Different outcomes require different thinking, different actions
Now that 2013 is behind us, every well-thinking Jamaican must be hoping that 2014 will be a better year for the country.
This is not to say that 2013 was all bad: The economy recorded a modest gain of 0.5 per cent in the September quarter, and the smart money is betting that we will end 2013/2014 in positive territory. It was small but significant, because it was on the back of seven quarters of negative growth.
Also, all the major benchmarks under the agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been achieved; Dr Henry Lowe and his collaborators in the business of medical marijuana gave us a hint of what is possible when we combine new thinking with traditional products and new technologies; and Shanique Myrie's victory over the Barbadian state showed that courage will get better results than griping about enemies fighting you down.
The Administration held out the tantalising prospect of an economic game changer from Chinese investment in a logistics hub, though it's far from a done deal; and we are not sure what is on offer.
These and other positive signs do not change the fact that 2013 was a very difficult year for most Jamaicans. Indeed, in her New Year message last week, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said she shares the pain of Jamaicans facing economic hardships, pointing out that she is aware of the increasing prices for goods and services, as she also goes to the supermarket.
What the positives tell us is that if we want to get better results than those we have experienced in many areas of our national or personal lives, then we have to think and act differently.
Tessanne Chin's triumph as The Voice has, naturally, brought great joy and pride to a country and a people in great need of something to be proud of; but it did not prove that Jamaicans are capable of anything simply because we are Jamaicans. Miss Chin proved once again that Jamaicans, like other people, can realise their potential and capitalise on their talents when they put in the hard work to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
We will not become celebrated voices, but with a commitment to work harder at our respective crafts we can become better teachers, carpenters, reporters, drivers, judges, technicians — you get the picture.
As we wish each other a happier new year than the old one, each of us will have our own to-do list at the top of the 2014 agenda. My list of areas in which I would like to see changes in the trajectory of history includes the economy, crime-fighting, education management and our political arrangements. We do not have to repeat every bad outcome of the past.
Some priorities for 2014
The case for different outcomes in the education sector cannot be overstated. At CXC, less than 20 per cent of Jamaican students pass five subjects, including English and maths, at a single sitting. Of the more than 260,000 papers written by Jamaicans in the CXC exams, our students fail in about a third of them. That's the benchmark.
So they have a lot of catching up to do. Perhaps the most important single step is having the right leadership in every school. That's why it's incredible that some principals are resisting training opportunities that will improve their ability to improve teaching and learning.
The minister of education cannot back down on this one; hopefully, he will get the support of the Jamaica Teachers' Association, unless they wish to be cast as part of the problem rather than the solution.
On the crime-fighting front, Prime Minister Simpson Miller must ensure that her minister of national security delivers on her pledge that the Government will redouble its efforts in 2014. She has to walk the talk.
The Government is putting a lot of faith in the passage and implementation of what has been dubbed the anti-gang legislation. They say gangs are at the root of murder and organised crime. If they believe it they should deal with it.
Regrettably, much of the talk about going after violent criminal gangs has been mired in the controversial Clause 15, which criminalises songs with lyrics glorifying guns, and others that promote or facilitate the criminal activities of an organised criminal network or gang. Offenders could get jail time of between five and 30 years.
I cannot claim knowledge of the dancehall music scene. But some of what I hear sounds like the promotion of criminality. This is unacceptable and must be dealt with. But we already have laws against incitement to commit murder and other crimes; and obscenity laws cover a multitude of the sins in the songs.
Find the solution there rather than passing new laws that are not likely to be implemented. Worse, it diverts effort from the real purpose of the law.
Meanwhile, the economy remains the area of greatest concern. An enduring image of 2013 was of a distraught Finance Minister Peter Phillips after he had inked the latest agreement with the IMF. This came after the previous deal with the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government collapsed and the fund clearly put the new minister through the wringer.
"I would not want to put any other generation of Jamaican officials through the process I have just gone through... But that is the price you have to pay when you allow things to get to the stage" where the Jamaican economy reached after 50 years of Independence and numerous missed opportunities, Dr Phillips said.
Dr Phillips was negotiating from a position of weakness — a debt of more than $1.7 trillion representing a debt-to-GDP ratio of 140 per cent; minuscule economic growth over four decades; an expensive and inefficient bureaucracy. The days of borrowing to mask our own failings had come to an end.
Now the Administration is in the midst of implementing a tough economic programme, including squeezing recurrent spending even in the face of hardship on the poorest segments of the population.
And there's more to come. Revenues are trailing expectations stated in the 2013/14 Budget, and word at year-end was that more taxes are likely by early 2014 to top up the flow. News reports said the finance minister and governor of the Bank of Jamaica Brian Wynter made the admission in their latest quarterly communications with the managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde.
This, on top of adopting "further debt reduction" strategies to bring the debt to the programmed 96 per cent of GDP by 2020; pursuing additional steps such as tax reform, including lowering the rates on personal income, broadening the base and bringing more products within the ambit of the general consumption tax; and requiring public sector workers to start contributing to their pensions.
In her New Year's message, the prime minister said there is no alternative; the Administration will stay the course and she wants us, as citizens and consumers, to do the same to secure medium and long-term benefits from the necessary economic adjustments.
Going forward, we need to see some different actions, including the prime minister being more forthcoming in explaining why we have to endure the pain and point us to a better future; the public must be constantly updated; and we should see evidence that the parties in the social partnership are actually working to create good paying jobs. Have a productive new year!