By Dennis Chung
AS we come to the end of 2014, it is traditional for us to think about what will happen in the New Year. Apart from tradition, however, the end of a year is always used as a mark to measure progress and look towards the future.
2014 has been a year of mixed fortunes, and indeed a transformative year in Jamaica. This is reflected in the progress made under the economic programme, as well as the many transitions in the legislative framework, and society. For example, we saw the following:
* Economy — fiscal improvements. The foreign exchange market went from volatility to stability and further end-of-year movements; the stock market seems to have levelled off as expected; significant improvement in the Doing Business Report; and businesses experienced mixed fortunes and a new normal in the competitive market emerged.
* Legislative framework — much change was made in the legislative landscape and we saw many proposed legislative amendments being made, based on public feedback. Overall, however, my own view is that much progress was made.
* Society — improvement in policing methods and lowering of crime statistics; more vibrant civil society, resulting in greater input in policy actions (eg response to Mario Deane incident); reduced unemployment and also reduced real wages; and, I think, greater effort by authorities to come to grips with some of the societal challenges, although much remains to be done and enforcement is still not where it should be.
My biggest disappointment is that we were not able to make more progress in the public sector reform and bureaucracy issues, because although some movement has been made, this still remains a major stumbling block to businesses.
I think, as we go into 2015, however, we could see further improvements in our economic and social development. But this is going to depend to a great degree on how leadership deals with the issues that will face us.
In other words, we are going to need strong leadership, which must be equitable and come down on the side of justice and fairness, as this will be the only way to balance the competing interests in the society for the benefit of the entire country.
On the economic front, I believe that we stand a good chance of a more vibrant economy as we have dealt with many of the structural issues facing the fiscal and macroeconomic environment. Although there are some significant targets remaining under the economic programme, it is my view that the significant legislative and other reforms made have laid a foundation for us to move forward positively. But this is going to depend on how we handle the advantages we have gained. These include:
1) Fiscal — I think that the Government has made significant strides in laying a foundation to continue fiscal discipline, and we have seen the benefits in our accounts. However, we must now realise that fiscal discipline alone cannot carry us much further, as all this does is control expenditures while what is needed now is growth. So it is going to be important that we implement policies and legislation that encourage businesses to grow, and particularly SMEs. Much of the infrastructure is still not conducive to a supportive business environment, and unless we are able to change these positively, then we will come to a standstill. This is going to require continued collaboration between the public and private sectors, as one hand can’t clap.
2) Governance — There have been some stormy discussions over governance in 2014, and we must continue the dialogue to address this, as governance is going to be key to building trust, which is the basis of economic and social progress. Governance, however, is much more than at the national level and includes things like enforcing simple laws such as those dealing with road usage, night noises, and littering. It also includes ensuring that public sector bodies follow proper board and reporting governance.
3) Energy — Over the past few months we have seen oil prices falling significantly, approximately 50 per cent, but there is a concern that consumers have not seen the full benefit. This is important to take advantage of, as falling oil prices create an excellent avenue for providing economic stimulus as it will mean more disposable income in the hands of consumers for the local economy.
4) Macro economy — The Bank of Jamaica has a critical role to play here, as with the adjustments happening in the economy it will have to know how to tweak money supply; for example, to balance the fear of a moving exchange rate and the need for adequate liquidity. Any miscalculation could put a spoke in the wheel of the economy’s development.
5) Agriculture — I think agriculture has a critical role to play in our development, as many new enterprises can emerge from this, particularly export-led ones. The problem with our agriculture is that it has been highly disorganised and is based more on subsistence farming than large-scale farms. This is unsustainable in a competitive market, and so the agro-parks are a critical component of a future industry. What is going to be important is that we ensure that the proper management is in place to ensure that agro-parks deliver on their potential. If we are able to maximise this area, then there is also a large potential to supply local produce in place of much of the US$1-billion food imports.
6) Tourism — This is another area of significant potential. However, our inability to enforce environmental laws, deal with squatting, tourist harassment, and littering, and develop our infrastructure is not allowing us to maximise our competitive advantage. With the opening up of Cuba to the US market, it is even more critical to have a well-planned approach to deal with this. This, of course, includes crime, which is a scourge on not only tourism but also business in general.
These are some of the issues we will face in 2015, and whether we are successful or not will depend on what leadership is provided. We have certainly shown that we have the capacity to confront issues, as we have done with the economic programme, and must now ensure this infects other areas.
As we go into 2015, however, as citizens we must also reflect on our individual responsibility to ensure we are compliant with proper law and order and do our part to move the country forward.
Happy holidays and much prosperity in 2015.