Columns

Jamaica is wasting away

Lloyd B SMITH

Tuesday, June 03, 2014    

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I have often wondered why Jamaica does not have a Ministry of Waste Management. This would not have to do with solid waste disposal but with the wanton abuse or misuse of resources. Too often public officials — because there is no meaningful recourse for accountability or sanctions — attempt to put a square pole in a round hole. And, what's worse, they will tell you that they have succeeded with the help of so-called technocrats or consultants.

Take our spidery road network. I am told that, outside of Japan, Jamaica has the largest number of roads per square mile in the world. Every year, billions of dollars of borrowed money is spent on repairing or resurfacing roadways across the island. When I was a boy I was told that a well-paved road was done in such a way that it would remain in good condition for at least five years. Today, a road that is repaired today rarely lasts a year before potholes begin to appear.

Of course, there is a very close relationship that exists between road repairs and politics. Almost daily on prime time news on both major national television channels there are demonstrations by angry residents bemoaning the terrible state of their roads. And the members of Parliament, as well as councillors, plus the Government, the relevant minister — not to mention the prime minister — get all the blame. It follows, therefore, that any politician who can satisfactorily fix most if not all the roads in his or her constituency is likely to do well at the polls.

Contractors are expected to give back something to the politicians to help them to maintain a viable political machinery. The party in power is expected to benefit most, by way of who gets work, so by the time the project is finished corners have to be cut and the taxpayer is short-changed during the process because of wanton corruption. In this context, very often the roadworks do not necessarily follow the original and prescribed specifications. Cambering is not done so that the rainwater can run off easily from the surface into the gutters and drains, less surfacing material is used and, in many instances, no proper drainage is put in place. In this vein, one may well ask two very potent questions: 1) Are civil engineers being fully utilised in the planning and implementation of works? and 2) Is there a quality control mechanism in place to ensure that, at the end of the project, there is value for money?

Then again, very few road projects are finished on time and within budget. Overruns and prolonged delays are the order of the day. Who pays for this? The taxpayer, of course.

Another vexing issue is to see a newly paved road being dug up by the National Water Commission (NWC) and is then left in that condition for months, sometimes years. One gathers that there is now an understanding between the NWC and the National Works Agency to deal with this perennial and very vexing problem, but to date there has been more talk than action.

The NWC is no stranger to waste, as repeatedly it has been revealed that some 60-odd per cent of the water it distributes goes to waste. The bottom line is that theft, waste and corruption are eating away at the nation's ability to become sufficiently economically independent, and we are not doing enough to decapitate this three-headed monster. Yes, there has been much lip service, but very little by way of consistent, persistent, and courageous action has taken place. For one thing, it would mean the expending of much-needed political capital at the government level. After all, it is no secret that much of the waste in this country is to be found in government entities, namely the civil service. Truth be told, if we could cut the amount of waste in this country then the savings would be enormous, which could then be used to provide many well-needed goods and services.

Too often I have heard people say so and so belong to Government so it does not matter if it goes to waste. Just look at how public buildings, amenities and assets (including schools) are frequently vandalised or pillaged. Any audit done of government offices would point to a great deal of waste in energy, stationery and time. Pilferage of state property, from toilet paper to crockery to furniture, you name it, is commonplace; yet we dare to talk about managing with efficiency as a prerequisite for economic survival.

Unfortunately, there has been much talk and a great deal of writing and commentary in the media about corruption, but, alas, not enough about waste. So, while we agonise over the International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal, and how we have to "bob and weave" to pass the quarterly tests, and while we get excited about the logistics hub's buzz, the harsh reality is that 'Jah Kingdom' is literally going to waste.

Regrettably, it is most times difficult to quantify waste, as it is intertwined with corruption and slovenliness at the workplace, inefficiencies, lack of oversight, as well as transparency. A critical area such as energy can be quantitatively analysed, and one is happy to see that the Government is moving in the direction of setting up a protocol that will ensure that long-lasting and beneficial energy-saving mechanisms are put in place. However, the pace at which this is going is much too slow and not sufficiently focused. Ways and means must be found to get the average citizen to buy into this very important aspect of national life. Indeed, we all need to pay attention to the old adage which says "waste not, want not".

Tragically, there is another area of waste that continues to plague us, and that is in the area of human development. The sad truth is that so many of our young men and women are going to waste because the State has failed them. I have no doubt that the cynics will argue that in writing this article I may be wasting my time. What if they are true? Dog will most certainly "nyam our supper!"

Lloyd B Smith is a member of Parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government. Comments: lloydbsmith@hotmail.com

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