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Accountability fatigue

Jamaica's chronic condition

Canute
Thompson

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

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Three years and counting since Jamaica's first post-independence prime minister took office the country's chronic condition of refusing to hold leaders accountable and the stench of corruption have worsened and are becoming worse every day. Jamaica has had a long history of being a corrupt nation State with respect to the management of public funds, and each prime minister promises to deal with this problem frontally. Still, the scale of uncovered corruption is at an all-time high and the current prime minister, having promised to deal with same, is overseeing the debilitating effects of chronic corruption.

One of the latest developments out the Ministry of Education and Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) issue is that a second helper, employed allegedly by former Minister of Education Senator Ruel Reid, was on the payroll of the CMU. A few weeks prior, it was revealed that the management of CMU had retained lawyers to resist attempts by the investigators to ascertain documents that would assist in their probe. The leader of the Opposition called on the prime minister to instruct CMU to fully cooperate with the investigators and hand over documents. I am not aware that the prime minister has issued such instructions.

Added to the reports of the refusal of CMU to hand over documents were also reporting that files at the Ministry of Education had gone missing. To the best of my knowledge, the prime minister has not expressed outrage about this and pledged to ensure that the investigators are given full support as they conduct their probe. These developments collectively suggest that the Government is not enthusiastic about, or committed to combating corruption as they say.

But the country is yet to be told why Prime Minister Andrew Holness fired the former education minister. He may very well know of the details of whatever malfeasance took place at the Ministry of Education. As I have written before, from early March, I learnt of specific acts of money going to accounts held by certain unnamed individuals connected to named individuals. I am prepared to bet that people in authority had the same or even more detailed information. Thus, the dust must not be allowed to settle on this matter until the prime minister says when he first came in possession of information and what he has done about it.

Beyond corruption, there are other areas in which there has been accountability fatigue, as there seems to be a sense in the country that the failures of the Government do not matter, and there are some Jamaicans who have bought into the Government's narrative that “the PNP did it too”. This reasoning seems to suggest that the JLP must be left free to do what it will.

Sadly, there seems to be support for this view in the media, as there is no groundswell of pressure being placed on the Government to address the chronic conditions facing the country.

An examination of other areas of chronic conditions facing the country which are not being covered much by the media include the following:

 

(i) Crime

In the 2016 General Election campaign Holness said that, “There is a lot that we can do about crime.” Speaking recently in Cayman he promised that murders are about to plunge in Jamaica. The question one would ask is what accounts for the long delay in this plunge.

In 2018 the streets of St James, particularly Montego Bay, were saturated with security personnel and there was indeed a plunge when compared to 2017. As at now, there are two areas covered by zones of special operations (ZOSOs) and three parishes under states of public emergency (SOEs), but what are the results?

So far this year there has been a 90 per cent increase in murders in Manchester, with 10 having been committed in the first six months of 2018, compared to 19 so far this year. A similar situation exists in the policing division of Kingston Central with a 100 per cent increase. Overall there are 11 policing divisions in which there have been increases in the number of murders.

So, despite all the hype about SOEs, the data show that the national murder rate has not gone down, and there have been several days in 2019 when there are more than five murders per day. After over three years in office the Government has not produced a crime (reduction) plan and seems intent on using SOEs as a fix, with mass detentions to boot.

 

(ii) The economy

The Government promised five per growth per annum growth but has been performing at between one and 1.8 per cent, which translates to a 36% pass or performance level relative to the target. Even using the standards of the most generous grading systems the Government is failing.

Despite the obvious underperformance in relation to the targets that were set, some people are being swept away by the optics, and if one is not diligent one would believe that the Government is performing spectacularly. Added to this poor performance on economic growth, a big hue and cry is being made about historic low levels of unemployment, without reference to the fact that thousands of these jobs are minimal labour jobs not offering a living wage.

 

(iii) Health sector

The country has not yet been given full disclosure on the Cornwall Regional Hospital debacle, wherein findings that carcinogens were present in the main building were hid from staff who continued to work in those unsafe conditions. I trust that every employee whose right to a safe working environment was violated by the State will sue and that they and/or their families duly compensated. (I have no relatives or known friends working there.)

Secondly, the number of neonatal deaths that have taken place across public hospitals since February 2016 is reportedly greater than the number which occurred under former Health Minister Fenton Ferguson. In spite of this, the country has not heard anyone screaming about dead babies' scandals. There are also reports of at least one patient being bitten by rats. Health care is supposedly free, but basic medication is unavailable in most hospitals. Some months ago I took my grandaunt to the hospital and the first thing the doctor did after a brief examination was to give me a prescription to get medicines at the private pharmacy.

 

So, despite a 36% performance score in the management of the economy, record levels of crime, mind-boggling acts of misinformation and corruption, and a health service in partial decay, the Government has been able to fool some people into believing that Jamaica has reached the land of corn and wine, and all its riches freely flowing. This fact requires both acknowledgement of the Government's superb message management, but also requires analysis.

I contend that two factors are partly responsible for this optical illusion. The first is the bly culture which is predicated on victim psychology. Ask most women how this works. The Government is playing the same game. A few weeks ago, when there was public conversation about the prime minister's integrity clearance issue, some of my Labourite friends told me that the issue was playing in Holness's favour, because by remaining silent people would beat up on him and in the end he would look like the hapless victim.

The game of silence, which to some degree amounts a failure to be accountable, is present in other areas of Holness's handling of public affairs. He spoke once on the Ruel Reid matter and then went silent. He has said very little about the police used-car matter. He has gone silent on Petrojam, after having his aides report how distressed he was about the matter. In response to his silence some members of the public become justifiably indignant and he seems to love that, as being now perceived as the victim his base of support is ignited.

Politics is a game of pretence — though often also a blood sport — and the prime minister is playing the game well. But most forms of pretence are sooner or later shown for what they are. I hope that the manifest façade will soon be blown away.

 

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning and lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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