Things stayed the same for too long

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Things stayed the same for too long

...in fact, things got worse

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, October 11, 2020

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One camel does not make fun of the other camel's hump. — Akan proverb, Ghana

The global economic and social meltdown caused by the rapid and unprecedented impact of this novel coronavirus continues to send shock waves around the world. The globe's most vulnerable are experiencing the severest consequences of COVID-19. It has and will continue to expose the pre-existing conditions of local, regional, and global economies for a long time.

On April 21, 1961 Edward Seaga, then Opposition member of the pre-independence Legislative Council, delivered a speech which famously elaborated the yawning social and economic gaps between the vast majority who owned/had very little and the minority that owned/had a lot. Some 59 years later the evergreen relevance and cogency of Seaga's “haves and the have-nots” speech ring loudly during the very rocky reopening of the nation's schools virtually last Monday.

The chasm between the information rich and poor in our society stood out like a sore thumb. We have a crisis and another opportunity to fix the problem.

Stunted by inaction

The reopening of schools is a very big political stress test for this second-term, Andrew Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government. The Administration cannot afford to fall into the snares of those who are wishing failure upon it.

Consider this headline: ' 'Wheel and come again!' Opposition says Gov't's plan will fail Jamaican students'. The news item said, among other things: “Opposition spokesman on technology Julian Robinson says the Government's plan for the virtual reopening of schools does not go far enough and will leave an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 students without devices to access lessons.

“ 'This plan will fail the Jamaican students,' Robinson asserted.” ( Jamaica Observer, October 1, 2020)

Robinson was a minister of state in the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining (STEM) during the 2012-2016 Portia Simpson Miller Administration. If Robinson's numbers are accurate, he should hang his head in shame, because his stewardship evidently did not make a serious incision into the nucleus of our 'information haves and have-nots'.

The previous Holness Administration clearly has not distinguished itself, either.

Consider this: 'Bureaucracy faulted for delays in providing schools in remote communities with Internet access'. The news item said, among other things: “CEO of Ready TV Chris Dehring says public sector bureaucracy is partly to blame for delays in upgrading some 100 schools in remote communities with Internet access leading to a rough start to the new school year for many students.

“In May this year it was announced that the Government entered into an arrangement with the local prepaid wireless broadcast cable TV company to provide a solution for 238 schools in areas that are currently without Internet access.

“Making the disclosure during a virtual media conference at the Office of the Prime Minister on May 4, then minister with responsibility for education Karl Samuda said 100 communities served by these schools would have access within another two weeks.

“At that time Minister Samuda pointed out that 31,000 children were unable to connect and participate in online lessons, as they lack Internet coverage.

“Five months later, schools officially reopened yesterday, October 5, but the promised technological solutions for the students is still a work in progress.” ( Nationwide News Network, October 6, 2020)

If some, as we say in local parlance, “did tek taught” (had listened and acted proactively), many of the hitches and hindrances that dogged the reopening of school last week would have been avoided.

Recall that after I had completed road trips into many parts of the country I wrote, among other things, in my The Agenda piece on Sunday, November 24, 2019: “Hundreds are unhappy because our telecommunications services are deteriorating, and the regulator, the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR), appears to be fast asleep. The intolerable frequency of dropped calls and the declining quality of data and related services are matters of national importance. In this day and age the Internet is an indispensable tool. Thousands of livelihoods depend on fast and reliable Internet services.

“Jamaica Public Service's (JPS) planned outages — they say we should not call them load shedding — are far too frequent. These cannot be good for our ranking on the Global Competitiveness Report (GCR). Folks like me, who don't have a 'Delco' (generator) want to know what improvements we can realistically expect from JPS. Yes, I know the whole bit about renewable energy and such, but I suspect JPS will be the major game in town for many years yet.”

I also noted in the mentioned article that these are “conspicuous simmering cauldrons”. When the nauseating frequency of drops calls, woefully inadequate broadband access, scheduled and unscheduled power outages, and numerous other long-standing infrastructural problems are added to the limping bureaucracy which Chris Dehring cites, it becomes obvious that all the talk about countrywide digital transformation being just around the corner is illusory.

We need to make a paradigm shift. We don't need more re-announcements about aspirations, objectives, and stunted projects which have been mooted for the last 15 years. It is time for action!

Therese Turner-Jones

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the intellect of Therese Turner-Jones, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) general manager and country representative for Jamaica. In June of this year, Jones said, inter alia: “Digital transformation, Internet, and broadband access for everyone across Jamaica and the Caribbean region is not something that's nice to have, but rather something that we must have in the future if we're going to be able to cope, not just with global pandemics but also be able to sustain public and private services over this period.” ( Sunday Observer, June 28, 2020)

The molasses pace of implementation in the public sector, especially, indicates that many do not, as we say in local parlance, “know what a clock a strike” [understand the urgency].

If we are serious about enabling our people to access the full suite of benefits of the global digital economy. We must quickly implement those recommendations which constitute best practices. These are well documented in several studies commissioned by successive administrations. These studies have cost our taxpayers millions of dollars. There are also many policy papers that centre on digital transformation in Jamaica which are sitting in shelves gathering cobwebs.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to think and take actions that will trigger seismic benefits for Jamaica. We must not stymie the tide. We do not need to reinvent the wheel either. Templates for sustained digital development are readily available at the touch of a button.

As necessary, we need to tailor these to our needs. Constant training and education and the rapid embrace of relevant, cutting-edge technologies are crucial for economic growth and development.

Lee Kuan Yew realised this from very early in the 1960s. He said, among other things: “After trying out a number of ways to reduce inequalities and failing I was gradually forced to conclude that the decisive factors were the people, their natural abilities, education, and training. Knowledge and the possession of technology were vital for the creation of wealth. — Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew.

Bandooloo-ism

Bandooloo-ism and ginnalship are responsible for Jamaica's failure to realise her full potential, so says one of my readers in response to last Sunday's column. Last Monday's edition of this newspaper reminded me that there is more than a grain of truth in the reader's submission: 'Hustling, corruption rampant outside Cross Roads tax office'. An excellent journalistic piece said, among other things:

“ 'Hustler' and 'corruption' were the bywords among disgruntled customers to the Cross Roads Collectorate in St Andrew, last Wednesday, after spending hours in line whipped by intermittent rain, watching as other individuals entered and exited without having to wait.”

Why does this kind of slackness persist? It does because we tolerate it, subscribe to it, and far too many of us have come to see corrupt behaviour as Jamaican and 'blue draws'. Unchecked corruption, which metamorphoses into an almost incurable sore, is the death knell of many great empires.

The impact of corruption by common sense deduction is even more deleterious on small economies like Jamaica. Apparently some folks just cannot understand that simple fact and continue to bury their heads in the sand like ostriches, some for myriad reasons which are obvious to most.

The Office of the Contractor General, since its creation by former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, has been telling us about waste, misuse, abuse, and even misappropriation of public funds for donkey's years, as rural people put it. For decades auditors general, via dozens of comprehensive reports, have alerted us to the huge cost of corruption. Numerous commissions of inquiry have found that we have historical and structural weaknesses which facilitate bandooloo-ism and ginnalship. Yet corrupt practices like that which was exposed by this newspaper last Monday are recurring decimals.

Jamaica does not benefit from corruption. Various local and international reports attest to this fact. Cui Bono – Who benefits? Will we continue to sacrifice Jamaica for a selfish minority?

On the front line

On April 5, 2020 I wrote, among other things, in my Sunday Observer column: “Our nurses, doctors, radiographers, epidemiologists, social workers, porters, laboratory technicians, ambulance drivers, indeed all categories of health workers who are on the front line working tirelessly to safeguard all of us are heroes. So, too, are the members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), correctional officers, and all other essential staff. Jamaica owes you all a great debt of gratitude for your selflessness. We need to thank them with more than just words, though.”

The Holness Administration has introduced several incentives to lessen 'burnout' of health care professionals. This is good! I believe they need to do more. I think the Administration should deliver a one-off grant (payable in April 2021) equivalent to 25 per cent of one's gross salary for front line workers.

Money sweetens labour as much as encouragement. How many of us are prepared to walk around in the shoes of our health workers?

Those committees

During the sitting of the House of Representatives on October 1, 2020, Leader of Government Business Edmund Bartlett announced that the chairmanship of four key oversight committees will revert to Government members. These are the economy and production, internal and external affairs, human resource and social development, and infrastructure and physical development committees.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which has traditionally been chaired by an Opposition Member of Parliament (MP), will still be chaired by Opposition MP Mark Golding, who was chairman in the last Parliament. The Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), which exposed several scandals during the previous Holness Administration, will remain in the chairmanship of an Opposition member. It will be chaired by Manchester North Western MP Mikael Phillips.

Data from the Houses of Parliament confirm that the PAAC had 89 meetings between 2012 and early 2016 when it was chaired by the then Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Opposition. From 2016 to July 2020 the committee met 98 times when it was chaired by the Opposition People's National Party (PNP).

The PAC met 33 times when the JLP chaired it between 2012 and 2015. During 2016 to July 2020, under PNP chairmanship, the committee met 40 times.

During the JLP's time in office the Internal and External Affairs Committee met 16 times between 2012 and 2015. The Opposition PNP, had 14 meetings between 2016 and 2019. They did not meet in 2020.

For the Human Resources and Social Development Committee, they had 21 meetings between 2012 and early 2016. They met 16 times between 2016 and 2020.

The Economy and Production Committee met 15 times between 2012 and 2015. From 2016 to 2020 they met nine times.

The Infrastructure and Physical Development Committee met 17 times between 2012 and 2015. They had 12 meetings between 2016 and 2019. This committee did not meet in 2020.

The numbers speak for themselves. I agree with the review.

The people voted for an Administration to lead the management of their affairs for five years. Neither the PNP nor the JLP should have the power to put critical portions of the people's business on hold in order to serve their narrow party interests.

We live in a low consequence, low accountability environment. We need to change that.

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.


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