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"Circumstances made me what I am," sings a Jamaican man in the documentary Life and Debt (Black 2001). Nestled in the heart of the Caribbean, Jamaica boasts a colourful landscape and vibrant culture, making its north coast a popular tourist destination. But it takes only a short trip across the country to the capital city, Kingston, to discover the realities of Jamaican life. For decades the country has been tugged this way and that by forces beyond its control, truly a victim of circumstance. Jamaica has been saddled with the burden of heavy international debt since 1977, when it was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial assistance (Looney 1987:50). Now, Jamaica is caught in a seemingly inescapable cycle of mounting debt: as loans fail to produce meaningful recovery and growth in the economy, the government is forced to borrow more to pay off previous loans, rendering it unable to maintain key social services. The government's financial disability has been felt particularly acutely by Jamaica's education system. Debt has crippled the Jamaican government's ability to develop an effective education system that will bridge cultural divides and enable Jamaicans to take ownership of their future.
I witnessed Jamaican poverty when I travelled to Kingston in March 2010 with a small organization called Jamaican Self-Help. I spent two weeks working as a teacher's assistant at Maxfield Park, a children's home and school for Jamaican orphans, and children suffering from mental disabilities. As I saw first hand, schools in Jamaica are inadequately equipped. They lack key educational resources and a healthy learning environment. Teachers must often contend with classrooms of over forty students, a circumstance that prevents them from meeting the learning needs of each student. Yet despite frustrations and divisions, Jamaican classrooms are vibrant places full of determination, curiosity, and hope.
Margaret Bolt, Coordinator of Citizenship Education for the Jamaican Ministry of Education, explains that existing prejudices within the country - such as those between "uptown" wealthier Jamaicans and "downtown" inner city Jamaicans - impede Jamaica's progress (Bolt 2010). She states vehemently that these barriers divide children. Through education, she asserts, Jamaicans will come to know and understand their mutual history, and break through prejudicial barriers (ibid.). From my experience at Maxfield Park, I know that collective learning in the classroom both heals cultural divisions, and empowers Jamaican youth to understand each other and to work together towards a healthier Jamaica.
Jamaica has a relatively short history as an independent nation; understanding this history and the origin of Jamaica's debt is fundamental to assessing both the country's fiscal situation today and its ability to educate its people. Two economic crises in Jamaica's recent history have had a lasting negative impact on the well being of Jamaican citizens and perpetuated the cycle of debt in which Jamaica is caught. During the first crisis in the early 1990s, inflation rose above 50%, substantially increasing the level of poverty throughout the country (Namsuk and Serra-Garcia 2010:4). The second crisis, which took place from 1996 to 1997, was a result of inadequately regulated financial liberalization in the 1980s (ibid.). During this time, "poorly creditworthy parties" sank into a spiral of unsustainable debt, and were subsequently bailed out by the Jamaican government (ibid.). Shortly after this financial crisis, in the 2002/2003 fiscal year, debt had skyrocketed to 150% of GDP (ibid.). In 2010, debt accounted for more than 120% of GDP or about 1.52 trillion Jamaican dollars (Central Intelligence Agency 2011; Brown 2011).
Throughout its tumultuous financial history of recent years, Jamaica has been forced to turn to the IMF for financial support. The country's relationship with the IMF, spanning almost thirty-five years, is characterized by the development of frustration and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness among Jamaicans. In the film Life and Debt, former Prime Minister of Jamaica Michael Manley expressed his bitterness upon having to turn to the IMF; he saw his country "literally beginning to unravel" because it could not finance its needs (Black 2001). Manley spoke of the practice of "cross-conditionality" between the IMF, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank, a regional counterpart of the World Bank (Black 2001); the cooperation between these powerful institutions seriously constricted the policy-making abilities of Manley's People's National Party throughout the 1970s and 1980s (The Michael Manley Foundation 2007). Once Jamaica was subject to structural adjustment, it was forced to relax trade barriers, which flooded the nation with cheap imports and undermined its domestic market (Black 2001). Jamaica was pushed into the global economy without being given the time or the lasting support to succeed economically.
The money Jamaica received from these institutions was contingent on structural adjustment policies that were insensitive to the needs of Jamaican people and undermined Jamaicans' self-sufficiency (Black 2001). One farmer interviewed in the film described Jamaica's relationship with international financial institutions in compelling terms: they are "fattening up," he claimed, at the "expense of a whole culture that took years to build up," a culture destroyed with the "stroke of a pen" (Black 2001). The policies imposed by the IMF and other institutions undermine Jamaica's self-sufficiency, its national food security, and its ability to maintain the education and health care systems. They do not alleviate, but perpetuate poverty in Jamaica. Dr. Michael Witter of the University of the West Indies accurately describes Jamaica as "under the control of foreigners, not necessarily through direct ownership, but through the mechanism of debt" (Black 2001).
After the Jamaican economy declined by 2.7% in 2009, the Jamaican government was forced to sign a new IMF agreement in February 2010 (Economic Development Division 2010:230). As recession hit Jamaica's trading partners, external demand for Jamaican goods declined. At the same time, due to rising unemployment, lower incomes, and less remittance money entering the country, domestic demand deteriorated (ibid.). These, and other factors, left Jamaica in need of a financial infusion. The IMF agreement, while providing some financial relief, comes at a high cost.
This new agreement perpetuates Jamaica's dependency on the IMF, and, through structural adjustment and conditionality, prevents Jamaica from controlling its own future. The agreement provides the Jamaican government with $1.2 billion USD over 27 months, ending in the 2013/2014 fiscal year (Economic Development Division 2010:230). It stipulates that the government must meet "tight fiscal and monetary policies designed to adjust the Jamaican economy within the context of IMF scrutiny and review" (ibid.). While it is projected that inflation will decline and growth rate will rise, the country remains powerless in the face of its debt, and the supremacy of the international financial institutions in today's market-driven global economy.
In 2009, Jamaica was servicing debt that constituted 47% of the government's expenditure budget (Economic Development Division 2010: 232). With almost half of its budget consumed by debt, the government's ability to maintain the education system is severely disabled. Throughout the 1980s spending on education "declined from twenty to eleven percent of government expenditures" (Hanratty and Meditz 1987). Although the portion of the expenditure budget spent on education increased to 14.2% in 2009, the figure is deceiving (Economic Development Division 2010:232). It is distorted by teacher salaries, which have increased with public sector wages (World Bank 2003:23). Higher spending on personnel has decreased the amount of money available for important classroom instructional resources and maintenance (ibid.). The country's heavy debt has tied up the funds that could both pay teachers fair wages and equip classrooms with the necessary learning materials.
Schools in Jamaica are not standardized; they vary widely in physical space, resources, and quality of education. Teacher-student ratios differ from school to school, as do teacher qualifications (World Bank 2003:103). Despite differences in standards, schools and the Jamaican government have devoted much attention to reaching full enrolment in primary and secondary education; in 2007 schools reached 100% enrolment in primary grades, and 98% in intermediate grades seven to nine (Namsuk and Serra-Garcia 2010:6). However, this expansion in enrolment has come at the cost of the quality of education being delivered (World Bank 2003:103). The ever-increasing number of students has resulted in automatic promotion, a practice that allows children to move through the school system "without learning the requisite skills" (ibid.). Some students cannot even access the upper grades 10 and 11 because the there are not enough spaces in schools (ibid.:109). This is a situation that disproportionately affects poorer children, who often find themselves caught in a "continuous cycle of low achievement and resultant alienation from school" (ibid.). These students are more likely to drop out of school than are those who come from wealthier families; an unstable home environment and a poor educational experience are "mutually reinforcing" factors (ibid.:112).
There are strong linkages in Jamaica between education and poverty (ibid.:101). Poorer students are shuffled into lower quality schools. They exhibit higher absenteeism, often face a difficult home environment, have lower enrolment to school after age 14, drop out more often, and "end up far less educated" (ibid.). The increase in enrolment over the past decades has masked the inequality in accessibility of the education system to different children; "enrolment and income are highly correlated," particularly for older children (ibid.:108). A wealthier child in Jamaica receives a better education than a child from a poor family. Students from affluent families attend "private preparatory primary school and pay for extra tutoring" for the grade 6 examination at the end of the primary cycle (ibid.:22). Their preparation earns these students places in the more esteemed traditional schools, where they will receive a higher quality of education than in technical schools, which are, as Margaret Bolt stated, "lower on the educational hierarchy" (Bolt 2010). For students who do not fare well enough on the grade 6 assessment, Junior High School, which students finish at the age of 15, is often the end of the road. These students must write another test to gain entry to the upper grades (ibid.). Insufficient funding for education as a result of government debt has prevented the creation of more school places that would accommodate students who wish to learn, but who face the sad reality of exclusion from the system.
Teachers have a direct influence on educational outcomes, particularly in Jamaica where social factors are so intertwined with the system. A "connectedness" to the classroom, to school life, or to a particular teacher, points to higher success and lower crime rates amongst motivated students who feel a sense of belonging at school (World Bank 2003:107). Motivating the teachers themselves, and ensuring that they receive quality training throughout their professional careers, is crucial (ibid.:118). Because of lower salaries and crime rates at home, Jamaican teachers have a history of leaving the country after being recruited by institutions in countries in the developed world (ibid.). Margaret Bolt herself was teaching in New York, before the Jamaican Self Help organization offered to augment her salary as the principal of St. Peter Claver school in her home Jamaica; the school alone could not afford her salary (Bolt, 2010). Bolt is a skilled educator. She implemented programs that improved the school and the well being of its students; she started athletic teams, computer lessons, and reading and mathematics clubs (ibid.). Attendance at St. Peter Claver increased from 50% to 94%, and literacy increased significantly (ibid.). This example shows that improved training and incentives will encourage skilled educational professionals like Bolt to remain in Jamaica - as they must if the education system is to grow successfully. The quality of teaching in Jamaica has suffered as a direct result of the consumption of the government expenditure budget by debt servicing.
Jamaicans recognize the necessity of educational reform to their nation's success, both economically and socially. There has been tremendous support for a transformed education system in Jamaica - a system that is sensitive to the educational needs and aspirations of every Jamaican student (Task Force on Educational Reform 2004:8). The consequence of inadequate funding of education so far has been a system that has failed many Jamaican students. While the work of people such as Margaret Bolt has been transformative in specific schools, it has not fundamentally changed the system. Currently, "highly educated people tend to migrate from Jamaica," typically to the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada (World Bank 2003:106-107). Barring emigration, however, education is "the only significant scope for social mobility" in Jamaica (Benefield 2010:8). A system must be built up which produces an educated citizenry that will stay in Jamaica, as entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders, and as a new generation of teachers.
Educational reform will be a long process in Jamaica, particularly given the interconnectedness of poverty and education in the country (World Bank 2003:101). Realistically, only after Jamaica's economy has experienced a period of positive growth, and debt has reached a more sustainable level, will changes to the education system be possible. With proper funding, more places can be made available to students at the secondary level, which is currently the end of many students' educational careers (Benefield 2010:5). Classrooms can be transformed into positive, dynamic environments where children of all backgrounds come together to embrace their mutual cultural heritage as Jamaicans. Teachers can be trained specially in reading and math; "high interest" learning materials can be introduced to the system to engage students; students' achievement and learning difficulties can be rigorously followed and assessed; programs geared towards slow learners and students who need additional help can be initiated; the best teachers can be placed in the primary schools, the foundation of education in Jamaica, where, educational research shows, they are needed most (World Bank 2003:117).
International experience proves that education reform is not easy to carry out, nor can it be accomplished quickly. However, as Nelson Mandela said, "education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world" (Thoeng). All children need the routine and structure of school, which becomes particularly important in times of crisis (ibid.). Certainly, social and economic crises are not uncommon to Jamaica, where children are not always able to play and learn in a safe school environment to "help them cope with conflict and disruption" (ibid.). The most persistent obstacle to education poor children around the world face is poverty; it keeps children at work rather than in classes, renders parents unable to pay school fees, and hampers the construction of clean, safe classrooms (UN Works). Poverty and lack of good educational opportunities reinforce each other as constraints against social advancement and development.
The extent to which education can spur development in a country depends on the quality of that education system. Simply because an education system exists does not mean it is a catalyst for development and progress. However, a unifying, effective education system can create a future for children and adults alike, providing them with the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions. Education is not just about learning to read, write and communicate; education also promotes respect and cooperation. Through education, emerges an educated citizenry whose agency will contribute to economic growth, cultural expression and awareness and the development of a creative, positive national identity.
The question remains: how will Jamaica overcome the debt that has crippled its ability to develop a unifying and effective education system? Jamaica, like so many other developing countries with a colonial history, was thrust into the global economy of the 20th century unprepared. Short term injections of funds, and adjustments by the international financial institutions, in a one-size fits all manner, have had long term negative implications; the ensuing debt has undermined the Jamaican government's ability to answer to its creditors while providing its people with important social spending. Jamaica, and indeed much of the developing world, faces a seemingly insurmountable problem. The country cannot reclaim its self-sufficiency and control its own future without an educated citizenry to drive its growth; yet, effective nation-wide education will succeed only if Jamaica's debt reaches a sustainable level. At Maxfield Park Children's Home I saw the frustration that stems from having too few erasers and workbooks. I saw the sad reality of children reading from the same stack of shabby storybooks, often repeating words from memory. Too many students vied for one teacher's attention. Yet despite the frustrations, I also saw joy - the joy that comes from solving a simple math problem, or mastering the spelling of a particular word. Working with the children, I saw the happiness they felt at having someone to care about their learning and give it the attention it deserves. Somehow these underprivileged Jamaican children embodied the hope and resilience of the Jamaica people; they embodied the qualities that will lead Jamaica to a brighter future.