Talking Business: Helene Davis-Whyte

written by Andre Barefield November 21, 2014

Business View Caribbean interviews Helene Davis-Whyte, a member of The Economic Programme Oversight Committee, as part of Best practices in Jamaica Business.

The Economic Programme Oversight Committee consists of persons from the private sector, the public sector and civil society of Jamaica, who will receive and review information from the government on the progress of implementation of the Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies over the life of the International Monetary Fund’s Extended Fund Facility.

The IMF had conditionally agreed to assist Jamaica as it deals with prolonged fiscal turmoil.

The committee will assist in ensuring that the agreed targets are achieved and advise the public through the media of any concerns or developments. Its formation, according to committee member Helene Davis-Whyte, was both mandatory to ensure the tenets of the IMF agreement and demanded by the Jamaican people in order to ensure a level of government fiscal accountability.

In other words, if the public was to make sacrifices, it wanted to make sure they were legitimate.

“(Public sector) workers were of the view that this would’ve been the third period of wage fees that they would’ve been asked to endure and their view was that we needed to do everything to ensure that such a request would not be coming to them again,” she said.

“They felt that this could only be accomplished if we did not depend on the government to implement the terms of the agreement itself, but that there should be a monitoring rule created by other stakeholders and ensuring that the terms of the agreement.”

Business View chatted with Davis-Whyte to discuss the composition of the committee, the forecast for its success and the economic outlook in Jamaica going forward.

BUSINESS VIEW: The committee is set up with representation from the private sector, the public sector – it’s got a wide range of people that are on it, correct?

DAVIS-WHYTE: Yes. It’s comprised of government through the bank of Jamaica and the minister of finance, private sector including our major banking institutions, as well as the private sector organizations of Jamaica, such as the farmers, the Jamaica agricultural society, the MSME medium and small enterprises. It is as broad-based as it could be. The choice of organizations really was hindered by the need to ensure that the major stakeholders in the economy would be involved in monitoring to ensure that the terms of the agreement were being implemented according to plan, and not only that, that we would be, at that level, able to cooperate and collaborate in dealing with whatever problems may arise from time to time, and also to plan ahead.

BUSINESS VIEW: If the role largely to monitor what the government is doing and make sure that the elements of the agreement are followed through on, what is the relationship with the government? Is it as an overseer? Is it cordial? Is it combative? What is the view of the government to this organization?

DAVIS-WHYTE: It is actually a committee that is appointed by the cabinet, and while it is primarily monitoring, we don’t have the authority to insist on anything being done. What we have found since the committee has been in operation is that the atmosphere is really one of cordiality, and that the government is committed to the process. And so, if problems arise, and we are able to sit down and come to some understanding as to how to deal with it. So far, the government actually kept to its word in terms of ensuring that the views of the committee are taken on board, and so much so that there is a level of confidentiality that actually applies and we all observe it. Information will come that would not be readily shared with the wider community, but at our level, information is shared freely and we don’t get a sense that there is any held back from the government and that they are as committed as each of us in this process.

BUSINESS VIEW: Now how long has the process been going on thus far? Do you all get together after a certain period of time? Or what’s the actual function of how you guys are going about this?

DAVIS-WHYTE: We meet on a monthly basis. One of the first things that we did was to ensure that we got an agreement as to how we would be communicating to the wider Jamaican population, because we felt that it was important for the information to be shared as far as possible with the wider society, so that everybody gets a sense of where in the fact the country’s going. And if there are difficult decisions to be made, that the wider population understands why we have to be going down particular roads.

At the end of each of our meetings, the co-chair from the non-government side of the committee, who is Mr. Richard Byles, he issues statements at the end of each of our meetings, and these statements basically give an indication to the Jamaican society as to what it is that is being discussed, whether we have concerns and what is actually being done by the government to deal with the concerns. We find that this has been very useful, because it enables not only us as the stakeholders that are involved, but the wider society to become more confident in terms of information that comes from the government of Jamaica on the economy.

BUSINESS VIEW: Now you mentioned the response from the citizens and their level of confidence, what has been the feedback, if there’s been any so far? Do they have a sense that this will be a major help to the process? Or how is the general reaction been?

DAVIS-WHYTE: The reaction has been good. Certainly from the point of the view of the confederation of trade unions, we call our offices and delegates together on a quarterly basis and give them the information really from the horse’s mouth and not just depend on the communications that are issued by the co-chair. And the feedback that we are getting is that while people are still feeling the brunt of the harsh economic times, you get more of a sense of a person’s understanding and also wanting to contribute. We get suggestions at our meetings and if, in fact, things are not going the way they should be in their view, then that information is fed to the EPOC through us as the representatives of the workers. I expect that is a similar process as of the other stakeholders who are involved.

BUSINESS VIEW: I’ve talked to a few businesses in Jamaica and obviously, there’s a concern. Can you talk to me about the economic landscape? Obviously it’s not in a good place right now, or things like this wouldn’t be necessary, but give me your sense as someone that’s on the inside of what needs to happen and what direction it’s going in. Do you feel like progress is going to be made and things will be different fairly soon?

DAVIS-WHYTE: This is what we’ve been at pains to say to our members. This is really a situation where you have to be prepared to go for the long haul, because this is not going to be corrected overnight. If we are looking for overnight solutions, or solutions that are a panacea, then we are going to be sorely disappointed. And so, we are very realistic in terms of our outlook. One of the things that our members have indicated to us is that they want to ensure that we are on a path to economic growth. So one of the first things that we dealt with in our meetings at the EPOC is to ensure that we are not only tracking the financial vehicle, in respect to the IMF agreement, but we also want to track what is happening with growth in the economy, and we have started that process.

Coming out of our last meeting at EPOC, there’s a general agreement that there needed to be a kind of high-level committee that’s focused only on economic growth – and we are advised that an inter-ministry committee has now been established, acting on our recommendation, bringing together the ministers of finance, industry, investment and commerce, science and technology, and mining as well, to try and put together a comprehensive plan for economic growth. Because what we are clear on is that what is being done now in terms of putting right the economic thinkers and data is only part of the picture, and if we don’t deal with the question of economic growth, then we are back at square one.

What we are focused on as well is economic growth, and not just on meeting the financial targets that have been set by the IMF and the other multilaterals. The crisis is such that in terms of employment, the figures are down. We have all agreed that those things will only be corrected if we are able to solve the problem of lack of economic growth in Jamaica.

BUSINESS VIEW: Whenever people hear politicians or policy makers use words like long haul or words like that, they automatically ask, “well what does that mean,” or put that in terms of a calendar, “how long can I expect the long haul to last?” If you look down the road to Jamaica’s future, when do you see a substantial turnaround that things will be at a more sustainable level of progress, or a sustainable level of existence?

DAVIS-WHYTE: For the term of the agreement, which goes up to 2016, the projections for economic growth are very conservative. We’re looking at figures of 1 to 1.5, but based on the presentations that have been made to us in terms of the large investment opportunities, there is a dependence on those coming through to be able to ramp up the growth much faster. And if those do come through, then the projections are that by 2020, we should be looking at economic growth in the order of at least 3-4 percent as a conservative figure. But everything depends on those projects really getting off the ground and being successful, which is one of the reasons why we said to the government that what we need to do is have an interim program as well that deals with what people generally refer to as low-hanging fruit.

If we can talk about spurring economic growth by import substitution activities that would ensure that we have employment and that there’s investment in small to medium enterprises in the short to medium term, then when we are going longer down the road, we figure that by that time we would be at a point where we could now talk about projecting economic growth of a much higher level than what is projected now. Because, what is projected now is about 1 to 1.5 percent each year.

BUSINESS VIEW: So, needless to say, the next couple of years are very important to making sure this kind of turnaround actually gets started.

DAVIS-WHYTE: It is, and that is why we are committed to ensuring that it happens, because if it doesn’t, I think we are going to have an entire population that is going to be so turned off, that we may be looking at anarchy if people really don’t feel that anything would have been gained from this period of sacrifice. Because, really, what we are looking at, certainly on the part of public sector workers, is that we have gone through five years of a wage freeze. The workers have accepted that this would’ve been the sacrifice that they would’ve made to be able to put Jamaica on a path to sustain economic progress and this is why we have to ensure that it happens.

Because, if it doesn’t, we are going to end up with our workforce and the population that is going to be so de-motivated that I think we would have serious social problems.

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