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Waiting to exhale

Howard Gregory

Sunday, January 06, 2013    

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WAITING to Exhale was the title of what was deemed to have been a very successful movie a few years ago. It is perhaps true to say that that title captures, in a very significant way, the place where Jamaica finds itself at this moment, as it stands at a point of expectancy, awaiting the signing of an agreement between the Government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the drawdown of the funds.

It is an experience made even more wearisome by the unfulfilled promise of a conclusion of the deal by the end of 2012, the declining value of the Jamaican dollar, and the current uncertainty as to when the agreement will come to fruition. Somehow the fate of the nation seems to reside at this point in the hands of external forces, and we seem to have ceded that control in an act of complicity at the level of governance and the citizenry by the policies which have been pursued since Independence, which have not been guided by fiscal prudence, increased productivity, and a clear strategy for long-term national development.

The past year has provided us with an occasion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our Independence and to recount our many achievements in countless areas in the national and global arenas. It has also provided us with a moment, even if a fleeting one, to reflect on the meaning of Independence for our sense of self and dignity as a people who have passed through the travails of slavery to self-governance.

At the same time, for those who would allow themselves to delve beneath the revelry and euphoria, there is a deep sense of awareness that we have missed the boat on many occasions to give to the definition of Independence a level of social and economic development which would have taken us much further along the path of advancement and national development.

In some recent reading I came upon the interesting observation that it is far more difficult to hold one's breath (wait to exhale) than to inhale. I could not help making the link to what it is like for a nation to be holding its breath and waiting on the IMF to exhale. And since this is the point at which the nation finds itself, we must realise that this is a point of distress and crisis at which we cannot remain. What is even more distressing is the fact that the economists are telling us that the immediate drawdown from the IMF in the wake of an agreement is only a brief respite in what will remain a condition of an economic quagmire.

It appears then, that as we leave behind 2012 and move into 2013, it must be a year of clear and forthright decision-making by those in charge of governance and all of us as citizens of this country. We need, more than ever, visionary leadership which is not only able to offer a critique of where we are at this point as a nation, but a clear sense of where we must go if we are to continue on a path of independence and regain our sense of self and dignity, not just through our ability to make impressive speeches, but in definite, concrete, and measurable social and economic outcomes.

Such visionary leadership must be the outcome of bi-partisan agreement between our major political parties, so that we do not continue on this path of constant reversal and fresh starts with every change of Government.

The task ahead of us will be made more difficult because of the sacrifices and concessions that will have to be made to satisfy the IMF before the funds can be released and which will involve the loss of jobs by persons in the public sector. There will be hardships for various categories of workers in the public and private sectors, as adjustments take place to reduce government expenditures, and private sector entities attempt to cut back on costs in what is a difficult economic environment.

Citizens at every level will be impacted, not just by possible taxes but through the curtailment of services, and so we will witness more protests regarding the state of roads and problems with the water supply in our communities as the Government is forced to curtail the level of public expenditures. It is clear that the measures that the Government will need to take will not be popular with the electorate, but maturity of governance requires that clear and decisive steps be taken without the prevailing climate of equivocation.

We have had a history of political victimisation in this country, and it is easy for the nation to slip into this mode of operation in face of hardships and scarce benefits. It is indeed worrying that in the wake of the passage of Hurricane Sandy, I can still be receiving reports of persons turning up at an MP's office to register in order to access benefits, and to have them being asked, how is it that no one in the constituency office knows them, and who did they vote for in the last election. This recurring partisan approach to our present national predicament will not take this nation forward in any positive direction.

Additionally, many persons entering the workforce for the first time will find great difficulty securing employment as some of the traditional avenues of employment for school leavers will not be available. A new trend has been developing in the country whereby persons with tertiary education are finding themselves increasingly among the ranks of the unemployed. This means that we will need to change our perception of the job market, and persons will have to see this as an opportunity for creative ways of thinking about work and employment.

Not only will persons have to create their own avenues of employment, but they will need to be prepared to accept jobs that do not pay what they consider themselves to be worth and, in addition, persons will have to be prepared to be multitasked and multi-skilled. This will call for a serious modification of the educational system so that students leave school with a rounded education which equips them for this emerging world of work, and not just with passes in some academic subjects.

It also means that those mothers who have been encouraging their children to stay at home and not work for certain level of wages they consider low, will have to re-think how what they are doing is helpful to their children in the changing reality within which we live.

In this regard, I must point out that it has been brought to my attention in recent times that the young persons, primarily men, who are involved in scamming and bringing the nation into disrepute as they commit criminal acts, have developed competencies in the use of computers and information systems which, if put to legitimate business enterprises, could put them in a position of entrepreneurial players on the global scene. Here is a chance for values re-education and the channelling of entrepreneurial training to our young people that will give a positive spin to what has been a criminal option.

We must see the need for change as something which is for the good of the nation and not just make these things into political issues, as these problems have come about, to a significant degree, by the failure of repeated governments to take the difficult road of cutting expenditure and living within our means. This year will call for the creation of positive social values and attitudes which can lead to cohesion as we face the challenges ahead.

The current anti-social attitudes and behaviours, pervasiveness of corruption, and the breakdown of discipline leading to the high level of crime and violence must continue to be of concern to all of us, but it will not be solved by killing all those involved in criminal activity, legitimately or otherwise, neither will it be solved by ignoring the social inequities and injustices which exist in our society.

We cannot be satisfied to simply look to Government to make the changes, while we as passive onlookers observe what is happening. Certainly, the Government must act in decisive ways in stemming the tide, so that we do not have the kind of rampant disregard for the law which led to the recent amnesty for traffic violators who have been flouting the law for years.

At the same time, we must be prepared to pursue a path in this society in which we seek to eliminate the inequities and to build a more cohesive society, because in the long run, none of us will be safe and insulated from the things which undermine the cohesion of our society and the path to becoming a truly independent nation.

Finally, while we as citizens have our part to play in the way we engage the challenges before us in this new year, I cannot overlook the fact that those who constitute the system of governance have responsibilities to offer effective leadership to the people of this nation. It is my hope and prayer that, during the coming year the Government will seek to move the public institutions and the bureaucratic structures of this country on a path by which they can be more respectful of the citizens and more efficient in dealing with the public.

There are too many points in dealing with institutions in this country when citizens encounter systems which make us feel as if we are all a nation of criminals. The potential for alienation of a people from their own society is indeed great, and is indeed happening.

As we embark on this journey into the new year, and in a context in which the Christian Church celebrates the season of Christmas and the Epiphany, may we as a people look to God for guidance as we face this year with challenges that are of a formidable nature, though not insurmountable, and who fulfils in Jesus Christ the deepest yearnings and longings of humanity.

-- Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

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