Mr Holness on to something
PRIME MINISTER Andrew Holness is clearly on to something in his public ruminations at his party’s annual conference on Sunday about his intention to establish a new government ministry dedicated to combating violence in the society.
“I’m thinking of calling it the ministry of peace and human development, but maybe that won’t be the name,” the prime minister said. “But we need a ministry that is focused on reducing the level of violence in our society.”
Apparently, the final decision on the name and structure of the proposed ministry will be taken after the Government receives the findings of a study on the issue within a few weeks, before the end of this year.
The imperatives for government action on this front are obvious. For as the prime minister observed, Jamaica’s annual homicide rate, which hovers at around 55 per 100,000, exceeds the killings of many countries at war.
“What it means is that Jamaica is in conflict,” Mr Holness said.“We are in conflict with ourselves, we are in conflict with our neighbour, our family, our intimate partner, our employer, workers, teachers, students, and we’re in conflict – citizen and State. We cannot continue to be a society in conflict with ourselves.”
There are many practical consequences from this violence apart from the fear it generates among Jamaicans, thus crimping many people’s opportunity for social engagement. Violence in the society helps to keep Jamaica poor. It is, for instance, estimated to cost the economy around five per cent of GDP annually, or nearly J$120 billion.
This represents lost resources equivalent to 84 per cent of the Government’s budget for education in the current fiscal year, or 22 per cent of its non-debt expenditure.
The issue for the Government, and especially the prime minister, is how it responds to this scourge.
THREE CAUTIONS FOR MR HOLNESS
Mr Holness, this newspaper believes, is on the right track with his intention to bring greater coordination to the efforts of government agencies involved “with families, communities, social development, parenting”.
We, however, have three cautions for Mr Holness with respect to how he goes about this project, and particularly with respect to the establishment of a new ministry, which often means the creation of inefficient, self-perpetuating bureaucracies that achieve little.
The point is, any programme such as contemplated by Mr Holness, if it is to be effective and deliver real change, demands not only the imprimatur of the prime minister. It has to be led from the top. Mr Holness has to take charge and not, at least over the medium term, be perceived to be outsourcing this campaign.
In other words, the prime minister’s ownership of the project has to be approached with a sense of mission – made secondary to anything else he now does in his oversight of the Government. The potential rewards to Mr Holness, especially with respect to his legacy, would be great if he achieves sustainable success in an area that has eluded his predecessors.
Second, while any programme for violence reduction must include the effective and judicial involvement of law-enforcement agencies to ensure compliance with societal rules, there are no sustainable shortcuts or substitutions for real transformation.
Putting away large swathes of people even for significant periods tends to create a ballooning effect. It tamps down on crime in one area, while it bulges in another. Additionally, that approach, while it may have substantial support until the detentions reach our friends and family, is antithetical to the ideals of a liberal democracy. And once you have lost your innocence, it is nigh impossible to regain it.
More critically, therefore, Mr Holness’ programme has to be centred around civic values – a deep and ongoing campaign to educate citizens on their rights and their concomitant obligations and responsibilities to other citizens.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Many in Mr Holness’ party may be reluctant to frame the initiative within this context, for two reasons.
One, for its association with the values and attitudes campaign attempted by former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson nearly three decades ago.
The second is because of the shame they may feel for their roles in ridiculing the Patterson initiative - it has been difficult for it to get a toehold in Jamaica since then.
Mr Holness, however, appears to have crossed the Rubicon to be unconstrained by those concerns. He must therefore engage the political Opposition and attempt to make them a full and equal partner in a campaign that is obviously credible. And as Howard Mitchell, the lawyer and businessman, suggested recently, it would be useful to work with private-sector and civil society institutions and critical leadership roles in this effort.
Finally, there is a large, unacknowledged elephant in the room that could prove a constraint to buy-in for this campaign: public corruption and the perception thereof. Upwards of 70 per cent of Jamaicans believe they live in a corrupt country, and the majority has concluded that politicians are the most corrupt of the corrupt. Large chunks of the population do not trust the institutions of the State. Like crime, public corruption is estimated to cost the economy another five per cent of GDP. Combined, the bill is around J$240 billion.
Mr Holnes cannot ignore these facts. His initiative must include addressing this issue head-on. Which must include taking the hoe to the corrupt in his administration and other areas of the Government.
The opinions on this page, except for The Editorial, do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Gleaner.