Civil Society and Economic Leadership by Don Robotham

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Dr Alfred Dawes. Photo: Rudolph Brown, Gleaner

This is a guest post by Professor Don Robotham of City University of New York, previously Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He urges civil society in Jamaica to “take the reins of leadership of the society directly into its own hands.” In the wake of Dr. Alfred Dawes’ calmly articulated, spot on denunciation of the state of the health sector (The Third Tribe Will Not Be Silenced) and the damaging effects of political tribalism, partisanship and cronyism on it, Robotham’s essay has added resonance. Do let us know what you think by leaving comments.

Demoralization has settled over large areas of Jamaica. Problems multiply—in our health services, in the rising murder rate and in growing youth unemployment. Amidst this sea of troubles, our political leadership seems lost. One political squabble follows another—jockeying for advantage in the upcoming general election. But what’s the point of winning if you can’t govern?

There is no vision from either political side of how they want Jamaica to be and how they plan to get there. Consequently, according to the latest Bill Johnson poll, 47% of those in the 18-24 age-group have no intention of voting.

The only way out of this cul-de-sac is for civil society leadership to boldly assert itself. It is not enough for the Uncommitted to be vocal, to demonstrate or even to vote. It is not just a matter of getting off the fence. That is to entertain illusions about what the formal political process—including general elections—can yield. The challenge is greater: civil society must take the reins of leadership of the society directly into its own hands. This is especially true of economic policy—the subject of this article. But as the health crisis demonstrates, our leadership void is not confined to the economy. It is broad across all sectors. The politicians on both sides have lost the plot. When this happens, ordinary citizens must step in. I repeat, it is not just a matter of voting and then retiring to one’s verandah, or, increasingly, to Facebook and Twitter, to watch and lament as events unfold.

Some will claim that the above is too gloomy. They point to the success of the IMF program in reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio from an unsustainable 144% to about 125% by early next year; the primary surplus has improved to 7% of GDP—J$50.8 billion instead of the targeted J$40 billion—exceeding even the wildest dreams of the IMF. The Net International Reserves have risen to US$2.44 billion. Revenue collection has also improved to J$95.1 billion this September 2015, against a projected J$90.2 billion. Jamaica therefore passed its 10th consecutive IMF test. Further there has been an uptick in GDP growth of 0.4%. Unemployment is also trending down from 13.8% to 13.2%. All of this is true and not to be scoffed at. The problem however is this: at the level of the average citizen hardship and despair stalk the land

‘Growth’ may come but few will ‘grow’

There is no end in sight. Significant growth in the economy continues to elude us. If and when this ‘growth,’ comes, it is likely to have little impact in raising the living standards of the average Jamaican even in the middle classes, let alone amongst the urban working class or rural poor. ‘Growth’ may come but few will ‘grow.’ We are in the grip of trickle-down growth and the Jamaican people know it. No matter which party wins the general election, the IMF program will continue. Our political leadership knows this reality but seeks to evade it by distracting us by a series of sideshow antics. Our civil society leadership seems also at a loss on economic matters. Rosy affirmations of macroeconomic progress are increasingly greeted with a yawn but it ends there.

We have had blazing economic growth before: under Norman Manley in the late 1950s/early 1960s, GDP growth actually rose to an astonishing 14% per annum! But inequality also soared and the upshot was the ‘have-and-have-nots’ debate which first brought Edward Seaga to national attention. This experience was repeated under Seaga in the late 1960s: high growth but even higher inequality. The result was the coming to power of Michael Manley in 1972.

The Quality of Growth: SME Strategy

Yet there are solutions and the leadership does exist in Jamaican society to find them. These solutions do not require an abandonment of the IMF program but do require a different emphasis. All the talk has been about ‘growth.’ But the issue is not simply ‘growth.’ We have had growth before yet poverty and the murder rate increased. The key question is the quality of growth. Who benefits and is the growth sustainable? Our present growth strategy is to emphasize macroeconomic stability and large investments. This is necessary but not sufficient. What we urgently need is an emphasis on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to supplement this. We cannot walk on one leg.

Our economic leadership needs to get off its macroeconomic high horse and down into the grassroots trenches where incomes are earned—or more usually not—in the real everyday life of the Jamaican people.

It is not a matter of replacing one strategy with another: that the two are complementary becomes clearer if we consider the case of the Mount Rosser bypass. This highway is already opening up opportunities for families in St. Ann and St. Catherine to offer bed and breakfast lodging to tourists on Airbnb. As is often the case, the people are ahead of the government and have grasped that, with the Internet, immense opportunities exist for attracting large number of tourists to stay in small homes all over rural Jamaica by direct low-cost global marketing techniques. Our beach-based tourism needs to be migrated into a hills-based tourism. This would put the US dollar directly into the hands of the Jamaican people—no trickle down here from some large all-inclusive to its hapless underpaid employees. No foreign exchange leakage either. Yet our Tourism Ministry has not taken significant steps to spearhead an aggressive movement in this very obvious direction.

Civil Society must rise to the challenge

This is only one example of what is possible—there are others. All of this carries huge security, social, cultural, environmental and other risks—no free lunch. But, as Arlene Harrison-Henry—our new Public Defender—is demonstrating, Jamaica has many committed and capable persons (and private institutions) from all walks of life and political tendencies capable of taking the lead in this more bottom-up approach to our development. Civil Society must therefore take direct proactive leadership of economic policy and make it central.

Author: Annie Paul

writer, editor and avid tweeter anniepaulose@gmail.com

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