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OPINION: The good, the bad and the ugly: Jamaica's mid-term report card

BY ROGER BROWN

Friday, November 24, 2017

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Jamaica came under new management in early 2016 with the narrow election victory of a renascent JLP. While there has been important incremental progress in the 20 months since, the big picture targets remain largely elusive.

Economic growth is tepid, the inequality gap is growing, youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, and violent crime runs rampant. On these important tests, the new team is yet to record really solid results. But since big pictures take a long time to paint, by assessing ongoing intent and effort, the Jamaican public can still keep score roughly midway through this political term.

Outlined below in random order are some of the high and low points on Jamaica's recent scorecard:

THE VERY GOOD

• Protection of the Cockpit Country

• Latin American outreach

• EPOC

• ESET

THE GOOD

• Debt reduction

• Inflation control

• Fiscal surplus

• Structural reform

• Justice reform

• Tourism growth.

THE BAD

• Tax reform

• Public order

• Health services

• Ganja licensing

• PetroJam

• Caricom

THE UGLY

• Firearm Licensing Authority

• Public Sector transformation

• Gang criminality

It's a mixed record: perhaps a passing grade, but not yet enough to really move the political meter, despite the recent by-election victory in SE St Mary over an imported PNP candidate with Canadian credentials…what were they thinking?

While some may have seen that event as an endorsement of the new management team, it was really more about the triumph of personal aspirations over party affiliations in a district whose poverty has been mired in the PNP mud for decades.

The battle for the hearts and minds of an electorate that has grown disenchanted with a generation of economic mismanagement and political tribalism will be a much tougher slog; political trust is gained not through slick slogans (“5 in 4 ”,) but by making incremental improvements in the quality of public life that signal the systemic change to come.

The ideological umbilical cord that joined Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Jamaica's Edward Seaga in their formative years was premised on an interventionist nation state that would provide the framework for both private enterprise and public order. Jamaica lost the plot on both in the 70s, snatched it back briefly in the 80s, and then became amnesiac on all counts for the generation that followed.

Jamaicans have been fooled and failed by their leaders for so long that their lost faith in a brighter future is now manifest by long visa lines at the US Embassy… that's a tragic fact. So how do Jamaica's new leaders swing the pendulum back to a positive pitch in the limited time left before the next electoral exams?

TANGIBLE TARGETS

Simply by switching focus from a few aspirational, unattainable goals to many realistic, tangible targets that impact daily life – bring tough order to a public transport system at the mercy of thugs; bring the JDF out on full urban deployment for public security; rescind the thousands of fraudulent gun licences; initiate widespread arrests for public order offences; define time parameters for criminal justice; establish public performance standards for all government agencies; incentivise whistleblowers of state corruption; reduce transaction costs on real property to stimulate development; recalibrate financial reserve requirements to unlock jailed capital and reduce bank spreads; jump-start a catatonic ganja licensing regime; establish a pothole hotline at NWA; expand ZOSO policing from district zones to parish zones; put local government expenditure under independent oversight; exercise punitive measures for CARICOM maltreatment of Jamaican visitors and traders – in other words, stand up and fight for the interests of ordinary Jamaicans.

None of these initiatives form part of any IMF prescription, but they will resonate with a nation that has long seen government as an ill to be avoided rather than a source of support.

There are no magic bullets for Jamaica, only tough choices and a long road ahead.

Barring real change, the outlaw mentality that has long grown root will spread, fester, and ultimately subvert the best of state intentions – be they JLP or PNP.

The first big IMF test was the debt exam, which left Jamaica with the harshest fiscal surplus targets ever drafted.

The next big exam comes with a fancy name: Public Sector Transformation… aka how to put a halter on an angry octopus. A bloated bureaucracy largely populated by political tribalism is determined to preserve its ranks and attendant perks, while sucking 50 per cent of the tax roll…. It's going to get very ugly. And so it should.

Real governance requires more than aspirational goals. It requires true grit and tangible results. Having achieved macro stability, Jamaica's new management must become micro focused, for it is on life's margins that its future grade will be determined.

Roger Brown is the managing director of Risk Control SA, which provides investment risk advisory services in the Caribbean and Central America.

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