Is Jamaica 'coming in from the cold'?

Paul Golding

Sunday, May 20, 2018

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“Well, the biggest, biggest man you ever, ever did-a see, was-a was-a once a baby in this life, in this life, in this life in this, oh, sweet life, we're (coming in from the cold) from the cold.” — Coming in From the Cold, Bob Marley, Uprising album, released in 1980.

Despite all the negative optics that we have as a country; spiralling murder rate, zones of special operations, states of emergency, scamming, corruption, general uncouth behaviour — are we at an inflection point economically and socially in our development? Are there signs of this development? Are we coming in from the cold?

Our current context must be first examined through the lens of slavery (Don't forget your history; know your destiny). Four hundred years of slavery — whether it was a choice or not — was a socio-economic system which used extreme violence to subdue and dehumanise the black population. The philosophy behind slavery remains, and it simultaneously empowers the former slave masters and incapacitates the former slaves.

There are two poignant examples of this fact. The first occurred in 2015 when the United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, in an address to the Jamaican Parliament, had the gall to first admonish us for seeking reparation; remarking that the UK and Jamaica need to move on from slavery. If that were not enough disrespect, he went on to take credit for the abolition: “Slavery was and is abhorrent in all its forms. It has no place whatsoever in any civilised society, and Britain is proud to have eventually led the way in its abolition.” If that comment were injurious to our self-esteem, insult followed. Cameron furthered offered to invest 25 million on a new prison in Jamaica so hundreds of foreign criminals can be sent home to Jamaica, rather than serve their sentences in the UK. Reparation, UK style?

Note, the recent Windrush embarrassment wasn't an aberration, it was and is part of a philosophy. “Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned...”

The other side of this philosophical coin is how we have been brainwashed to see ourselves. My colleague, Tieca Harris, in a 2014 article, wrote: “It is unsettling to see fellow Jamaicans mixing chemicals such as household bleach and hydrogen peroxide with various creams, lotions and gels — which are all made up of possibly the same drugs plus other chemicals (leading to drug toxicity) — to bleach the skin.”

My grandmother, I recall, was completely indoctrinated, she knew that 'anything black neva good', among other self-derogatory comments. No chains around my feet but I'm not free.

The British made sure we were fit for purpose, and our purpose was to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. The policy position was that education would have been wasted on us. To underscore this point, a 1964 UNESCO survey indicated that approximately 50 per cent of the population over 15 years old was functionally illiterate. This meant that 50 per cent of the population “neva know 'A' from bullfoot”; or, woulda “eat bulla with dem name pon it”.

There are other cultural tendencies that we have developed as a result of slavery. These include begging or expecting handouts, the expectation that others will solve our problems for us, the informer culture, among other annoying traits.

This brief revision of history is not intended to cuss out the British or blame our current dilemma on slavery. In fact, what it does is to provide perspectives on the current challenges we face and to emphasise that we have to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery — none but ourselves can free our minds.

With all this said, the question remains: Are we coming in from the cold?

To further evaluate this theory we must examine the positive developments. Say you just can't live that negative way, if you know what I mean; make way for the positive day!

We can, therefore, evaluate these “positive vibrations” in terms of politics, infrastructure, culture, human development, and economy.

Politically our democracy has matured. The chaos associated with general elections appears to be in the rear-view mirror and, while the campaigning is just as vigorous, the related violence is absent. The day of the election and the day after are now workdays. Our elected officials are not inclined to change the constitution to remain in office for life, and the electorate seems more apt to remove a government for non-performance. Additionally, if press freedom is one of the pillars of democracy, the recent ranking of Jamaica in 6th place in the world press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders shouldn't be taken for granted.

The main road infrastructure has improved considerably in an economy that relies heavily on road transport for passenger and freight movement. The road infrastructure changes continue at a pace which is making Jamaica unrecognisable, with construction taking place on Mandela Highway, Barbican, Three Miles — and these are only in Kingston.

Jamaica's information and telecommunications technology infrastructure are among the best in the world. Mobile coverage is near ubiquitous, with over 90 per cent of the population owning a cellular phone. Telephone density was 8.2 per cent in 1990. Internet speeds were at an all-time high of 6789.74 KBps in 2017. There are important factors as the world economy moves relentlessly towards digitisation.

Jamaicans tend to under-appreciate how much of a global powerhouse we are culturally. In November 2017 we restarted a global social media debate on race and beauty with Miss Universe Jamaica Davina Bennett finishing third in the Miss Universe pageant, looking like a Nubian queen complete with afro. The pride that was felt in her performance was not limited to Jamaicans, but to black persons worldwide. The impact of Usain Bolt's dominance in track and field on the Jamaican psyche is hard to measure, but impossible to ignore. So, too, is Bob Marley. The exploits of these and other cultural icons have given us a major presence internationally which has led to a more confident nation.

Human development indicators have generally improved as Jamaica progresses towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The table herein points to some of the improvement made between 1990 and 2014.

The literacy rate referred to earlier (almost 50 per cent in 1970) has shown substantial improvement with current rates at approximately 89 per cent. Jamaica's demographics are also very favourable. Jamaica's working age population is the highest it has been in over 100 years, representing almost 48 per cent of the population. Assuming fixed output per worker, labour force participation rates and unemployment and an increase in the share of the working-age population should lead to an increase in the output per capita.

Even within the economy we have seen positive signs. The World Bank, in its March 2018 report, indicated that unemployment fell to 10.4 per cent in October 2017, while youth unemployment also fell to 25.4 per cent — the lowest since 2007.

The institutional reforms and efforts to improve the investment climate have started to bear fruit. The country's credit rating has improved and Jamaican bonds trade at a premium in international markets. Public and publicly guaranteed debt fell to 114 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of 2017. The minister of finance and the public service is projecting that debt to GDP will fall below 100 per cent by the end of the 2018/19 fiscal year.

So, while there is narrative to support, “Misty morning ain't see no sun,” it is important to remember that “the biggest man you ever did see was only just a baby”. This thesis suggests that there are factors to support the notion that we are coming in from the cold. However, “When the rain fall, it don't fall on one man's housetop, remember that.” Development must be inclusive.

Professor Paul Golding is dean of the College of Business and Management, University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or,jm.

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