Fifty-Fifty: Critical Reflections in a Time of Uncertainty (1)

Claude Robinson

Sunday, August 26, 2012    

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WITH the euphoria from the 50th Independence anniversary celebrations and the tremendous success of our athletes at the London Olympics disappearing fast, the top news stories last week were stark reminders that Jamaica's fundamental problems had only been temporarily set aside to savour the moment.

Dr Gladstone Hutchinson, director general of the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), and Bank of Jamaica Governor Brian Wynter reported that economic growth for the first half of the year was flat, and estimates for the remainder of the financial year 2012-2013 were just as bleak.

Official unemployment figures, released last week, were the worst in over 10 years; and the dollar showed a bit of slippage against the US dollar amidst continued uncertainty about when the Government will ink a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), something which is widely accepted as necessary to turn around what feels like a sense of drift in the country at the present time.

It is also widely held that an agreement is unlikely without the Government taking prior action to rein in public sector spending and reform public sector pension arrangements so that the workers make a contribution to their pensions.

In further bad news, Government announced what I interpret as disastrous results in the recent CSEC examinations, especially in Math and English, despite the spin placed on the data by the leadership of the Jamaica Teachers' Association, the trade union representing most of the island's teachers. The country has a vital stake in coming to grips with the crisis and work collectively for a solution.

As the country began the journey towards the next 50 years it was fitting that SALISES — the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies of the University of the West Indies — should host a special conference to commemorate 50 years of Independence in the Commonwealth Caribbean as both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago mark the milestone.

Titled 'Fifty-Fifty: Critical Reflections in a Time of Uncertainty', the conference held at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel, August 20-24, brought together more than 200 leading scholars and practitioners ranging across many disciplines to "explore the entire half-century Independence experience, its successes and failures and its best and worst practices as well as the possible alternative directions for the next 50 years," according to Professor Brian Meeks, head of SALISES and chairman of the conference.

In formal papers, panels and roundtable discussions, participants explored a wide range of questions. Some of them, as listed on the SALISES website, included:

* Was the choice of single-country independence as opposed to Federation or some alternative option of integration, the right one?

* What has been the experience with the adopted form of written Westminster constitutions?

* What has been the local, regional and international challenges faced by the state in its paramount task of providing a reasonably secure environment for its citizens?

* What were the critical features of the various post-Independence economic models and how successful were they, individually and as a whole, in addressing typical markers of 'self-sustaining development', such as high levels of savings, capital formation, employment creation, the forging of sectoral linkages and the widening of the productive base?

* What have been the social policy experiences, including those in health care, education and the general provision of social and community services?

* How have historic gender imbalances and questions of gender equity, been addressed at the level of policy and in social relations?

* What has been the role of popular culture in the Independence experience?

The brilliant academic line-up was supported by practising politicians like prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines Dr Ralph Gonsalves and Jamaica's Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, who were scheduled to address the final day on Friday; the minister of finance and planning Dr Peter Phillips, who gave the keynote at the opening Monday; and British member of parliament (with Jamaican roots) Diane Abbott.

Given the value of understanding the past as a basis for plotting the future, it was not surprising that a lot of attention was devoted to reviewing and analysing the experiences and major outcomes of the first 50 years.

Over the period, our liberal democracy has matured and, minor hiccups notwithstanding, Caribbean people have peacefully changed governments at regular intervals; we have affirmed our cultural heritage and some cultural products — mainly music — are globally competitive. That's also true of sports.

The same cannot be said of economic outcomes generally, despite growth in some sectors and large inflows of foreign direct investment. So, a central question was the extent to which political Independence had been able to meet the economic challenges across the English-speaking Caribbean environment half-a-century ago: unemployment, poverty, inequality, dependence and openness.

Peter Phillips lamented the extent of poverty and inequality in Jamaica, including "inter-generational transfer of poverty" through the prevalence of teenage pregnancy and single-parent households.

We also have what he called "a two-tiered education system" manifested in the vastly different outcomes of traditional and non-traditional high schools. In the latter institutions, some 75 per cent of the students do not achieve the basic school-leaving certification, he said.

Why has Jamaica lagged behind some other developing countries that were below us on the economic development ladder 50 years ago?

While there are obviously many answers and explanations for the poor economic performance, the more urgent question is: Given that we ought not to repeat the same mistakes, what are the 'possible alternative directions for the next 50 years' and where will the leaders come from to drive the process?

An editorial in this newspaper last week argued that "... the root of our regional problems is the crisis of Caribbean thought. There is an inextricable link between thought and public policy and the state of the Caribbean. If the Caribbean is in crisis it is due either to bad policy, eg excessive external borrowing or poor implementation of otherwise good policy, eg regional economic integration. If policy is bad, it is the direct result of bad ideas, eg nationalisation of foreign companies or the absence of ideas, eg economic growth strategies".

Of course, Caribbean economic thought has been closely linked to policy in the region. In one roundtable, 'Reflections on Economic Policy, Research and Teaching in Post-Independent Jamaica', the point was made that Caribbean economists have influenced policy for a long time.

Among others, Professor Sir Arthur Lewis was the intellectual author of ideas of import substitution manufacturing from the 1950s; Norman Girvan's work on the bauxite/alumina sector and transnational was influential on policy; George Beckford guided the development of the plantation model; and economists like Alister MacIntyre, Havelock Brewster and CY Thomas were important to the development of the regional economic integration movement in the 1960s.

At this time of challenge in the Caribbean, and in the context of the crisis in capitalism, I agree with the Observer editors that, "The Caribbean people need their scholars now more than ever." This is one of the issues to be explored next week as we look at suggestions to transform an important academic conference from insight and analysis to new policy directions for these times.



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