Jamaica: Economics

In my last post, I mentioned that Jamaica’s economy is mostly based on Tourism. Tourism is by far the biggest revenue-earner and export for the country. The trouble with a service-based economy is that Tourism is incredibly volatile, even more so than oil prices. When times get tight and people with discretionary income feel like they need to tighten their belts a little, vacation plans to far away places get put on indefinite hold. The recession here in the United States and the recession in Europe have had a huge impact on the Jamaican economy. The chief source of taxable revenue has severely decreased, making it impossible to fund projects and programs that the people have come to depend on.

As I have reflected on all that I experienced one my visit, I find myself asking. “What does God’s justice look like in the midst of the economic reality that Jamaica is in right now?” Distribution of wealth and unemployment underlies many of the challenges I saw there.

“Doesn’t Jamaica have other things to offer beyond Tourism?” one might ask. Indeed, there is more to the puzzle than Tourism.

Bauxite is another big part of the Jamaican economy. Until recently bauxite was a close second to tourism on the list of top exports and employers in Jamaica. But in that lies another huge challenge. Jamaica has no domestic source of energy. Electricity is generated by burning imported fossil fuel. Back in the day, when oil was cheap, this was not a big deal. But now that oil prices have gone through the roof, both gasoline and electricity has become very expensive. The result is that Jamaican bauxite is so expensive to produce, that it cannot compete on the global market. The exports of bauxite have tanked and many bauxite plants like this one have closed and laid off thousands of workers.

A closed bauxite plant in Nain, Jamaica. The locals are hopful that the plant will reopen this year.

The result of all of this is that the Jamaican government has had to borrow an obscene amount of money to keep things going. Currently, they have a national debt that is 130% of their GDP (the monetary value of a nation’s entire economic activity). FYI: The Untied States’ Debt-to-GDP ratio at the close of 2011 was 100.3% Even with so much money being borrowed, Jamaica can’t fund everything that needs funding.

All of this was hard to see and hear. It’s easy to become discouraged. The problem is so big. But God is at work in the midst of this and after meeting with a number of brilliant people there who have a lot of hope for Jamaica’s future, I found that I am hopeful too.

How is God at work in all of this? First, God has blessed Jamaica with an abundance of sunlight and wind. I had a fascinating conversation with an economics professor who told me about how Jamaica is making a huge push to invest in solar and wind power. If the sun and wind can be harnessed to provide electricity, Jamaica would have a renewable domestic source of energy. This would be a blessing to the whole nation. Bauxite plants would be able to produce bauxite at a competitive price. Jamaican bauxite would be competitive in the global market and more plants would reopen, putting people to work. Also domestic electricity would be much less expensive to produce and powering homes would become more affordable. God is in the midst of this new effort in the persons who are developing the solar panels and wind turbines, and in the persons who are rebuilding a shaky relationship with the International Monetary Fund seeking a financing arrangement  for making this vision come true.

Also God is working in Jamaican agriculture. Jamaica is famous for Rum, but the island has great potential to yield crops of many sorts that can be exported. Until recently, farming was not a priority on any kind of scale. Now there is a push to maximize agriculture. This would also create jobs and produce goods that can be locally consumed at a lower cost and be exported.

My final thought on all of this is that for the most part, these new possibilities for growth in Jamaica’s economy are means to bring more resources into the hands of the poor. If the new efforts and their rewards are not reserved only for the elite, the severe gap between the haves and the have-nots will shrink. With new sources of revenue, the programs developed to help people will have more resources to do their work. That is my prayer, that those who make these things happen will do so with hearts tuned to hear and have compassion for the ones who need these efforts to succeed the most. I pray that God will work in the hearts of the IMF to broker a just arrangement and for the success of these endeavors and most of all, for everyone involved to see one another through Jesus’ eyes.


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