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The struggle for economic independence

Michael Burke

Thursday, November 08, 2018

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On November 10, 1968 (50 years ago this coming Saturday), Norman Washington Manley gave his valedictory address to the People's National Party (PNP). On that occasion, he proclaimed that the mission of his generation was to bring political independence, but the mission of the next generation would be to bring about economic independence.

By way of explanation, in those days the PNP conference was divided between the business session in the latter part of the year, called the first leg of the conference, and the session for elections (called the second leg of the conference) in the early part of the following year. This explains why Manley made his valedictory address in November 1968, but the election for his successor was on February 9, 1969, when his son Michael was elected PNP president.

As it turned out, difficult as it was to secure political independence, achieving economic independence is much harder, especially in Jamaica's cultural context. We have our national faults of crime, violence and indiscipline, part of which is caused by the state of domestic family life in Jamaica going back to the days of piracy and slavery.

In the last 56 years of political independence, our education system simply has not done enough to socially transform our people in these matters. Add the fact that Jamaica has suffered a serious brain drain from before the days of political independence. North America is 'next door', and they pay better salaries. That is life, and we simply have to work with that.

Economic buoyancy is not necessarily the same thing as economic independence. For example, a well-paid chief executive officer in a private corporation might have a greater personal allowance to purchase goods and services, but depends on continuity of employment for that, which is solely determined by the boss. Any loan that the CEO might personally have with a financial institution causes more dependence. The same with a nation whose dependency is on borrowing but is economically buoyant. Economic independence means independence from borrowing and debt.

While there was economic buoyancy in the 1950s and 1960s, Jamaica was not economically independent, as we had outstanding loans. True, we had no other choice if we were to improve our infrastructure, educate our people, and create employment, but we should not mistake one for the other when we try to understand ourselves.

At that time of Jamaica's economic buoyancy in the 1950s and 1960s it was the wealthy Jamaicans who enjoyed the benefits, not the barefooted, hungry and unhealthy poor. As I have written before, the viewing of just one photograph of primary school children taken in the 1950s or 1960s will suffice in giving balance to the discussion. Fortunately, there is better distribution of wealth in Jamaica since political independence than previously and the quality of life has improved.

We have a problem with crime, violence, indiscipline, and also a problem with deep unhappiness caused by stress, which is caused mainly by personal debts. But that is separate and apart from the fact that the wealth in Jamaica is far more equitably distributed today than before, but far more needs to be done. And, of course, far more needs to be done to achieve economic independence for Jamaica as a nation.

Those who have an addiction to comparing Jamaica with Singapore should consider the following: There was a time when Jamaican athletes did very badly at the Olympics and other games with the exception of Herb McKenley and Arthur Wint.

I witnessed in 1966 at the Commonwealth Games, held at the National Stadium, other Jamaicans laughing and jeering our own athletes as they came dead last in just about every race. Today we have forgotten this as we rejoice when our athletes and games persons do well in sport. Will this happen also in terms of economics?

We decry ourselves because Singapore achieved political independence after us but is ahead of us economically. But what if the day comes when we surpass Singapore, just as we have with every other nation in some sports?

As far-fetched as that might appear, the idea of Usain Bolt, for example, making Jamaica proud was also far-fetched in 1966. In 1976, a short 10 years after the Commonwealth Games of 1966, Donald Quarrie won a gold medal at the Olympics. Were the jubilant Jamaicans the same ones who jeered our athletes a decade before that?

What about Greece — which we know about from reading the Bible — that is today in a serious financial crisis? The truth is that there is nothing that guarantees permanent economic independence, and we can learn this not only from nations but from multinational corporations.

How any airlines, for example, have merged over the years? How many banks have merged? This is all part of the ups and downs of economics. And there will be crises in countries. In the colonial days, Jamaica suffered a serious decline in sugar export after slavery was fully abolished in 1838, obliging Jamaica to add bananas to the economic mix as well as tourism.

Since political independence, the oil-producing countries, in December 1973, demanded a higher price for oil. In this 21st century, our banana industry collapsed. With refrigeration technology, the boat owners are no longer obliged to purchase Jamaican bananas but can buy them anywhere on Earth without fear of spoilage occurring before reaching their points of sale.

We have had to adjust to these new realities. There will be more to come, and that is life.

Yes, we should have been further 'up the road' than we are now — 50 years since Norman Manley charged the following generation with the mission of achieving economic independence. But we also should be objective and realistic as we continue the arduous journey towards full economic independence.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or ekrubm765@yahoo.com.

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