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The triumph of the 'informal'

Howard Gregory

Sunday, December 03, 2017

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Any serious examination of the biblical tradition will reveal that God not only is represented as creating human beings to live in community, but that community should be structured by a system of governance for the good ordering of the life of its inhabitants. The State, then, expressed through our institutions of governance, is part of the provision of God for the good ordering of society, but that governance is never absolute, it is accountable to the people and to God who stands supreme over all.

One of the things of which we can be proud as Jamaicans is our system of governance, which is based upon the bicameral design of the Westminster model, and the history of democratic changes in government which we have enjoyed since our Independence — a feat not to be minimised when measured against the situation in several nations whose independent state is more recent.

At the same time, the effectiveness of a system of governance is not based merely on the philosophical and theoretical framework on which it is based. To that extent, there are concerns which surface from time to time in the life of a people which raise concerns about the degree to which the system and its constitutive elements are functioning in the best interest of the nation. And this is not about changing one political party for another, but the way in which the system works, and the extent to which, at any point in time, it is able to effectively address the challenges which confront the nation.

In this regard, I want to raise up for our consideration the degree to which some of the informal structures and subcultures are setting the agenda for whichever party is in power, wielding influence, and determining the way in which life is conducted in the nation.

Over the last few decades the term “informal” has crept into popular usage by both citizens and Government alike to acknowledge the operation of certain dynamics and influences which are not within the control of government or constitutive of any formal structure within the society.

Perhaps the most outstanding is the use of the term 'informal' to replace the previous designation of certain communities as “captured communities”. The change in terminology is significant, as it is a recognition by both Government and citizens that the people who settle in these communities have been the leaders in the development of residential communities across the island. It also points to the failure of repeated governments to have a long-term plan for the creation of residential communities, or because of poverty or the unavailability of adequate housing in those cities and towns where jobs are available, driven by demographic changes and commercial development. Not to be overlooked is the fact that political parties in Jamaica find it politically astute to be the sponsors and godfathers of these communities when they form the opposition because the votes which reside in these communities are not inconsequential in a general election in unseating the incumbent party.

The power and leadership of these communities is evident in the task which they then assign to those in governance of trying to put in place the infrastructure which a planned community should have at the outset within the formal structures of society — a task made infinitely more difficult from the back end, and resulting in the narrow lanes and zinc fences which have characterised a community like Flanker in Montego Bay. Additionally, the Government is placed in a position in which it is forced to recognise the status of these individuals by offering security of tenure and giving the titles to the land they occupy. That there are today more informal communities across the island than government-planned ones, and that these continue to grow, tell a story of who is in charge.

The term 'informal' also came into popular usage in the 1980s when a group of entrepreneurial citizens, women in particular, began to take agricultural goods for sale in Cayman and to inject foreign exchange into this nation when it was a scarce commodity. That circle widened to include trips to free zones in other places and to the United States. So successful were these citizens that they were no longer referred to as “higglers” but “informal commercial importers”. These were individuals who, without any vision or input from those in charge of governance of the day, saw a possibility for themselves and for the nation. Today, we know that they have been given status as part of an association, their contribution to the economy is not inconsequential, but the full extent of it is not known to officialdom.

The nation has always had an informal economy manifested in the many “partner” arrangements, known by different names in different communities, as well as those who live by making cash transactions and avoiding the formal banking sector. This situation is made worse by the draconian regulations governing the banking sector, and which still leaves a significant percentage of Jamaicans without any connection to the banking sector. It means that there is a section of the economy whose contribution to the formal economy is a matter of conjecture.

While the term 'informal' may not be used in relation to other dynamics, it speaks of a subculture which is setting the agenda and tone of life in the society which is now in clear defiance of the law and holding devastating potential for our nation. As yet, it is evident that they are moving ahead of the system of governance. In this regard, I must observe that it has been quite a while since the nation has been hearing about the tabling of revised legislation related to the road traffic regulations by which the authorities hope to create law-abiding citizens regarding conduct on our roads. In the meanwhile, there is an informal culture which is setting the rules of the road and which no law, draconian or otherwise, may be able to change in the foreseeable future. The violations are there for everyone to see, and each day new ones are created, but there seems to be no police presence at traffic lights when taxis ignore lanes and position themselves in the intersection ahead of waiting motorists, sometimes creating third lanes.

Today, many citizens are taking their cue from taxi drivers, and the evidence of middle-class complicity can be seen, for example, in Barbican every afternoon. We should not be surprised then to find that offending motorists with outstanding traffic tickets can call the shots in terms of an amnesty, and licences can be given to taxi drivers to race ahead of the State-provided buses and defeat the viability of that transport system.

Perhaps my most troubling concern regarding the operations of an informal subculture was highlighted just over a week ago on a visit to Westmoreland. There I learnt of the brazen young men who have ridden through Petersfield and Little London, and other communities, by day and by night, displaying their high-powered weapons and shooting in the air to terrorise and intimidate the residents. Not surprisingly, those who will talk about their experience do so in hushed tones, suggesting an element of accommodation induced by fear or acquiescence. Additionally, I was privy to social media pictures which show young women also holding high-powered weapons almost the same length as their height. What is clear in all of this is that those who are the players in this subculture are in defiance of the State and the law. It does not matter what statistics come from the Ministry of National Security or from the police high command, they intend to tell a different story, one of defiance.

The question is, how shall we deal with this subculture, whether defined as informal or not? The fact is that they exist, they have influence, and they have power (of money and guns), and they are youth-based. It may be useful to recall that the office of “don” is a creation of the informal ordering of some communities in which the oversight of governance was weak, and that the role played by dons in many of these communities is hair-raising, even as the residents acquiesced to the system or fiercely defended it.

And yet it was only a few months ago that this nation was having a debate as to whether contracts for the development of downtown Kingston should be negotiated with dons being a party to the same. Given the way in which governance has responded to the emergence of these informal entities and subcultures, will we once again see an accommodation to this latest development among the youth, or will we as citizens and those in governance say that there will be no triumph here for those who are in violation of the law? The alternative is too frightening to contemplate.

Right Reverend Howard Gregory is the Anglican Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

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