Columns

Jamaica needs big thinkers

Henley W Morgan

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

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Jamaica is a little country with big problems. Jamaica will “increase in beauty, fellowship and prosperity” only when it has big thinkers with ideas that are bigger than the problems.

One of the best thinkers ever, Albert Einstein, eloquently expressed the dilemma we face in Jamaica. He famously said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

The Jamaica Observer, in a February 11, 2009 editorial, expressed the need for the Government of Jamaica to think bigger than the problems that keep the country mired in problems of our own making. I quote, in part, from the editorial published over 10 years ago but remains relevant today: “If the Government wants to be taken seriously, it must deliver on its words and promises. We urge the Government to shake itself out of its slumber. The times are demanding big-picture thinking.”

In its October 31, 2019 editorial the Observer returned to the theme of thinking big. Writing under the headline 'Bernard Lodge: What's with this palpable fear of big ideas?', the newspaper lambasted those it deems to be standing in the way of the kind of big thinking that could save the nation from its social and economic woes.

The opening salvo fired by the writers reflects the general tone throughout the rest of the editorial. I will quote from the first two paragraphs: “Jamaica has more than its fair share of pseudo-intellectuals who, loving to hide behind the freedom of everyone, love to criticise anything under the sun. They have never seen a big idea that they didn't want to cut down to their size. No major development in Jamaica has ever escaped the wrath or opposition of these people who seem to have little or no ambition for Jamaica.”

The editorial pointed an accusing finger at those opposing converting “precious agricultural land (at Bernard Lodge) into concrete”. This is where we part company.

Big ideas cause change. Especially when dealing with national assets held in trust on the behalf of the people by the Government, it is incumbent on developers to include those affected in the early decision-making and implementation. We have recent examples of where this was not done — inevitably leading to controversy that put the project at risk. I will mention two.

On April 16, 2019, Minister of National Security Dr Horace Chang, in his sectoral budget presentation, announced that a new police headquarters would be built on a 120-acre tract of land — No Man's Land — located in the iconic birthplace of reggae, Trench Town. Investment of this or any type would ordinarily be cause for celebration in a community starved of economic opportunities and jobs, especially for young people. Instead, there was speculation among some community stakeholders who learned via the media of the plan to develop this important community asset. Although not rising to the level of opposing the plan, some of the questions asked included: Were the community development committees in surrounding communities engaged in developing the plan? What else is planned for the land, which with an expanding capital Kingston is today prime real estate? Will residents be displaced by the development? Has the land been sold or promised to private sector interests and, if so, who are they? The minister subsequently held a meeting in the community but that was like putting the cart before the horse.

Then there is the long-running saga surrounding the Government's plan to develop National Heroes' Circle, including the construction of a new parliament building. What should have been a welcome development has been mired in controversy. The problem of sidelining community stakeholders in matters affecting their lives and livelihood was succinctly expressed by Carol Narcisse, civil society representative, at a town hall meeting organised to ventilate the issue. This is what the media reported her saying: “You cannot plan for the people without including the people. It is at the project conceptualisation stage that these kinds of engagement have to happen.”

Some of the biggest ideas have been in the field of science; the cell theory of life, the gene theory of heredity, and the germ theory of disease, for example. Hippocrates (460 - 370 BC), the father of western medicine, had a simple principle he applied to the practice: Do no harm. Amsterdam is an example of a city that uses this same approach to guide investments in what could be harmful and offensive activities. The prevailing principles are: 1) Nobody is complaining that it will hurt them. 2) It is good for business. 3) It is good for taxes. Maybe Jamaica should adopt a similar approach so big ideas do not become big problems.

When people at the community level are not consulted and included, it feeds suspicion that the Government is looking out for its financiers and friends, not the interest of the country.

hmorgan@cwjamaica.com


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