The creative class and the Jamaican society
By Francis Wade
One might think that Jamaica's greatest export is sugar, bananas or even ganja.
I think history will show that these products are nothing compared to the unintentional success we have had in exporting our Creative Class.
It's no secret that overseas Jamaicans rescued the Jamaican economy from complete ruin in the 1990s. The increase in remittances has today made this source the number one ''earner'' of foreign exchange. In other words, overseas Jamaicans are willingly contributing their hard-earned after-tax dollars to support family and friends with little or no expectation of immediate financial return.
This contribution has not only saved individual families from ruin, but also the national economy from collapse.
This is a remarkable story of duty and generosity.
However, is it the case that these same Jamaicans could not have made the same or similar contribution to Jamaica's economy had they remained at home? What is it about the North America that makes it a place in which wealth generation seems to be so relatively easy?
The factors that do make a difference are ones that powerfully attract a core set of people that is the engine of growth: the Creative Class. This rather small and focused group of people makes up the highly-educated, innovative core of a city's economy that provides the entrepreneurial and artistic energy to start new businesses, set off artistic trends, spur new ways of thinking and invent new technologies.
What is relatively new about this group is its mobility, and willingness to move to cities and countries that offer the lifestyle they are looking for. They are willing to take risks (to a point,) especially if they are surrounded by others of the same ilk. They value freedom of thought, opportunity and a ready source of ideas, so many tend to cluster around first-class universities.
Clearly, there is no shortage of raw talent in Jamaica. Jamaicans living in the USA out-earn Black Americans (in terms of median household income.) While we fail to develop this talent sufficiently by any measure, those that are well-developed are considered to be world-class. Also, we in Jamaica pride ourselves on having access to some of the latest technologies that we can import.
But these are insufficient to compensate for the one area in which we are very weak Tolerance.
We Jamaicans have no problem saying that we are a Christian country that has laws on the books against buggery. In addition, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that suggests that many actively hate homosexuals and the gay lifestyle, with many using scripture to prove the point.
At the same time, there is at least a "broad understanding" among our people that many of the great contributors to the visual and dramatic arts are gay. Many of our leading artists and dramatic artistes are believed to be gay. As there are only a handful of Jamaicans living in Jamaica that are publicly gay (certainly less than 10,) there is no way to prove the claim definitively at the moment.
However, there is a much larger number of gay Jamaicans who live abroad that are, in effect, living like refugees. Their homosexuality and the real threat of everything from prosecution to physical violence, keeps them abroad. Also, many gays Jamaicans believe that their freedom will only come through migration.
In essence, we are forcibly exporting gay Jamaicans, by holding on to our intolerance and scaring them out of the country. Many of us take pride that "we don't put up with that kind of behaviour here," which is essentially boasting that we are "as intolerant as we want to be" and unwilling to consider change.
This intolerance is keeping us poor -- not in spirit, but in GDP.
And our intolerance to the gay lifestyle is only the beginning. In corporations, we insist that seniority is critical to proper functioning. I recall a Group CEO being heard to say that "there is no way he would hire a managing director under 50," regardless of his or her background.
On the religious front, the largest religious groups in Jamaica now consist of denominations that are among the most dogmatic and fundamental. Without saying anything about their belief systems, it is true that each of them insists that their way is the right way, and that anyone else who thinks differently will be judged as sinful and will end up in Hell.
There is very little room for new ideas to the contrary, and to new thinking, much less new religions among this fast growing group. Anything that is too different is quickly labeled and dismissed as non-Christian, anti-Christ, Satanic or worse.
The fact is, the majority of Jamaicans living in Jamaica feel a sense of security when they are surrounded by others who share their unbending views on religion, homosexuality and entitled positions in corporations. To our Creative Class, the likelihood of change seems small, and it just seems a lot easier to get a Canadian visa than it does to stay and fight for change.
We have long wondered why it is that countries like Trinidad can produce twice the GDP and income that we can. They have not had anything near the migration that we have had, and neither has Barbados, and they have the most vibrant economies in the region.
On the other hand, the other CARICOM countries that have experienced creative class migration on the scale of Jamaica are Guyana and Haiti -- among the poorest in the region.
The message here is that if we leave our bigotry unchecked, it will only help to drag us further into poverty.
Francis Wade is a management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. His passion is the transformation of Caribbean workplaces, economies and society. He blogs at Chronicles From a Caribbean Cubicle.
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