So, February 25 happened. Many young people are perhaps relieved that the election period is over. Perhaps they are rightly relieved, as the season did get a little silly. Importantly though, we now have a newly mandated government. They are charged with getting to work immediately for the continued development and growth of this great nation.
I spend much time in the Twitterverse, and last Thursday, I was heartened to see the number of young people who participated in the general elections. There were many first-time voters who were excited to post their inky finger. As an officer of the Youth & Adolescent Policy Division of the Ministry of Youth and Culture, I was able to engage with young people off social media. From my interactions, they too were quite happy to participate in the democratic process. Young people, on and off social media, were discussing the issues that matter most to them. Many spent time to encourage undecided voters to vote one way or the other, but they discussed the issues of the day. That is also heartening. I am minded to believe that we are turning a corner on youth voting apathy. What will the demographic data from the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) reveal? Only time will tell the full story about that. I am excited to find out.
Having observed the conversations of young people, I believe I have a good grasp and of the issues many are most concerned about. Since this demographic has participated more in the elections, this new government would do well to address their areas of concern.
Youth unemployment has been a problem in Jamaica for quite some time. The rate peaked at 37% in July 2013. Thankfully, it has been trending down and as at July 2015, the rate is just under 30%. This is still high; much higher than many of our Latin American and Caribbean counterparts. Having a large youth population, as Jamaica does, presents an opportunity for any country to see increased economic activity and growth. Bo Bennett, an American businessman sees tapped potential as the difference between where a person is now, and where he or she can be. Youth unemployment, therefore, represents untapped potential. Where we have unemployed youth, we have the phenomenon of “unattached youth.” The term, according to HEART Trust National Training agency, often refers to those not in formal education or training, nor employment. STATIN, PIOJ and the ILO report that only 35% of youth 15-29 years had successfully transitioned into the labour market and found stable, satisfactory work. It must also be noted that fewer than 20% of unattached youth are actively looking for work. They simply do not have high hopes of finding gainful employment.
It is time for serious action on youth unemployment. This new government must fast-track the completion of the new National Youth Policy. Highest priority must be placed on the focal area that speaks to expanding participation in economic activity. It is not enough to encourage entrepreneurship. While youth entrepreneurship must must continue to receive support, not all young people will be entrepreneurs, so opportunities must be provide for them. These opportunities cannot only reside in the BPO sector, where we also have the phenomenon of youth underemployment in unstable ventures.
Who will really get a handle on the crime problem in Jamaica? I am of the believe that all citizens must play a part in reporting crimes and practicing personal vigilance and safety. However, I share the view of many young Jamaicans that this new government must better manage our ugly crime problem. Of course, we know that youth continue to be the major victims and perpetrators of crime. Therefore, in addressing our crime problem, we will have to look at issues around juvenile delinquency.
Accountability in government is also important to Jamaica’s young people. We have heard the buzz phrase of “better government” being touted by many of the politicians. With our perceptions of corruption and young people feeling that once many political representatives get elected they forget that they serve the people who put them in power, young people are demanding that transparency and accountability be pivotal. How can we fix this? What accountability mechanism can be put in place. My good friend and St. Jago alumnus, David Brown, puts it best. He said, “I think a lot of young people would love to see politicians set goals and actually achieve them. There must me a performance measuring mechanism.” The call comes from many young people for Members of Parliament and Ministers to publish their goals and key performance indicators as they seek to address local and national issues. These should be followed by quarterly updates on the achievement of stated targets. If this comes to fruition, more people will be able to see the good work that is being done. Additionally, better engage the young people and citizens of your constituency and the country in the development of these goals. Can we see Open Data collection and the publishing of key indicators? Can we see a reform of the Access to Information provisions? Can we see the digitization of government records? The digital natives are not only tweeting about music and fashion. The articulate minority and the young majority want to participate in governance You the gatekeeper, must give access. Let’s step up the transparency so we can all see and track the progress and prosperity of our land. I challenge young people to help hold government accountable. Continue to be informed, ask questions and engage in the processes of democratic governance.
In the review of the youth policy, a focal area on respecting rights has been identified. This new government should not merely pay lip-service to this. I have seen in manifestos the reference to “vulnerable” groups. The youth population in Jamaica is very diverse, across gender lines, religion, rural and urban and sexual orientation. More must be done to address gender-based violence and sexual harassment. I make the argument, quite often, that millennials are really and truly less concerned about a person’s sexual orientation. Yes, I know it is still a touchy topic, but I am going there. If we are truly out of many one people, then all Jamaicans must be respected. The government must enact anti-discrimination legislation and protect the rights of all Jamaicans, including our LGBT fellowmen, including and especially in the labour force. As a Christian, I know many church groups will give some pushback on this. I am comforted by a line from outstanding woman blogger and friend, Emma Lewis. She said, “I think Jesus was pretty strong on human rights.” I have to agree. So, no this is not pushing a gay agenda. This is about youth wanting respect and equality for their friends and family members who are different, but human. This government, if they are touched or guided by the master, can ask for more than divine intervention I this area, and offer real, decisive leadership.
There are many other areas young people are buzzing about. The government must address issues in education and access. Young people are pleased with the SLB’s decision to calculate interest on the reducing balance. Government must also address affordable housing for young people and adhere to our environmental protection laws. This, as we continue to deal with climate change mitigation and adaptation methods.
Making Jamaica “the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business” is possible. It will demand pragmatic leadership and an engaged citizenry. Together, we can. I am doubtful that it will be by 2030 though. Notwithstanding that, I am hopeful that this government will really engage with the indicators identified in Vision 2030, engage youth, address youth issues and move Jamaica forward. Youth must be unrelenting in getting our government to do more for us and be accountable and responsive to us.
More, on next post.
Editorial Note: An edited version of this post was published in the Jamaica Gleaner.