Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

When I headed to Jamaica two weeks ago, the book I took to read was Mohamed Hanif's "novel", a A Case of Exploding Mangoes. It's story has nothing to do with Jamaica, but is about Pakistan. But I find the title coming back repeatedly as I watch the Olympic Games. I think the world would be excused to feel that it has been watching a case of exploding mangoes.

Going into the final events of track and field this weekend, we have a situation that only a true liar and hopeless optimist would have predicted. Jamaica is tied for the lead in terms of gold medals (6)--with the mighty Russia and USA trailing (see IAAF table). Our 3 million people can produce excellence to match or beat these two "super powers" with their hundreds of millions. Sure Russia has more total medals (15 to our 10--but even that is an amazingly small difference); the USA leads all with a total 21 medals in the Bird Nest Stadium. But little we are there in the soup.

To underline what Jamaica has done, look at the placings table, which ranks countries by places in the top 8 of events (8 is usually the number of finalists for the shorter track events--see table), where Jamaica is third, behind the "super powers" and well ahead of Kenya (4th) and China (11th). Millions and billions of people to choose from and yet their excellence in this area trails ours.

Don't tell me that do not think this is UNBELIEVABLE.

What the placing ranking tells me is that we have some of the best but also a good standing among the rest--we have some depth, and potential to tap. That's where our size can work against us, because unlike the populous countries we will find it hard to have lots of top ranked people--just a rule of numbers--but in this area we are getting there.

So, in this arena we have been able to build on our areas of known talent and success. That's really a large part of what the Games are about. We can hope to improve in the next four years.

When the weekend is over, we may have the pulp of exploded mangoes all over us if Jamaica can get the best gold medal tally of all the nations.

This is a testimony to many things and we will have to get used to much more scrutiny and investigation of what we do and how we act. The good will be mimicked quickly. The bad will be pushed hard down our throats--and rightly so. But, where we are right and where we are proud, we need to "Get up. Stand Up" or as Bruce Golding said to IOC president Rogge "Tek weh yu self!" You can't be rude to us because we are small and of no count in your mind. We may seem marginal to many but we are really central. Jamaicans are known to be assertive--a good and bad trait--and we are not alone in the region to have and use that characterstic to help push for what we feel we deserve. We need to get used to these ideas and start to focus on what we can do with them.

But the success shows other things, and I think other Caribbean, small and poor countries, and any country that wants to give itself a direction, should take note of some of these. You can do a lot with meagre resources and/or limited numbers if you have some clear objectives and work to put the priorities out there clearly and build towards fulfilling them. We know that this has been done by the likes of Cuba across the area of sports, and we have seen how it has also been done by the African kings and queens of track in east Africa (notably, but not only, Ethiopia and Kenya). We have seen how this has happened too with African football, where the world's undisputed poorest continent and nations are turning into the source of some of the best talent in that sport. You should not be surprised that Nigeria is in the Olympic football finals--again--against long-time powerhouse, Argentina--again: remember that Nigeria beat Argentina in Atlanta in 1996 to take the Olympic title, with the likes of now-household names such as Kanu.

In my life as an economist I had a hand in helping see it happen to the Baltic countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the mid-1990s: in the space of a decade these countries all moved to be able to join the European Union. They are now economic miracles and have the problems of economic success to deal with. From having currencies that were only good for confetti, their currencies became almost too strong too quickly. They have rebuilt their socieities and economies, and are at the forefront of technologies, in a geographic and economic space that is very competitive. Poor them!

It makes me weep to see how we struggle with CARICOM, CSME, and now EPA. Good or bad, we just cannot seem to figure out where the heck we are going. It's a waste of energy, time, resources and credibility. I was once a bureaucrat and can point to attitudes and political positioning that I see at the core of some of the problems, but I see also a huge vacuum of Caribbean leadership and ideals.

But looking at the exploding mangoes in Beijing.

First, Jamaica puts sport on a pedestal and sees its merits alongside academics, in the process having a series of high schools that are well-known for their excellence in sports and no laggards in education. It is not sport over all things, but an athlete is an important person and not denigrated for that prowess. We love educated people too--and how--and are as proud of our list of Rhodes Scholars.

Jamaica has for decades had an excellent athletics program that starts from primary school level and now reaches beyond university level (see Gleaner report for some details). Sure, it used and uses US universities, but recognized problems with that (such as the timing, length and intensity of the US track season, that left athletes drained and peaking too early for the international circuit). It put more focus in recent years into providing good training and programs at home, and the results are showing. The Bahamas, for example, has done something similar with swimming and dividends are showing. Jamaica has been now able to use its success to help others in the region, as Caribbean athletes from say Trinidad and Antigua and St. Kitts go there to benefit. That is a kind of regional cooperation that is worth talking about.

Jamaica has also has a good structure for football at the local level--using US universities and now European and US football leagues to give another level that cannot be produced at home. It was good enough to produce a World Cup qualifying squad and from that building has continued. Trinidad, too, has been able to do that.

Swimming needs more work but is going in a good direction.

Of course, the Caribbean darling has been cricket and Jamaica loves that very much. But, it's not seen as the only sport into which to put effort and resources. Moreover, it has been clear for decades that cricket does not get much support and resources at a higher international level in terms of education. It is not really strange that cricket is not in the Olympics. You do not get educational scholarships in that sport that are worth talking about; yes, you may get to go to a cricket academy, but that's not the same as a place at universities. For track, swimming, volleyball, football, and many more sports, you can get education 'meal vouchers' to the US, Canada, and elsewhere. Once that door opens it can let through many because the quality is well known and so the quantities can continue to flow--look at some of the well-known partners like the US universities of Tennessee, Auburn, and Louisiana State, to name a few. It's not the full solution because you want your improved human capital to come back and build on what he or she has learnt and pass on good lessons. So, this is a mixed blessing if you do not have something to come back for. But, no need to dismiss it by focusing on sports that don't open such doors.

There are other aspects of this process of prioritization and making good use of contacts that I will try to reflect on in coming days and weeks, and I think it's part of a "conversation" that we in the Caribbean need to join and take part in seriously. It's about an important aspect of our future. We have spent decades trying to find our place and know who we are, before and since Emancipation, and especially since our Independence. For the first time in a long while, it appears that we can stand up for ourselves in an arena well-known to the vast majority--we did it with cricket before, but let's not fool ourselves about how much of the world sees that sport. I am not denigrating cricket in any way, here, because it too has played a key role in forming our identity.

Later today I will head to the US to watch the US Open tennis for a few days, and will wonder if we can get our act together in that sport, where we have budding talent, but seem to flounder at getting them beyond a key level internationally.

Ahead of that, let me sit back again and watch mangoes explode all over the place for a few more days.


Syl said...

Dennis, while I may agree with the general tone of this post, I prefer to think that all good gifts come from the Father/Mother?
If God chose to touch a mere boy in Jamaica and make him a world phenomenom out of all the people on earth it was his choice.
I guess I really believe in stressing the commonalities which make us the same as opposed to seeing our differences. Of course I am rooting for Jamaica don't misunderstand, but I have a friend who always says that the universe is unfolding as it is instead of as it should. Congrats Den; I know you on top of the world.

Living in Barbados said...

Syl, I love the sentiments. The reading should not be of Jamaica better than the rest. It's an argument about a way to try to make good, and I tried to give examples from sport and other things to support that. The corrollary is that countries that do not put in the effort or talk all day and night but don't do, or do not get some priorities sorted out will flounder. Thanks for the support.