Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Sunday | November 30, 2008
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Reality cheque!

Orville Taylor

The hangman is coming, but not the one at the St Catherine prison. It is not even about the little poppy-show exercise in futility that went on in Parliament over the past few weeks, as the smoke screen over the death penalty obscured the harsher reality. It is not like the sand that slipped away through the hourglass and on to another property. It is the crisis that we were told would not happen.

Like the finance minister, I am not an economist, therefore, I do not know a whole lot about the full impact of the economic crisis facing the world. Headlines read "Thousands of auto jobs in jeopardy." And no, Jeopardy is not the name of an American city, but based on predictions, at least tens of thousands of American residents could join the unemployment lines.

Now, we know that the initial media reports from the trained journalist were overly optimistic and some serious times are ahead of us. If the American automotive industry crashes, then the auto-parts prices will increase dramatically, bauxite will experience a slump in demand and the unemployed would not be able to take Jamaican vacations. Believe it! This is reminiscent of the oil crisis of the 1970s when the Michael Manley-led People's National Party (PNP) government was trying to steer a different course and do some of the things that the driver of the green vehicle is attempting to do today.

residual effect

By the end of 1977, the residual effect of the declining demand for Jamaican goods and services by Americans put major pressures on our foreign-exchange reserves, balance of payments and trade and we went with an old chipped-up enamel chamber pot, soliciting loans from multi-lateral institutions. That was then.

Last week, it was announced that mana-ging director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Khan, would be visiting the country sometime next month. This is on the heels of an earlier team that popped in on November 21 for its semi-annual sojourn. Unlike Santa Claus, it is unlikely that he will be bringing a bag of goodies, because the last time that we had a long-term relationship with the fund it was as if we had drunk too much thin milk and Manley fought tooth and nail with it.

Indeed, Manley took so much flak for the IMF austerity measures and consequent economic hardship that faced us, that it became the acronym for "Is Manley Fault."

Eyes are upon us because principals from the Caribbean Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank all came here within the past year. However, it is the latter that bothers me the most. Between the IMF and the World Bank, they control the world economy. Since the end of World War II, it was agreed that these institutions would be established and an unwritten rule is that the bank would be always headed by an American, while the fund's boss was to be Western European. No African-descended candidate has ever been considered for the job, though that is not written in 'black and white'.

Typically, when these two lend money it is labelled "structural adjustment (SA)," and Jamaica was the poster child for SA loans. Generally, the country that goes begging has to provide letters of intent, and often, what they borrow the money to do is changed to fit the dictates of the institutions. Some of the common prescriptions include reduction in the size of the public sector, decrease in welfare spending, such as education and health, wage freezes or ceilings and generally anti-trade union policies. However, most scary of all is the 'panacea' of devaluation of the local currency.

weakened dollar

What devaluation does is that is makes the value of our exports cheaper, but the low price does not mean that more of it will be sold. On the other hand, the wea-kened dollar buys less of the imports that we need, thus creating havoc on the local economy. Simply put: We earn less and have to use that little less to buy the same quantities. Anybody with even a smattering of economic sense can understand the implication of that, whether you are a man from foreign or a 'man a yard'!

Jamaica went through a phase of SA between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. It had very little positive impact for us. Inflation ran out of control, public debt multiplied and the economy grew in size as fast as a crack smoker.

One area of positive growth, however, was employment. Unemployment decreased from around 30 per cent in the late 1970s, to just under 16 per cent in 1992, when the last loan agreement expired.

unprotected sectors

Nonetheless, the employment was in the most unprotected sectors and it had a depressing effect on relative wages and the working poor increased. Since the 1980s, more than 30,000 jobs have been lost in agriculture, and around 40,000 at least, in manufacturing. Under SA, the gap between rich and poor expanded into a chasm. Poverty increased and the marginal army of potential recruits for gangs grew.

Interestingly, during the early phase of structural adjustment, the import of guns had its first spike and many of the areas now known as garrisons and crime hot spots became hotter. In the later era, between the mid-1980s and late 1990s, the reduction in traditional areas of employment and the opening up to the drug trade fed the already-entrenched addiction of our youth to the gun.

I don't say we don't need the IMF, but more than ever we need a social contract, a general agreement among all of the major players in this society. Barbados did it in 1991.

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work at UWI, Mona. Feedback may be sent to orville.taylor@uwimona.edu.jm or columns@gleanerjm.com .

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