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The Roots of Crime in Jamaica - the Crisis in the Rural Economy


From the Homecoming Lecture delivered by Professor Don Robotham, CUNY Graduate Centre Homecoming Honouree


I want to use this occasion to discuss an issue which continues to afflict our society, which is the issue of crime. In doing so, it is not my intention to enter into the current heated debates about the measures to be adopted to address this huge problem in the short term. I would only urge great caution in how we proceed: we must not lose sight of the fact that short-term measures have very real medium- and  long-term consequences. The broad social and political consequences of draconian measures taken in desperation today are surely not going to disappear tomorrow or the many days, months, and, indeed,years after tomorrow.

I also wish to highlight the very important research which scholars at The University of the West Indies continue to conduct on the crime issue. There is the foundational work of Professor Tony Harriott, especially his recent work stressing the importance of effective investigation of crimes. There is also the work which Horace Levy, Dr. Elizabeth Ward and Deanna Ashley have done on Peace Management and Violence Prevention. This work clearly sets out in some detail methods which can be used to intervene at crucial points in the lives of young people to reduce the likelihood of their turn to crime.

I also want to mention the recent work of Professor Wayne McLaughlin to set up a forensic science program. This is a highly important initiative which will make a very practical contribution to addressing the crime issue. Finally, I wish to point outthe significance of the brilliant work by Dr. Herbert Gayle. Unlike the work byothers, this is principally qualitative work using anthropological methods.

To me, one of the great values of this work is that it offers us profound insights into the process by which a young person sets out on the road to crime. When read together with the autobiographies of offenders (which exist) we can see in some detail and at a very personal level, how an otherwise very normal young man at a certain point and under specific sets of social circumstances, takes a turn to crime which others around him might or might not.

This detailed work offers us deep insights as to how the process works and provides us with important and invaluable clues as to how to intervene to reduce the likelihood of this wrong turn.

There are many other scholars at The UWI who have been labouring in this vineyard  for years – Professor Denise Eldemire-Shearer, for example. I hope they will forgive me if I don’t mention them all. I only choose those above as the work with which I am most familiar and whose findings seem to me to be immediately useful.  This many-sided and high quality research is not recognized enough by the wider society – the canard that UWI is not contributing to Jamaican and Caribbean society continues to hold sway in some surprising quarters. It is manifestly false and we have to redouble our efforts to ensure that the society becomes more aware of this work.

What is true, however, is that work rarely finds its way into public policy. Something is profoundly wrong when this highly relevant body of research and public policy simply exists side-by-side without the first having much impact on the second. Indeed, it is worth researching the policymaking process in Jamaica as an issue in itself – we need to understand what the bottlenecks are and how to remove them.

Instead of speaking to the immediate issues, I want to look at what I suggest to be one the underlying causes of our crime problem: the crisis in the rural economy.

I want to begin by reviewing the data on the crime prone group in our society. This  is the population in the 15-29 age group—particularly men, who are responsible for at least 80% of all the crimes committed, homicides in particular. As we know, but is  persistently forgotten, Jamaica has had a low birth rate for some time now. The vision that many perversely cling to, of a society in which children are being produced and strewn about at an alarmingly  high rate, has not corresponded to reality for at least 10 years.

This low birth rate is the reason why the Jamaica population has not budged much—remaining at roughly 2.7 million persons over the decade. Indeed, one consequence of this declining birth rate is that increasingly we are facing all the problems of aging societies—pressures for greater health care expenditures on the elderly, a greater incidence of chronic diseases, labour force problems, different patterns of dependency and so forth.

The result of this falling birth rate is apparent in the following table: The 15-29 age group rose to a peak in 1995 but has steadily declined thereafter. By 2020, according to my projections there should be about 100,000 fewer persons in that age group than existed in the peak year more than 20 years ago. Both males and females declined, with the decline in females slightly higher than that of males. Based on these data, it would have been logical to project that our crime rate, including our homicide rate, would have gone down. But instead the rates have shot up. What this tells us is that there is no relief to be sought in these purely demographic type shifts. Deeper forces are at work in, in effect, to intensify the pressures on young people to commit more crimes. What would some of these pressures be?

Firstly, this has to do with problems in our education system and in our labour market. As far as our education system is concerned, both our GSAT and CXC results as well as the work of Herbert Gayle and Elizabeth Ward suggest that there aregrave problems at the 7-9 grade levels. I call these the breakdown years: If we carefully analyze the performance of our children in the annual GSAT exams and compare the performance at CXC levels we will see that there is a clear relapse in the education system between the two levels. The data that we have suggests that, if we could sustain the levels of performance achieved in English and Mathematics at the GSAT level, we could achieve about a 15-20% improvement in our educational quality at the point of graduation. Studies of individual schools confirm this conclusion.  It is clear that there is a relapse in educational performance right after the GSAT. It is as if the parents and the children having made the supreme effort at GSAT (huge expenditures on private lessons, other intense training, acute family pressures) heave a sigh of relief feeling that their job has been done and it is now up to the child and the high school teacher to deliver the goods.

Rural schools have a particular problem in this regard. In one case with which I am familiar, after GSAT, the children go on from the primary school in the same township to the local high school. Their performance in the GSAT is weak but their performance at the CXC is truly dismal. What is behind this? Here we come up on old patterns of rural family socialization and political economy. It is well-known that at around the age of 11/12 (and sometimes earlier) the child will often be given some chickens or a goat of their own to look after. Boys may be given some banks of yam to cultivate and to keep the income as their own. They begin helping family members who go to market or with other economic activities (‘ductor’ on a bus or sideman on a truck). In other words, the children begin to enter the labour market during this period in a haphazard fashion. Absenteeism grows, in addition to all the problems of adolescence, affecting boys in particular. We see it in the lamentations around the behavioral problems of our children in this age group on public transportation. The children leave school early with limited literacy and numeracy and are unfit for anything but unskilled general labour. This is a huge problem, and as the work of Herbert Gayle and Elizabeth Ward, Deanna Ashley and others shows, these are crucial years in the turn to crime. Yet, again, we know from the work of the Violence Prevention Alliance, it is perfectly possible to develop effective programs to counter this breakdown. Their “10-Point Plan for Violence Prevention” is based on careful research and practical experience and offers us simple but effective solutions to reduce the problems in these breakdown years.

Here it is necessary to make a side commentary on early childhood education. Sometimes it seems that this is presented as a panacea for all the problems of our education system. The thought seems to be that if one could only fix the system at the point of entry then the benefits would flow smoothly through to the rest of the education system, up to the CXC level. This is an illusion. Every level in the education system counts. For many reasons, we cannot rely on the very important improvements in early childhood to carry the burden of the weakness of the system in the immediate post-GSAT years. Those years are a problem in their own right and require their own distinctive solutions. In fact, if I were to single out a particular segment of the education system for priority attention there is no doubt in my mind that these breakdown years of grades 7-9 would be the prime area of focus. If we focus more on these years and address the difficulties that arise there it won’t solve everything but will certainly take us to a place better than where we are today. Again, one must ask the question—why isn’t this work more applied by our policymakers? What are the forces which are obstructing their use?

As pointed out above, our children begin to enter the labour market in significant numbers in these breakdown years. An immediate consequence of this is the  relatively high youth unemployment rate which is in the region of about 20%. But more important than the gross unemployment  rate is some characteristics of the youth unemployed: about 45% of all youth unemployed are long-term unemployed. Most striking of all, about 63% of the long-term youth unemployed have never worked. However, and this is most important, about 27% of them have 4 years or more of high school education but no certification.


We should reflect on those data for a moment. What they are saying is that, in the approximately 650,000 young people in the 15-29 age groups, we have a large pool of young people who have no experience of work whatsoever. Large numbers of them have stopped looking for work completely and have left the labour market altogether. It is striking that STATIN labour market survey data for 2014 indicate that about 53% of those who are able to work but not seeking, give as their reason thatthey “don’t want work.” It is important to be cautious here and to emphasize that they are NOT saying they “don’t want to work.” This is not a statement about the general value that they attach to work. It is a situational statement which is highly contextual: I interpret it to mean that, given existing low wage levels, especially for labour market entry-level jobs (for example in the tourist sector), remittances and other forms of family support, the options of hustling legally and illegally, all things considered, in the concrete circumstances of their life in Jamaica, not working is the better option. Take some of these same people out of this context— for example, by migration—and their hitherto dormant work ethic somehow blossoms!

However one interprets this, the more important point is that thousands of our long-term unemployed youth who have dropped out of the labour force have been in high school for some years and do have some education but no certification.

In other words, the situation is that a very large number of our youth do not earn a regular income in the labour market yet have had their aspirations raised by being exposed to more education, however limited. This exposure is of course greatlyincreased by social media and the whole cell phone culture producing a combustible mixture with which we are confronted every day. It is well known, from the experience of Nigeria, for example, where high levels of graduate unemployment have produced a proliferation of cyber crimes which have severely harmed that country’s international reputation, that this combination of chronic youth unemployment and some education is a formula for social disaster. Sadly, Jamaica too has embarked on a comparable road. There is no doubt that our case has important similarities to the Nigerian one and that, apart from the lotto scamming which is the obvious example, we are already facing an increase in crimes— for example ATM password theft—which reflect a higher level of education. Below is an excerpt from the threatening letter written by extortionists in Manchester and Clarendon and published in The Gleaner:

“If you feel the need to get the police involved or private security to protect your business or fight this proposal, feel free to do so, because if they apprehend the subject that is sent to you, you (the owner, manager, employee) will be killed and your family will be at high risk of being murdered in the most gruesome way."

This is written in sophisticated (if somewhat wordy) English using a complex sentence structure and pompous vocabulary (“apprehend”) with all the punctuation properly and carefully in place, almost as if it went through a process of drafting, copy editing and redrafting. There is even a slight touch of sardonic humor and irony—“feel free to do so”—this is no hastily scribbled note from an illiterate criminal. We are face-to-face with a writer who understands how to deploy nuances of the English language to evoke a particular emotional response from the reader  and who even takes a certain pride in showing off these skills. The long and grammatically perfect threatening sentence is clearly written by someone with at least a tertiary education—my guess would be a graduate in the Humanities since Social and Natural Science graduates are not renowned for their prosewriting skills!


But these general problems of our youth population are acutely intensified for the rural youth since we know from many Surveys of Living Conditions that poverty is most prevalent and deepest in the countryside, principally in the hills in the interior of parishes such as St. Ann, Hanover, Westmoreland, and St. James. This takes me to the specifics of the situation in the rural economy. Here I begin with some data setting out the decline in the production of sugar and banana, the two crops which have sustained the population for centuries. From a high of over 400,000 tonnes in the 1960s, sugar production has drastically declined to about 130,000 tonnes in 2014-2015. It should be pointed out that, as others have done, that from the 1960s this sugar problem was apparent, especially to the principal investors Tate & Lyle. This is why they took steps to sell out to the Shearer government before 1972. It was apparent then that the 400,000 tonnes crop was won by bringing entirely  unsuited lands into cane production and that the high figure obscured the low sugar cane yields which obtained.

It should also be noted that this collapse of sugar is not peculiar to Jamaica: Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic have also faced this problem which has wreaked havoc with rural life throughout the entire region. Since 2002, Cuba has closed 71 of their 156 sugar mills and taken 62% of the land hitherto devoted to sugar cultivation (about 4 million acres), out of production. The result is that employment in the sugar industry in Cuba is reported to have declined substantially leaving about 200,000 persons employed from approximately 500,000.

A similar problem applies to banana production in the region. In Jamaica, this also fell dramatically up to 2006-2007. Since then there has been some limited recovery but not enough to improve the lives of the people in the parishes which traditionally depended on these crops for their livelihoods. Again, it should be noted that the decline of bananas is not peculiar to the Caribbean—Honduras has also suffered from changes in this sector: between 2003 and 2013, banana production declined by 40% and there was a similar collapse in coffee production. The crisis in the Honduran and Central American countryside has been an important driver of the extremely high homicide rates (67 per 100,000) in those countries and the high rate of external migration to the United States.

It should be recalled that Arthur Lewis, in his famous article on ‘Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour’ published as long ago as 1954, anticipated this problem of the crisis of the rural economy and its chronic ‘surplus labour’ problem. In other words, Lewis saw clearly that the postwar Caribbean rural economy was not viable and that political independence would be meaningless without a transformation in this situation. Looking back, it seems to me that the depth of this problem was insufficiently grasped then by our politicians, policy makers and the general public.

Lewis’ answer to the crisis was a program of tax holidays to attract foreign investment into manufacturing which would then produce for the export market. This, in his view, would siphon off the excess labour from the countryside and also keep urban wage levels fairly low, providing even more of an incentive for inward manufacturing investment. Parts of this Lewis policy were followed in both Jamaica and Puerto Rico but without the export-led development thrust. It was left to the newly industrializing countries of Southeast and East Asia to pursue the Lewis model in its fullness and to its ultimately successful conclusion.

But, and this is the point, the Lewis model didn’t really speak to the issue of revitalizing the rural economy so much as it did tothe creation of a new urban economy based on manufacturing. In his model, the rural economy remained very much a residual and it is not at all clear how it would have been modernized, if at all, or whether it would simply linger on as a diminished labour reserve appendage for urban manufacturing where the real economic action would be. It’s worth noting that in South Korea, often cited as the model Lewis development experience, the problem of rural poverty and stagnation and a large food import bill continued to plague the country even into the 1980s when urban industrialization had already become considerably advanced. What this suggests is that the problem of revitalizing the economy in the countryside is a very difficult one to resolve, even under the most advantageous circumstances of rapid industrialization.

The impact of the decline of the old export crops is clear. What of domestic agriculture? A look at Jamaican domestic crop production (yam, vegetables, condiments) shows that this has either maintained the same level of output or declined somewhat since a high in 1996. There are a couple of points worth noting here: First, in general, there has been no expansion of domestic production to take up the slack following the decline of the traditional export crops. Further, it is striking that domestic agricultural production is concentrated in three parishes: St. Elizabeth,  Manchester and Trelawny. Parishes such as Hanover, St. James and Westmoreland (3%, 4%, 7%) produce relatively small amounts. Very clearly, domestic crop production is still principally oriented to the-old internal marketing system going back to the 18th century and is in almost complete disconnect, for example, from the  tourist sector. In a more balanced process of economic transformation, the development of a new sector such as tourism would be integrated with others and indeed, provide a new expanding market for the commodities being produced in the countryside. But such has not been the case.

On the contrary, if one looks at the expansion of tourism, the disconnect between tourism and the food producing sector becomes even more apparent. From a low of 35% of export earnings, tourism is now at about 50% (the sharp dip reflects the  2008 Great Recession). Despite that 15% points growth in tourism food production has basically remained flat or trended down somewhat. All indications are that tourism revenues will continue to grow in the future as our visitor arrivals increase steadily.

However, tourism is on the coast where the glittering new hotels are being built. There is no glitter in the hills where poverty and severe economic hardship reign. A profound, and one could even say, brutal spatial re-orientation of our centuries old rural economy, is complete. The notorious ‘plantation economy’ of the Caribbean, is no more. A largely coastal economy almost completely dependent on tourism and services has replaced it.

From the West End and Seven Mile Beach in Negril on the left, to Hopewell on the right, the coast is alight with one hotel after another. When one looks at the old sugar plains of Westmoreland and St. James and the banana lands of Hanover, the picture is one of darkness and abandonment.

One has to be careful not to draw too straight a line from the economy to crime—it doesn’t of course work quite like that. Nonetheless it is striking that, outside of the urban centers, it is precisely  in the abandoned parishes of Hanover, Westmoreland, St James and Clarendon, that we find the rural murder rate shooting up. So far for 2017, the murder rate in the above three parishes has increased from what it was in 2016: from 1 to 12 in Hanover; from 6 to 11 in Westmoreland; and from 5 to 12 in St James. My expectation is that this will continue to be the case until we can find a way to restore economic viability to the hills of rural Jamaica.


The revitalization and transformation of our collapsing rural economy is precisely the challenge facing us. In that regard, let us take a brief look at some initiatives which have been taking place recently in rural economic transformation. These are examples of small scale tourism development in the countryside, far away from the luxury villas and mass tourism allinclusives of sun, sea and sand.

My approach is to look at examples ofwhat is actually taking place and to see what can be learned from this rather than to prescribe abstractly and from the top down. Although there are a wide range of new economic activities occurring in the hills, I identify two models: the first is the single entrepreneur model heavily dependent on Airbnb. The second is a community tourism model which works closely with a group of US colleges.

The first case is Jay’s Guest House located at Hagley Gap on the St. Andrew/St. Thomas border.

Jay’s is a family business run by Aden Jackson a young 25 year old graduate of Mico who teaches at the local school and who was born and raised in the area. He has a staff who are largely members of his immediate family.

The business has been in operation for one year and gets visitors from Germany, Brazil, Canada, Spain, Malta, Bulgaria and the United States. Aden markets Jay’s through Airbnb which, according to the  Minister of Tourism has over 1,000 Jamaicanproperties on site bringing in about 32,000 tourists, many of whom stay in urban inner city neighborhoods such as Trench Town, drawn by the long history of musical culture.

This takes us to the second model: the Community Tourism Model operated by the Association of Clubs in Petersfield, Westmoreland. One of the most remarkable things about this model is that it is located in an area formally designated a high crime hotspot by the police. Yet, they have been operating since 2001 without a single incident or crime against any visitor.

This model does not market through Airbnb but instead works with AmizadeGlobal Service-Learning, an American operation which organizes study abroad programs with major US universities. This year, the Association of Clubs of Petersfield will have visits from 15 universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Cornell and Rice, with between 10-15 students coming in each group, many being repeats.

Unlike the case of Jay’s Guest House, these students are required to live in the homes of members of the local community and to make tangible contributions to Petersfield community life. They have helped to construct rooms at the local school, build a local bus stop shed, improve the local school library and generallyhelped to improve the conditions of life of local citizens. All of this ensures that the benefits of the visits are shared widely in the community and local people have a vested interest in ensuring that the visitors are protected and will want to return.

The organizer of this venture, Mathias Brown CD, is a highly experienced Frome sugar worker cooperative leader with verydeep roots in the Georges Plain area and widely known throughout much of Westmoreland. For Mathias, apart again from wifi and proper plumbing, the most important factor in the Petersfield success is security. He stresses that this is the principal concern of the College representatives and this is the most crucial area in which constant vigilance is essential. It should be noted in this regard, that the Association of Clubs are not naïve about the presence of  criminals in the community but take appropriate steps to ensure that visitors remain safe and secure. Without the broad distribution of benefits and the deep knowledge of the community, they would not have been able to have the success which they have achieved.

This model of community tourism which taps into the US college market is not unique—Dr. Erna Brodber has operated a facility with some similarities to this one but with a stronger academic and cultural  program stressing the African-Jamaican heritage in particular. But, the Association of Clubs are clear that theirs is principally a business however and they therefore combine community development work with standard tourism activities such as organized trips to resort areas such as Negril in which students partake of very traditional tourist type activities.


What conclusions can we draw from all of this? Below is a photo of Aden Jackson, the operator of Jay's. Compare him to a young man from the hills around Lucea recently charged with multiple murders.

Aden is 25 years old and the young man is 22. Both are from the hills and both probably share many experiences in common while growing up. At some point, the youth from Hanover made a wrong turn. What caused it? How can we avoid that going forward? Which one is to be the futureof Jamaica going forward? Can we replicate the examples from Petersfield and Hagley Gap in the Hanover hills?

There is certainly no shortage of a cultural heritage of wider interest to all: this is the area of three important slave revolts—at Argyle and Golden Grove in 1824 and Sam Sharpe’s revolt in 1831-32. The area is alsoone of settlement of post-emancipation Yoruba and Kongo people—a result of the interdiction of the Slave Trade by the Royal Navy. In terms of more recent history, Blenheim—the birthplace of Alexander Bustamante is in the same general region. There also were Portuguese settlers in the region and not far away in Westmoreland is the old German  settlement at Seaford Town. There are therefore many opportunities to develop a more culturally oriented tourism.

To pursue such opportunities requires us to take a new approach. First, it should be clear that we need a transformation and revitalization of the rural economy. It is not enough to study squatter settlements in tourist areas which arise especially in the hotel construction phase. More and better housing for hotel workers in tourist towns is key but does not answer the questions arising from the crisis of rural life.

Equally, while the macro approach to the economy has been vital and we have made fundamental progress in that area, now is the time to move beyond the purely macro GDP approach. First of all the issue is not just GDP growth but the quality of growth: who benefits, is it inclusive, sustainable and responsible environmentally? The most recent data on economic inequality in Jamaica done by the IMF showed a Gini coefficient of .59. That is an astonishingly high level of inequality which is socially fatal, especially in a small society like ours. Further, we need to take a more ‘meso’ approach to the economy and look behind the gross metrics of national income accounts.

Careful studies of regional economies on the ground at the parish level are urgently needed. It’s vital to remember that there is no single solution to our rural crisis— there are and will be many approaches and many models.

We have to give room for them all and not strive for an artificial standardization of any single approach. Above all, we need better and more detailed data, especially with respect to our labour force and living conditions at the local levels. The University of the West Indies and our national and local political representatives are well-placed to conduct this work. And we must ensure, as we proceed with the research, that the lessons for policy are incorporated into practical programs of reform for the lasting benefit of the Jamaican people.


The data and charts in this paper were kindly made available by a number of persons. I thank Elizabeth Ward and the Violence Prevention Alliance, Horace Levy and the Peace Management Initiative, STATIN and officers from the Ministry of Agriculture, in particular, Sandor Pike, Raymond Mattis and Sharlene N. Findley. I am particularly grateful to Aden Jackson of Jay’s Guest House, Hagley Gap and Mathias Brown from the Association of Clubs, Petersfield for permission to use their photographs and for their discussions of their pioneering work. I have benefitted immensely from the wisdom of Professor Mojubaolu Okome who introduced me to the relevant material on crime and graduate unemployment in Nigeria. Arnold Bertram and I have spent years discussing these ideas for many of which he can rightly claim paternity.

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