Columns

Minister's foreign travel? What a trip!

Franklin JOHNSTON

Friday, February 28, 2014    

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THE news that some $117 million was spent over two years on Government overseas travel was disclosed to Her Majesty's loyal Opposition and published to the nation — now, that's transparency. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller was criticised by Andrew Holness, Oposition leader, and that's okay. We pay Cabinet to govern and the Opposition to keep their feet to the fire — Hallelujah, the system works! As life goes, this is "monkey money", but it's a lot to us and their vigilance is necessary.

The $117m is large enough to freak out people who don't travel but, as a diaspora member at Cedar Grove Academy gala opening last week observed, $117m is only US$1m in "real money". Airline tickets in the USA cost less than 10 years ago. So our problem is not cost, but that we do not produce and export enough; so our dollar is not worth 1 cent US. We have let down our dollar.

An island is unique in that all travel is foreign travel, ergo air travel. Prime Minister Cameron of the UK can travel to 40 countries in his car. We must take a plane to go 40 minutes to Haiti. We have a history of travel and were among the first to get air travel. But, as we all came from another country to be connected, and "cutting edge" is in our DNA.

Government travel should be modest and prudent, as it is our lifeline. Yet we must have perspective and proportion. We did not prosper Jamaica, so the State can't get enough taxes to help the poor or pay debt. Does Singapore's PM travel to seek aid and loans to feed his people? No! China gave us a garden to cost over $200m. Is the $117m excess? A minister went on a trip paid for by the host and is gifted a secondary school and scholarships worth $500-600m. Judicious travel is good. The $6m for the trip to Ethiopia is a month's pay of a bank executive. Two years, one month and 17 days ago I landed in a ministry and my boss had a conniption. Why? A property in St Elizabeth which the ministry inherited had a $50-m overrun on repairs — two months! He was furious, but to some "ah nuh nutten!" For months I refused to buy 'icy mint' for $20 or toothpaste at $600, but reality got me. I hear of instances of $200m variations on projects. But those who commit the error do not pay, we do. Half the money we owe is for overruns, not value received. God help us! Ministers need to travel, but, please, no joyrides.

A visit is potent bonding for leaders. What did Haile Selassie bring here that could not come by FedEx? Yet, only the emperor, king of kings would have been accepted by our people. He inspired us and lifted some in identity crisis. The Bible records travel by three kings from the Orient to greet a baby king in Bethlehem; could He even remember them? No, but priceless. Travel by heads of state both real and of legends. The embassies sent by the Queen of Sheba were not effective until she visited King Solomon in person and grabbed his nuts. Rulers travel to wage war, ease famine, make peace, or as bidden by God. Chinese dynasties, Persian sultans, pharoahs and caesars travels are recorded. Life was different then, as the masses saw the army, harem, mandarins, vizers, servants return with the looted grain, gold, slaves, wenches. They roared at the city gates in approval. We have no such thrill as the loot secured by our leaders comes by EFT, FDI and 40-ft steel containers. In the play Aladdin, staged by the Jamaica Junior Theatre at Rex Nettleford's UWI, we saw how the Sultana travelled lavishly — minus the elephants! Kenny, are we so poor the Zoo had none to lend? There is precedent and good sense in ministers' foreign travel.

The paradox is travel increases in direct proportion to our decline. That is, the poorer we get the more we have to travel. If you owe a man money the worst thing you can do is avoid him — stay in touch. At times just to see you is enough. Those who owe more have to travel more. Singapore's leaders do not need to travel; nor did Barbados's until 46 months ago. We sing "I owe, I owe, it's off to NY I go". So here's the solution: Pay off the debt, produce our needs, and we can cut State travel to zero. People, you have power. Leaders' trips abroad increase in sync with fiscal desperation and a devaluing dollar. But we can fix it. Will we?

Is travel value for money? Yes! A large number of the trips are paid for by donors. We pay for culture trips which have no visible payback, just as there is no profit in visiting your Mom in the Bronx. But, by God it helps! Here's a secret "banks (or leaders) do not lend money to nations, they lend to people". What? Yes, all poor nations make the same pledges and have the same puffed-up paperwork, but only the right vibe gets the final nod — a confident smile and bold sincere hug may be the tipping point. Now you know why you did not get the loan. People help those they like, but how can they like us if they don't know or see us? Do you ask a man you don't know for a borrows? No sportsman, entertainer can make it without travel. Cash is not here, nor is the "cutting edge". We are passionate fans who can't buy DVDs or afford bleachers seats, so they have to go abroad. Cabinet could travel all over Jamaica but only foreign travel can get us the chicken back we need to survive. That is as raw as it gets.

Cabinet's success is based on teamwork and the best person for the job must travel. It must be easier for Peter to do deals after an opening act like Portia. A team must play to its strengths. When his time comes, Andrew will travel no less; but without a good opening act, Audley's missions will be prickly. Emotional intelligence is a gift. Portia is as disarming abroad as here, and even non-friends (she has enemies?) can't resist a hug. The truth is, it's not about Portia; leaders do not deal with "number two". Where I work, visitors want the minister only. If their pay is late, being told to "see the payroll clerk" doesn't work — "No, I want the minister!" Are foreigners any different? Travel is necessary. We have debts and must keep faith with and "show face" to creditors. John the Baptist paved the way for Jesus, and so does our PM for Peter et al, who do the heavy lifting. The team is key. Peter has smarts and gravitas but in our present sink hole if we did not have Portia we would have had to invent her. People feel dissed if she does not make much of them, yet she is one, they are many.

Finally, air travel is highly overrated. It's not all fun. Don't be "redeye". If you want to travel join the foreign service — romantic at first, but hard as any job. Travel can be grief. Can you endure strange tastes — frog legs, snails, dog steak, raw fish, bush meat? A new day, new country, new people; bureaucrats invade your private space; are names and titles OK? Can I fart? Customs to observe? Home is the best 5-Star hotel: snow or sand? The heart is in pain, so rich food tastes as dust. Rise, pop a pill, shine. Next day the same again. The dis-ease of a strange bed; no familiar hand to fix a pillow, not even the comfort of four feet.

Politicians have screwed us over, but we get good value from Portia — a patriotic empath of pulchritude who serves tirelessly and with aplomb. God save our gracious prime minister! Stay conscious, my friend!

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education. franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com

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