Jamaica’s development as an independent nation, now in its 61st year, may be characterized as a series of stops and starts. There have been promising possibilities some of which realized their promise partially and others either stymied or shuttered, but the nation continues to hope. In my assessment, a rough characterization of the country’s development and its experience, over the six decades of independence, (divided according to periods of political administrations), looks something like this:
- 1962 – 1972: Rapid economic growth, averaging 6% per annum but limited social development and economic inclusion.
- 1972 – 1980: Expansive socio-economic development which included a raft of social legislation such as free education, maternity leave law, access to agricultural lands, increased agricultural output, and housing expansion, but also intense political contests and growing volatility and political warfare.
- 1980 – 1989: Structural adjustment in the economy, relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), contraction of social services, reduction in the role of local authorities, reversal of free education, reduction in political tension.
- 1989 – 2007: Economic liberalization, high inflation (particularly in the first 7 years ), cessation of relations with the IMF, growth in the service sector, investments in tourism, development of the social sector and protection systems to include institutions such as the Tourism Enhancement Fund, National Health Fund, and the Universal Access Fund, strengthening of the justice system and building out of major road networks.
- 2007 – 2011: Return to the IMF, unstructured withdrawal from the IMF, underestimation of the impact of the global economic recession, continued strengthening of the justice system, stresses in the relationship between Jamaica and the USA over the extradition of Christopher Coke, cuts in funding to The University of the West Indies (The UWI).
- 2012 – 2016: Reset of relations with the United States of America (USA) and the IMF, laying of the foundation for economic stability, including legislation to increase tax collection, securing of financing for major investment projects, continued investments in social services, expansion, and rehabilitation of major and some interior roads, and reinterpretation of strategies for fighting crime, with crime being labeled a social pathology.
- 2016 to 2023: Continuation of the economic model of the 2012 – 2016 period, continuation of investment in major infrastructure projects, apparent rise in levels of corruption and crime, introduction of States of Emergency as a routine crime-fighting tool, continued high levels of homicides, apparent increases in teacher migration, unprecedented increases in salaries of parliamentarians, lawmakers under investigation for illicit enrichment.
An overall assessment
A fundamental question to be asked is whether the standards of governance, leadership, and management provided for Jamaica, over these 61 years, have met the expectations articulated by the framers of our independence, which expectations have been refashioned over the decades and are now captured in our 2030 Vision. To this question, my answer is ‘no’.
There are several indicators I consider in giving the answer ‘no’, some of which I will mention below. The state of play in relation to those issues, forms the foundation for what I regard as the imperatives for the next three decades, starting now.
In my assessment, among the top five positives of Jamaica at 61 are:
- Independent judiciary: In my opinion the independence of the judiciary stands out as one of Jamaica’s strongest positives. And what is even more encouraging is the fact that its members guard that independence zealously. On two occasions on which the political directorate attempted to encroach on its independence, the members were unafraid to say, ‘back off’. The first was when Prime Minister of Jamaica Andrew Holness attempted to appoint the Chief Justice on probation (in 2017) and the second (in 2023) when Minister Floyd Green proposed to arrange training for judges in legislation on praedial larceny.
- Maternal and Child Health: One oft-overlooked area of national performance is our maternal and child health services. The data show that between 2006 and 2018, infant mortality decreased from 21.1 to 16.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, a decrease of 21.3%. I call attention to this area given the political spectacle that was made about maternal deaths, which resulted in the Minister of Health being re-assigned in 2015, at a time when there was an overall trending down of maternal deaths which stood at about 29 per 1,000 live births in 1990 and 15 in 2015. The figure now stands at 12.4.
- Unemployment: Data from the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) show that in 1999, Jamaica’s unemployment rate stood at 15.7%. Over the next eight years there was a gradual steady decline, landing at 9.85% in 2007, before a steady rise starting in 2009, which peaked in 2013 at 15.28% before declining to an all-time low of 6.6% in 2022. While the cost of living remains troubling high, and most of the new jobs created are at the elementary levels and attract the minimum wage, the fact of reduced unemployment is a form of improvement.
- Recovery from COVID: The covid-19 pandemic resulted in a 10% contraction of the Jamaican economy, but since the first quarter of the 2023/24 Fiscal Year, the economy had been restored to near pre-covid levels. That is praiseworthy.
- Sports: Jamaica continues to excel in the field of sport and this arena represents one of the most promising ones for pursuing economic expansion and growth.
Troubling negatives: Five key areas requiring urgent action
- The per capita income of Jamaica is just over US $5,000, which is where it has been for most of the last 61 years. At US$5,000, Jamaica is only better than Haiti (in the Caribbean) and is one of the lowest globally.
- Jamaica has been one of the most violent countries on the Earth, consistently ranking in the top five, with respect to its murder rate. Jamaica is currently ranked second, behind El Salvador.
- Only 27% of the Jamaican workforce has training beyond the secondary level, compared to developed countries which typically have upwards of 60% of their workforce having post-secondary education.
- Corruption in Jamaica is high, probably at an all-time high, with corruption accounting for an estimated 5% of GDP. Currently six lawmakers are under corruption investigation for illicit enrichment, and politicians, according to a June 11, 2023, report in the Gleaner, are seen as the most corrupt among public officials.
- Citizens’ participation in the democratic process has consistently declined, from a high of 86.91% in 1980, falling slightly to 78.38% in 1989, and precipitously to 60.28% in 1993, and remaining in the 60% range through three elections to 2007, then falling to 53.17% in 2011, falling slightly further to 48.37% in 2016, and then plummeting to 37.85% in 2020.
Considering the foregoing, the issue which lies before us, as we turn 61, is how to take the necessary policy actions to overcome the challenges. I have addressed these issues in extensive detail in both Reimagining Educational Leadership in the Caribbean (2019), and Education and Development: Policy Imperatives for Jamaica and the Caribbean (2020), both award-winning books. Thus, I do a quick summary here.
- The problem of low per capita income, high levels of violence, and a largely low-skills and thus low-wage workforce are curable through creating expanded access to tertiary and advanced post-secondary education. This requires that the secondary system be strengthened to ensure that more students access quality post-secondary and tertiary education. It also requires that the government commits to invest more in tertiary education, as well as through more strategic partnerships with the private sector and families.
- The problem of corruption requires stronger anti-corruption laws, a more independent and empowered Integrity Commission, the establishment of a Corruption Court, and mandatory prison sentences and impeachment for public officials who are found guilty of corruption. Training in ethics, principles and practices of good governance, the introduction of Civics in schools, and the establishment of Clubs and Societies which promote service and national interest are needed.
- Public apathy in the electoral process and loss of respect for politicians (now deemed the most corrupt among all public officials) can be ameliorated through campaign finance legislation which will give greater chances of survival to smaller political parties. There should also be legislation to make voting mandatory, but such legislation should be preceded by the campaign finance legislation. There should also be a system of proportional set allocation in parliament based on the number of votes a party earns, rather than a first past the post winner-take-all system.
These measures will likely restore Jamaica’s challenged future.
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.