Five per cent annual GDP growth in four years. That’s what #5in4 means. Doable? Well, let’s see now…
The Courtleigh Auditorium in New Kingston was my favorite cinema before it closed a few years back; it had cozy comfortable seats but not many filmgoers. This evening it was the venue for a special event organized by the Economic Growth Council, starring Prime Minister Andrew Holness, ECG Chairman Michael Lee Chin and the Council’s Vice Chair, Ambassador Nigel Clarke. Unlike its cinema days, the auditorium was full to capacity – including the reserved seats.
And it was dark – very dark – lit only by twinkling green stars behind the stage and a row of colored lights above it (a yellow one flashed persistently for fifteen minutes before the start, inducing a few headaches, I suspect). The whole thing had a disco feel about it – but I am now having difficulty deciphering my notes, which I scribbled in the dark.
This evening’s Signing Ceremony and Call to Action by the Economic Growth Council (EGC) was moderated by radio personality Khadine “Miss Kitty” Hylton (who was chirpy) and President/CEO of First Global Bank Mariame McIntosh Robinson (who was calm). They complemented each other rather well, I thought; Miss Kitty is a master of ad lib – or mistress, rather, and was not caught off guard for a moment. Ms. McIntosh Robinson was, however, momentarily startled (as was the audience) by a sudden and very loud burst of “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” from the sound system, as she was introducing the Prime Minister. Mr. Lee Chin, who has a sunny personality, literally danced on stage stylishly dressed in a modern Chinese-style jacket – and sneakers (Ms. Hylton later commented on the sneakers. Yes, the EGC Chair was officially “cool”).
This broke the ice; the audience was a little slow to warm up, although eventually a cheering section made its collective voice heard, and some shouts went up when Mr. Lee Chin mentioned his 1969 graduation from Excelsior High School. That old boy thing, again.
Frivolity aside, there were several things I liked about the event, which started just five minutes after the scheduled time. Here are a few:
- The Prime Minister went out of his way to recognize the Opposition’s work on the economy (also acknowledging Senator Sophia Frazer Binns, who was representing Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller this evening). Mr. Lee Chin also said the previous administration had helped “set the table” for the goodies that are about to be spread on it (one hopes). The Prime Minister went one step further, stressing that the EGC was not a political movement – we are all Jamaicans and “we all want to live well.” In other words, as the Jamaica Observer’s social editor is fond of saying, “poverty sucks.” We love the poor, but we don’t love poverty, the PM joked.
- The aim of the event – along with other efforts to “popularize” the EGC – is, according to PM Holness, to break down the concept of economic growth into “bite size, digestible bits.” Good idea; that’s how I like my economic topics. My eyes tend to glaze over after a few sentences of economist’s jargon. The thing is, different sections of society – including youth of course – must understand the importance of growth, and what it actually means to them. There was a short video, nicely done with nice middle-class Jamaicans expressing their thoughts against a white background (a very well-tailored vox pop). The overall aim though, which I well understand, is that Jamaicans “must take ownership” of the issue of economic growth, in Mr. Lee Chin’s words.
- I was impressed by the Vice Chair, Nigel Clarke, who started off by tossing out the “trickle-down” theory, asserting that real growth comes from the ground up. I was glad to hear too that the EGC will exist “beyond the life of the report” and will report regularly to the public on Jamaica’s progress in achieving goals. It sounds as if accountability is a priority for the EGC, the Jamaican Government, and the people.
- The speakers did not shy away from the issue of crime (nor does the EGC report). Citizen security and public safety, said Ambassador Clarke, are “number one inhibitors” to growth. He expressed it well: It is a human issue and humans should be at the center of our concerns. “The human is being constrained by crime,” he noted. Economic activity is a social activity and this cannot take place comfortably in a crime-infested neighborhood. Crime and security is also about the citizen’s freedom to be and to do whatever he wants. Fundamental reforms are necessary. As the Christians would say, “Amen!”
One big “but.” I was concerned (but not really surprised) that questions of sustainable development, renewable energy and climate change were completely off the agenda – while, as I write, our trusty climate change negotiators are fighting hard in Marrakech for the interests of Jamaica and Small Island Developing States. Not a mention in the EGC report, nor at the event itself. The EGC asked people to furnish questions in advance, and I sent mine, but they were not chosen. However, all the questions were good (some rather vague, eliciting vague answers from the speakers). But was it that the panelists didn’t want to talk about energy, climate, the green economy? Were these issues less important than a question about the development of downtown (desirable as it is)? I don’t know, but for the record I am posing my questions here:
My first one is: There is much talk about the “Green Economy” in Jamaica, but to date not much action. However, globally green ventures are beginning to flourish. Why is the Jamaican Government not embracing “green growth” wholeheartedly?
My second (related) one: The cost of solar energy has fallen dramatically this year, and technology (re: storage etc) is improving daily. Is the Jamaican Government serious about moving to renewables? The Vision 2030 goal is very conservative (20 per cent by 2030); would the Government please consider speeding things up and setting much more ambitious goals? Also, why is it even considering COAL power currently?
Oh – Mr. Lee Chin did mention solar power in passing, with a joke about “making hay while the sun shines.” That was it. Never mind that climate change needs to be a cross-cutting issue whenever we are talking about any sector of the economy, not just energy. Otherwise we are sunk (perhaps literally). The next drought or hurricane could throw these economic goals straight out the window and into the trash can. Resilience is the buzzword we should be using.
A very good question about corruption and political tribalism was skated over, too. The Prime Minister called corruption “the flip side of inefficiency,” suggesting that it is all down to too much bureaucracy and failing systems (which the EGC does address in its report). But I think it’s a little more than that.
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what the EGC and private sector leaders were signing. Was it another “Partnership for Prosperity”? Suffice it to say that the Jamaican private sector appears to be fully on board with the EGC. They posed for their photograph. I do think, though that all the member organizations of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) should have also been up there, signing – for example, the Small Business Association of Jamaica, MSME Alliance, Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Association, Jamaica Employers Federation, Jamaica Bankers Association and Jamaica Exporters Association, to name a few. Perhaps that would have been too much of a crowd, but people do need to know what the PSOJ actually consists of. Many do not. And is the Jamaica Agricultural Society on board (this was another topic that received scant attention)?
The ECG’s Call to Action Report is available online at http://www.portlandic.com/pdfs/ENG/EGC%20ADVERTORIAL%20(5col%20x%2035cm).pdf Do take a read, and see what you think.
#5in4 is a good slogan, and yes – as someone said, timelines are good. Rather than timelines, let’s make them deadlines.
P.S. Miss Kitty made an interesting comment about “confidence” – or rather, the lack of it – in Jamaica. Unlike Mr. Lee Chin, people are afraid to “stick their neck out,” as he put it himself. It’s something that is worth examining further, I think. What does hold us back? What are we afraid of? Perhaps Mr. Lee Chin himself addressed this right at the end by quoting from Marianne Williamson (Our Deepest Fear). Well said.