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Building a better Jamaica

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dear Editor,

In this important anniversary of Jamaica's Independence a concerted effort should be made to build a better Jamaica. Over the past 50 years Jamaica has done some things well. The basic institutions have survived, but they have not been improved or modified to suit the modern times.

Overall the country is far from what it could be or what it should be. The politics is a mess. Most eligible voters do not even bother to turn out at the polls, having given up on both major parties. The two dominant parties have long ago run out of ideas, and supported by a short-sighted constitution written a half-century ago, have seemingly conspired to freeze out new parties. So politics is in a state of malaise. The economy is an unmitigated disaster and gets worse every day. The gap between the rich and the poor, or as Edward Seaga put it in the 1950s, the "haves" and the "have-nots," continues to widen frightfully. The civil society of 50 years ago has become disturbingly uncivil. Old people do not respect one another and young people find no reason to respect their elders.

It is easy to see what ails Jamaica. Every Jamaican can readily recite a litany of present failures. It is more difficult to confidently prescribe measures for the eventual amelioration of the island. Jamaicans need to stand up and take charge of their own future. But that is easier said than done. How does one begin to reverse the tragic direction along which the island seems to be moving inexorably?

The first step is to establish a priority for action among all the civil, economic and political agencies. They are all interconnected and eventually no permanent solution can be found for one without the others also being a part.

I think the first order of business should be to reform the government. The national government needs more transparency and better organisational structure. This can be done by reducing the number of members of the House of Representatives drastically and granting a greater degree of autonomy to the counties and the parishes. Then careful division of responsibility ought to be assigned between central government and local government.

Allowing local government to levy taxes might go a long way in importing local social services, especially health and education. In a small island of only around 800,000 households, this taxation prerogative might be best localised at the county level rather than the parish level. In any case, it seems to make sense if within each county all the health and education services are centralised. Each county would therefore have at least one modern, state-of-the art hospital. As the county gets richer more hospitals could be built, but the administrative control would remain with the county.

In the same way, each county would have greater control of education through the three levels - primary, secondary and university.

This organisation would not preclude free enterprise operations anywhere, nor would it prohibit groups in parishes to establish competing hospitals or schools. Indeed, there could be a free market choice between private operations across counties and parishes; national operations at selected sites such as the University of the West Indies at Mona; county operations in the respective counties of Cornwall, Middlesex and Surrey; and parish operations corresponding to each of the 14 parishes. Some parishes, however, may find cooperative ventures preferable to their own independent efforts.

Education and health are two measures that are better approached in an integrated large-scale fashion than independently. They also represent two crucial necessities of any modernising state. Permanent long-term improvements in politics and the economy cannot be accomplished without a healthy and well-educated labour force. They are not the only urgent requirements at the moment, but together they represent as good a starting point as any.

Peter Barton


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