THE rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer is a truism that is wearing thin by repetition, but it nevertheless remains true. In fact, it can't be repeated often enough. The question is whether those who can make the statement false are prepared to do something extraordinary to make the poor very much less poor. In this context, one wonders if the government and the IMF can reach an accord that will start to take Jamaica out of a state of persistent poverty of the broad mass of people through an effective and efficient education system.
We see a very small percentage of the population accumulating wealth at astounding and incredible levels while the masses are regressing in their state of poverty, not because they are lazy and illiterate, but mainly because social and economic systems keep them in that state. However, through a relevant and modern education system and sound government economic policy, many can transition out of poverty and then contribute to sustainable economic development. Of course, efforts to this end have been made in the past, but with little or no success.
From experiences in the past, the IMF conditionalities for providing support for balance-of-payment problems have always been biased against the social services, and education in particular. The end result has often been increasing levels of poverty. Those who were old enough can hardly forget the experiences of IMF policies in the 1970s and 1980s, as they related to the education sector here and elsewhere in the world. Governments had to sacrifice educational expansion and development, in order to secure balance-of-payment support from the IMF.
In most cases, the situation in the countries got worse as they got trapped into a vicious cycle of foreign debt burden that in effect made the poor poorer and the rich richer, both internally and externally. Of course, the situation in many countries was exacerbated by incoherent and conflicting domestic economic policies as well as mismanagement.
Today some admirers or apologists of the IMF are saying two things. They are saying that the IMF now has a more "human" face and its conditionalities are not to be viewed as too harsh, but as necessary. More perplexing is the suggestion that it is the borrowing country that offers the harsh conditions that are ultimately agreed upon. However, I find it difficult to believe that a country would, without some form of duress, offer crippling conditions that are guaranteed to hurt mostly the poor in the long run.
The situation gets a little more confusing when some government spokespersons claim that the programme presented is not dictated, but is offered because the reforms contained are "necessary". One notices, however, that when the programme fails, the negotiators try to wash their hands clean and blame the lending institution. But the IMF usually returns the courtesies. It often blames the borrower for indiscipline in not adhering to the steps outlined, which could lead to social unrest. I think the truth lies in the middle. Some conditions are dictated and some bearable ones are offered voluntarily. But no one wants to admit that "it's my fault" (IMF?) for any programme failure.
In the present negotiations, it is not only hoped but expected that the education sector will not be placed in a situation that it cannot contribute to the solution of the problem; that is to say, it cannot help the poor to come out of their abject condition gradually. We know that the poor's route is through a good and an effective education. Since the country hopes to achieve Vision 2030, the negotiators with the IMF must do everything possible to ensure that the education system does not receive a crippling blow. In fact, educational development must constitute part of the centrepiece of a negotiated agreement. Is this utopian?
But the education system that we try to develop and preserve must be characterised not only by academic excellence but also by moral and ethical excellence. Some crimes are committed by some of the most brilliant academic achievers who have no ethical and moral values. Through white-collar crime, they join the ranks of the super-rich, but they will tell you that their riches come by hard work! Of course, the poor have been getting poorer precisely because of the actions of some from the highly educated elite who lack a moral compass and will do anything to cheat the poor and unsuspecting to get rich.
This brings to mind immediately the work of the National Integrity Action Limited. As a watchdog organisation it is to be highly commended for the work it is doing. In fact, its function is fundamental to national development and the tenets of its principles should be incorporated into curriculums in our schools.
I believe the next programme with the IMF should aim at producing a turning point for our education system which can confidently lead the economic and social recovery thrust. Such a system will build a culture for high academic, vocational, ethical and moral education. Empowered and accountable educational institutions would be given the tools to make this happen. Really, an IMF agreement that protects education, as defined here, will help in reducing income disparity through raising the incomes of those at the bottom at a faster rate.