Economic boom but danger lurks

Al Miller

Sunday, May 12, 2019

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We've had trickle-down economics in the country for [many years] now, and most of us aren't even damp yet. — Molly Ivins

On February 20, 2019, Dr Wayne Henry, director general of Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), reported on Jamaica's macroeconomic performance for the October to December 2018 quarter. An excerpt from his press conference notes reads as follows:

“Today we are reporting that our estimate for real GDP [gross domestic product] growth for the October to December 2018 quarter is 1.7 per cent... This follows on real GDP growth of 1.8 per cent recorded in the previous quarter. He listed the key drivers of growth as trade, tourism, mining, major infrastructure works (we couldn't have missed that driver), and favourable weather conditions which positively impacted our agricultural outputs.”

Another excerpt under the heading, Employment Update, stated that:

“The labour force survey undertaken by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) indicated that the unemployment rate as at October 2018 was 8.7 per cent... This we are told, is the lowest unemployment we have ever had! Eight per cent unemployment is applaudable! This is excellent for a developing country, and exactly what we need to display to the IMF (International Monetary Fund), World Bank and other externals.”

Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Daryl Vaz, confident that his Government was correctly guiding Jamaica's economic growth, even had the temerity to take issue with the PIOJ's growth data. He claimed that the PIOJ figures were under-represented. He pointed out that there is a huge difference between what is reported and the situation on the ground. Minister Vaz claimed that much more growth was taking place than was being reported.

I rejoice at all the signs of growth and give credit to the Government, civil service and the private sector for their contribution. It gives hope to the possibility of building the new Jamaica that works for all. However, we must keep our feet on the ground and remain sensitive to the realities facing us. The years of neglect of the poor have left appalling and untenable living conditions for many. The social disorder, discontent, and despair of many is high. For, amidst the the visible economic activity, the majority of our people have not functionally begun to experience the direct benefits. While more employment is happening there is little impact on the depressed surrounding communities, and the frustration levels and hopelessness are high among the youth. Therefore, the genuine needs of the poor must be addressed.

There is a rumbling on the ground that the economic upturn is not being felt by many. We must be sure that we are planning to deal with these issues expeditiously and intentionally, and not assume they will be naturally resolved.

I humbly posit to Henry, Vaz, and all who will listen, that with all the economic signs, stimulus and potential growth the base is not affected by it. “Dem nuh damp yet!” It is my measured advice that we must wet them up soon!

Wealth creation for all!

Some have created great wealth over the 56 years since our Independence from Britain; the 10 per cent at the top. The trickle down still is not happening yet. It is evident that the desired reality of prosperity for all citizens has eluded us. The poor of the country have not got their break since Independence.

The size of our nation is too small and too resourced not to have guaranteed prosperity to all citizens a long time ago. It was never achieved because of bad politics, mismanagement of our resources, lack of vision, and political tribalism with its culture of violence.

It is much more difficult to achieve now because of the negative culture and society that has resulted. This is worsened by the low trust and productivity levels, high illiteracy and unskilled labour force, as well as poor work ethics.

Although it is more difficult now, it is certainly very possible; as the potential and indomitable spirit of our people, when harnessed, knows no bounds. It is not too late to turn the tide if we unite for the common cause of building a prosperous nation that enables all citizens to fulfil their dreams and aspirations.

What are the mechanisms, systems or structures to ensure prosperity flows to the benefit of all, especially the poor and most vulnerable? It cannot be left to chance or hope that the haves will release an overflow of their wealth to the have-nots.

The nation needs a team of thinkers to facilitate wealth creation for all. A team to look at the state of the nation and devise a plan to alleviate poverty in an intentional way. This involves creating a framework with policies, regulations and programmes that ensure justice, fairness and equal opportunity for all. This can and should be a parliamentary priority if they care for the poor. We must now deliberately, strategically and publicly seek to achieve a social growth and poverty alleviation agenda in the same way we pursue an economic growth agenda.

If you ask any of our government or civil society agencies that work in our rural and inner-city communities, they will tell you that unemployment in those enclaves is much higher than the national average of 8.7 per cent. We cannot therefore get comfortable with the euphoria of low national unemployment stats and not pay attention to the poor rural and inner-city communities in which unemployment is at times 50 per cent and higher.

We must have a deliberate strategy to engage these communities with sustained employment and wealth creation opportunities. It's time that employment rises above seasonal 'bollo work' and bushing. Consider the fact that many of these young males and females are in the prime of their productive lives and should be involved in serious work that directly contributes to the growth of our national economy.

Danger lurks

It must be not be lost on us that the city is surrounded by disadvantaged communities, even some garrisons. To get into the upper and middle class areas, or to enter and exit the city, one must go through depressed communities. The wealthy cannot dispassionately continue on their way to the hills and their secure, happy palaces. They cannot continue to pass through the enclaves of disadvantaged communities, ignoring the misery, pain and hopelessness being experienced. This is a recipe for disaster if not transformed now.

Let it not be missed or forgotten the disdain, sometimes anger, or even hate, by the youth on the corner as they watch these lovely high-end vehicles pass through with windows rolled up. They watch with envy.

Danger lurks. For if their reality is not addressed, sooner or later the pot of pain, anger and frustration may one day boil over. Such a spillage can be triggered by anything — the effects of which will be less than desirable. The plight of inner-city squalor, pain and depravity has to be addressed. If the general conditions are left as is they are ticking time bombs waiting to explode.

The prosperity and growth potential will not materialise if we do not deal with the root causes of crime — corruption, poor morals, negative attitudes and behaviour, and overall disorder in our society. These are realities and issues that must be addressed as seriously as inflation and GDP growth.

Social and moral

So, besides a team of thinkers, priority must also be placed now on a national programme of social re-engineering, social and moral transformation, values and attitudes, national social mobilisation — call it whatever you desire. It is needed desperately now as the moral and social fabric is worsening and this deterioration will naturally affect economic growth.

No government of the last 40 years has demonstrated the will to tackle the moral social slide into crime, corruption and social disorder. Former Prime Minister P J Patterson spoke of it and kicked it off, but his Values and Attitudes Programme unfortunately was not well supported. A programme of social re-engineering and moral transformation simply cannot be Government-led; rather it should be Government-facilitated!

Former Prime Minister Bruce Golding supported an effort, which was more broad-based and correctly led by the Church and civil society. But circumstances of that season prematurely aborted the National Transformation Programme.

What both attempts lacked was the necessary resources to make it work. New-era Prime Minister Andrew Holness has to, amidst all the many challenges, find a pool of resources and initiate the necessary steps to facilitate it happening. If it does not happen, all current governmental efforts will produce little real transformational value.

Bird cyaan fly pon one wing. National development needs two wings — the economic and the social — flapping vigorously to get the lift to soar and take our island nation to its highest potential. A place where our economic growth and development will now be felt by all of us and contributed to by all of us in a climate of a clean spiritual and moral atmosphere.

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