By: Tony Best
The “pathway to progress” that began in 1962 with independence from Britain remains on track.
Not only that, there are substantial positive results to demonstrate that sovereignty has been a success story.
And the gains are measurable, not simply by the outstanding and memorable results of the 2012 Olympics in London but by the rapid development of the nation’s human resources; the attainment of a life span that compares favorably with the life expectancy rates enjoyed by many rich countries; deep cuts in poverty; the presence of 70,000 students attending universities and colleges across the country; and by universal immunization coverage that protects youngsters from the childhood diseases that 50 years ago prevented 51 youngsters out of 1,000 live births from celebrating their first birthday.
They were some of the key elements of Jamaica’s record as delineated in New York by Portia Simpson-Miller, the nation’s Prime Minister during a feature address at an independence dinner attended by at least 2,000 nationals of the Caribbean country. It was an event that allowed members of the Diaspora in the tri-state area to hail their birthplace on its golden jubilee.
“Today, 50 years after independence, while we have made great progress in the achievement of cultural sovereignty, we are still working out way towards genuine social cohesion and economic prosperity, “ she told the large gathering of the Diaspora at the Hilton Hotel in mid-Manhattan. “The vision holds firm. The mission is evolving. Indeed, the journey continues along our unique development path.”
In a speech that painted a picture of a country which in the Prime Minister’s words was on “a journey” that ultimately would lead to “genuine social cohesion and economic prosperity,” Simpson-Miller, the lone woman to lead a Jamaican government, rejected outright “an existing sentiment in some quarters that independence has been a failure.” As evidence of the nation’s success, she explained that:
• At independence, three out of 10 Jamaicans were literate, but today 80 per cent could read and write with understanding.
• Gross enrollment at the pre-school level now stands at 99 per cent; 99.6 per cent of elementary age youngsters were in school; 97 per cent were attending secondary school.
• The poverty rate had slumped from 30 per cent in 1962 to 17 per cent between 1989 and 2010. Five years ago it had dipped below 10 per cent.
• “Before independence, the average age a Jamaican would live was 55 years. Now, it is a fact that our life expectancy rate is almost 75 years.
• The nation’s fertility rate has plummeted from 6 children per woman in the 1960s to 2.4 children today.
The explains why she asserted that youthful Jamaican “have the possibility of a brighter future through education and that people now enjoy “a better quality of life,” proof positive that sovereignty has indeed made a difference.”
Focusing on the recently concluded Olympics, whose results confirmed Usain Bolt, Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce and others as track and field superstars and placed the country among world leaders in athletic competition.
But she was quick to offer a sobering “reality check.’ Heading the list was the monstrous debt burden which amounts to (J) $ 1.7 trillion or (J) $600, 000 “for every man, woman and child living in Jamaica” today.
“Some 80 per cent of our budget goes to debt repayment and housekeeping expenses – with only 20 per cent left to do everything else,” the Prime Minister explained. “We have to do something about that. That is part of our mission. We are dealing with the fiscal deficit. We are seeking ways to grow our economy.”
Clearly, then, Jamaica needs “to replicate our spectacular success in track and field to the field of economic performance,” she insists. “We cannot continue to be left behind in the economic race. We must determine as we move into our next 50 years to take on the economic race for the progress of the nation and the prosperity of all our people.”
To achieve that goal, Simpson-Miller said, the country had to pursue a policy of “wage restraint;” fiscal responsibility must be a priority; and debt reduction and the fiscal deficit must come down. And while the government and the opposition might not see “eye-to-eye” on all issues, “we cannot afford to play cheap partisan politics with the critical issues related to the handling of the economy.”
Focusing on the role of the Diaspora, Simpson-Miller praised the overseas community for its contributions to health care, education and “assistance wherever you can for our people.” Last year, the remittances reached a “record (US) $ 2.08 billion. “That shows where your years are,” she said.