Jamaica Logistics: A Double-Edged Sword
by Marie Smith Kellier
The proposed Jamaica Logistics Hub initiative now being implemented by Jamaica Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, under the stewardship of Minister Anthony Hylton, is a double-edged sword. On one side is the mission to ‘position Jamaica as the fourth global logistics hub comparable to Singapore, Dubai and Rotterdam’ in the global trade landscape; but on the other side, it sets off many concerns and alarm bells for some Jamaicans on issues of potential disrespect for cultural heritage values, and lack of proper environmental stewardship.
That being kept firmly in mind, the success of a broad-based logistics environment in Jamaica promises enormous potential economic and social benefits for Jamaica and Jamaicans. As defined by the Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, Logistics is ‘the branch of military science that deals with all aspects of procurement, movement, maintenance and disposition of supplies, equipment, facilities and personnel, and the provision of services.’
With such a sweeping scale of potential activities, there could conceivably be a place in the industry for every man, woman and child across Jamaica to manufacture something, build something, sell something, service something, train somebody, haul something, transport somebody, feed somebody, entertain somebody, maintain a facility – you get the picture. On the other side of this equation however, is the possibility of lax environmental oversight, loose labor laws, undesirable policy shifts, nepotism and all the other foul issues that usually rear their ugly heads with over-zealous, unchecked, wide-scale development.
The world is rife with examples of polluted watersheds, nuclear wastelands, unbreathable air and other environmental disasters that eventually come to light years after well-intentioned developments in the name of economic progress.
But looking at the burgeoning global logistics industry, and the varied sectors within it, Jamaica’s economy could indeed have long lasting benefits. If done right, the country could become a major provider of goods and services to industries both within and outside the region. But calibrating this vision with the realities of the present Jamaican business, social and economic landscape, is a little less clear. Compared to the three global logistics centers that Jamaica references, Jamaica has a lot of catching up to do, and quickly. Hence the alarm bells.
The question is not so much, is Jamaica up to the task, but rather, what price progress, and who is holding the Jamaican Government accountable for transparency and due process with regards to major environmental, social and national heritage concerns? Whether it is the 800 acre Roaring River Watershed area in St. Ann, or the Goat Islands controversy (both proposed developments by Chinese investors), is the Jamaican populace being duly informed and integrated into the process of due diligence, or is the Government being allowed to simply sell off cultural and environmental assets to the highest bidder, in return for a seat at the global logistics table? These are some of the ethical and moral issues that must be weighed against the perceived economic benefits promised to the Jamaican people.
The fact that the average Jamaican family probably struggles financially on a daily basis does not make this an easy discussion; and the presence of other issues that emerge when this initiative is looked at through both global and local lenses compounds the issue. For example, compared to other logistics centers, Jamaica wants to be on par with, even the most basic infrastructure comparison puts Jamaica at a great dis-advantage.
In logistics-focused environments such as Singapore or Rotterdam for instance, production, speed and efficiency are key elements of their success. So too are the availability of cutting-edge technology, the wide-spread use of automation and a highly disciplined and punctual work force. The local Jamaican business environment must therefore be brought up to world-class level and perform at the top of its game in order to compete with highly efficient, more advanced global logistics environments.
This however, is not an un-doable task. Jamaicans have always been able to step up to the challenge and perform at a world class level. They have also been known to be doggedly stubborn and rebellious, if so moved. I point this out because of the somewhat troubling attitudes of many Jamaicans I spoke with in Jamaica during the Diaspora Conference, and upon my return to Los Angeles, about this venture. It became abundantly clear that the Government has not convinced some Jamaicans in the Diaspora to participate in these opportunities. Undoubtedly, there is genuine interest and desire. But at the heart of their reservation is a mixture of mis-trust and deep seated resentment, around the perceived inability or unwillingness of many in the Jamaican Government to treat potential Jamaican investors with the same level of respect and enthusiasm ‘showered’ upon ‘foreign investors.’
Whether perceived or actual, why is this issue important and needs to be addressed by the Government immediately? The simple fact is that Jamaica does not have within its shores the requisite resources to develop the level of infrastructure required to make it a competitive world class logistics hub. It must therefore go outside of its geographic border in order to acquire the resources. In so doing it will either be Jamaicans or non-Jamaicans who will choose to invest. Non-Jamaicans who invest do it because they perceive it to be a profitable business opportunity. The Government for its part, does its best to convince them that indeed, it is so. Jamaicans then see foreigners investing and cry foul and feel a sense of ‘gentrification’ going on because it feels like Jamaica is being sold out from under them. So why don’t Jamaicans do what the non-Jamaicans are doing and invest? Sadly, there is a very real perception of an uneven playing field when it comes to dealing with Jamaicans who want to invest.
Diasporian Jamaicans of a certain age might remember returning home and going through the often traumatic customs experience at the airport, while watching as tourists are whisked through customs, ne’r a bag being opened. Jamaicans on the other hand were forced to wait in long lines, then subjected to what amounted to little more than routine search and seizure. It took years of bitter complaining for the Government to finally make the changes that afforded Jamaicans the respect they rightly demand in their own country.
I draw this comparison, not to endorse anyone, but to highlight the fact that many Jamaicans feel they are often not accorded the same courtesies and business incentives as ‘foreign investors.’ Furthermore, they are frankly tired of the sense of entitlement displayed by some sectors of the Jamaican Government, whom expect Jamaicans to contribute out of loyalty to Jamaica, rather than as legitimate entrepreneurs who expect the rules to be fair, and to be given the same access to information and incentives so that they too can make a fair profit, while contributing to the development of their homeland.
The potential benefits to the nation with Jamaica as a global logistics hub are far reaching. And the potential loss to Jamaica of not truly engaging its Diasporian resources could be devastating. But how do we get local Jamaicans, Jamaicans in the Diaspora and the Jamaican Government on the same page, rowing in the same direction, in the same rhythm to propel the ship forward at warp speed?
Warp speed, you might ask? Yes, because it is now 2015 when the Panama Canal’s expansion is slated for completion, and if Jamaica is not ready to perform, much of the anticipated opportunity might be snatched up by regional competitors who can provide the same or better service. So buoyed by investors who are eager to get a piece of the Jamaican pie, the Government is moving ahead decisively with its initiative.
I therefore propose that those community leaders who know more about the project, both in Jamaica and in the Diaspora, those who have the skills, resources and knowledge, begin a program of information sharing in their local communities – in villages, towns and business centers, especially those closest to the first phase developments. Break it down to them so that they can clearly see how they will fit into and benefit from the initiative. Then the Government needs to begin going beyond the standard conferences and really court those Diasporian Jamaicans with the knowledge, the resources and the skills to create public/private partnerships that truly provide a win/win/win scenario – the third win being a ladder up for the less fortunate in the society. Every community within Jamaica needs to be educated and brought onboard. Much like the Literacy program a few decades ago, it needs to become embedded in the business and social fabric of the society. In short, it needs to be in the national consciousness so that everyone who is able, can become knowledgeable and prepare their communities, prepare Jamaica, and prepare themselves to have ownership in Jamaica’s Global Logistics Hub because it is happening, with or without them.
Regardless of how the Jamaican Diaspora feels about it, big budget and long-term foreign investors are vital to the project’s success. They are essential on many levels, and they will come and play their part and take their profits, if any. But if the business, technological and social infrastructure are not up to international standards, it is unlikely that they will have ongoing success, and more likely that they will leave and give Jamaica bad press on their way home. The ones who will be left to deal with fall-out in Jamaica, are Jamaicans. Jamaicans therefore should get off the fence, stop complaining from the sidelines and take responsibility for creating the type of environment that both attract and retain wholesome activities that support and sustain an environmentally responsible logistics hub for the long term. At the end of the day, it is the ambition, skill, strength, entrepreneurial spirit and personal investment of each and every Jamaican, local and Diasporian, who will make or break the dream of Jamaica becoming an ecologically sane, socially intact world class logistics junction.
Marie Kellier is CEO of MARIKEL International, a consulting and production firm that works with placed- based community development. She is also President of Jamaica Trade and Business Council, Western USA.