Tue | Aug 14, 2018

Mark Ricketts | Who's taking responsibility?

Published:Saturday | July 21, 2018 | 11:19 PM

 

It was yet another fire, this time in May Pen. A number of uninhabitable zinc structures were gutted in what was believed to be gang-related reprisals.

Last week, a debate, quite agitated, occurred as councillors grappled with vexing issues: Where do you put all those families? They have nowhere to go and they have lost everything. Surely they can't sleep on the street, and, so far, not much, if anything, has been done for them. And many children are involved!

I don't understand Jamaica. There is disorder everywhere, and administering a country well requires prolonged efforts at developing institutions and rules to ensure responsibility. There must also be a proper ordering of priorities reflected in budget allocations, and, just as important, is personal initiative. Everybody can't be waiting for a house from Andrew (Anju) or find an excuse to continue pursuing illegal acts, which the society, many times, has tempered with socially accepted language.

Many nights on television you see painful pictures, mothers distraught, children crying, as their homes have been burned out and nothing is left. A mix of zinc and cardboard is totally engulfed in flames as a mother records her heroism in taking out her three or four children, ages ranging from one to five.

 

Illegal settlement

 

When fire destroys a building, the mother weeps and despair takes over. She has no insurance covering the house, nor the belongings. Sometimes the structure of the building and the location give a good indication that this was an illegal settlement. At the time of the devastation, there is grief, trauma, hopelessness, and death.

As I look at these sad and heart-wrenching situations, I keep asking myself, does it always have to come to this, where responsibility is excused and avoided by the citizens, by the Government, and by the private sector, and will death and hopelessness be the constant reminder that we cannot go on like this, we have to change? Or aren't these devastating images not painful enough to force change?

In Jamaica, with more than a quarter of the population squatting in very dense, unplanned communities, their exposure to disasters is much higher and their recovery capability is more challenging, forcing many to merely shift location, while pursuing the same activity of capturing land, securing social water, paying no property taxes, and illegally hooking up electricity.

All this begs the question: Where is that mother's sense of responsibility, along with that of the father's, in not having all those children that they can't afford to maintain?

Even though many parents are trying their best, and some are working very hard, children are bundled together in uninhabitable housing structures while observing a lifestyle arrangement based on theft and on breaking the law.

But we have moderated the narrative so that squatting is excusable and is anything but illegal.

 

Raise the bar higher

 

Why do we wait until the fire comes or the river overflows and takes its toll on houses illegally built on river banks before formalising and implementing zoning and density laws and raising the bar much higher?

Our accepted theme seems to be, if people don't capture land, where are they going to live? So illegality knows no bounds as the taxi driver breaks every rule of the road to make the car payments so that he can send his children to good schools. And on it goes. Responsibility is bypassed as everybody has a justification for breaking the law.

'The realities of poverty in Jamaica' (Observer, May 11, 2018), written by Father Sean Major-Campbell, Anglican priest, human-rights advocate, captures the essence of what I am observing.

He writes, in a conversation with Ras, I wanted to know why he needed help from the outreach programme. Father asked how he managed with his basic expenses of life.

Translating Ras' response in English, he said, "To tell you the truth, Father, I bridge my water, I bridge my light, but I am not a thief.

Father then writes that many of our citizens who are numbered among the poorest of the poor are actually peace-loving individuals who just need an opportunity to earn a livable wage. Many of our 'wrong address' citizens who bridge (steal) water and light in informal locations have known no other form of existence and may not understand the implications of moral and legal concerns.

Father goes on, when Ras says that he is not a thief, that we know what he means. He would never set out to hold up anyone or even to hurt anyone.

 

Long letter

 

The letter is much longer, but I wished that Father had mentioned whether Ras was bridging land as well, that is, capturing it. It would have been a fitting story if Father had made a case that Ras, while waiting for an opportunity to earn a living wage, was doing everything to become employable or to secure employment.

Rather than get into a discussion about moral imperatives and the righteousness of various causes, I believe responsibility would have greater acceptance if there is more personal initiative and a greater sense of self-worth and asset building and if people's life chances were enhanced by improved educational skills.

To this end, I wish the Government would change course and address what Douglas Orane, former GraceKennedy CEO, describes as "Jamaica's apartheid education system". Any robust economy, with its attendant discipline and emphasis on responsibility, requires a totally well-educated population, not just the brilliant few.

Something that is equally troubling and must change, hopefully, through a new direction in education, is the country's income inequality, which is really bad. It is awful in the private sector and even worse in the public sector, where secrecy, flagrant exercise of power, and a plethora of allowance categories, especially in state-run agencies, ensure disproportionate benefits for the few while marginalising and discentivising so many of the rank and file.

Also, our language must change and be accepted as to what is lawful, and responsibility has to become institutionalised by people working within the ambit of the law.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.