Disrespecting ourselves

Howard Gregory

Sunday, May 18, 2014    

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Last Thursday I attended a public lecture given under the theme: 'The Politics of Tobacco Control: Challenges and Successes' at the Undercroft, University of the West Indies.

The lecture was delivered by the head of the Convention Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Dr Haik Nikogosian. It was extremely informative and dealt with material to which every Jamaican needs to be exposed in order to understand some of the power dynamics within our society and the global environment, both of which seek to challenge and prevent the implementation of policies and programmes which are essential for the health and well-being of our people.

One of the most poignant statements made by the lecturer is that many of the problems confronting nations today in areas like alcohol and tobacco control are no longer national, but global. This then led him to offer to his audience what sounds very much like a mantra, "Global problems require global solutions".

In this regard, he demonstrated how the FCTC has provided for our Government the necessary support and framework for implementing the recently passed legislation restricting smoking in designated public spaces. Local businesses and persons with a vested interest may protest as loudly as possible, but they are unable to make any changes to the thrust of this legislation as it is embodied in the WHO Convention to which the Government is a signatory, and carries with it certain obligations to act and to report to the WHO on the progress toward the full implementation of the articles.

As a Jamaican who supports the banning of smoking in designated public spaces, I am heartened to know that my Government has the international support and ammunition to deal with powerful business interests who have, in the past, been able to use their power in self-serving ways, notwithstanding the consequences for the common good. Having said that, however, I must hasten to point out how appalled I am by the continuing failure of repeated governments to do those things that are blatantly right by way of governance, and in reining in those persons and institutions which have a vested interest in flaunting their corruption or inefficiencies in the face of our people.

Here I speak not of business interests which have the weight of their economic clout and power to throw around, but those who implement and manage public systems which are rife with loopholes for corruption, provisions for providing space for political loyalists, and persons who are lacking in competence, are inefficient, or just downright lazy.

There is hardly a Jamaican who does not have multiple tales of woe to tell regarding their experience in dealing with public institutions while trying to get productive schemes off the ground, or simple tasks performed in an efficient and timely manner. Whenever I have had the opportunity to raise the issue with those in governance, the answers I have received have been quite lame and more of the nature of an apology, which has offered me little consolation.

So it is that Jamaicans have, through the decades, been literally screaming at those in governance to make the obvious and necessary changes, but with little effect.

So, with national voices that are not valued we need to have external voices with the right cadences and credentials deserving of respect, to speak the same words which we have been bellowing, receive the respect of being given a hearing and having their proposals and remedies put into effect with intentionality, commitment and seriousness of purpose.

Under successive leadership of governance we have continued in a state of fantasy and unreality concerning the extent to which we could live with the debt-to-GDP ratio which we were incurring year by year. Notwithstanding the voices from within, it took the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to invoke the rules governing reality assessment to get this nation to wake up to the suicidal path on which we were proceeding.

In recent months, few things have occupied the public media more than the handling of the 381-megawatt power plant bidding process and the selection process by which Hong Kong-based Energy World International (EWI) emerged as the preferred bidder for the construction and operation of a natural gas plant to supply electric power to the Jamaica Public Service Company.

When Contractor General Dirk Harrison made his report to Parliament last September, he indicated that the process was unfair and compromised its integrity.

In the midst of this situation, EWI's handling of some matters regarding their experience, track record in undertaking a project of this magnitude, and their seeming inability to meet certain timelines did not generate confidence in people and led to a groundswell of voices calling for the termination of the contract.

Others sought to pursue what has become a hobby horse for certain elements within the society, namely, questioning the integrity of the contractor general in just about any and every report issued by the OCG.

We conveniently forget that our nation continues to be permeated by corruption in its various manifestations, and that the OCG was established by law in Jamaica in 1986, in response to constant outcries from Jamaicans who wanted to see an end to corruption which was so embedded in the political culture.

The passage of this law was a major step by the Government of the day in promoting greater transparency in governance and in reducing corruption, though not to be forgotten is the fact that it was driven in part by the kind of negative perception and ratings we were receiving from external entities like Integrity International.

However, putting into effect the intent of the law has been a major challenge. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that it has taken an external agency once more to get us, and those in governance, to honour our commitment to erase anything that suggests impropriety.

So, the Inter-American Development Bank not only dropped a bombshell in this regard, by their refusal to participate in the financing of the EWI power plant, but their principled stand has determined the course our Government had to follow. The question has to be raised once more, did we not hear the same position being articulated by our own voices, or do our voices count for naught?

As if these external agencies have taken the lead in the policies, programmes and actions of this nation, and especially those in governance, we have now learnt in recent days in headlines that literally scream at us, even as they embarrass those of us who may still have the capacity to blush, that the "World Bank aims to cut building permit approval time in Jamaica by half".

They have made it clear that the present system is inimical to good business and frustrates local and overseas agencies which are interested in investing in Jamaica. They cite data to indicate that it takes about 135 days for local approval compared with the regional best performance indicator of about 40 days. The World Bank has set a target of reducing the time it takes by about 50 per cent.

It is interesting that on the same day that we were learning of this intention by the World Bank, we were being fed what is supposed to be good news that, after having made a submission to the St Thomas Parish Council 11 years ago for a project that would involve the improvement to the Morant Bay Market by the Paul Bogle Foundation, and having received the necessary approvals of the various relevant agencies years ago, the head of the foundation has been informed that the parish council has now granted approval.

Did we need the World Bank to tell us what needs to be done? If there is any good news in this for us, it is that once the World Bank has stated its intention in these terms, it will be done, as those in governance will have no choice but to follow this directive, there being consequences for a failure to do so.

It will certainly bring a sense of relief to Jamaicans that we will no longer have to endure the delays, inefficiencies, and corruption which have been a part of the system of delays in the approval of building plans.

The current uproar regarding the decision of the Jamaica Public Service management to cut the number of hours that power is provided to some communities in an effort to combat electricity theft also raises questions concerning our political will in addressing national problems. The level of theft of electricity has been mushrooming over the years, and is particularly manifest in communities which are partisan in their politics.

The status quo has operated as if this is some kind of entitlement or privilege which must be borne by the investors who own the JPS. If those in governance and the political parties want to offer a government-funded provision, then so be it.

The foreign majority shareholders, Korean and Japanese, are making it plain, by their actions, that the current level of theft of electricity is unacceptable, and are no doubt preempting further action and pressure that will come from external sources to make it clear that what officialdom and citizens at many levels have winked at, cannot continue.

At the same time, it does little to remove the shame from our eyes that it takes external forces to let us do what we know needs to be done, what we have talked about ad infinitum, but lack the political will to implement. This is especially embarrassing when it is not a case of having to overcome global forces with economic clout to make these changes, but our own lack of respect for ourselves at the level of the citizenry and that of governance.

— Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands





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