The misery index
For the past forty eight years we have been educating our people to build Jamaica into a viable country that can support its people and sustain a descent standard of living. We have been woefully unsuccessful, despite what some fly by night tourism group says about Jamaica being one of the nicest places to live, the reality is that for the average youth and the average family the misery index is high.
According to the United Nations, our Human Development Index (HDI) is 100 - right up there with Guyana (114) and Haiti (149) - which is significantly higher than our counterparts, Barbados (37) and Trinidad and Tobago (64) or even big brother Cuba (51) and show off little cousin Bahamas (52). So something has to be wrong, and for those of you saying, what is the HDI? It is a list of composite factors that take into consideration quality of life issues like health care, life expectancy, employment etc.
If we have been educating our people to help them create an improved quality of life for this long and at the end of this period we seem to be going backward instead of forward, we are obviously going in the wrong direction and must reassess our actions or inactions. The fact is in the eyes of the world we have been slipping down the slippery HDI slope for the past four decades, and it’s not looking pretty.
Yet our highly touted education system seems to be tooting its own horn triumphantly every year. We are getting record CXC passes, but unemployment is skyrocketing, it is now at a near record level 13.5% - the record being 15% experienced in 2001. It appears our children are getting smarter but their future is dimmer as dim employment prospects and a poor quality of life seems to darken their horizon. The talk of creating jobs by empowering entrepreneurs is just that – talk. Maybe the time has come to face the facts.
Our leaders are bereft of new ideas, the much anticipated new investment is not coming because we are dependent upon the elaborate success of the developed countries before they “trickle down” any of the largesse on us small folks. All we can do is borrow to pay our bills, there is no money for funding new projects. So how are the jobs going to be created? Let’s face it, we are doomed to be a nation of hustlers, conning each other daily for the scarce resources and bickering about the oppression of the small man.
The right education emphasis
It’s time we look at this whole education thing a little differently. Look around us at who are growing, who are being innovative and who could sustain a percentage of our work force. Brazil, Ecuador and closer to home Costa Rica, Cuba and the United States are all places we could ply our trade and pay back Jamaica with the only currency it spends well – remittances. Our emphasis should therefore be what kind of education can these regions use so when we immigrate we can find jobs and send the remittances home. After all, immigration doesn’t have to be a one-way ticket, but a chance to escape the misery. And don’t let the brain drain argument tug at your heart strings, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is what it’s all about. A certain amount of the smart ones are always going to stay home, the powers that be will ensure that happens.
It’s obvious we can’t create sufficient opportunities for our youth, so we should help them create options. Let’s demand a modification of the high school curriculum to strongly emphasize Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese, so when you go to Costa Rica or Brazil you can communicate with your new employers or business partners. If you’re going to teach us how to beg, then teach us how to beg in Mandarin, so we can visit China and make our own deals. We want to be able to engage our new Chinese partner and convince him why he should accompany us back to Jamaica to do some meaningful business. Being able to speak good mandarin would allow us to correctly apologize for our government short-sightedness and for not being able to promote partnerships that create labor-intensive businesses. We would know how to convince our new Chinese business partner that contrary to our band-aid government, we want to establish long term business partnerships, not beg short term loans that only feed our family for today and partially patch our roads. Somehow I believe our Chinese partner would appreciate our wisdom because that is exactly how his nation is undertaking the phenomenal growth it is experiencing.
Our high school education should ensure that by the 12th grade we are graduating functional citizens that are capable of creating their own employment or are immediately employable. This can be achieved by ensuring they are certifiable in areas like computer and Information technology, health care and energy technology. These certificates should include networking, Cisco servers, database management, software and bio-tech skills. These career defining skills are exportable to any nation undergoing technology growth and that most certainly includes the ones mentioned earlier. These progressive countries understood years ago the importance of re-focusing the critical industries like energy, transportation, and health care. So while countries like Brazil and Ecuador were developing their successful ethanol programs, we tried to sell them our sugar estates so they could modernize them and enjoy the spoils. They didn’t see the quick money so we had to sell them to the Chinese. It seems some of us already have good Chinese communication skills and are quite adept at selling off the country’s assets at bargain prices and then telling the people that it wasn’t worth much so that’s the best price they could get. I suspect the Chinese are happy with the deal, they now own some of Jamaica’s most treasured real estate. Their purchase of Frome (George’s Plain) is a watershed moment, we have now sold one of only three plains on the Island, let’s see what kind of development they have in mind. Pardon my digression.
We watched the US and Germany develop solar technology, all the time grumbling about their expensive oil bill, while we wasted our sunshine and wonder why Venezuela couldn’t give us the oil a little cheaper. Incidentally, while Brazil’s education system is not as vaulted as ours they only have 6% unemployment with a population of 193 million. To take it closer home, we herald our education system as one of the best in the Caribbean, yet unemployment in the Caribbean averages 7.5% while ours double that amount and this Caribbean average includes ours and Haiti’s abysmal numbers. To highlight the maxim “misery loves company” neither Haiti nor Jamaica displays a heightened awareness of solar technology although both countries are abundantly blessed with great sunshine. Someone tell me why our physics class should not be teaching us how to create inexpensive solar panels and inverters so we can promulgate this technology throughout the rest of the Caribbean and South America.
I can hear the skeptics now, so while this is being taught in high schools what will CAST and UWI teach? I say let them develop the engineers and researchers that will help us create new industries. For so long we’ve heard how great our diverse plant foliage is and their wonderful medicinal qualities. If Costa Rica can develop a lucrative drug industry why can’t we? We have a similar number of Universities but maybe our government didn’t pour enough money into the right programs to develop a credible research program, or is it that our research Professors lacks the awareness to seek grants and partnerships from International Corporations. Wherever the blame lies it’s time to move into the twenty first century. The days of the colonialist book-keeper is gone, we simply must make education relevant for the times and become more innovative.
Nation Building Myth
With the once mighty bauxite industry almost six feet under and the government unable to develop or entice someone to develop another labor intensive industry that pays as well as alumina, we must explore other options. Think about why we get an education and what we intend to do with it once we get it. Is this education a part of any grand plan to build the nation? It certainly doesn’t appear this way. The question is, where are we going?
The Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), the agency from which the Government gets its direction for future development plans, needs to come up with an original thought to give credence to their “vision 2030” pipe dream. This answer is not farming, the rest of the world is going technology and we either get on board or get left at the station. We need to fire up projects that undertake infrastructure rebuilding and put people to work using technology. It’s hard to believe the entire 66 billion dollars we just got from the IMF will be used for debt-servicing; we simply must find funding for these Infrastructure rebuilding projects. Start building a commuter rail system from Portmore to the City - find investors; they are all over the Caribbean and in the Diaspora. Start building a hospital or two to show us your resolve.
So let’s debunk the myth about nation building, there is no nation being built here. There is a concerted effort to keep the tourist outpost afloat and riot free. This is done by selling the remaining assets and borrowing to keep the lights on. Someone please tell the youth the truth, tell them look around in the classroom, only one in five of you have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a good job in the current Jamaica, because the real unemployment rate is over 25% and you have to be well connected to get that one good job. The new head of the PIOJ, Professor Hutchinson, would have you getting into farming or tourism the only sectors that have seen appreciable growth in decades, but between praedial larceny and unpredictable cruise ship dockings you are in for a rough ride. Crime and all-inclusive tourism doesn’t give much hope to the budding entrepreneur, your last gasp maybe tour guide, but I still get nightmares thinking about my trip to Port Antonio three years ago. While navigating my way through a flooded out Yallas Ford, a kind youngster in a worn out KC shirt escorted me through the river bed showing me the areas to avoid. Once I got through I asked him if he was really a KC student or graduate, he informed that indeed he was, he just didn’t graduate, he was asked to leave after grade 10, so his only occupation now was to assist motorists on the roadway. I gave him whatever little local currency I had, but a lump gathered in my throat as I drove off down the road thinking how many more of these youngsters were out there, eking out a measly existence with no real skills after leaving high school.
Give yourself a chance
My recommendation is never leave yourself so few options in life, make your high school education work for you, at the very least at graduation you should be employable.
The goal should always be to get the most exam passes you can to give yourself the chance of excelling in a tertiary institution, but at the very least if you gear your education towards finding employment overseas, then you should graduate with a skill that is needed by someone. And if worst case scenario the economy changes and you have to move to greener pastures, ensure you have a desirable skill-set. While I’m certainly not encouraging everyone to immigrate, I’m encouraging you to take charge of your future, the government is not going to do that. Remember the difference between a day laborer and a migrant labor is that one works for foreign dollars usually for long stretches at a time; the other is a day to day existence with an uncertain future. You have to make your own destiny, work hard and plan smartly.