Privatisation is a phrase which is not alien to Jamaicans, a phrase which seems to constantly sit on the tongues of our elected officials, especially ministers. It is an activity which has a deep history in this nation as JPS, Kingston Wharf, the airports, the sugar industry or even the transport sector can attest to. It is a word which is heavily loaded emotionally as it naturally means that the State loses control of an asset and one feels a serious dent in pride when a nation is forced to sell off its assets, especially prized ones. Now, I am no fan of privatisation. If things were my way the State would own outright or have a controlling stake in all major sectors (finance, mining, agriculture, transportation, telecommunications) but the economic realities of Jamaica are such that what I wish remains just that. Loss-making assets and assets which are bulky with their overheads and maintenance need to be shed at this point in time so that the ship which is the Jamaican state can be righted. I understand that fact and can grudgingly acquiesce to that dreaded action, but where I draw the line is when these entities are sold off solely to foreign companies. I understand that socialism is not everyone’s cup of tea, it conjures up different spectres in different people for different reasons, but why is it that this nation and its leaders aren’t more nationalistic especially when it comes to matters such as this? Why is it that whenever State-owned entities are sold they always seem to end up in the hands of those who are not from here and who will not feel directly the effects of any policy mismanagement?
A perfect example would be JPS. As a State agency it haemorrhaged money and as such was sold off to foreigners. The cost of electricity has skyrocketed. The equipment became obsolete, further increasing the cost on the consumer. If that weren’t enough, when the company recognised that the equipment had to be changed (lest the entire plant shutdown) the cost for the delayed upgrade was borne by the local consumer. Now, that is not to say that a local owner wouldn’t act in that manner, it is to simply say that if the owner were local they would also be feeling the effects of the bad policy and could be spurred into action (either by the local board members or the people in the street with whom they interact). Why is it that, for example, the management at the airports has been sold to foreigners? Wouldn’t national security be helped if it were in the ownership of nationals? Many times, we are told that the Jamaican investor doesn’t want to pony up the cash, but in this instance they were, so why not deal with them? We are eager to do deals with Mexican companies and companies from the EU when it comes to selling off assets, but do we realise that say Airbus is owned by EU states and nationals and that Mexican oil is still owned either by the state or by companies with links to local investors? Why is it that in this rush to rid ourselves of State assets (which could become high-performing in the not too distant future) we are willing to ensure that the profits from these enterprises go abroad? Such plans of privatisation outside of the nation have been tried and the results have been far from positive.
The UK, at the start of the 80s, while going through an economic downturn decided to sell off coal, steel, rail and oil all to private companies outside of the UK. In some instances, the State enterprises were sold off to foreign state-backed companies. In the end, gas rates in the UK have skyrocketed, the cost of rail transportation has skyrocketed while the tracks crumble and steel and coal plants have shut down as foreign companies seek to keep the profits rolling. Now, in a full 180°, both Tories and Labour agree that the nationalising of some industries or at least keeping them in-house is necessary for national growth and stability. There is no need to re-invent the wheel here. Past experience, both locally and abroad, shows that privatizing is bad enough but selling it outside of the national shores compounds the issue. If we have to sell these entities, then let us at least sell them to our local business class which actually has the money. Imagine a JUTC owned and run by a local, serving us? Imagine NSWMA owned and operated by locals serving Jamaica? That is money staying in Jamaica, that is future investment and expansion, that is jobs, that is national pride and food on the plate We need to get beyond the thinking that ‘Jamaicans can’t manage things’ or that ‘foreigners are better’. We must become more nationalistic and divest these assets (if we have to) to local business people. We have the expertise, we have the know-how, and we have the persons with the capital willing to invest. It’s time we go down the road of nationalism (even whilst doing business abroad) if we are to grow as a nation. Anything less is accepting a second-class and colonial status, something I’m sure none of us want.