Evening Sun Can’t Dry Clothes…

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My Gleaner column of April 12, 2017

Reparation begins at home and last week’s unprecedented government apology to Rastafari for the Coral Gardens ‘incident’—really an attempted pogrom or ethnic cleansing by the state—is a good beginning. In the years just before independence there was a worry that Marxist extremists, emboldened by Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Batista in Cuba in 1959, might influence militant Rastas to do the same in Jamaica.

It might seem preposterous today but in 1960 a Rastafarian elder named Reverend Claudius Henry wrote a letter to Castro asking for help in overthrowing the “oppressors” in Jamaica. This was followed by his son, a Black nationalist activist from the USA, Ronald Henry, and members of his First Afrika Corps who had established a military training camp in a remote area in the Red Hills, ambushing and killing two Royal Hampshire Marines. In an interview I did with Professor Robert Hill some years ago he said that for the next six days they were hunted down in the largest search operation that Jamaica had ever witnessed with close to a thousand military and police taking part in the search.

Norman Manley was then the Premier of Jamaica and his security adviser was the noted anthropologist MG Smith. According to Hill Smith viewed the Rastafari as a serious security threat, describing the situation thus in a letter: “Revolution becomes Redemption with Repatriation as the issue provoking bloodshed. The Marxist vanguard wears a Niyabingi cloak.”

Of course anyone who knows Rastafari today realizes how remote such an eventuality really was. But in those days Rastas were seen as disreputable, dangerous thieves and murderers both by the PNP, the JLP and the middle and upper classes generally, mainly because with their dreadlocks, their vernacular speech and smoking of ganja the brethren violated every aspect of the codes of respectability and faux gentility the upper crust lived by.

The persecution of Rastafari by the state started way back in the 30s when according to the Observer: “For preaching against the British monarchy and pledging open allegiance to the Ethiopian Emperor, Howell and Hinds were arrested and charged in January 1934 in St Thomas for sedition. The trial of those early Rastafari preachers was heavily reported in the Daily Gleaner and followed by the general populace, as Jamaicans became exposed to public anti-Rastafari sentiment. The Rastafari doctrine and community were on trial and under scrutiny…The police attended at Howell’s camp in St Thomas and smashed it. Between 1934 and 1935 other early Rastafari leaders were also targeted and prosecuted, including Archibald Dunkley in 1934 and 1935 and Joseph Hibbert in 1935.”

By the time of the Coral Gardens events in 1963, the Jamaica Labour Party was in power and plans were afoot to develop prime St James properties into exclusive enclaves for tourists.The problem was that these were areas co-inhabited by Rastas and it was feared tourists might be alarmed by sightings of the unshorn bredren. On April 11, 1963, there was a series of incidents in Coral Gardens resulting in the burning down of a gas station and the death of 8 people, including two policemen. According to Professor Horace Campbell the Jamaican state used the altercation at Coral Gardens, to mount a violent campaign against the Rastafarian community in Western Jamaica.

“The brethren had claimed freedom of movement for themselves and for other oppressed Jamaicans. They were being prevented from walking along the areas of the Coast close to the Half Moon Bay Hotel. These areas were being segregated in order to make the Montego Bay area ready for international investments in tourism.”

The biggest landowner in St James in those days was Sir Francis Moncrieff Kerr-Jarrett. “He continuously petitioned the Governor and the colonial office to clamp down on the Rastafari who he described as ‘an undesirable sect’ saying that the governor should do everything to discourage their activities During the latter years of the fifties, Kerr Jarrett was behind one of the conservative movements to appear in Jamaica under the guise of Moral Rearmament. In the years 1951-1960 he was the principal patron of this conservative cold war pseudo-religious movement. Through the activism of Kerr Jarrett, the colonial special branch police had placed numerous Rastafari camps under surveillance and had used the Vagrancy laws of the period of enslavement against the camps of the Rastafari.”

This is the background to the explosion that took place at Coral Gardens that fateful day in April 1963. It is surely one of the finest ironies that 55 years later the Jamaican tourist product is inconceivable without the accompanying image and sound of Rastafari. We have lived long enough to see Bob Marley’s words come true: “the stone that the builder refused, shall be the head cornerstone.”

The government’s apology comes not a moment too late but the accompanying offer of reparation in the sum of $10 million dollars seems paltry. It is too little, too late and exemplifies that wonderful saying “Evening sun can’t dry clothes.”

As Bunny Wailer exclaimed on Facebook:

“AFTER RASTAFARI CREATE BILLIONS OF WEALTH FOR BRAND JAMAICA, THEM WANT OFFER RASTA $10,000,000 DOLLARS? $10,000,000 DOLLARS is what its costing just to produce my One Love Tribute Show! Its A Disgrace When I First Heard It & It’s No Less Now!”

What the Rastafari always wanted was land to live and grow on. If money is in short supply, why can’t the Government make up the shortfall by apportioning land to them? There’s certainly plenty of land lying idle all around the island; this would go much further toward repairing the wounds of yesterday and also prove that the apology is sincere.

Uncivil Disobedience

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My Gleaner column of April 5, 2017

It all started with UWI anthropologist Herbert Gayle saying that in his not so humble opinion there is no such thing as violence against women. The Gleaner followed that up with a 24-page supplement this January titled “Light on Violence” based on Gayle’s research. Naturally there was no mention in it of violence against women because as has been made clear, in the Gayle universe such a thing doesn’t exist.

While I can understand and sympathize with the desire to push back at UN-dictated terms of reference in the funding of social research I thought putting out a 24-page document on violence in Jamaica with not one page or section referring to the violence women face daily was going too far. A section called “Four forms of violence we need to worry about” doesn’t identify violence against women or domestic violence as one, despite the fact that in the months preceding this publication and the weeks immediately following it, the news was filled with reports of horrific murders of women very often by men they were close to.

In addition, the number of women and children routinely being raped points to a pervasive ‘rape culture’ that is so deeply ingrained and accepted that there is hardly any outcry against it. A blogger calling herself Natural Icon Beauty recalls at the age of 6 reporting to the family helper that she had been molested by the next-door neighbor and being told that this was normal, that the helper had gone through this too as a child and that it was probably because the man’s wife was away (!)

Because nine out of ten times this is the reaction of adults to whom a child confesses his or her violation the conviction rate for rape and sexual abuse is abominably low; most women don’t even bother to report their rapes because of the tortuous procedures involved that make them relive the trauma in the process of being interviewed by police and legal personnel bristling with disbelief and completely lacking in empathy. So much for the worry that women are going to come out of the woodworks making false accusations when evidence shows that even when there IS a case they are routinely dissuaded from reporting rape or are reluctant to do so because of the loss of reputation they suffer in the process.

Take Larissa Rhone who gathered the courage after 30 years to bring her grandmother’s husband to court in Jamaica for systematically violating her from the age of 5 to 16. For this she was vilified by the defense lawyer, as well as by her grandmother and others who called her wicked for ‘ruining’ an old man’s life, completely oblivious to the number of young lives his marauding libido had wrecked, for it wasn’t just Larissa but her younger siblings, cousins and even her own mother who had been violated by this man. Yet she and the other victims were all urged to remain silent about their traumas.

Matters were bound to come to a head. On March 11 women dubbing themselves survivors, marched in Kingston and all over the Caribbean protesting the violence routinely meted out to them. In Kingston the march was organized under the aegis of a new organization calling itself Tambourine Army. The protest was preceded by much disgruntlement and kass kass within the activist community between what someone referred to as an older, more ‘staid’ form of activism and the bolder, more risk-taking approach of younger activists fed up of a violent status quo immune to the tactics of older activists.

The newcomers were accused of being too angry, emotional and confrontational. Worse they had no qualms about lobbing profanities. But as singer Tanya Stephens, herself a survivor, retorted: “ The question is not why am I so angry. The question is why the f*%$ aren’t you?” To the criticism that the Tambourine Army was born out of an act of violence (what Global Voices called the bonking on the head of one of the accused with a tambourine) Stephens says: “Yes guys, the tambourine army was formed around an act of violence. That act of violence was RAPE.”

It was writer Kei Miller who neatly put his finger on what is important about Tambourine Army’s modus operandi.

“What is truly radical about the Tambourine Army and the #SayTheirNames campaign is not that a raping parson did get kuff by a tambourine, or that they took to the streets to march and make up noise, or that one of their leaders got thrown into jail. All of that is par for the course in social justice movements. So no. The most radical thing about this movement is the simple belief at the heart of their campaign. ‘I choose to believe you.’ Just that. So simple. If you are a victim of rape, and you come to me, ‘I choose to believe you.’”

In the meantime to quote Stella Gibson, the alter ego of Latoya Nugent, who was arrested under the Cyber Crimes Act for naming alleged sexual predators: “I stand with survivors because ‘enough is b0#$%&#@?t enough’.” To my mind the burning question we are left with is this: what exactly are we doing as a society when we penalize the use of words like’ f&^%#g’ while systematically deflecting punishment from the men f&^%#g underage girls and raping women?

See and blind, hear and deaf…

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The following is my unedited Gleaner column of March 22, 2017. Because it goes directly against the anti-Latoya Nugent and anti-#saytheirnames position adopted by the Gleaner this column wasn’t even shown in the Commentary lineup today (the sidebar showing columns published on a particular day), and you would have had to search hard to find it, very odd considering the number of views it has attracted. Anyway, thank the various gods for blogs…i can easily remedy the situation by posting it here.

The latest is that Nugent’s case which was to have been heard today has been postponed to March 31 because DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) Paula Llewelyn has announced ‘an interest’ in the case. We shall see when the time comes what this ‘interest’ means for issues of libel and defamation in cyberspace. Meanwhile the fate of Latoya Nugent aka as Stella Gibson on Facebook (the name of a hardcore police detective who’s an unapologetic feminist from the British show The Fall) hangs in the balance.

As I pointed out in an earlier column, Jamaican men cry rape every time women say, “Yes, let’s say their names.” A kind of hysteria breaks out because somehow they hear this as women demanding the right to falsely accuse men of raping them. But this is not what women are demanding at all, particularly in the new activism around violence against women.

According to Latoya Nugent, one of the founders of Tambourine Army, most of what has been said in both traditional and social media about the#saytheirnames movement is a damaging and gross misrepresentation. She clarifies that the movement is emphatically not about recklessly calling names without any context:

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When we encourage survivors to say the names of perpetrators we are not telling them where to say that name, when to say that name, we are telling them that if they are ever ready to say the names of their perpetrators in private and/or in public that support is available. Whether you want emotional support, psychological support or legal support, it is available for you. I want folks to appreciate that this is about facilitating the empowerment of survivors and about shifting the blame and shame away from survivors and placing it squarely at the feet of perpetrators and institutions which have allowed folks to abuse their positions of authority and trust because they are aware that we as a society silence our victims and our perpetrators. Our first response when a woman or girl says to us that they have been sexually assaulted or raped is that we don’t believe them and #Saytheirnames is about saying to such women, ‘we believe you, if you decide to come forward we believe you, we will provide the support that you need and if we can’t provide it, we will point you to the entities, or the agencies or the individuals who can give you the support that is needed.’ (Transcribed verbatim from an interview with Nationwide’s Cliff Hughes the day before Latoya Nugent was arrested)

Basically there has been a ‘see and blind, hear and def’ or “see not, hear not, speak not” policy in place in Jamaica for decades. There is widespread buy-in from civil society, the media, the Church, the University, the legal fraternity, you name it. It is enforced by an army of prim citizens, whose first reaction when you speak out about an injustice is to raise their finger to their lips in the universal gesture that means ‘halt your speech’ or ‘stop your noise’ as they say here.

People are socialized to believe that it is fundamentally wrong to ‘call someone’s name’ in public, especially in the media. This should only be done after accusations have been proved in court they say. But court cases take years to be completed in Jamaica and even when they do, often fail to deliver justice. Take the case of the Reverend Paul Lewis, accused of raping a 14-year old girl in Sav-la-Mar, in the presence of another 14-year old girl who testified in court to the rape. Despite the Reverend’s semen being found on the child’s underwear, despite the testimony of an eyewitness, a Jamaican court saw fit to hand down a ‘not-guilty’ verdict.

More often than not rape victims don’t report the crime or give up during the extremely painful, invasive process of going to court to prosecute their attackers. A senior lecturer at UWI says: “I’ve watched helplessly while one of my (now former) students went through 4 years of appearances, delays, and postponements in the courts for the prosecution of two young men whom she had been able to identify as being among her assailants in a gang rape. She eventually decided to pull out of the case. As she put it, they had taken enough of her life, and every time she was required to make another court appearance, she relived the experience. She needed to move on. Justice denied. I wish the perpetrators could be named.”

“Every year, an average of 5,500 people are reporting sexual violence to Canadian police, but their cases are dropping out of the system as unfounded long before a Crown prosecutor, judge or jury has a chance to weigh in,” reports the Globe and Mail. The use of the term ‘unfounded’ to describe cases that the police have dropped due to the inadequacies of their own methods of interviewing victims, taking statements etc has been identified as highly problematic. The article goes on to state:

“True unfounded cases, which arise from malicious or mistaken reports, are rare. Between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of complaints are false reports, according to research from North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.”

There is no reason the numbers would be markedly different in Jamaica. Why then the moral panic about the mere possibility of libel in cyberspace? And why is there not a similar outcry about the out-of-control rape culture here?

‘Nah mek dem win’: The rise of the Tambourine Army

The following is the unedited version of my March 15, 2017, column in the Gleaner

March 11, 2017. Tambourine Army’s emotionally charged, moving survivors’ march from the Moravian Church at 127 Molynes Road to Mandela Park in Half Way Tree Square was one of several held across the Caribbean that day. It was probably also the most heart-wrenching one, organized as it was mostly by survivors of rape and abuse, for many of whom this was a cathartic experience. Impressive also were the number of men who participated in this 700-strong march, a record number for non-political or religious public protests in Jamaica.

Heralded by dissension on social media and fallout with earlier generations of feminist activists the Tambourine Army nevertheless prevailed on March 11, their well-orchestrated, rootsy, Rasta drum- and pan-driven procession moving at a nimble pace through the streets of Kingston. Led by flag woman Taitu Heron, gloriously clad in Orisha-inspired white and expertly manipulating a large white flag in front of purple-clad marchers the procession packed quite a visual punch. Such a pity that neither of the two TV stations in Jamaica seemed to be there (recalling the famous words of Gil Scott-Heron “The revolution will not be televised…”) so that it fell on social media to disseminate the colourful images.

A truck with a sound system accompanied the procession, pumping out the doleful but mesmerizing song ‘Nah Mek Dem Win’ with lyrics telling an all too familiar Jamaican story. Young girl being abused by her father, tries in vain to bring it to the attention of her family, yet:

Mama neva listen
Aunty neva listen
Mi try tell mi sista but…. She neva listen
But this is healing time…
An you don’t have to do it on your own
Just Stan Firmm.

Nah mek dem win
Nah mek dem win…

Keisha Firmm, author and singer of ‘Nah mek dem win’ is the survivor of a horror story herself. After her mother’s death her relatives sent her to England to live with a man who claimed to be her father. The inevitable happened leaving young Keisha full of anger and pain with nowhere to turn for help. Questions kept swirling through her mind. Why had this happened to her? How could society leave children to the mercy of predators with no protection whatsoever? Would she ever be normal again?

I asked her how participating in the march had made her feel. Less empty, said Keisha, less alone. A student in UTECH’s USAID-funded Fi Wi Jamaica arts residency programme, sharing her story and turning it into song has been therapeutic for Keisha, who hopes that it will help other young women like herself. During the march the truck would stop along the way allowing different survivors to share their stories, the singer Tanya Stephens, among them.

Leading the march, right behind the flagwoman, was a row of black clad women, in armour-like. outfits. They were members of En Kompane, the dance troupe started by virtuoso dancer Neila Ebanks. When the procession reached Mandela Park to find that the generator had packed up and there was no sound, the rag tag live instrumental band struck up and Neila danced a powerful ‘cutting and clearing’ dance.

Cutting and clearing space for themselves was what this march was about for the women and men who participated in it. The unseemly pre-March kass kass between older feminists who should know better and younger activists whose zeal and passion at times made them hotheaded and confrontational was unfortunate. The public’s apathy made me realize that there’s no culture here of holding protest marches, or protests generally. The Immediate response of too many is—what is a protest going to achieve? They miss the point. For the victims of abuse who participated the march was part of the healing process. For others like artist Deborah Anzinger, who brought her 6-year old daughter, it

“…felt like a valuable step and exercise. As children we never learned of organized demonstrations/protesting as an option for us to show disapproval of any social problem. It felt good introducing this to our daughter and her friend. It was an opportunity to talk to them about how far we’ve come towards basic equality and human rights for all people and how much further there is to go.”

I’ll close by quoting Kashka Hemans whose Facebook status said it all:

“… Respect where respect is due. I’d like to congratulate the Tambourine Army on their fearless and, in many ways, peerless activism in the cause of ending gender-based violence in Jamaica. I am discomfited by some of their strategies and harbour doubts about the long term effectiveness of the contestational stance they have at times taken but, you know what? So what? I stand with them on the basis of what they stand for. I also stand with others who represent a more staid approach to activism. There is space and a need for many voices and approaches. But the present moment belongs to the Tambourine Army, they are giving a platform to many women to tell their stories, to vent, to ‘gwaan bad’ and cuss claat in a country where claat cussing is the only language many in officialdom seem to understand. More power to you sisters, may your movement grow in strength and impact.”

How to thwart the Gay agenda

My Gleaner column of February 8, 2017. Reactions to it ranged from amusing to predictable to baffling. 

You are the head of a self-appointed coalition to foster a ‘healthy society’ in Jamaica. You are also a medical doctor. Or you are the head of an assembly of churches, a Reverend. No, not one of those going around molesting young girls. No, no not one of those. You are both dedicated to the policing of gender boundaries in Jamaica. Men are men and women are women and there shall be nothing betwixt or between.

You are duty-bound to police the borders of Jamaica against interlopers and unwanted immigrants. Why, even Donald Trump is taking a leaf out of your book! Those who ignore or show lack of respect for gender boundaries are not welcome in Jamaica. It is your solemn duty to make this clear to every citizen. You have to be particularly vigilant against the Gay Agenda, a global conspiracy involving institutions at the highest levels—the UN, the World Bank, the EU—whose goal is to destroy the world (and inter alia the Jamaican family) by legalizing gay marriage.

If, God forbid, gay marriage is legalized in Jamaica  it will be the beginning of the end. For all and sundry will take up with their own gender, setting up same sex households all over the country, and soon procreation will grind to a halt. There are no examples, as yet, of this happening in countries where gay marriage has been legalized but so what? Reality is not a shackle. Keep stressing the following point. How can we have a healthy society without children?

As for feminists. They too must be kept from invading Jamaica where we like to do things in old, time-honored ways. It is a pity that slavery was officially abolished two centuries ago. What is wrong with slavery? Nothing at all. Slaves are essential to healthy families. Women are meant  to cook, clean, raise children and provide sex for heads of households at no pay. Also the sex part is non-negotiable, women must deliver when the subject is broached. Shop must remain open 24/7. Think Open Access is a new sumpn?

It’s just that slavery must be gender-based. This is why it’s so important to distinguish between the sexes. There can be no ambiguity about this. Men and women who break these rules must be enslaved by our cultural rules. Either they conform to these or they leave. It is for the benefit of the nation. Our good name is at stake.

Also, it is to be noted that rape is a crime that can only be inflicted on women for Jamaican law defines sexual intercourse under the Sexual Offences Act as “penetration of the vagina of one person by the penis of another person”. Rape occurs when there is sexual intercourse without the consent of the woman. That is, for rape to happen, there has to be penetration of a vagina. By a penis.  If a man buggers a boy or man that is not rape; if a man thrusts his penis into your daughter’s mouth without her consent that is not rape either; nor is penetration of one’s orifices, vaginal or not, by the forced intrusion of an object, considered rape.

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This actually means that homosexual men who bugger other men or boys get away with a lesser charge of grievous sexual assault, with much milder punishment compared to rape but so what? “Anal penetration is wrong in 2017 and anal penetration will still be wrong in the year 3000.” We can’t let ourselves be fooled by such tactics.  Sometimes the truth is inconvenient…but let that not stand in your way. Redefinition of rape is a Trojan horse to bring in gay marriage. The Gay Agenda must be stopped at all costs. It’s the Al Quaeda of the god-fearing world, the ISIS of virtuous, law-abiding countries such as Jamaica.

What about all those women who keep turning up murdered, you ask? Like the one in the barrel in St Thomas? Ignore them man. More than likely they were asking for it. Its just the work of feminists. That is why we have to oust them too. There is too much sensationalizing of crimes against women, the media gives them too much space. “Men die everyday . Boys are molested and sexually assaulted in every community. But what? No one cries out, protests, chastises government or prays about it. Male lives matter too.”

Hat tip to the brilliant Nigerian satirist, Elnathan John.

‘Tis the Season to Protest

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Correction: This teach in was on Feb 17 which was last week. No wonder the Gleaner removed the information. Mea culpa…have made the necessary adjustments to tense.

It’s time to resurrect Active Voice. My column in the Gleaner today was pruned of most of the last 2 paragraphs which talk about the planned Teach-in at UWI this Friday concerning the review of the Sexual Offences Act (#SOAReview). Since this is a very important example of the kind of citizen participation I’m talking about, I thought it important to carry the unexpurgated version on my blog.

My first visit to the United States since Donald Trump became president of the country was uneventful. New York City was bustling with activity as usual, as was the conference I attended. The College Arts Association is the largest association of art professionals in the US–including artists, art historians, critics, curators, art writers and publishers. Their annual conference attracts 4000 attendees and each of 5 time slots a day might have up to 18 concurrent panels. The mammoth conference runs for four days.

Landing at John F Kennedy airport in the afternoon there were no lines at immigration. In fact everyone had to scan their passports at kiosks, then photograph and press their fingers on screens themselves before proceeding to an actual agent who engaged minimally to retake fingerprints and photographs. Kiosks are always unnerving, even for someone as technologically literate as I am so i wondered how others with less experience were faring.

Then I was off to my airbnb room in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, by public transport, the air train to–where else–Jamaica, in Queens, and then the E train which took me within a block of my accommodation. Unlike hotels, airbnb accommodation in the city might often be in 3-or 4-storied buildings without elevators so packing lightly is a must. My room turned out to be very comfortable though i never fail to be amazed at how constrained for space many New Yorkers are. I had never seen such a tiny bathroom till then. My hosts were incredibly thoughtful and pleasant which more than made up for the cramped quarters.

On the up side i was in the middle of an avenue of good restaurants, a block away from Broadway with all its glitz and glitter and a healthy walk from the Hilton where the conference was. What are conferences and why do people go to them? Those who pooh pooh them disregard the exchange of knowledge, ideas and concepts that occur at such events. The world is not a mechanical place: beneath the technology, the geopolitics and the surface of the societies we inhabit, lie webs of ideas, theories, and hypotheses.

Knowledge is a communal enterprise, not the product of individuals sitting cocooned in their castles. The cross-fertilization that occurs simply by listening to new points of view on the same subject you might be researching is invaluable. The arc of the scholarly enterprise may be long but it bends towards insight. And insight is essential in these dark times.

An unusual addition to this conference was a wall of protest for people to display posters and slogans on behalf of their cause, whatever that might be. Quite a few of them addressed the Trump presidency. Jostling a sign for the Society of Contemporary Art Historians was one saying, “Trump is the symptom, capitalism is the disease.” “Germans against walls and white nationalism” announced another. “NOT MY PRESIDENT”. “This is not normal”. “Make American kind again.”

One of my favorites just said TRUST WOMEN. On the eve of possibly having a female police commissioner for the first time, and a few weeks before March 11 when the Tambourine Army plans to mobilize women onto Kingston’s streets to protest the unremitting violence they face this is a good slogan for all of us.

The Tambourine Army is asking people to wear purple on March 11 and join the protest. “Bring your friends, your family, your colleagues, your neighbours and let’s march in solidarity as one Jamaica against sexual abuse, against rape, against all forms of sexual violence against our women and girls.”

Also on Friday, February 17, the I’m Glad I’m A Girl Foundation partnered with UN Women and the Tambourine Army to host a full day teach-in on the Sexual Offences Act. A presentation on the Act and related Acts was made by Tracy Robinson (Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UWI Mona) in the morning, and discussions with advocates about how folks can contribute to the current review of the Act followed in the afternoon.

Citizen participation is the name of the game, WE have to become the change we want to see. Purple is the colour of power, let’s put it on and take to the streets come. To all the men out there come show your support for us, with or without tambourines, on March 11 and we’ll reciprocate by joining the one for violence against men whenever you choose to organize it. Deal?

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.