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Richard Byles, the private sector, and faith in the future

EVERTON PRYCE

Sunday, January 19, 2014    

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THE old ideological tussle conducted around the banners of private sector versus public sector seems set to break out all over again in Jamaica, as if given the chronically anaemic state of our economy the country has any real choice in the matter.

I have come to this conclusion in light of the dismissive manner in which certain powerful voices in the private sector have reacted to the invitation from one of their own for greater and immediate levels of private sector investments in the country.

Richard Byles, president of Sagicor, took the bold and sensible step last week of inviting the private sector, of which his company is a major player, to substitute caution with confidence and rise to the challenge of investing boldly now in the potential, people and future of Jamaica as the country's proverbial "engine of growth".

He made this call against the background of the widely agreed successful implementation to date by the Government of the fiscal and structural reforms dictated by the IMF, which was long called for by various private sector players.

Mr Byles was speaking in his capacity as chairman of the public sector-appointed Economic Programme Oversight Committee (EPOC), and clearly wanted to signal that it is time to stop the enormous wasting of time and valuable energy as a nation bickering about the ideal modality and policy format for achieving growth in the economy to ensure our survival into the future.

The EPOC chairman, like most of us, understands that Jamaica is a mere 51 years out of over three centuries of colonialism with Britain as the 'Mother Country', and that our development must now take place within the parameters of such constraints.

If our economy is to grow, the private sector cannot wait for the ideal road or highway to be constructed before it engages its "engine" and drives towards growth. It has been doing this for far too long, and now that the 21st Century has caught up with it, it is time for it to learn how to chew gum and walk straight at the same time

The Jamaica Stock Exchange has signalled that it understands this intelligent pitch and will be mounting its ninth regional investments and capital markets conference in search of solutions towards collaboration between the public and private sectors under the theme: 'From Productivity to Prosperity -- Regional Survival and Growth through Investments'.

The conference is set for January 21-23 in Kingston, and the array of speakers scheduled to participate is a study in calculated balance. Political leaders, public servants, international civil servants, academics and entrepreneurs are all on the bill.

And in this context of new, constructive and delicate effort of collaboration for achieving economic growth between the sectors, the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce will be hosting a planned two-day symposium at the Jamaica Conference Centre on January 21-22 to explore the real investment and business opportunities of the proposed multi-billion dollar global logistics hub project.

It promises to feature a powerful supporting cast of representatives from Singapore, Canada, and Panama, as well as the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank.

With this in mind, the claim by Gary 'Butch' Hendrickson, chairman of Continental Bakery Company, that the environment for private sector investment remains "unsatisfactory", and the continuing but understandable lamentation by Brian Pengelley of the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association about the slide in the value of the dollar and what he refers to as an environment of unfavourable tax policies, give the impression that the Government has not been particularly assertive in addressing these matters, albeit within the constraints of the prevailing IMF programme.

But in view of our economic environment where production and productivity have consistently declined over the past two decades at least, and new motivations have got to be found urgently to bring to plenitude the prosperity our people desire, it is almost unforgivable that these powerful private sector interests should choose to indulge at this time in exaggerated claims for increased facilitation of their sector by the Government.

For when all is said and done, no one in the private or public sector should fail to remember that the call for sacrifice and greater participation by all Jamaicans in the reconstruction of the economy -- with the attendant consequences for pain to be followed by gain -- was never designed to bring satisfaction to simply one sector of the society. The struggle to rescue the Jamaican economy, as I understand it, is about nation-building, first and foremost.

But whether one can build a nation on the basis of a lack of self-confidence, and a failure to recommit ourselves to what is the raison d'être for our very existence as Jamaicans, is open to question. After all, the notion of being a "Jamaican" is still fairly new to us as a people and needs desperately to be promoted.

I hope Mr Byles and the Administration understand that the attempt to have the transformational ideas geared towards the economy permeate the private sector as a group will entail a "struggle" in strong debate, sometimes with acrimony and always with a determination on all sides to win.

This, in large measure, is going to be a struggle with ourselves as much as one against mental lethargy and the inertias of our background which continue to play havoc with our vision of the future.

But in this struggle, sensible Jamaicans should unite with Mr Byles. He is heeding Norman Manley's advice to "have faith in the future", and he is doing this amidst those for whom the future is in doubt.

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