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No growth zone

Grace Virtue

Wednesday, October 24, 2012    

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Poverty, ignorance and discrimination restrict growth.

For some, it is obvious. For others, not so much, which is probably why Bill Clinton saw the need to address the subject at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina in September.

He was speaking to a Democratic audience, but his sardonic tone said his real targets were Republicans with warped views of women, minorities, immigrants, gays, Muslims, the poor, and essentially anyone who is not male, white and Christian.

Clinton, the 42nd president of the United Sates, and a native of the American South, was not born into privilege. In fact, parts of his childhood were gritty enough for it to be compared to that of a child from a struggling black family rather than an average white one. That, and the fact that his grandfather, a grocer with whom young Bill lived for a while, ignored the harsh culture of segregation and embraced people of all races, contributed to the view among some that Bill Clinton was America's first “black” president.

Clinton's understanding of poverty and marginalisation no doubt played a role in his post-presidency formation of the Clinton Global Initiative, committed to improving the quality of life of the world's most vulnerable.

His impassioned speech in support of President Barack Obama's re-election struck many sobering notes, but for me those six words resonated. I was thinking, of course, about Jamaica, the place I still consider home; how true the words were of our context, and how our persistent failure to recognise and address those problems continue to inhibit growth and perpetuate the historic challenges of social and economic stagnation.

Take the issue of poverty.

Why are so many Jamaicans poor?

Because they enjoy the indignities, the put-downs, the absence of things that money can buy: good food, good education, competent health care, comfortable transportation, homes in neighbourhoods where trash is collected regularly and sleeping spaces are not shared with scavenging animals, rats and cockroaches?

Because they are lazy, uninspired and unwilling to do anything to better their condition?

Because they prefer a handout to the dignity of work?

General Colin Powell, accomplished son of Jamaican immigrants, explaining his views on Affirmative Action – policies that take select variables into account to help marginalised groups – noted that American culture celebrates people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. He recognised, though, that there are vast numbers of African Americans especially, who have no bootstraps – largely on account of historic discrimination and their continued effects.

In a 2002 analysis, Franklin Raines, former CEO of Fannie Mae, estimated that closing the wealth gap between whites and blacks (traceable to slavery and racism) would mean two million more high school degrees for African Americans, two million more college degrees, nearly two million more professional and managerial jobs, US$200 billion more in income, US$760 billion more in home equity value, US$200 billion more in the stock market, US$120 billion more in retirement funds, US$80 billion more in the bank – an overall US$1 trillion more in wealth.

As in the United States, any serious examination of poverty in Jamaica must include an examination of the consequences of plantation slavery.

Poverty is cyclical and unless deliberate efforts are made to break it, it will largely perpetuate itself. Failure to deal effectively with those historic issues is compounded now by globalisation, increased competition for limited resources and a global economy that has been stubbornly sluggish since 2008. With large numbers of people struggling to meet their basic needs, pervasive anti-social behaviour, and continued failure in governance in key sectors, our country seems ominously close to a complete breakdown. Tenuous, indeed, are the ties that bind!

Ignorance and poverty feed into each other. Ignorance does not merely mean “not knowing”. It means lack of comprehension and a corresponding inability to contextualise and act strategically based on sound judgement. This is not a malady afflicting only the man in the street; it is pervasive in the private and public sector and accounts for poor leadership, lack of innovation, limited production and limited growth. While the poor are unable to help themselves, many of those with resources, or who are in positions of power, suffer from a poverty of imagination, of foresight and of a social conscience.

Naturally, we compound the problem by discriminating against those least able to help themselves. Our education system embodies this in many ways; it is a primary perpetrator of a rubbishy elitist culture, and at multiple levels, discriminates against rural children, the urban poor and the disabled. In the business sector, many bosses will not hire people from certain parts of town or individuals with any kind of disability, even if they are fully able to perform the job at hand.

In this regard, Maia Chung, founder of the Maia Chung Autism and Disabilities Foundation, recently made a most courageous call: for affirmative action for the disabled. It went right over the heads of our “business leaders”, most of whom seem to believe that real transformation can happen with so many people outside the mainstream of socio-economic activities.

Persistent marginalisation of large cohorts actually means less production, less spending power and less profit for businesses, and it reduces opportunity for interaction among different segments as well as genuine cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Ultimately, the more people that are driven into the ranks of the hard-core anti-social and dispossessed, the more the rest of the society become targets; the more strained the social fabric becomes; and the more self-perpetuating the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.

To achieve growth, among many must-dos, we need to urgently and deliberately work to engender a culture that affirms the intrinsic worth of every human being, uplifts everyone, and oppresses no one!

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a public affairs expert, social justice advocate and independent scholar based in Washington, DC.

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