Sat | Sep 22, 2018

Mark Ricketts | Jamaica not ready for economic independence

Published:Sunday | July 1, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Nigel Clarke, minister of finance and the public service.

Hope is always important for a people, and so is a belief that a country is mature enough and sufficiently disposed to doing the right thing that it can claim economic independence. The idea of economic independence has been mooted by Dr Nigel Clarke ever since he took over the reins as minister of finance.

Justifying his commitment to economic independence, the finance minister says, "Jamaica has gained significantly from the steadfast implementation of fiscal, monetary, and structural policy reforms across two administrations. It is our ambition, therefore, that when our current agreement with the IMF ends next year, we will manage our affairs in a thoughtful and disciplined way so that we will not have to return to the IMF."

The finance minister continued, "Even as we pursue individual dreams, the national project must gain a fresh momentum around the goal of economic independence."

Nice words, yes, but the country's everyday action belies any serious commitment to economic independence. It is as if it hasn't grown, and what leaders are more inclined to do is seeing if a party can score political points over its opponents while it has the reins of government.

Our management, leadership, and our sense of public-sector governance through outstanding directors let us down and show we are not yet ready for prime time or for economic independence.

Petrojam, the beleaguered oil company, is not just politics where one party tears apart the other. Petrojam is a disgrace, a sordid affair, a horror show of epic proportions, but it is not alone; it is merely symptomatic of what ails our society, our economy.

There are three reasons why I say this. First, Petrojam's problems are similar to those of many other state-run agencies where enlightened management is absent and political leadership to influence outcomes are so embedded in a culture of party allegiance and loyalty that errors are blindsided and potential wrongdoers are insulated.

That's why probity, transparency, and accountability are buzzwords with limited application. To understand this, read the old board of directors' response in The Gleaner of June 3 this year, to accusations of impropriety on the part of Petrojam. "We reject claims of any wrongdoing. At all times, the requisite approvals and review channels are utilised for every aspect of the company's business, including the award of contracts, the provision of donations, and the implementation of projects."

What that says is, if people self-police themselves they are usually virtuous and without blame.

Second, just read the number of reports provided by the Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis, where she bemoans the abysmal financial accountability of state-owned agencies until after a time she sounds like a broken record.

External audits are not done, proper cash management is not in place, and expenditures are occurring without authorisation. Even after the most scathing indictments, nobody is ever brought to book, and so another report bites the dust or makes its way unobtrusively into the archives. It is a case of 'see no evil, hear no evil'.

 

WHAT HAPPENED SINCE?

 

What would be nice if is The Gleaner, which has carried most of the auditor general's reports, would use a double-page spread over a few weeks to highlight several of the main findings of the AG, then ask the question, what has happened since?

How can we talk about economic independence when so many public-sector bodies have outstanding external audits for several years, have very little in the way of sound management practices, and have more than 100 categories for allowances?

Third is the issue of concealment and cover-up where the public is being seduced into thinking that the Government is undertaking wholesale inquiry in Petrojam when the emphasis is on inquiry of the allegations made. That is why the energy minister, who has portfolio responsibility for Petrojam, has not been asked to resign as yet.

In fact, if there were no allegations discovered, Petrojam, like so many other statutory bodies, would continue on its merry way. There are inadequate systems in place to alert malfeasance and ensure accountability.

 

CARRIED AWAY

 

Prime Minister Holness and Minister of National Security Dr Horace Chang need to stop talking about "people getting carried away by emotions" and "things being blown out of proportion" and start accepting the gravity of the situation, and start levelling with the nation that the nature and type of the few allegations uncovered at Petrojam are instructive of something that could be explosive.

The minister of energy and some of the top brass at Petrojam should step aside until a financial audit is complete.

If the prime minister did that, it would ease the concerns of many of the private-sector associations and it would make Jamaicans feel that finally the Government is genuinely seeking to arrest the scourge.

It would also put paid to the notion that governments talk a good game and articulate well on policy issues, but when it comes to action, when it comes to doing the right thing, a huge gap yawns between words and deeds.

The country has to get its act together. Dreaming of economic independence when almost everything we produce from ginger to coffee, from sugar to bananas, is below our production in the early years of Independence and almost everything we owned from airlines to Hall Brothers shoe factory we have lost, and almost everything that belonged to us from cement to rum, is now controlled by someone else.

That, in and of itself, is not a problem if they are bringing in financial capital, expertise, and technology to aid us in the pace of development. It is also not a problem if we have enlightened leadership to transform our economy and our educational system so we don't end up with a critical shortage of mechanics and skilled drivers for the big trucks equipped with the latest technology; and we don't end up with an acute shortage of nurses in several highly skilled categories, although we have a large potential nursing population because of our people's capacity to care.

In so many areas, there is an asymmetry between what we are supplying and what is demanded.

Dr Clarke, if you want to talk about economic independence, show the people that our leaders have the intestinal fortitude to formalise the society, to bring order by emphasising responsibility and achievement, and by making accountability, competence, productivity, and probity non-negotiable options in a culture of excellence.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author and lecturer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.