Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Working to end this 'dark night'

(L-R) DANVILLE WALKER and GREG CHRISTIE... Independent-minded public sector leaders.

Observer column | JEAN LOWRIE-CHIN | Monday, November 23, 2009

“Haven’t you heard?” asks my droll friend.  “Jamaica has moved up again … in the corruption ratings!”  Well if you don’t laugh, you will cry. The next day, we heard that Moody’s Investors Services had downgraded Jamaica’s local and foreign currency bond rating to Caa1 from B2.  Are we not seeing that there is a direct link between corruption and the lowered confidence of local and foreign investors alike?

In this ‘dark night’ for Jamaica, we have to believe that a brighter day is about to dawn.  The past five years have seen an increased number of interdictions of corrupt police, more probes of questionable practices in both public and private sector, and the appointment of independent-minded individuals to the top posts of Contractor General and Commissioner of Customs.  We have civil groups that we may not always agree with, but whose role in keeping us more honest cannot be denied.

Commissioner Walker has come under attack from those who have had their “dolly house” mashed up by his stricter regulations.  He has acknowledged that some of the bribes may have resulted from an inefficient system and has sped up the process by applying newer technology.  There are ‘no-man’s lands’ in Customs, in the police force, in inactive offices at Government ministries for individuals of suspect behaviour who cannot be placed on the frontline, but whose jobs are still protected legally. This business of corruption is costing us dearly.

We are all demanding a ‘spring cleaning’ from Government, ready to cast stones as if we are without sin.  Every single organisation – church, state, private sector, NGO – needs to take a long hard look at itself and do its own deep-clean.  It does not follow that in a country with so many churches and outreach organisations, we are still having such issues with crime and violence.  Could it be that we are all doing our own damage by protecting our narrow little fiefdoms and interests? 

It seems that once we get some measure of power, be it on the pulpit, in parliament, in the community or in the boardroom, the initial motive to serve gets edged out by ego.  In trying to keep our grip on power, status, pay packages we can become dangerous.

Years ago, I was called in to a briefing session after indicating interest in tendering for a contract being administered by a public sector agency and funded by an international body.  I knew the lady who conducted the meeting and on our way out, she told me, “You  are the only one I have briefed who has not offered me anything ‘under the table’.”   After making our pitch, we were notified that we would not be awarded.  A few months afterwards, I encountered the lady who said to me, “You made an excellent presentation but … these people, these people!”

What has sustained us and others during such low moments are the genuinely good people who still exist in the system.  I remember one CEO who unmasked a corrupt functionary who was hinting too heavily that business for us meant kick-back for him.  The unrepentant official remarked to someone that we didn’t understand “the runnings”.

We should acknowledge that our free media have gone a far way to help us uncover the ugly underbelly of our country, and that they too are putting in self-regulatory mechanisms. Last Wednesday the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) and the US Embassy Public Affairs office hosted a Forum to discuss a revised Code of Practice for Media practitioners.  It was heartening to hear journalists of three generations all on the same page about the updating and adoption of the Code, and calling for sanctions to be included. 

Main speakers retired UWI lecturer and former media boss Claude Robinson, PAJ President Byron Buckley and past President Desmond Richards made robust contributions.  We were encouraged by the respect shown to the advocacy of Women’s Media Watch for responsible reporting, and impressed by younger practitioners Klao Bell-Lewis, Stokely Marshall, and Naomi Francis. Bell-Lewis warned against us embracing unconditionally everything that the international press says about Jamaica. 

We were relieved that the public response to the Economist story on our ‘unfixable’ economy was not one of panic, but of resolve.  On RJR’s Facebook page, Dennis J. wrote, “In the last 10 to 15 years does anyone remember when this same publication has had anything good to say about Jamaica and most Caribbean countries? ... No, an emphatic NO, Jamaica is not unfixable. All that needs to happen is for Jamaicans and the leaders to face reality and do what is needed and not to expect outsiders to fix it or solve the problems for us.”

Austin F.  took a humorous approach: “Jamaica's problems unfixable … I disagree, I once saw a comment on Facebook which stated, ‘If I wake up in hell and find a Jamaican amongst the sinners, then I'm definitely gonna find my way out’."

We go through a gamut of emotions as we watch the evening news: frustration and sadness as we see more violence, hope as we hear a story of courage, and confidence as we see our stock market holding its own in spite of rough international conditions.  Looking overseas there are reports on those relentless wars: the dislocation, the arid landscape.  We see the terror and mayhem created by suicide bombers, followed by the wailing burial processions.  Obviously, Jamaica is not the worst place in the world.

But we do have big issues, totally out of proportion for this tiny country.  The slippage in our credibility and credit rating is a challenge for all of us who call ourselves leaders.  Our culture of corruption has been killing our entrepreneurial spirit.  Decent business persons are being frustrated because they will not participate in ‘the runnings’, and we keep silent for fear of reprisal and victimization.

It is a tough and perilous task, but as our PM has reminded us, he and his colleagues campaigned for the job. Opposition parliamentarians did likewise and are being paid to guide, not divide, our country.  We in church and civil society also share in this responsibility.  We are being called to heal one community at a time, sending the signal to our international partners that we are a united nation, ready to reclaim our birthright.

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