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The courage to change and the burden left behind by Christine Lagarde

EVERTON PRYCE

Sunday, July 06, 2014    

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OVER the past week, the Government — which needs all the time it can muster to attend to the intractable problems of unemployment, debt stress, stagnant productivity, rising levels of poverty, and other ills — has been faced with a number of diversions.

Among them are attempts to create controversy over the recent official visit by the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), once described by the late Julius Nyrere of Tanzania as the "International Ministry of Finance"; the kerfuffle over the devaluation of the currency; the divergent views about growth-inducement policies; and vocal pressure on the Government to explain how it intends to utilise the "excess" $30 billion it succeeded in borrowing recently from the international capital market.

But the ability of different people to hear different things in the communication process is part and parcel of life in virtually all plural democracies.

As such, the Portia Simpson Miller-led Administration — boosted by the favourable approval of the IMF, its multilateral partners, and the local private sector — need not be distracted as a result of the noise in the marketplace if it looks realistically at the populace it was elected to serve two-and-a-half years ago. What it must do is dig deep into its own traditions of development concerns and people-centred strategies.

For if trying to bring sanity to the management of our economy were to be mistaken as an abandonment of the fundamental principle of making the Jamaican people masters in their own house, we may as well turn off the lights and surrender ourselves to another country willing to take us at our self-divestment.

While the current People's National Party (PNP) Government remains excruciatingly timid in its effort at mobilising the populace around notions of participation, innovation and wealth creation, I reject any interpretation of its shift in economic policy directions as an abandonment of its core principle.

I instead applaud the Government for its courage to change course in the face of reality and to refuse to defy common sense when the empirical evidence points to the need for other more challenging directions in the management of the economy, if we are to put Jamaica on a path of growth and prosperity going forward into the 21st century.

That the PNP, as a social democratic party having formed the Government in 2011, now finds itself having to bow to realities of the wider world and ends up in the throes of the IMF, but without the intention of structurally adjusting Jamaica out of existence, simply means that the party has learnt that the options open to poor developing countries like ours for their self-directed path to growth and development are limited. Never mind the lofty ideals of the recently formed Economic Advisory Council of the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party.

In the circumstances, the best alliance any government can forge is one with its own citizens — but as private individuals rather than as faceless statistical units either for the voting booth or the production process. This, in any event, is what democracy is supposed to be about.

Christine Lagarde's recent visit to Jamaica was important, therefore, not so much for her erudite treatment of the "overvalued" status of our currency within the context of the IMF's supported economic reform programme and the need to get further buy-in from the private sector.

More importantly, she forcefully underscored, in diplomatic language, the role that private initiative and private investment must now play in completing the "journey" of economic reform "for the people of Jamaica". This is the burden she has left behind for us to bear.

But to make sense of her message, it is important that as a society we come to appreciate that private initiative means more than the time-worn irrelevant phrase about the private sector being the engine of growth. Private initiative, after all, is not the monopoly of the private enterprise market forces.

Rather, it is the core value for the kind of democratic organisation which leads to participation, opportunity for individual advancement, the nurturing of individual excellence over stifling uniform mediocrity, and the promotion of team spirit in the practice of government at all levels of the society.

I am certain that Madame Lagarde's reference to the role of the private sector in Jamaica's growth agenda went beyond a private sector that only trades rather than takes risks, shows innovation in diversifying economic activity, and uses a sense of corporate responsibility to improve the quality of life of the wider society that provides it with its surplus.

The IMF, through its managing director, wants to see change in Jamaica. But the change envisioned is an awesome challenge for all Jamaicans to build their society on the resources at hand, and by their own efforts.

The present Government's commitment to private initiative could therefore be interpreted to mean a determination on its part to put people first, meaning everyone and not just an elite class with connections to foreign capital. It must mean all people whose individual energies can be mobilised into action for the national good and, of course, for their own and that of their families.

In the short term, the Government, in pursuing the current IMF programme, will never overcome the perception in some quarters that it has abandoned its commitment to the broad mass of the people. But perceptions are a special kind of reality. One cannot always ignore what people think to be the facts, even when the facts are different.

This is why I hold the view that as long as the Administration takes the people into its confidence and facilitates their fullest possible participation, it should have very little to worry about as time goes by.

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