Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jamaican Bureaucrats Do Not Serve the People

Can we Convert Red Tape into Red Carpets?

Basil Waine Kong

The lead story in the Observer on May 21, 2009 concerned the slackness of Civil Servants in Jamaica. The town fathers and business leaders have had enough and demanding that our government straighten out the mess. According to Mr. William Mahfood, "Crime, energy cost, high interest rates and bureaucracy continue to hamper production." President of the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association (JMA) Omar Azan believes that bureaucracy was stifling businesses. "Bureaucratic red tape is a major issue." In a clear admission that this is a problem, the Hon. Karl Samuda, Jamaica's Minister of industry, investment and commerce said: "Bureaucracy is going to suck the lifeblood out of any chance we have of recovery," By one subterfuge or another, too many of our good citizens do not paying property or income taxes, Most of our land (2,692,587 acres) is not properly registered and it is futile navigating government bureaucracy. We all clamor for reform but only for everybody else. With this attitude, we will forever be defeated by the bureaucracy.

As a returning expatriate, I continue to enthusiastically encourage other expatriates to return. It was a good decision for my wife and me. We are having a fabulous time. Most of us, if not all, can contribute a wealth of experience, capital and human resources to this incredible country. However, working through the bureaucracies have not been encouraging. My experience so far leads me to believe that the institutions of Jamaica are incapable of functioning efficiently.

Whether applying for a US phone number or assisting my wife with a permanent visa and work permit, the system seems to be designed to prevent or stymie citizens from transacting business in an efficient and effective manner. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that they go out of their way to obstruct progress if you don’t know “somebody”. This emphasis on citizens having to be "nice and respectful" and not being facey is completely out of control. Everyone walks on pins and needles and are deathly afraid to offend public servants or their paperwork will be sabotaged or they will be made to jump through additional hoops. Public servants here actually believe that having citizens wait all day hungry, thirsty and tired for services to which they are entitled is acceptable; and you dear not object or you will go to the end of the line. Whether it's to cash a check or getting something approved, except when it rains, the lines are endless. There is no respect for citizens time.

According to Mr. Norman Thompson, writing about: Inefficient checks by Island Traffic Authority: “You could have upwards of 60 taxis waiting in line on any day. Taxis come not just from Manchester, but from Clarendon and St Elizabeth. On Thursday, April 7, the inspector arrived at 11 a.m. and left at 3/3:30 p.m. Apparently, there is a shortage of motor-vehicle inspectors, and this one came from another parish. A taxi operator from Newmarket, St Elizabeth, had to return home without his vehicle being checked. At least one driver left his vehicle overnight in order to have a place at the front of the line. One driver thought he had arrived early (maybe at 7 a.m.), only to find 15 vehicles ahead of him.” (Jamaica Gleaner, April 23, 2011). Shouldn't the government try to facilitate rather than hinder? Are civil servants our bosses or should they at least try to serve the people?

Expatriates have lived in countries that have an infrastructure designed to assist the average person to transact business because transactions means that money is exchanging hands and if money exchanges hands, the system is that much richer. What I have run into instead, much to my chagrin and dismay, are civil servants who are inefficient, disrespectful and at times seem to make up rules to suit themselves. This level of bureaucratic morass is beyond any reason that I can fathom.

I offer this as another example, as a returning resident, I have had to register a business, obtain a driver’s license, an NIS number, a TRN number as well as open several bank accounts. My experience is mixed. On the one hand, the Registry of Companies and the Drivers License Division are in a class by themselves for inefficiency. These divisions are a travesty. Whoever devised them must have attended the Rube Goldberg School of Business. Rube Goldberg as you may know, devised contraptions for making the simplest transactions into the most complicated. On the other hand, obtaining a birth certificate, and obtaining NIS and TRN numbers were faultless. Some departments do get it right.

Due to government regulations, the requirements for opening a simple bank account is defies logic. I have a few rass words for bureaucrats who devised the banking rules. They actually hold onto checks written on American banks for 90 days before you can use your money and no interest is paid in the interim.

For the uninitiated, here are the steps to open an account:

1. You must account for how you got the money you are proposing to deposit;
2. Obtain two letters of recommendation from a Justice of the Peace, notary
or some similar VIP attesting to your character; (If you lie, cheat and cannot get someone important to attest to your character, you cannot open an account no matter how much money you have.)
3. Submit a projected income and expense for the upcoming year as well as anticipate how many transactions you will have per year;
4. Show proof of your residence in the form of a bill from a utility company with your name as the owner of the property; (If you are a cultivator living in country, do not have bills as well as people who live in hotels or “Kotching”, you cannot have a bank account;
5. Purchase a “seal”. (The only purpose for this requirement is to generate income for the people who make these seals. The cost is $3,000!)
6. Have a Tax Payer Registration Number and a driver’s license. (I gave up trying to get a Jamaica credit card.)
7. Have your signature card certified by a Justice of the Peace or Notary.

This is madness. Consider the simplicity of opening a bank account in the United States. You produce your social security number, put down your money and get a bank book and checks. You can establish a savings or checking account in five minutes. In Jamaica, it takes weeks and then you even have to pay a fee each time you withdraw money if you do not use the ATM machine.

I suspected all along that Bureaucrats purposefully made the process of obtaining licenses and permits almost impossible to force citizens into submission and beg these public servants to take extra money to get it done “the easy way”. This entanglement of bureaucracy invites corruption as an escape.

According to Hernando De Soto, author of "The Mystery of Capital" uneducated people in third world countries face an impenetrable wall when they try to acquire legal housing, start a business or find a legal job. He formed a team in Peru to help a family legally start a business. They filled out forms, stood in line, made almost daily bus trips. The team spent six hours per day and finally registered their company in 289 days with fees of $1,231, over thirty times the minimum wage. To obtain approval to build a house, the team took six years. It took 24 months of red tape to get approval to operate a taxi.

While it may not be as severe in Jamaica, I refer to the Registry of Companies as the "Office of Circumlution". By comparison, it takes about an hour to complete the paperwork and submit the documents to register a company in the United States---no attorney required. With the tremendous cost of registering a business in Jamaica, I now share the belief that it was designed to guarantee that poor people will never own a legitimate business. I don’t believe most lawyers could negotiate the process in Jamaica, so the public must almost always rely on expensive attorneys who specialize in registering companies. This is an un-necessary cost and headache.

Registering our company took three months of concentrated effort. When they found an error on page one, they stopped their review and return our application. After eight rejections and after addressing all their concerns, they still had a few more requirements that did not come up before.

Victory at last, the prized certificate is obtained. You are then directed to drive across town to the tax office to obtain your TRN number (not the personal one which is easy, but the business TRN). This office then directs you back to the dreaded Registry of Companies to obtain certified copies of all your submissions. The cost is J$150.00 per page and my application was 30 pages. Why couldn't the Registry of Companies also issue the TRN? This is not pro-business and does not encourage citizens to become legitimate tax paying companies. Our police can then close down those who are not registered and blame them for not having a certificate. Is this any way to run a country? I completely agree with Mr. Butch Stewart and the business leaders quoted in the Observer article. We can and should do better.

The problem, I believe, is that in Jamaica relationships is king. You cannot get anything done without knowing someone. Merit, skills, education, good ethics and good citizenship is useless baggage and count for little if it isn’t combined with connections either by blood or friendship. No employment of the most trivial nature, well paid or not, is possible if you don’t know the right people or if you cannot return a favour. If you do not at least have the potential of "doing a thing" or exert influence, you are ignored. If an influential politician is approached by the daughter of a friend who has no skills, never worked, has no aptitude for the work and was too lazy to pursue an education, the government minister will likely say: “Ms. Johnson,this is Susan, please find something for her to do with an appropriate salary. She is my nephew." No work will be required and when other employees find out about this political appointment, they will decide that they don’t need to work either. But the competent ones will be terminated and their responsibilities transferred to these incompetents. To have the friendship of people of influence is money in the bank but makes the good citizens angry, frustrated and impatient.

A Feast for your Eyes

If you had been in Jamaica on Saturday, your eyes would have beheld this glory. A rainbow that went from horizon to horizon and was so close you could touch it. Stephannie and I touched it with not only our eyes but our souls.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Jamaicans Living Foreign

Welcome Home to Jamaica

I was reading the New York Times (Friday, May 08, 2009) and came across the following headline: “Abkhazia Lures Its Expatriates, Welcoming Them One by One” (Ellen Barry). Panama currently has an active recruitment campaign to bring home their expats and I also recall the successful call for all Jews to return to Israel.

It started me thinking that Jamaica could benefit if we extended the same welcome to our retiring expatriates. There are more Jamaicans living abroad than living in Jamaica. I would love to see a serious welcome mat extended. Now that I have retired and returned, I was actually looking forward to seeing my old schoolmates but they are now scattered throughout the whole wide world. In my fifty years living in the United States, I had the good fortune of visiting every state of the United States and over half the countries of the world. I met Jamaicans at practically every stop. Jamaicans love to engage each other particularly when we are away from Jamaica. My assessment is that Jamaicans living abroad excel financially, educationally and culturally. The values that were beat into us served us well as we explored the world. Every one of them want to make a positive contribution, particularly to the education of our youth.

What if we actively encouraged Jamaican Expatriates to come home? Their great wealth, advanced education and world experience could translate into development of business interests and the employment of our gifted work force. Their investment capital could improve our banking sector as well as the increased utilization of our restaurants, golf clubs, tennis clubs, boating, fishing, and all our other fabulous recreational options. When I remind my Jamaican friends in the United States about the music, the dancing, Soup and dominoes on Saturday afternoons, Thursday nights at Waterfalls, seaside with the family on Sunday afternoons, fried fish and bammy at Hellshire beach, etc., etc., etc. They just lick their lips. It is not a hard sell. According to Leonard Bennett: “The love of Jamaica can never be erased but, despite the deep longing for our country, there is that ever-present contradiction that deters us from wholly casting our lot to reside there.” My Grand mother's last words to everyone leaving Woodlands District to go abroad was: "Do well and make us all proud of you. May God keep you safe in the palm of his hands. Just don't forget to come back."

I believe it would be worthwhile for our government to establish an office to specifically encourage retires to come home. Shouldn’t we track all three million Jamaican expats and communicate with them regularly. Shouldn’t we have a road show to actively encourage them to return? Isn’t it in our best interest to make the Diaspora feel connected as well as keep the dream of returning home alive? In this age of easy communications, it really would not take much to accomplish this with tremendous benefits to our country. Reducing poverty, crime, streamlining government bureaucracy and offering tax concessions would motivate our fellow citizens to return. While we have the talent and resources right here in Jamaica to greatly improve our condition, and while we should not always look to others to solve our problems, a couple thousand retired expats could help. Those approaching retirement never intended to be away so long. Their goal was to go away, make a lot of money, return to Jamaica and enjoy “the life”. They have just overstayed. Let’s welcome them back.

It is my favorite time of th year in Jamaica when we turn our Dutch pots upside down and live on mango. Mango in the morning, mango in the evening, mango all over the golf course. Mango anyone?

There is no place like home! (Especially if home is Jamaica)

B. Waine Kong (