In the after­math of Matthew

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION&COMMENTARY -

EVEN BE­FORE the wa­ters have re­ceded and any de­bris left by Hur­ri­cane Matthew is cleared, the ad­min­is­tra­tion will be con­cen­trat­ing on the im­pact of the storm on the Ja­maican econ­omy. Hope­fully, it is neg­li­gi­ble.

For, as Prime Min­is­ter An­drew Hol­ness said as the storm bar­relled to­wards the is­land last week: “This weather event could de­rail our eco­nomic pro­gramme.”

The fact is, Jamaica’s econ­omy, de­spite the gains af­ter four years of tough, painstak­ing re­forms, re­mains vul­ner­a­ble. Sure, the debt-to-GDP ra­tio has fallen by around 20 per­cent­age points to 125 per cent; the cur­rent ac­count deficit, which used to be in dou­ble dig­its, is now around two per cent of GDP; and the Gov­ern­ment is about to bal­ance its Bud­get.

The im­prove­ments in the macroe­con­omy have be­gun to trans­late into eco­nomic growth: Af­ter me­an­der­ing for the bet­ter part of a gen­er­a­tion, the econ­omy ex­panded by around one per cent, in real terms, dur­ing the 2015-16 fis­cal year, and was pro­jected to grow by a fur­ther 1.7 per cent this fis­cal year. Th­ese are by no means huge num­bers, but they rep­re­sent crit­i­cal ground­work on which the coun­try can con­tinue to build, in­clud­ing of­fer­ing an en­vi­ron­ment within which Michael Lee-Chin’s Eco­nomic Growth Com­mit­tee (EGC) could pos­si­bly de­liver on its five per cent growth in four years’ time.

The prob­lem, though, is that this foun­da­tion is vul­ner­a­ble. In­ap­pro­pri­ate poli­cies and gen­er­ally bad man­age­ment, over the past four decades, have left Jamaica with rel­a­tively lit­tle in­su­la­tion when things go awry. There is lit­tle to noth­ing built up in the kitty to deal with emer­gen­cies. And de­spite its im­prove­ment in re­cent years, Jamaica’s debt pro­file is not one that en­dears it to the more emol­lient spec­trum of global fi­nan­cial mar­kets. Bi­lat­eral and mul­ti­lat­eral part­ners may help, but of­ten the time lag be­tween ap­peals for as­sis­tance and the dis­burse­ment of aid means its pal­lia­tive ef­fect is less than in­tended.

That is why, what­ever the ef­fect of Matthew, great or small, we hope that Mr Hol­ness is able to de­liver on his prom­ise that gov­ern­ment agen­cies will act with ef­fi­ciency and ur­gency to en­sure a speedy re­cov­ery and lessen the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of the storm on the broad econ­omy.


There are a num­ber of ac­tions to which the Gov­ern­ment should pay at­ten­tion, go­ing for­ward, which can lower the hu­man cost, and the eco­nomic con­se­quences of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. No­tably, in the last quar­ter-cen­tury, at least since Hur­ri­cane Gil­bert in 1988, the dam­age left by storms is not pri­mar­ily from their winds, but the floods.

This re­flects, partly, the in­ad­e­quacy of up­keep and poor state of re­pair of pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture, like drains and gul­lies, and the in­abil­ity of the Gov­ern­ment to spend on their ex­pan­sion and up­grade. But this is the smaller part of the prob­lem. The greater por­tion is poor man­age­ment – the in­abil­ity of our gov­ern­ments to do the small things and to get them right con­sis­tently. So, drains and gul­lies are not cleaned; forested is­lands de­velop in them, or they are clogged with PET con­tain­ers. Th­ese are in­ex­pen­sive fixes that merely re­quire con­certed at­ten­tion and the en­force­ment of laws that al­ready ex­ist. The same is the case with the man­age­ment of wa­ter­sheds, whose abuse leads to ero­sion and con­trib­ute to flood­ing.

The Gov­ern­ment must also pro­mul­gate and en­force devel­op­ment or­ders, on which we have dithered for decades, as well as passed a law for the manda­tory evac­u­a­tion of res­i­dents from vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas dur­ing po­ten­tial nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and be ready to ap­ply the penal­ties when the rules are flouted.

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