HEAD of the Department of Economics at the University of the West Indies and former director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, Dr Damien King, has called on Jamaicans to choose inspired leaders who can create opportunities to move the country on the path to economic growth that has eluded the country over the past 50 years.
According to Dr King, Jamaica's economic policies since Independence have largely been redistributive and are aimed at appeasing the poor. But these policies, he said, have not empowered the poor and are largely responsible for why Jamaica is such a poor country today.
Dr King, who was delivering the 19th Annual Churches Emancipation Lecture at the Meadowbrook United Church last Sunday, argued that the social structure established on the plantation when sugar was king, sowed the seeds for economic stagnation and continues to hold Jamaica back. Tracing the history of sugar in Jamaica from the 17th to the 19th century, Dr King noted that the planter class created great wealth but did not create the basis for economic innovation and growth.
"The social structure implied by large scale plantation production and absentee ownership created a highly unequal distribution of wealth and status that created an overriding need for social control," he noted.
The theme of the lecture was Emancipation and Economic Empowerment, the Origins of the Political Economy of Underdevelopment in Jamaica.
Dr King argued that in Jamaica, with its small planter class and large mass of slaves, social control was achieved by meting out extreme violence on the slaves. Additionally, the planter class governed in their own interest and every effort was made to maintain control over the productive resources, primarily land, which was the foundation of wealth and power.
In this way, the vast majority of Jamaicans were excluded from economic and political opportunity. This was unlike the situation in Barbados where there was a European settler society, which resulted in the establishment of a middle class. The absence of a middle class in Jamaica meant that the social structure of the society remained skewed with a wealthy few and a poor majority. This highly unequal income structure makes for a weak tax base since the poor are too poor and the rich are too few, he declared.
He said the achievement of Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944, which gave every Jamaican the right to vote, meant that those who sought State power needed to persuade the poor — who constituted the electoral majority — to support them.
He further opined that it is this need to appease the poor and win elections that explains the present day populist politics of Jamaica, characterised by large public spending and handouts and the failure of successive governments to implement economic policies which can more effectively reduce poverty and facilitate economic growth.
"We are poor because we have not had the courage to expand opportunity. It is now time to choose inspired leadership that can create equality of opportunities instead of pandering to the poor," he said.
Apart from Meadowbrook United, participating churches included Webster Memorial United, Bethel and Boulevard Baptist, and the United Theological College of the West Indies. The series of lectures began in 1995 in observation of Emancipation Day and presenters have all explored the Lessons and the Legacy of Emancipation.