Jamaica’s Economic Dilemma: Is Education the Answer?

Last week, Prime Minister Bruce Golding made the dreaded announcement, in the middle of the night no less, that public sector workers can expect a cut in their numbers, shortly. While, the PM gave no details as to when the numbers would come down from the approximately ninety thousand or so members of the Civil Service, there is doubt as to whether that delay holds any real hope of a stay of execution of these plans.

Indeed, one of the obvious readings of the PM’s actions in terms of making the announcement, while the nation slept and the fact that it contradicted earlier pronouncements that Civil Servant could rest assured that their numbers would not be cut is that the country is in a deep hole. After all, the remarks were not only made at night, they prefigured, if not confirmed the deep sense of foreboding that now obtains in several areas on account of the impending return to the International Monetary Fund (IMF); and what it will mean in terms of curtailing financial and other freedoms, collectively.

Most critics have complained that there was not only a need for more details about Jamaica’s application but also that the agreement would definitely mean a cut in the Civil Service. Further, the inflation of the budget by as much as $6 billion dollars, following last week’s tabling of the Estimates of Expenditure in the House of Representatives, also means more stress for the regular consumer/ citizen. This is on the heels of a freeze in public sector wages as well as an increase in taxation in several areas, among them Departure Tax, telecommunication, fuel and energy.

The implications are, of course, obvious. More people will be out of work. Less people will have disposable income to spend on the basic necessitities and fewer still will be able to absorb and, therefore, effectively deal with the shocks caused from the fallouts in the system. That means, even darker days ahead for Jamaicans, particularly those accustomed to having a job and providing for their families. The realities are very stark, indeed.

However, the more aware I become of the harsh economic realities as they impact Jamaica, the more I wonder about the types of solutions which are to be used to address this problem. The Prime Minister, for instance, talks of the need for a ‘paradigm shift’. Yet nothing about the return to the IMF or the presentation at midnight, either suggests that there is a change of any real effect that such policies address, or that the policies themselves indicate change.

The current set of economic policies clearly highlight that politicians are still not characters that inspire a great deal of faith and that public policies, themselves, especially as they impact the lives of the ‘common man’ – whoever that is, are still quite onerous in their effects on peoples’ daily lives. The plight of the ‘working poor’ is that, we are doomed to remain that way under the current policies of Government.

This is not to say that some are not able, through frugal management of their finances – however meagre, to eke out some levels of existence beyond mere survival. Still, the implications for ‘regular folk’ is that living from pay cheque to pay cheque is now very much the norm.

In addition to which, the experiences of this kind of poverty also suggests that there is hardly much in the way of hope that can be had by those who must contend with the daily struggles to make ends meet; that is, in terms of seeking real relief from their especially grim realities. The life of the ‘working poor’, pretty much remains the same from the cradle to the grave in Jamaica.

Education the Only Solution!

Which raises the question of education, where there has been reports of several activities; among them, the private schools demand for public funds to sustain their survival. Most recently too, Government announced an impending cut in the fees used to pay which it pays for students for the Caribbean School Education Certificate (CSEC) and the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) subjects, at the end of their five years in secondary school.

Minister of Education, Andrew Holness just last week advised that this is the last year that the fees would be paid as the programme is currently being reviewed to determine the most effective means of addressing the fallouts. Students who do not show up for the exam, after having recieved the benefit of having four of their subjects paid for from the public purse, as well as those who do not do well in the exams can expect little support in ensuing years, as a result. 

While, obviously a smart move in terms of reducing the stress on Government’s budget in terms of the returns on the public investment in education; what is not immediately clear is whether there is a recognition that Government will need to reallocate funds to the system in a very targetted and thoughtful way so as to reap the maximum benefits. Government will have to consider investing heavily in providing schools – public as well as private, with the resources to properly educate Jamaica’s children.

Not only should there be an improvement in the quality of students who can recieve the benefit of having their subjects paid for from the public purse; Government should also beef up meal and book programmes with the right resources. Children need a steady diet of the right nurtition for their systems and their minds in order to produce the maximum outputs at the end of their five or seven year stints in the secondary system.

Student/ Teacher Ratio

There is need to reduce the student teacher ratio to levels which will place Jamaica on par with those of our neighbours who do well in the Region, as well as to attain international standards in this regard. We need also to increase classroom spaces; library and computer as well as recreational and sporting facilities. The needs of all children should be addressed as much and as far as is possible within in the limits of the public budget, as well as Government’s own capacities to provide for the total development of its people.

After all, we need to diversify skill sets and, therefore, adequately prepare our youngsters for the rigours of life in the real world when they come of age and will be called on to participate more meaningfully in charting the nation’s future. Additionally, extending the learning hours and revamping the curriculum to include values and attitudes programmes which instill esteem in self and civic pride, are critical.

Practical National Ideology: Education and Development

The goals of national ideology and a keen sense of history are not merely academic interests without any real value in peoples general lives. Far from it! The Jamaican education system needs to become first rate. It should equip the nation’s future with the sense of imagination, occassion and ability to rise to the highest levels possible, whether at home or abroad. This is neither empty or even meaningless rhetoric either.

On the contrary, the need to strongly support education will mean that we may well be educating the whiz finance and labour ministers to help pull us out of the doldrums, currently, and, therefore, achieve and maintain the ambitions of Developed Country status even before 2030. It also means that, problems related to discipline and civic pride as well as an apparent lack of a developed risk taking culture occassioned by the spirit of entrepeneurship might be overcome in the former and deepened and further enhanced in the latter case, in short order.

National development is not just a matter for politicians to be concerned with – whether at nights, or throughout their lives as public servants to the state; rarely ever touching the experiences of the ‘common folk’, with the exception of when their is trouble. Quite the opposite! National development spans the entire gamut of stakeholders, whether the big investor in hotels on Jamaica’s north coast; the mother of two racing through traffic to transport her charges to their various afterschool programmes; to the stuggling cricketer juggling training while holding down a ‘nine-to-five’, to the man pushing his cart to earn a decent, if not difficult, living in Coronation Market. All are invested!

Greater efforts will and must be made to include each individual in the national conversation about the search for real solutions. Perhaps it is the case that, the mother fasting and praying that her son gets off the street and take to his books, or the deejay travelling to glitzy metropolitan centres also have ideas about how to push Jamaica forward. What can be done to harness their insights into transforming our collective vision of self and saving us from financial ruin?

National Anthem

Is it enough to just stand at attention at the cinema and other public functions when we hear the National Anthem and not also see how that act of genuflection registers an abiding committment to helping Jamaica to grow? We have to push education in a way that we have never done before and we will have to talk straight with the Jamaican people! It is just that simple!

More of us have ideas as to how to start businesses and improve on our situations. What is being done to enable these sectors in a real way? Is it enough to just say that we need a change or is it the case that we also need to articulate, very carefully, what that change is and how we will get there and when? Where are the timetables and the considerations for policy? How will we make that impact peoples’ lives positively and meaningfully?

Until we begin the conversation around these questions and not just talk but also act on them, there is little in the way of faith that midnight speeches inspire, or even criticisms from the other side. Opposition must have a moral fibre and integrity that are beyond question, even inasmuch as they remain political. Narrow partisanship will never save a people that had the courage and the audacity to survive five hundred years of oppression.

Creative; Honest Solutions Needed

On the contrary, our service to Jamaica requires creative, honest and inspired leadership that speaks not in parables and veiled statements but with respect, insight and commitment of purpose. This has to be one of those moments in history where we rise up to our greater selves. It has to become a watershed experience that benchmarks our severance with the past but also our embrace of the solution oriented possibilities of the future, defined by real earmarks and a consideration of all the stakeholders in ensuring appropriate governance.

Our work is, indeed, cut out for us! Let’s see how much of it we can get to before the next generation comes a-calling for their own stake in the process!


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