councils from the bottom up in order to more effectively access higher quality fiscal and human resources at the local/regional levels. It is thus with the above information that both political parties are being urged to seriously consider redesigning Jamaica’s local government reform thrust around the island’s three counties in order to better facilitate a more cost-effective approach to that crucial element of economic development: effective spatial governance.

About the author

Garfield OWhittaker