Public discourse in Jamaica — My alternative reality

Public discourse in Jamaica — My alternative reality

Barbara CARBY

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

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I was puzzled by the number of persons who concluded from my recent articles that I love pit bulls. There I was feeling most content that I had presented a reasoned, evidencebased argument for legislation to manage dog - human interaction, only to be severely disillusioned. For the record, I have nothing against pit bulls, rotties, dobies, Heinz57 varieties, or any other dog, but my preference lies with a certain morphology — long coat, prick or semi-prick ears, fringed tail, medium head filled with masses of brain power and intelligence. But I digress. This article is really about public discourse in Jamaica.

As I reflected on the puzzling situation mentioned above, a colleague pointed out that, in Jamaica, much public discourse takes place without reference to data or evidence. I was forced to agree, but this led me to start visualising an alternative reality.

Take, for example, this proposal for the development in the Portland Bight Protected Area. The potential benefits of such a project are being emphasised. In my alternative reality, a discerning public, while accepting that there are benefits, would pose questions related to the possible cost of such a development. What is the economic value, the cultural value, the ecological value of the natural resource base in the protected area? What might the social costs of the development be? What effect will the altering of the sea floor topography have on Portland Bight and the adjacent coastline in normal conditions and in hurricane conditions? What unintended consequences might we have to face in the future? Is the usual run-of-themill environmental impact assessment adequate for a development of this magnitude in a protected area, or should the assessment process be more rigorous? Questions such as these would lead to robust public debate and would, hopefully, influence Government to take an evidencebased approach to its decisionmaking.

This evidence-based approach would include research, analysis of stakeholder opinion, modelling, cost/benefit analyses, and reviews of local and expert knowledge. It would involve interdisciplinary dialogue among the social, natural, life and physical sciences, as well as dialogue with communities possessing anecdotal evidence.

Remembering the lofty goals enunciated in Vision 2030, and the rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights, the Government would see this as an opportunity for applying the principles of participatory governance and would take advantage of the considerable expertise available in order to ensure that it negotiated the most benefit for the country at the least cost. An engaged public would put aside partisan biases as it participated in public dialogue.

In this alternative reality, the importance of weighing all the evidence objectively before making a decision would be appreciated. Public discourse would take place in an atmosphere respectful of all opinions and would focus on issues, not on personalities. Dissenting opinions would be respected, welcomed even, and anyone could voice such an opinion without fear of being attacked.

So could this alternative reality one day be the reality in Jamaica? I wish I could say 'I think so'. But truthfully, on present evidence, I can see it happening only in my dreams.

Dr Barbara Carby serves the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre at University of the West Indies, Mona, is an animal lover and a certified dog trainer in the US.

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