A year ago, Jamaican voters, tired of years of severe austerity measures, unexpectedly ushered in a new government. The left-leaning People’s National Party (PNP), which had held power for much of the past 25 years, was widely predicted to win. Instead, the conservative Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) won by a slim margin, buoyed by a campaign platform of “prosperity for all,” in part through a promised tax break for a large swath of lower-income workers.
The biggest concern at the time was that the JLP would derail Jamaica’s hard-won gains in repaying debts to the International Monetary Fund for short-term political advantage. Critics of the JLP’s platform during the election were doubtful that the party could fulfill its campaign promise of tax breaks and still balance the budget. But a year on, the JLP has met the IMF’s benchmarks, and the island’s debt burden has fallen from 130 percent of GDP a year ago to around 115 percent today. Unemployment has also dipped slightly, coming in at 12.9 percent in the final quarter of 2016, down 0.4 percent from a year earlier. Ratings agencies have given the country a “stable” outlook.
However, debates surrounding the JLP government’s most recent budget for the fiscal year 2017 to 2018 brought into relief the tension between filling campaign promises and balancing a budget. In order to fulfill its promise of tax breaks for lower-income workers, the JLP has had to levy an additional JM$13.5 billion, or $105 million, in other taxes to balance its JM$710 billion budget. The move incensed many in the island’s tourism industry, which was particularly hard-hit by the measures. It is also delving into specially earmarked funds, a practice that Prime Minister Andrew Holness had criticized when he was an opposition leader.
As it moves into its second year in office, the JLP’s main challenges include spurring enough economic growth to make a dent in high unemployment figures and curbing crime. While there have been some job gains, the government has far to go to achieve its campaign promise of creating 250,000 additional jobs. Meanwhile, Jamaica’s headline number for crime measurement, the homicide rate, rose sharply again in 2016, posing a risk to the heavily tourism-dependent island. The two issues are closely tied: Unemployment exceeds 30 percent among some groups of younger Jamaicans that are statistically more likely to commit crimes.
Beyond the challenges it faces, the JLP has set ambitious goals for itself. Jamaica’s average annual GDP growth rate from 2011 to 2015 was a dismal 0.5 percent, but the government says its economic growth plans—based on recommendations from its Economic Growth Council, a government-appointed group of private- and public-sector leaders—can boost real annual GDP to 5 percent by the 2019-2020 fiscal year. In addition to its recommendations for growth, the council has come up with a long laundry list of economic growth “retardants,” from crime and corruption to government bureaucracy, that have stymied the economy and need to be dealt with.
The IMF Agreement
The first order of business for the JLP government when it took office in 2016 was to prove its critics wrong in their claims that the party’s governing program would derail Jamaica’s IMF agreement. Despite campaign promises that led some to worry that the JLP would undo economic reforms supported by the IMF, the JLP-led government has maintained debt repayment and IMF economic reforms at the center of its fiscal policy. Jamaica’s public debt ratio is currently around 115 percent, with the government targeting a reduction of debt to 60 percent of GDP by 2025.
Debates surrounding the JLP government’s most recent budget brought into relief the tension between filling campaign promises and balancing a budget.
Under the JLP’s leadership, Jamaica is set to successfully transition from its previous “extended fund facility” loan program, which is set to expire in April, to a new loan agreement. Under the IMF’s new US$1.64 billion “standby” agreement with Jamaica, the country will rely on the loan only as a form of insurance in case of unusual shocks to the Jamaican economy, such as sharply increasing oil prices or natural disasters.
“These achievements were possible because program ownership was unwavering, despite a change in government after the elections in February 2016,” said Uma Ramakrishnan, IMF mission chief for Jamaica, in a November 2016 press release.
The Bank of Jamaica’s governor, Brian Wynter, said during a February press briefing that he does not anticipate that the country will have to draw on the loan in the foreseeable future, given that Jamaica’s net international and nonborrowed reserves currently exceed US$2 billion, providing “the means to manage through ordinary shocks.”
The government’s 2017-2018 budget, which was passed in parliament at the end of March, prioritizes debt repayment.
“We need to maintain the posture that Jamaica is serious about paying down its debt rapidly,” Holness said at a press conference on the budget in early March. This year’s budget also reflects other IMF-mandated reforms, most controversially a tax plan that shifts from a direct to an indirect tax base and efforts to consolidate the island’s public sector.
As it spends large chunks of its budget to service its debt, Jamaica has been dogged by low tax compliance and has persistently struggled to bring in enough tax revenues. Income tax revenues have consistently fallen short of projections, in part because only 1.3 million people—out of a population of 2.8 million—are formally employed, and fewer than 500,000 are on the tax register. Jamaica’s large informal economy, which employs an estimated 40 percent of Jamaicans, has made it difficult to collect income taxes. The JLP-led government’s new tax plan will add revenue and is designed to shift some taxes away from direct income taxes as a way of improving tax compliance.
Although Jamaica already relies heavily on indirect taxation, with a high general consumption tax of 16.5 percent and special consumption taxes on such goods as fuel and alcohol, the government’s 2017-2018 budget will rely even more on indirect taxes. This includes additional taxes on property, fuel, alcohol and group health insurance. The plan allows the JLP to continue making good on its campaign promise that it would dramatically increase the income tax threshold. The threshold had previously been just over US$4,600. The JLP government raised that to US$7,800 last July. Under the new tax regime, it will jump to US$11,600. Of the roughly 470,000 Jamaicans currently enrolled in the country’s “Pay As You Earn” tax roll system, just under 400,000—or 85 percent—will be exempt from paying taxes under the new threshold.
The plan has been met with fierce resistance from the opposition party, as well as concern and ire from some who will be affected in the business sector. But the JLP has argued the move will provide a large number of people with more disposable income and consumer choice.
“Putting it that way makes the tax system more efficient, but more than that, it gives you, the income earner who is also a consumer, the ability to have a greater determination on how much tax you pay by virtue of making a determination on how much consumption you will do,” Holness said at a recent press conference in Kingston.
One of Jamaica’s largest hoteliers, Butch Stewart of Sandals Resort International, has broken ranks with the industry, saying it is time for the sector to “give back.” The Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) also said in a press release that it supported the shift toward indirect taxation, but noted that compliance is low even for indirect taxes. Just 60 percent of registered titleholders pay property taxes, while just 10 percent of registered general consumption taxpayers filed returns. The PSOJ also encouraged the government to cut general consumption tax to spur spending and create jobs.
Public Sector Transformation: “One Jamaica, One Budget”
Another controversial part of the government’s agenda this fiscal year is to abolish the practice of earmarking funds for certain public entities. The prime minister described the plan as “one Jamaica, one budget” in a play on the island’s “Out of many, one people,” slogan. The rationale behind the plan, in addition to following the IMF-mandated reform program, is to cut inefficiencies and make all funds available for central government use.
Jamaica has over 200 public bodies—four times as many as some economies that are many times its size, according to the government’s own estimates. In 2015, the taxes, fees, licenses and contributions collected by Jamaica’s government amounted to JM$74 billion, or about 20 percent of total tax revenues. But over 70 percent of those revenues went to running particular public agencies, making them unavailable to the government for other purposes.
For instance, the Tourism Enhancement Fund, which promotes Jamaican tourism, is funded by the US$35 per person departure tax levied on tourists leaving the island. Unsurprisingly, the tourism industry has criticized the plan to potentially use the fund for general spending. Another such fund is the National Housing Trust, which facilitates affordable housing, primarily through low-cost financing.
Jamaica has over 200 public bodies—four times as many as some economies that are many times its size.
Although the government has said that public bodies whose funds are “de-earmarked” will be not necessarily be left without financing, it has also made clear that it is the first step toward eliminating some of them.
“This will involve a series of phased, and sequenced actions over the next couple of fiscal years, whereby public bodies will, based on time-bound action plans, be merged, closed, privatized or re-integrated into the public sector,” Audley Shaw, Jamaica’s minister of finance and public service, said in closing arguments around this year’s budget.
Crime: Jamaica’s Achilles Heel
Crime, and homicide in particular, has been one of Jamaica’s most vexing problems, one that the new JLP government, like its PNP predecessor, has been unable to stem. The number of people murdered in Jamaica in 2016 jumped over 10 percent to 1,350. While the high homicide rate is primarily driven by organized crime, the headline number can be chilling for investment and the tourist trade.
“That seems to be their Achilles’ heel,” says Dennis Chung, the CEO of the Private Sector of Jamaica, in an interview.
Although 80 to 90 percent of murders are gang-related or the result of domestic disputes, high levels of crime pose a significant reputational risk to Jamaica, Chung says. Attacks against tourists and other visitors are rare, although several high-profile murders of North American visitors to the island last year caused alarm and received widespread media attention. Despite rising homicide levels, the government has managed to stem harassment of tourists by unlicensed vendors and other individuals, which Chung sees as a positive for the tourism industry.
The number of people murdered in Jamaica in 2016 jumped over 10 percent to 1,350.
A particular area of concern in combating crime is Jamaica’s lottery-scamming gangs, which have been operating since the 1990s and have siphoned off millions of dollars, mostly from elderly U.S. residents. Scammers lure victims with a promise that they have won a large jackpot in a Jamaican lottery, but must pay taxes in order to collect their winnings.
Last year, Jamaica reinstituted its Lottery Scam Task Force, promising to crack down on the organizers as well as low-level collaborators such as callers and money collectors. The United States has been providing assistance in these efforts, both by extraditing Jamaicans charged with involvement back to the island, and charging and convicting a number of U.S. citizens as collaborators.
Special Security Zones
In an effort to get a handle on crime, the government has also outlined plans to set up so-called special security zones. The initiative has raised concerns that security forces would operate with impunity, especially because police would not need a warrant to make arrests in these designated areas. Opponents of the plan have pointed to past incidents in which Jamaican security forces have abused their power.
Jamaica’s police force in particular has been accused of serious crimes, including extrajudicial killings and witness intimidation and harassment, attracting the attention and concern of international human rights groups. Killings by police accounted for 8 percent of all homicides in 2015, a figure that represents an improvement from previous years, according to a recent Amnesty International report. In the same report, Amnesty International detailed abuses by police, primarily against those detained but also against their families.
Holness has conceded that the record of the nation’s security forces is concerning.
“This is not merely a security operation, this is more a development operation,” Holness said, adding that its strategy would be a multipronged approach to “clear, hold and build.” That contrasts with previous security operations that have cleared high-crime areas of criminal elements, but have not “held” the community by maintaining a presence, or worked to build it up through development programs.
Perhaps in a gesture intended to build public trust in the use of security forces to keep the peace, Holness said he would offer a formal state apology for two of the most well-known operations in which Jamaican security forces acted improperly. The first incident, in 1963, known as the Coral Gardens affair, involved the arrest, beating and forcible trimming of the dreadlocks of numerous Rastafarians. The second incident, in 2010, occurred in Kingston’s Tivoli Garden neighborhood when a security operation to capture drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke resulted in the death of 70 people. Others were detained, and property was destroyed. In the Tivoli Gardens case, an Independent Commission of Investigations has brought some cases to trial.
Bringing Jobs to Jamaica
During the 2016 election campaign, the JLP promised to create 250,000 jobs, a commitment that was mocked by critics who pointed out that fewer than 200,000 Jamaicans were actually unemployed. Still, the unemployment rate hovered at 12.9 percent in October 2016. Although that is down slightly from 13.7 percent the previous year, according to the latest figures from the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, the unemployment rate is nearly double for Jamaicans aged 20 to 24, at 28.6 percent.
Jamaica’s chronically high unemployment rate is related to some of the country’s other challenges. “Unattached youth”—young people, mostly men, who do not go to school or have a job—are also the same demographic involved in crime, statistics show. And according to the United Nations Development Program, almost 12 percent of the population is either living in near-poverty or below the poverty line.
To bring jobs to Jamaica, the government has focused on several sectors. Tourism is already Jamaica’s largest industry, but in the past several years policymakers have seen opportunities to diversify tourism beyond the island’s standard “beach resort” fare, a move that could bring more employment to heavily impoverished urban areas. The government is also looking to transform the port of Kingston into a regional logistics hub and add manufacturing jobs.
Tourism continues to form a large chunk of the Jamaican economy, making up about 30 percent of the island’s GDP. The bread and butter of Jamaican tourism are the large-scale all-inclusive resorts that dot the northern coast and draw most of Jamaica’s visitors. The sector has grown in the past year, with the number of visitors, including those from cruises, up 4 percent to 3.84 million, and earnings up 6.2 percent to US$2.55 billion in 2016.
The Jamaican government has said that it would like to nearly double earnings from tourism to US$5 billion by 2021. With the industry heavily reliant on resort and cruise visits, the island is trying to grow the sector by diversifying from a beach-centric destination to one with more cultural and historical attractions.
According to UNDP, almost 12 percent of the population is either living in near-poverty or below the poverty line.
Part of this strategy is related to worries about looming competition from Cuba, as relations between that island and the U.S. warmed during the Obama administration. A decision by Norwegian Cruise Lines to drop the Bahamas off a Caribbean itinerary in favor of Havana, Cuba, earlier this year sent “jitters throughout the tourism industry,” according to Jamaica’s Ministry of Tourism. Jamaica is actively courting the cruise industry in hopes of twinning Cuba and Jamaica on itineraries.
However, losing visitors who forego Jamaica in favor of a newly open Cuba is probably more likely, representing a threat to the country’s tourism earnings. Cruise visitors made up 43 percent of tourists to Jamaica, but accounted for only 6 percent of the earnings the island brought in from tourism last year, according to government statistics. However, visitors from cruises have increased faster, jumping 5.5 percent in 2016, compared to 2.8 percent for other tourists.
One area of the country that the tourism industry is hoping to develop is Kingston. Long ignored by tourists or avoided due to safety concerns, the capital has been largely off the tourist map with the exception of die-hard reggae fans. Most tourists fly to airports in Negril and Montego Bay and never set foot in the city. Reggae culture—particularly centered around Bob Marley’s birthplace, Trench Town—figures heavily in efforts to draw in more visitors to the capital. Several tour operations have begun to specialize in musically themed tours, which often include stops in Trench Town, as well as at other Bob Marley landmarks, such as the still-operational Tuff Gong recording studio.
There is evidence of a growing interest in urban tourism in Kingston. The website Airbnb has brought some 32,000 visitors to the island, according to the Tourism Ministry, and most of the 1,200 Airbnb listings in Jamaica are in inner-city communities like Trench Town.
Another focal point is gastronomical tourism. Jamaica’s jerk chicken, for instance, is relatively well known globally, especially in larger urban centers. Coverage from celebrity chefs and media personalities has helped boost Jamaica’s profile as a “foodie” destination. In late 2015, celebrity chef Mario Batali worked with record titan Chris Blackwell to organize the NyamJam local food festival. Food and culture journalist Anthony Bourdain also filmed two shows in Jamaica, giving some of the island’s less-visited areas some international exposure. Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee, for its part, already has somewhat of a cult following, and commands prices of US$10 a cup in Japan, its No. 1 importer.
Visitors from the U.S. make up the vast majority of tourists, so Jamaica is also looking to diversify the nationalities of its visitors. For instance, the island recently added several direct flights from Germany to Jamaica, hoping to more than double the number of German tourists to Jamaica from 20,000 in 2016 to 50,000 in 2021, the Tourism Ministry said earlier this year.
Long ignored by tourists or avoided due to safety concerns, Kingston has been largely off the tourist map with the exception of die-hard reggae fans.
Jamaica is also looking to expand medical tourism due to the island’s low comparative costs for dental care and other medical procedures. According to one government estimate, 8 percent of visitors to the island in 2015 were there for medical treatment. Jamaica also has a competitive advantage for North Americans looking to combine short-term outpatient care with a beach vacation. But some health care companies are looking to provide more long-term services. Earlier this year, two second-generation British-Jamaicans opened Zierlich Dialysis, a center that will provide early kidney disease detection as well as dialysis care for the Caribbean region, with the hopes of attracting interest farther afield.
As one of the largest and most central islands in the Caribbean Sea, Jamaica has been eyeing opportunities for its port in Kingston to serve as a logistics hub for the region for several years. Interest has grown with the recent expansion of the Panama Canal, which is allowing larger ships to reach the United States’ eastern seaboard through the canal, rather than transporting cargo from the West Coast by rail.
“It’s a ripe opportunity for Jamaica given our location,” says Nigel Clarke, ambassador for economic affairs, citing increased traffic between North America and South America.
Under a plan announced in March, the logistics hub will be centered on Kingston’s port, reclaiming existing industrial areas, which will be used for processing shipments and serve as a light-manufacturing sector.
The divestment of the Kingston Container Terminal to the Paris-based international container giant CMA CGM Group in mid-2016 was the first step toward creating the hub. The agreement gives the Kingston Freeport Terminal Limited (KFTL), a CMA-CGM subsidiary, a 30-year concession to the terminal. KFTL is undertaking a US$150 million expansion of the terminal, deepening the port to allow larger ships. Within two to three years, Jamaica expects that volumes going through the terminal will increase by 50 percent or more, Clarke says.
The government hopes to make Jamaica a transit point in the shipping industry and provide services such as breaking down containers to go to smaller markets, Clarke adds. It is also embarking on regulatory reforms to attract more traffic to make it easier for the shipping industry to use Jamaica for these purposes. This will include looking into customs reform to make sure that containers are cleared quickly and storage costs decline.
The government is also divesting Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport, with new owners expected to be in place by the middle of 2018. Clarke says an expanded airport under new ownership will also be a key part of the logistics hub.
Outsourced services also continue to be an area of focus for the Jamaican government. The sector is already the country’s second-largest employer after the tourism industry in western Jamaica, employing some 22,000 Jamaicans—up from 18,500 a year ago—who work remotely for North American companies. There are currently 50 firms, primarily based in Montego Bay and Kingston, offering such services—a 13.6 percent increase from a year ago.
The island has several strategic advantages that attract North America’s outsourcing business. In addition to its geographic proximity to the United States, Jamaica has an English-speaking and well-educated population and is in the same time zone as many North American cities. Firms offering business process outsourcing—such as administrative services and call centers—are currently the main employers in this sector, and include international companies such as Xerox, Teleperformance and Sutherland Global Services.
The outsourcing sector is expected to add 20,000 new jobs to the economy in the next year, according to government estimates. Jamaica hopes to expand into more value-added services known as “knowledge processing,” which includes legal services, accounting, human resources, software development, medical services and other higher-skilled industries.
Cashing In on Cannabis
Cannabis, or “ganja” as it is locally known, has been touted as a promising industry for Jamaica in recent years. In 2015, under the previous government, Jamaica made its first moves toward developing a cannabis industry by passing the Amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act, which decriminalized marijuana for medicinal, religious, scientific and therapeutic purposes. In addition to making possession of less than two ounces a minor offense, punishable by a ticket rather than jail time, it set up a licensing framework for growing and handling marijuana.
Some have touted cannabis as a possible game-changer for medical tourism, and see great potential in Jamaica’s ganja “brand”—particularly its association with reggae legends such as Bob Marley, for instance—as an export product. A Cannabis Licensing Authority has been formed and has received applications for cultivating, processing, research and development, transportation and retail.
Still, development of the industry has been slow, in part because Jamaica is somewhat hamstrung by international conventions in its policies toward cannabis. Last year, the island’s foreign minister, Kamina Johnson-Smith, made headlines when she pleaded at the United Nations special session on drug policy in New York for world governments to change their approach to cannabis.
“Jamaica voiced its disappointment that the document did not allow countries the requisite flexibility and policy space to design domestic policies in keeping with national circumstances,” Johnson-Smith said at that time, calling for “scientific evidence-based analysis.”
Domestically, the use of marijuana is prevalent partly due to its role as a sacrament for followers of the Rastafarian religion. But if Jamaica hopes to develop an export market for medical cannabis, international legal frameworks regulating the plant are also important. Jamaica is already the United States’ top supplier of illegal cannabis, according to the U.S. State Department. For Jamaica’s nascent legitimate cannabis industry to export its product to the United States, legal imports of the plant would have to be permitted.
Some have touted cannabis as a possible game-changer for medical tourism, and see great potential in Jamaica’s ganja “brand” as an export product.
As Jamaica’s cannabis industry develops, one area of concern is ensuring that the industry does not jeopardize the island’s corresponding banking relationships. A correspondent bank facilitates services for an institution in another country including wire transfers, deposits and other business transactions. Jamaica’s tourism- and remittance-dependent economy is heavily reliant on these banking relationships. But over the past several years, correspondent banking relationships in the Caribbean have been called into question, with some banks even cutting off ties with Caribbean banks due to concerns about money laundering, fraud and terrorism financing.
In a recent press release, the Cannabis Licensing Authority attempted to assuage any concerns that the fledgling legal cannabis industry would be in any way infiltrated by the much larger illicit trade.
“To remain compliant with the conventions and reduce risk associated with the industry, the Cannabis Licensing Authority has taken great care to create a structure of regulations and procedures that will ensure transparency,” the agency said. The Jamaican government has also indicated that it plans to work to bolster the regulatory framework governing financial institutions to ensure that correspondent banking ties are not cut.
Although Jamaica is now focused on growing its economy, its large diaspora and close ties to the United States and United Kingdom make it particularly susceptible to the health of other economies as well. Around 16.6 percent of Jamaica’s GDP in 2015 came from remittances from the diaspora, located primarily in North America and the United Kingdom, according to World Bank figures. Jamaica has around 2.7 million people and is estimated to have a diaspora of roughly the same size. The diaspora contributes to the Jamaican economy both through cash sent back home to family members as well as investments and in-kind support. Receiving “barrels”—the favored method of transport for care packages from relatives abroad, containing staples such as food, clothes and other goods—is a common part of Jamaican life.
The largest source of remittances to the island is the U.S., from where over US$2 billion in remittances were sent to Jamaica in 2016—up 3.2 percent from the previous year. The growth rate of remittances slowed from 8 percent in 2015 to 6 percent in 2016, however.
The election of President Donald Trump in the U.S. has caused some concern that remittances will drop, due to stricter immigration policies and a more protectionist approach to the labor market. In addition to getting remittances from long-term residents of the United States, Jamaicans also receive income from those on short-term work visas to the United States. Summer work programs are popular among students seeking professional experience. Jamaican workers fill a number of temporary jobs, including seasonal farm work and holiday staffing for the hospitality industry. In 2016, 156,000 Jamaicans worked in the U.S. economy, filling jobs in health care, food services and retail.
The largest source of remittances to the island is the U.S., from where over US$2 billion in remittances were sent to Jamaica in 2016—up 3.2 percent from the previous year.
“There is a downside risk to remittance inflows from the US based on the recent US policy shifts towards migration and stricter immigration laws which could impact remittance inflows in ensuing quarters,” the Bank of Jamaica said in its report.
Remittance inflows reflect Jamaica’s high sensitivity to public policy shifts and economic climate in economies with high Jamaican diaspora populations. For instance, remittances from the U.K. have grown at a slower rate since 2014, but picked up in 2015 and into 2016, which the Bank of Jamaica said may have been due to jitters around Brexit. Jamaica’s foreign minister urged Jamaicans at home and abroad to remain calm in the face of executive orders from Washington changing immigration policy, according to local press.
Five in Four
Having been in the opposition for much of recent history, Jamaica’s JLP arrived in office with something to prove. By successfully meeting the benchmarks of the IMF agreement, it proved its critics wrong. As it moves into its second year in office, it faces even greater challenges to reaching its “5 in 4” plan: 5 percent real GDP growth in four years time. It will have to bring a longstanding crime problem under control, extract taxes from a nation that has consistently avoided them, transform a sprawling public sector and, perhaps most challenging, create jobs.
With the IMF standby agreement, the JLP managed to quell investor concerns around a change in government. Now, the party faces the considerable task of meeting voters’ expectations. The unexpected shift in leadership in 2016 illustrated the risks of public discontent. Now, Jamaicans expect the JLP to fulfill its promise of “prosperity for all,” even as the government faces pressure to widen its tax base and continue a program of fiscal discipline. The JLP’s ability to deliver on that promise, and do so in short order, may determine the length of its tenure.
Rebekah Kebede is a journalist whose work has appeared in Thomson Reuters, National Geographic, Quartz and GOOD magazine, among others. Prior to moving to the Caribbean, Rebekah worked as a Reuters correspondent in New York and in Perth, Australia. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica.