Monday, November 21, 2011

A Jamaican buzz in New York

Former US ambassador to Jamaica Sue Cobb presented the AFJ International Humanitarian Award to Denis O’Brien, Founder and Chairman of Digicel.

Lester Spaulding, Mark Linehan and William Mahfood join in the festivities

JEAN LOWRIE-CHIN | Observer column | Monday, November 21, 2011

We had traffic delays in New York City last week as the "Occupy Wall Street" protests gathered momentum. Jamaicans should put politics aside when they examine the efforts of the current and previous administrations to ensure a higher level of fiscal responsibility after our own 90s meltdown.

Yes, there were those Ponzi schemes that attracted too many otherwise level-headed Jamaicans even as the Financial Services Commission published warnings and rolled out an ad campaign created by our firm, appealing to Jamaicans to "Think and check before you invest". One of the biggest challenges of the regulatory bodies was that some individuals with valuable airtime actually accused legitimate investors in the financial sector of not wanting to give "the little man" a break, an implied endorsement of unregistered financial organisations. We have yet to receive a public apology from them. Columnist John Maxwell had seen through these dissemblers and had been one of the first persons to express a strong caution - no wonder he is so greatly missed.

And so, we were encouraged to hear Denis O'Brien lauding the steps Jamaica had taken in recent years to address our fiscal crisis. "We could do with 10 or 20 Audley Shaws in Europe right now," he declared at the American Friends of Jamaica Gala in downtown Manhattan where he received their 2011 International Humanitarian Award, in the presence of Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Mrs Holness.

O'Brien also praised Jamaica's Ambassador to the US Audrey Marks, expressing his delight that he was able to support her efforts to promote "good, high quality" foreign direct investment in Jamaica. Earlier this year Ambassador Marks had held an event in Washington DC, where O'Brien shared his positive Jamaican experience and invited top US business moguls to come on board.

Jamaica is extremely fortunate that the American Friends of Jamaica, led by former US Ambassador to Jamaica Sue Cobb, continue not only to fund our needy causes, but also make important business connections for us. The Board of the AFJ includes a Who's Who of diplomacy and business: honorary chairs Ambassadors Pamela Bridgewater and Audrey Marks, former Ambassadors to Jamaica J Gary Cooper, Glen Holden, Brenda Johnson, Stan McLelland and former Chargé d'Affaires Lacy Wright Jr, as well as the dynamic Monica Ladd and Dr Laura Tanna.

We also spoke with former USAID Mission Director Dr Karen Hilliard who disclosed that USAID would be supporting the Digicel Foundation's market upgrading by contributing to the restoration of the Queen's Market in downtown Kingston. Dr Hilliard has been one of the most active, knowledgeable supporters of local community policing and SME business development that we have ever met.

In replying to the AFJ's accolades, including videos lauding his contributions in Jamaica and Haiti from Prince Charles and Bill Clinton, Denis O'Brien affirmed his company's Jamaican roots: "We have taken Digicel and grown it into a Jamaican multinational with our global headquarters in Kingston. Our Jamaican managers are now scattered far and wide throughout the world and their talents have made a massive impact on our operations. Our ethos is to create a different, more responsible form of capitalism. That is why the Digicel Foundation is such an important part of what and who we are... We also have taken risks that hopefully will be seen to be the right thing for Jamaica, for instance, by moving our global headquarters to the vibrant downtown Kingston area and backing the government's plan for urban renewal."

Successful Jamaicans abroad

One of the high points of my visit was the opportunity to meet so many successful New York-based Jamaicans at the launch of my book. They have been making their mark in commerce and industry. It is coincidental that only last Monday the Observer editorial spoke of these fine Jamaicans, several of whom have been nominated for the Jamaica Observer Business Leader Diaspora Investor Award as "the most patriotic, hard-working, and law-abiding citizens. In many cases, they give back to this country beyond measure".

The editorial condemned "the vicious animosity of their fellow Jamaicans who subject returnees to many unpleasant acts, including robbery". We should condemn this abhorrent behaviour which the Observer believes is attributable to three factors.

"First is jealousy, the most pandemic of human emotions spawned by resentment that Jamaicans who lived and worked abroad come back economically better off...," the editorial stated. "There is, too, an entrenched feeling that with more Jamaicans returning home, the more people will have to share scarce resources like land... Then there is the misguided view that once a Jamaican goes abroad to live and/or work, he or she is somehow no longer a 'true' Jamaican. The departure is subconsciously viewed as an act of betrayal and the sojourn in foreign lands is assumed to contaminate them."

As we try to keep our heads above water, we had better guard our returning residents, willing to invest here, from predators and bad-mindedness. One of my colleagues says this extends to public servants who have actually responded to a legitimate request with, "So why you want any more convenience? You don't think you have enough already?" Oh yes, the line was open so my associate has witnesses!

The sad truth is that there is a remittance-barrel mentality among some folks - diligence was never taught nor productivity encouraged. Now that returnees have brought back their funds, hard-earned as they slogged through cold and ice, lazy louts are hovering dangerously. That tireless defender of returnees, Percival LaTouche, has some sad stories to tell about unsuspecting Jamaicans who have fulfilled their dream of returning to Jamaica to retire, only to experience the nightmare of these criminals.

The good news is that never before have we heard so much enlightened discussion around important national issues. Decent Jamaicans are standing up and being counted. Let us serve notice on all pretenders - we are finally taking charge of our country.

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