Denise Antonio | Year in review 2021 – lessons in growth and resilience
In 2021, we witnessed moments that are significant enough to alter the trajectory of a sector’s energy bill or to mark a shift into a resilient development pathway through breakthrough policy mandates. The UNDP Multi-Country Office in Jamaica has been able to celebrate such moments in our programme interventions in 2021, due in large measure to the hard work, investments and energy of our partners in government, donor agencies, civil society and communities. But then there are moments that must be ranked as really special because they contain powerful potential to strengthen growth prospects and our strategic response to crisis.
Such a special moment arrived unexpectedly between the pages of a COVID-19 impact report. More precisely, that moment came courtesy of a few thousand Jamaicans who shared groundbreaking information that made it to the pages of that report. UNDP had commissioned the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social and Economic Studies and the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) to conduct a Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in Jamaica and Policy Options in Jamaica – one year after the pandemic.
More than 3,000 interviews, combined with secondary data from studies previously conducted, is illuminating previously unseen layers of impact. Our Surge team utilised UNDP’s Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) – a first for any study in Jamaica – to measure and rank parishes and population groups according to 12 indicators called deprivations. This is reportedly the first systematic identification of the vulnerable segments of society who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Deprivations measured were: COVID-19 test status; access to health centres; disability; mental health; well-being; food consumption; food quality; school attendance; employment status; income; social protection; and assistance (from friends or family). Vulnerabilities were confirmed if groups and locations scored in four or more deprivations.
MOST VULNERABLE PARISH
St Mary was assessed as the most vulnerable parish to the impacts of COVID-19 in four or more of the 12 indicators assessed – closely followed by Manchester then St Ann. The parishes of St Thomas, Trelawny and Westmoreland were assessed as the least vulnerable. A deeper probe of the data revealed that the main differences between St Mary and the least vulnerable parish, Trelawny, came down to four factors; access to health centres; income, food quality and social protection. The factors separating the second most vulnerable parish, Manchester, and Trelawny came down to: Access to health services; well-being; food consumption; and school attendance. A comparative review revealed more surprises: Urban areas bear a disproportionate load of vulnerability in contrast with their population share. Our data showed 70 per cent of individuals in urban areas are vulnerable compared to 63 per cent in rural areas. Interestingly, respondents with the lowest household income did not necessarily have the highest level of vulnerability. In fact, individuals earning salaries of $200,000 to just under $300,000 per month were assessed as more vulnerable than persons earning $50,000 per month and less. This is perhaps one of the most surprising findings. Overall, respondents were most vulnerable with respect to mental health, social protection and assistance, with mental health topping the vulnerability spectrum at 57 per cent of respondents.
This definitive record of impact and vulnerability in Jamaica provides significant evidence for targeted interventions with more precise resource allocation. Our people are speaking. They are saying that COVID-19 has not just impacted lower-income groups, or education, income and economy. As such, our interventions must expand to mental health, nutrition and other variables that redefine people’s lives and impact their ability to contribute meaningfully to social and economic development. We must pay closer attention to urban lower-income pockets and more so to rural parishes which may escape the spotlight because of lower COVID-19 infection rates. We are also learning to listen carefully to how people rank their needs. This can be far more telling than the numbers. The Socio-economic Impact Assessment tells us that respondents indicated their needs as money (76.1 per cent); food (49.9 per cent); masks and sanitisers (41.8 per cent); and health insurance (28.1 per cent), in that order.
Economic and sectoral findings are not so surprising. The Jamaican economy contracted by one-fifth and lost 150,000 jobs at its lowest point. Nearly 50 per cent of businesses reported a reduction in sales and more than 50 per cent indicated that their operation would not last more than six months. The hardest-hit industry was the entertainment, cultural and creative sector which suffered losses amounting to $195 billion and 76,000 jobs; hotels and restaurants which contracted 88 per cent with 75 per cent of workers laid off; and transport, storage, communications which contracted by 20 per cent at the lowest point. Findings related to social protection also indicated that about 55.7 per cent of PATH beneficiaries stated that they did not know how to apply for support to reduce the negative impact of COVID-19.
The study was also able to confirm a high level of vaccine hesitancy in Jamaica; only 33.9 per cent said they would take the vaccine. These cumulative findings represent significant development losses that must be urgently addressed. It also requires us to look beyond the numbers to the human faces at the centre and to step into the shoes of the people who are hurting the most. To a mid-income person earning comparatively comfortable wages, the impact may not be measured by a reduction in income but a reduction in living standards, loss of physical and mental health and non-qualification for state support. A 57 per cent reported impact on mental health holds the destructive capacity to haemorrhage man-hours, people potential and economic growth.
This tells us that any lags in digital readiness may also represent an opportunity cost in potential income streams and vital information to guide evidence-based interventions where they are most needed and effective. In the era of COVID-19 and shocks and crises precipitated by climate change, efficient crisis response anchored on accessible and reliable data will be a requirement for future-proofing.
This study ranks first among my top four moments for 2021, not only because it breaks new ground in redefining impact based on useful vulnerability measures but provides the basis for more efficient and targeted interventions that can accelerate developmental gains pertinent to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and Vision 2030.
There is mounting support for measuring and scoping vulnerabilities as part of the criteria for ranking countries and determining their access to resources. UNDP has consistently called for measuring growth and impacts beyond income and this was recently reiterated by CARICOM Secretary General Carla Barnett at UNCTAD XV in October. I endorse her calls for continued advocacy for the further development and acceptance of the Multi-Dimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI), not only to define other pertinent layers of data for a targeted response but to open access to concessional resources for development financing and resilience building.
As the pandemic persists, we must remain resolute in advancing more sustainable models of development as a part of our resilience infrastructure. UNDP continued to advance the case for a green and nature-based approach to development as a ‘win-win’ for economic growth and environmental sustainability through a robust climate and disaster resilience portfolio in 2021. With grant funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology, UNDP finalised the retrofitting of six public hospitals with LED bulbs and installed grid-tied solar photovoltaic systems at three of the six. Internal analysis indicates the solar and LED investments can save US$348,944 per annum and save the public health sector 22 per cent of its current energy bill annually. It is my 2021 moment number two because a low carbon pathway is a cost-effective and efficient alternative to fossil fuel energy models, releasing more operational budgets for critical areas of health sector development. It also boosts the resilience of the sector by lessening its reliance on fossil fuel supplies which can become delayed due to supply chain disruptions, especially in global crises.
REDUCING CRIME RATES
Finally, we remain convinced that strengthening growth prospects and our strategic response to crisis is best served by significantly reducing crime rates and improving the security and safety of our citizens. We know young people stand at the epicentre as the main perpetrators and victims of crime. Why are they not integrated into more leadership roles? To this end, UNDP invested grant funding, technical training and mentorship in 10 youth organisations to innovate and lead citizen safety and security interventions. Backed by our partnerships with the Ministry of National Security, Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, UNESCO Caribbean, Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica and Rise Life Management Services, novel approaches birthed from fresh minds are starting to take root. Stand out projects include anti-bullying campaigns to cut dysfunctional behaviours from the root; sign language training and services to support the filing of police reports by the deaf community, and peace ambassador training and mentorship to build a culture of peace and non-violence in hotspot communities. My number three spot goes to the young people who are spearheading these micro-projects, and who convened a Youth Summit on Crime and Violence on International Peace Day to further amplify their joint message that ending crime needs the participation and integration of youth.
Rounding out 2021’s top four make-or-break spots for advancing growth and resilience is the policy and legislative work carried out by civil society organisations under the umbrella of the Spotlight Initiative to address violence against women and girls. Our civil society partners work with the underserved and the hardest cases bringing empathetic interventions to women and girls in need. This joint European Union-United Nations programme has brought significant attention to the plight of females in crisis and challenged harmful gender norms that perpetuate cycles of violence. We need to urgently address legislative gaps to chip away at these subcultural monoliths, and to this end, applaud the CSOs’ measured and analytical approach to identifying weaknesses and recommending changes. We thank them for advancing many recommendations that made it to the Sexual Harassment Act and for continuing to advocate for amendments to the Domestic Violence Act, Child Care and Protection Act and other pieces of legislation that protect our women and children from violent and predatory actions.
Next year UNDP consolidates new projects and initiatives to help lift more persons out of poverty by supporting resilient, risk-informed recovery and growth, the human rights of marginalised groups and a more sustainable and nature-based approach to development. This is outlined in our new Country Programme covering the 2022 to 2026 period. To this end, we have also started the process of mobilising partnerships to address vulnerabilities uncovered by the socio-economic impact assessment and MVI within the scope of our corporate mission.
Based on the lessons learned from our people and partners, I would like to offer a few recommendations for consideration:
1. Let’s map the status of Jamaica’s digital transformation with the aim of accelerating transition to a digital society. UNDP’s Digital Readiness Assessment (DRA) tool, most recently used in Grenada, can help.
2. Let’s target vulnerabilities with greater precision. UNDP stands ready to deploy the MVI on request, but also recommend a Data Hub and Policy Lab platform to facilitate the monitoring and evaluation of a wide range of programmes designed to reduce vulnerability of identified groups.
3. Let’s undertake mobile registration and engagement of hard-hit vulnerable groups identified in many studies, including the UNDP/SALISES/CAPRI study to facilitate automatic identification and tailored support in a more targeted and seamless manner.
4. Let’s focus COVID-19 recovery on a more sustainable pathway by maximising the blue and green economies with innovative nature-based and green solutions while ensuring that everyone benefits and participates fully from development gains.
5. Let’s consider implementing a knowledge sharing and empowerment network on peace, crime prevention and citizen safety and security for youth organisations. The network could serve to systematise best practices in youth-led community-based crime prevention methods and provide mentorship, resources, crime prevention micro-grant funding and other opportunities.
6. Let’s continue the pace of legislative overhaul so ably piloted by the Ministry of Gender, Culture, Entertainment and Sport to save our girls and women from the scourge of violence.
Resilient recovery from COVID-19 requires reliable data offering layers of insight, quickly accessible to policymakers to drive targeted responses. Further, our collective efforts for a sustainable future are best served by supporting the most vulnerable among us and ensuring they get the help they need to reduce those vulnerabilities. Finally, we must emancipate ourselves from unsustainable development models and fully embrace environmentally sustainable pathways to development. We commend this as a viable pathway to growth and resilience and assure you that UNDP remains your willing partner in this process.
Denise Antonio is UNDP Resident Representative to Jamaica, Belize, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. Follow her on Twitter @Antonio67Denise