Understanding the path to development (Part 1)
ALMOST daily I get questions on what will happen to the Jamaican economy and whether or not we are moving in the right direction. Or sometimes, get a comment that my expressed cautious optimism is misguided, as things are difficult in the economy. I can understand the frustration of many persons as we have been promised prosperity if we tightened our belts for the past 40 years, and we have not seen the results of the belt tightening. So, many Jamaicans are understandably cynical about the expressed optimism.
Some persons even ask why I am cautiously optimistic when in the past I have been very critical of the policies, to the point where persons have seen some of us (including Ralston Hyman) as pessimists, and today even he seems to be cautiously optimistic.
Could it be that we are just getting old and can't bother anymore, is there something wrong with us mentally, or are we able to see something that many others don't see? I remember that on many occasions we were chastised similarly for saying things like there was a need to go to the IMF or that debt restructuring seemed like the only way. But that is history, so let's look at a reasoned approach as to what may lie ahead for the economy, and what is an appropriate path for development.
Being in darkness, or a painful position, can mean that either you are about to see daybreak (or a better result, as darkness and pain can come before light and progress) or it can mean that you are falling deeper into a hole.
How then do you determine if you are actually in the darkest hour before the dawn or if you are plunging further into an abyss? The answer lies in understanding the context of the darkness. So the sophisticated investor knows that the best time to buy is when everyone is selling (or panic) and the best time to sell is when everyone is buying (or too much optimism).
The fact is that it is the analysis of the context, and understanding when there is further value, or losses ahead, that determine if one buys or sells. Analysis is something many seem to be short on, especially with the advent of instant media, as much of the debate is sometimes driven by emotions rather than reason. And this emotion is on both sides of the argument for optimism and pessimism, as arguments go overboard on either side sometimes.
I will attempt to then put forward a reasoned approach to understanding what is needed for Jamaica's economy to develop, in summary, as one or two articles can never do enough justice.
The first thing we need to do is understand what the objective of development is. In my view, development is much more than economic growth, or even increase in per capita GDP, but means the general improvement in opportunities and standard of living of the average citizen, which can be summed up in the Jamaica 2030 vision as "the place to live, work, and raise families". If we can achieve this vision for the average person, then we can truly say that we have developed as a country.
Once we have defined that vision though, then we need to assess whether we are there, and if not then what is preventing us from getting there. In other words, if we understand where the finish line is (objective), where we are in the race (200 metres in a 400 metre race), and what is preventing us from finishing the race, and we can remove the obstacle then maybe we can complete the race. But of course this assumes that we possess the capacity to do a 400 metre run instead of a 200 metre run, which we have had a better advantage in.
Therefore in removing the obstacles to the objectives, we needed to understand what our potential was. So it makes no sense saying that we want to be as well off as Canadian citizens in 20 years, if our realistic potential is that in 20 years we can only achieve what they have in Barbados. This translates to understanding our comparative advantage and what value can be realistically had.
So when I look at Jamaica, I think that we have a potential to be much better off than we are today in terms of Tourism, Agriculture, ICT, Energy, and Manufacturing. I think that we have the potential to grow in excess of the elusive three per cent, that since 1972 we only saw between 1987 and 1990. And the fact is that if we could have done it between 1987 and 1990, what is stopping us from doing so now that we have a much better brand, athletes, more accepted music, and we are more interlinked with the global marketplace.
This leads us to the question then, if we are capable of growing in excess of three per cent, or the world average, then what prevents us from doing so.
The first thing to do is understand what are the drivers that will cause us to grow beyond three per cent, because even if we remove the obstacles and we do not empower the drivers of growth then we will still not have the growth. So if I provide a clear path for a car but not have a working battery in the car then even with the path cleared the car still won't be able to go, simply because it may have been sitting in a still position so long that the battery is dead.
So while moving the obstacles I also have to ensure that the engine of growth is ready to go. And we have to find out what is required for that growth engine to go. So many have said that now that the obstacles to growth have been removed that the private sector must now come forward and start to grow the economy. I remember someone saying that to me at a seminar, and when I asked if he didn't consider himself the private sector, and if he would invest his pension in a business and start the growth, he said no that he wouldn't risk his life savings. This is exactly what the private sector does, particularly at the SME level.
So the question is, what do we have to do to make people feel safe to risk their hard earned savings, which is what will result in growth. In other words, what would motivate them to have the confidence to invest money that otherwise could have gone to provide for their family, and in particular future income, or pension? The fact is that this is the decision that many entrepreneurs face, and it is therefore not a matter of just saying that some of the obstacles are being removed so now the private sector must invest, as much of the "abstract" private sector many persons love to speak of are ordinary individuals who take extraordinary risks, which amounts to a gamble of their family's well-being.
Dennis Chung is a chartered accountant and the author of the books Charting Jamaica's Economic and Social Development AND Achieving Life's Equilibrium. His blog is dcjottings.blogspot.com