Columns

This is the time to turn your hands

JAMES MOSS-SOLOMON

Sunday, September 23, 2012    

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THE recently concluded PNP conference will continue to enjoy mixed reactions from the usual commentators and opinion leaders. However, there is one theme that rings true amidst the noise, and that is the need to translate the heavy macro-economic jargon into the action-oriented activities that will allow the ordinary citizens to plan their own survival.

More than one person lamented the absence of a Michael Manley and his gift of communication to reach the audiences in appropriate ways so as to encourage action. Former prime minister PJ Patterson did just that, but that was appropriately directed towards members of parliament and their responsibility to the party machinery and the constituency. It is not his job anymore to deal with the interpretation and decision making of Government matters. Those matters are firmly in the hands of the prime minister and the Cabinet.

Coming back to the Michael Manley analogy, the citizens, parents, civil servants, teachers, security forces, the professionals and those in the business sector need to understand their respective roles and options. We need to break this down appropriately for each to understand their particular challenges and roles in the economy.

The citizen needs to know that we can anticipate inflation in the prices of most commodities due to drought-induced shortages in the main growing areas, and also have an idea of how long the downturn in production will last. The clear understanding on the effects of the raw commodity as well as the relationship to allied products such as bread, cornmeal, and animal feed must be explained simply. The effects of a devalued dollar and rising oil prices are currently driving electricity dependent costs, so we need to conserve now.

The devaluation of the dollar must be explained not only as an IMF-induced measure, but we need to be honest and say to businesses, farmers, and other groups: "Let's get on with import substitution and exports". This is an earn-or-die situation. We must also say that we cannot wait on infrastructure improvements before we act.

New institutions, roads, bridges, and the like are in the future, but since we have no money now, let us try to fend for ourselves. We need to understand the concept of food security at every level and grow what we need wherever possible. The private sector needs to understand that no action means certain death, so let's try.

Parents need to accept that there is no "free education" and that there is an element of responsibility that lies with the family. Good study supervision, a loving environment, proper nutrition and observance of rules are all integral parts of the learning experience. No amount of extra lessons will make up for total parental neglect.

Civil servants should not be expected to remain in a vacuum as regards their future earnings. Four years ago as chairman of a certain government board I gave an honest assessment of the challenges facing the society, and the diminishing ability of the state to bear the expenses. So we agreed on two actions.

Firstly, we would allow attrition to reduce the staff complement and divide the work on an organised basis, and only hire specialist skills if absolutely necessary. So we voluntarily shared in a decision to protect the majority of the jobs.

Secondly, we agreed to explore people's hobbies and part-time activities to see if new initiatives and earning power could be started. This proved highly successful. This was nothing new, as every year that I have attended the Denbigh Agricultural Show I have seen innovative product samples just awaiting proper commercialisation and marketing. It is now time to act on these wasted opportunities and start the process of transformation from handouts to earnings. Instead of blaming the IMF for inevitable cuts in the civil service, let us deal with the facts:

* There is the question raised by Dr Peter Phillips regarding the number of posts, or as I call them -- the establishment. These are jobs approved under a previous structure, and which in many ways may no longer be relevant.

* If these jobs have not been filled then there is no actual payroll cost, and therefore the actual should already be less than the budgeted.

* All that remains is simply the need to reorganise and redeploy persons where those skills exist, in a new streamlined set of processes designed for efficiency.

* The relationship of the percentage of wages to GDP needs to be explained simply. If the economy is not growing, then we need to cut costs. On the other hand, we need to earn more foreign exchange, or minimise imports.

Now these four points represent things that we must do with or without the IMF agreement. So the point is, let us proceed with them now and not hold our breath waiting on the pending agreement. Simply put, if your ship is sinking, you are in a lifeboat, you are uncertain that your distress call has been heard, then it's time to agree to start rowing.

For a business to be successful over a period of years there needs to be a willingness to investigate new things even when all seems to be going well. Products and services need refreshing, improvement, and yes, even total abandonment, as consumer choices are fickle and choices are made that reflect fashion and aspiration.

Thus flavoured vodka attracts the women today and moves them away from wines (and every Russian communist must be rolling in their grave). Overproof rum returns to the cocktail circuit and has escaped from the ordinary rum shop. Ackee and saltfish, "tun cornmeal", and "Blue Drawers" have now become hot items in upscale restaurants. Worst of all, the hated Bata crepe soles now come in colours for the hip generation X metrosexuals. I'm personally waiting on a pair of canvas GB "Buggas" (with the ankle guard).

Change does happen and it repeats itself as often as the width of men's ties, and the shape of women's shoes. We need to be aware of the possible cycles that can lead to growth and not let the ideas and possibilities of the so-called "Brand Jamaica" slip away to be produced in China only. Industry, production, and value added need to be in our urgent conversations rather than simply the current wait-and-see attitudes that challenge our very survival.

Yes, all sections of the society need to change, even the gunman and the cost of the terror that he induces. Untimely death is not an industry even though it may temporarily increase the market for funerals and the usage of churches. The private sector, the government, the political parties, the fathers and mothers, the schoolchildren -- we all need to be convinced of this.

That is part of your job, Most Honourable Prime Minister, and as you continue to say this is real work, so get on with it. The time for talking and promising is behind us, so let us see the leadership that will convince us to awaken from a long, unproductive slumber.

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