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Sunday, December 17, 2017

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Dear editor,

No matter how one looks at it, one is forced to conclude that the Economic Growth Council (EGC) lacks focus. Too many opportunities are being discussed at the same time and no clear priority based on the key drivers of success: value, time and complexity. It is difficult to understand how some of our best minds do not see that we are beating bushes.

That is why it is so hard to see real progress. It is one thing to say “red tape” is stifling progress, but which is the area we need to “free up” in order to advance?

Knowing what you will not do or what you will not focus on is the critical piece of strategy that is being overlooked. What we have been seeing is that everyone wants to do everything; and everybody believes that their interest should be served, and now.

But if we had a sound strategy, we would not be so easily distracted and we would realise that we are reducing our ability to win by stretching ourselves so thinly. Strategy automatically means that some areas have already been prioritised as growth drivers, which implies that all others must either operate in maintenance mode, or that we must dis-invest in others to fund the real (drivers of the) strategy.

The recent discussions on the BPO sector is a good example. Much like the garment manufacturing industry in the 80s, BPO is critical to preventing jobless growth. So if we had properly evaluated the opportunity, we should have known of resource constraints in that sector at least a year ago – not today. Education would have been tweaked 12-24 months ago and even university curriculum would already have been reflecting those imperatives. The EGC needs to bring this kind of focus to government.

The fact that the EGC has no authority is just as worrying. The prime minister has tried to get around that my appointing powerful Jamaicans to the council, with the expectation that they will be able to influence elected officials, a somewhat trenchant opposition and entrenched technocrats across the affected ministries. This makes some sense – some people are influenced by others who are eminently successful, while some will definitely kowtow to well-known names. And the composition of the team is mostly very strong; Lee Chin’s record speaks for itself; Hylton is really unmatched in strategy, Stewart comes across as a “doer…”

Yet it appears that something is just not clicking.

The members of the council must be aware of the role that Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) played in the reconstruction of Japan after WWII. That was done through a concentration of raw power – which would later evolve to “powerful influence.” Lee Kuan Yew did something similar in Singapore decades after, using an Economic Development Board, even if settling on multi- national financing as the major source of foreign investment to boost the economy, came through trial and error.

But make no mistake, in these scenarios, influence only works when it has power. For example, someone has to ‘bell the cat’ in the ministries who should be solving real problems but who have been historically politically opportunistic. And someone must have authority to “do” given the penchant of successive governments to lead by announcements. If the doing is to come from the PM and his super-office, we have yet to see any bold, hugely significant, centrally directed initiative that is going to yield say a three per cent incremental growth in GDP in two years.

The EGC reminds me of EPOC - a vehicle for reporting. But toothless. So it can hardly be held accountable for the 5 in 4 target, and that becomes even more evident as the team waffles from “goal” to “aspirational target.” The team can hardly be accountable or effective without some power, and that will require legislation. But legislation will need consensus - which means that both political parties must agree to the long term need for the EGC, and the major strategies to be pursued for long term growth, even if the means differ.

Perhaps this is the real opportunity. Make EGC work and we would have found the way to stop the bleeding which comes from a culture of short term thinking.

Beyond that, the EGC has no business "focusing on crime." How can it when it has no expertise in the area? The council can recognise that people will always seek to re-balance the scales of injustice when they feel distressed by socio-economic inequity, or that political grafting has long fed the flames of our mental slavery. But that is nothing knew - everybody already knows that.

The council can ensure that they focus on the three to five major projects to get the growth needed to re-balance the scales. The council can also harness the economic power of the entire private sector to drive the process of detribalisation. That would also include taking quiet, influencing steps to address campaign financing and to stop the private sector support of some obviously tainted politicians.

The EGC might be toothless today. But it may be time to institutionalise the process and use it to make real change happen in a country desperate for cultural and political change.

Isn’t it time we stopped starting over?

Vincent Gordon




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