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Nearly 17 years after ‘Life & Debt’ Jamaica remains in a precarious state

- Thanks in Part to the IMF & World Bank
January 2nd, 2018 | Tags:
Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. Photo: Getty Images
ATLANTA BLACK STAR

KINGSTON, Jamaica- Tourist brochures and adverts paint a lush picture of Jamaica, a 4,411 square-mile “patch of land” that is sun-kissed beaches, blue skies, puffy clouds, cool breezes and pastel sunsets.

But Jamaica is much more than the backdrop of a tourist playground. Move beyond the trendy tourist spots, Jamaicans say, and you’ll find the real treasure of these islands: 2.9 million resilient men and women making their way in the real world.

Simmering below the veneer of relative calm are a mélange of seemingly intractable problems and stark realities that Jamaicans on the island and in the diaspora say they all must confront if the island-nation is to provide more equitably for all its citizens, create a stable and safe environment and be competitive in the 21st century.

Dr. Stephen Vasciannie, president of Jamaica’s University of Technology, cited the high level of crime and violence, poverty and inequality (with their attendant challenges), and general economic issues, such as the high level of unemployment, low salary levels and low productivity as challenge priorities.

“To be sure, these problems interact with and reinforce each other,” said Vasciannie, who served as Jamaican ambassador to the United States from 2012 to 2015. “Thus, the crime level is stimulated, at least in part, by economic malaise, while poverty and inequality contribute substantially to a sense of alienation among many people.”

Hotelier Franklin Eaton echoed Vasciannie’s comments on the inequalities that exist in Jamaica and said failure to correct this could lead to a conflagration.

“In terms of growth, colonialism is still at play,” said Eaton, born and raised in Jamaica but who is currently is general manager of Villages of Stonehaven in Tobago. “The Spanish are back and have built a number of hotels. There are rosy jobs for Europeans but for Jamaicans, generally, the salaries are fairly low at about $100 [Jamaican]/week. The question is, how do we climb out of poverty? Politicians look for short-term solutions and do very little long-term planning. This is going on all over the Caribbean, not just Jamaica. It’s a Caribbean malaise.”

Eaton, who has been in the hospitality industry in Europe, Jamaica and the Caribbean for 27 years, is one of many who fault elected leaders for studiously ignoring festering problems like crime or corruption, but who instead offer lip service or only touch the problems around the edges. What these politicos seem most adept at, Eaton and other critics say, is lining their pockets and doing just enough to get themselves re-elected rather than leading.

For all of Jamaica’s accomplishments, whether it’s in the cultural or music arenas, track and field or academia, the island of almost three million people has been mired in a decades-long economic quagmire that officials from the International Monetary Fund fear could damage any future growth.

An overriding element — a powerful force out of Jamaica’s control — is its indebtedness in billions of dollars to the likes of The International Monetary Fund, the InterAmerican Development Bank and the World Bank, as was highlighted in the 2001 documentary film “Life and Debt”

According to the World Bank, by 2012 Jamaica had accumulated debt equal to 145 percent of its gross domestic product, while Jamaica‘s real per capita GDP increased at an average of just 1 percent per year over the past 30 years, making it one of the slowest-growing developing countries in the world.

Jamaica’s problems mirror those of Greece and Zimbabwe, although Jamaica hasn’t had to default on its debts like Greece or experienced the runaway inflation of Zimbabwe under former president Robert Mugabe.

IMF officials have helped the government implement what the institution says is an ambitious reform program designed to stabilize the economy, reduce debt and fuel growth. The reform program, which the IMF said has garnered national and international support, is part of a comprehensive package with the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank each agreeing to provide US$510 million between April 2013 and March 2017. Meanwhile, the IMF committed a US$932 million funding program to the government through its Extended Fund Facility (EFF) covering the same four-year period.

The CIA Factbook notes that Jamaica’s slow economy growth over the past three decades has been impeded by: a bloated public sector which crowds out spending on important projects; high crime and corruption; red-tape; and a high debt-to-GDP ratio. The author notes, however, that Jamaica has made steady progress, in collaboration with the IMF, in reducing its debt-to-GDP ratio from a high of almost 150 percent in 2012 to about 115 percent in 2017. While the lending institutions hope that their prescription will push Jamaica towards producing an annual primary surplus of 7 percent, so that it can reduce its debt burden below 60 percent by 2025, that has not happened, as evidenced by economic growth which only reached 1.6 percent in 2016. “The [Prime Minister Andrew] Holness administration faces the difficult prospect of maintaining fiscal discipline to make debt payments while simultaneously attacking a serious crime problem. High unemployment exacerbates the crime problem, including gang violence fueled by the drug trade,” the Factbook notes.

While IMF and World Bank officials often speak in clinical terms about the financial help they offer and the impacts, there are those who are convinced that these lending regimes are just a modern-day version of economic slavery.

Filmmaker Stephanie Black is a harsh critic of the IMF. Her film, “Life and Debt,” is an examination of how IMF and World Bank policies, determined by the G-7 countries and led by the United States, have a significant impact on poor developing countries. She contends that the IMF promotes an agenda of monetary austerity, currency devaluation, and lowering wages. The stated goal is to reduce inflation by balancing a nation’s loan repayments and imports with its export earnings. The result is usually a recession. The World Bank takes a longer-run perspective. It aims for structural adjustment, which means trying to transform a borrower nation’s economy into a free-market economy. It typically proposes market deregulation, sometimes accompanied by new lending from the World Bank and private lenders.

These policies are supposed to benefit developing nations’ economies by integrating them into the global market. What actually happens is the people of those nations suffer, while commercial banks in the global north collect a great deal of interest.

The conditions that Black recounted in her documentary are largely still at play today, with financial and economic experts and politicians offering differing assessments of the progress Jamaica has made.

Researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found in 2015 that because of its agreement with the IMF, Jamaica is saddled with the most austere budget in the world, with the country paying a high interest on its debt, which directs money to these institutions and away from public investment in infrastructure, education and other projects.

And according to CitiBlog Global, “Jamaica’s interaction with the IMF has had a long-lasting effect. Globalization and the establishment of so-called ‘free trade zones’ have destroyed the local agriculture. For example, the local dairy industry collapsed due [to] the import of powdered milk from the United States, which was cheaper than regular milk, thus undercutting Jamaican farmers. The problems continued when the banana industry was forced into decline when the United States complained to the World Trade Organization about “unfair” labor practices, despite the fact the Dole Food Company had a monopoly on most of the banana trade.”

Yet despite criticism and questions about the IMF and World Bank’s roles in making Jamaica economically subservient, Vasciannie offers an opposite view.

“I believe that the IMF/World Bank/IDB Loan saved Jamaica. The loan came at a time when the Government could not find money to pay civil servants and so on,” he said. “Thus, without the loan, the prospect of massive layoffs, strikes and protests was real and substantial. We were also at the point of not being able to pay for our imports, with all the implications that could follow from that.  And we had a mountain of debt, with no clear way of paying down on it. So, the situation was dire.

“In the circumstances, the government had no choice but to accept the loan, and did so gratefully. Now, some years later, stability has been returned, but we need growth. I do not think we can blame the IMF/WB/IDB for lack of growth. They have provided the means by which we can promote growth, but we have to take the matter forward.”

Karen Marks Mafundikwa, a Jamaican-born award-winning documentary filmmaker, producer and director, said the effects of Jamaica’s colonial and imperialist past casts a large shadow on the present.

Jamaica’s problems, she said, are rooted in the island’s colonial past. New York Times travel writer Luisita Lopez Torregrosa supports this in her story ‘Jamaica Beyond the Beach,’ explaining that “the British turned the island into a huge sugar plantation, its wealthiest colony in the Caribbean and the hub of slave trade in the Americas. Planters built magnificent houses high above their sugar cane fields, and lived lives of idleness, gorging on drink and wanton sex with slaves. And she adds, Jamaica never recovered from slavery; former slaves remained deeply impoverished, and the economy almost totally dependent on foreign capital, mining and raw materials, while importing food and other essentials.”

Mafundikwa cited the criminal justice system as an example of lingering colonial influences.

“Jamaica just legalized marijuana. Its use goes back centuries as a healing agent and part of the cultural spiritual practice,” said Mafundikwa, who produced the 2014 film “The Price of Memory,” which detailed efforts by some in Jamaica’s Rastafarian community to get reparations from Queen Elizabeth II and the British government.

“Before the [Jamaican] government criminalized thousands of youth. Decriminalization is happening in Europe and across the world,” she said. “Our debts, the laws we pass, the very system we operate in reflects our colonial past. We’re post-colonial but we’re not. We’re still tied into all the international obligations we have. Marijuana is cultural, spiritual and a source of healing, but how do we go forward from here?”

Richard Hugh Blackford, a Jamaican artist and author, listed street crime, violence, government ineptitude and corruption as the chief obstacles Jamaican society faces.

“Crime and violence are at crisis levels, but there has been very little engagement by the government,” he asserted. “Fifteen hundred and fifty people has died so far this year [2017] from criminal violence. This makes Jamaican one of the most murderous places in the world. Prime Minister Andrew Holness seemed younger and more relatable, but he’s not delivering on public safety.

“We are in a death spiral in Jamaica, but the media is not prepared to carry on a discussion. The police are on the front line of defense of the community against criminals and absorb 70 percent of the national security budget, but there is a lack of accountability of the police force.”

Blackford said in a number of cases incompetent senior police divisional commanders are transferred from post to post, where they affect the morale of the officers who serve under them, and, despite their corrosive effects on the force, the top brass rarely fire them.

Jamaican attorney Leighton Miller agreed, arguing that inequality and crime are inextricably linked.

“Violence and murder are the key crimes in Jamaica,” said Miller, who lives in Kingston. “There’s a great deal of inequality. Few people are doing well. Those who are [doing well] are generally lighter-skinned and in the upper classes. I think there’s a hollowing out of the middle class, much as we’re seeing in the U.S. Some people are eating one meal a day and others are rummaging through garbage for food.”

“You have food insecurity and people are going to food bank, but you wouldn’t know because Jamaicans are too proud to say. One problem contributing to this situation is that we’re so wedded to colonial ideas. All law enforcement does is police the boundaries of inequality and making the barriers of equality difficult to breach.”

Miller said people’s callousness and indifference concerns him.

“There’s a nihilism and fatalism where people live ‘in the shadow of the volcano’ but are flossing, drinking and living like there’s no tomorrow. We realize that we’ve sold out and we don’t care. We go along with whoever gives us a better deal,” said Miller, who said he leans socialist and advocates getting rid of both political parties but acknowledges not knowing exactly how to do that. “You can see from Facebook posts how hypocritical we are and unconcerned about crime unless it touches them personally. We only pretend to care.”

Interviewees offered sometimes bleak analyses, but they all harbor tremendous hope about Jamaica’s future. Education, all agreed, is the key to a vibrant future, as well as a willingness by the government to invest in industries “that will allow all Jamaicans, at a minimum, equitable access to the fruits of the country.”

“If you create centers of excellence and allow any child anywhere in Jamaica to pursue any hobby, interest or vocation, whether it’s skating, dancing or gymnastics, you will change the face of Jamaica in less than a generation,” Miller said.

Ian Edwards concurred, saying that Jamaica’s outsized cultural, intellectual, artistic and sporting footprint, have laid the groundwork for Jamaica’s future success.

“Jamaicans like poet Claude McKay, who with his poem ‘If We Must Die’ played a seminal role in the Harlem Renaissance, then there is Marcus Garvey … and other distinguished children of Jamaica’s soil,” said Edwards, a English translator-reviewer who has worked at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., for 25 years. “Look at the pivotal contributions Jamaica has made. Dudley Thompson, regarded as one of Jamaica’s foremost attorneys of his generation, defended Jomo Kenyatta during a trial where he fought against Britain’s charges of treason.

“No one can dispute the impact of this spit of rock in the Caribbean. Jamaica gave me not just a sense of pride but a sense of belonging. It is the place that gave me the foundation of life. This is where I was educated and socialized and given the tools necessary for a meaningful life.”

He said Jamaicans must think out the box and fashion indigenous solutions that suit Jamaica and will serve as a means to spur the country’s growth and development.

“Education is crucial to all Jamaicans,” said Edwards who was an Information Attaché for the Jamaican Consulate-General in New York and a member of the Jamaican Foreign Service. “I would love to see all Jamaicans getting educated and derive the benefits. We need to think and craft strategies as to how we can insert ourselves into the global and digital economies. As long as there’s life, there’s hope. Life is about dynamic change at an elemental level. The question is, who can we improve?”

“As the environment changes, we have to be thinking about how we adapt, but we can’t compromise our Jamaican values. We need … [to] bring together people with a genuine desire to develop and implement practicable solutions. We must never accept the idea or notion that we’ll never be better. And we must never, ever accept the notion that Jamaica can’t be a first world nation.”

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