Sunday, June 20, 2021

Overcoming Low Economic Expectations

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor June 13, 2021)

While some of us have high expectations some simply do not, possibly even satisfied with low expectations. The book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by economics professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo got me thinking about this. This not a new book, it was originally published in 2011, and it won the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, as well as being the Financial Times Business Book of the Year. In the book they shared a story that is worth repeating. 

Source: Bank of Jamaica

Banerjee and Duflo recount an attempt to reorganize the teaching in a Kenyan school, taking advantage of an extra teacher to divide the classes into two. Each class was separated by prior achievement to help each student learn what they did not yet know. Teachers were then randomly assigned to the top or the bottom track by a public lottery. The teachers who lost and were assigned to the bottom track got upset by their assignment, claiming that they would not get anything out of teaching, and that they would be blamed for their students low scores. Not surprisingly, the teachers adjusted their behavior accordingly. The authors recount that in random visits the teachers that were assigned to the bottom track were less likely to teach and were more likely to be having tea in the teacher’s room. If this sounds familiar to you, it probably is. Some of us don’t expect much from poor performing children, and so we treat them accordingly. But is the problem the poor performing child/student, or is the problem the adult/teacher and their programmed expectations? This is a serious question. Maybe it is that those who are in charge have low expectations of the powerhouse each of their charges could become; that it is possible that one of those struggling students could become the next magnate, scientist, or minister of government. No one wins here. Life is replete with examples that prove that humans are often wrong with our limiting expectations. 

Source: PublicAffairs, a Member of the Perseus Books Group

As someone who has an enduring passion for the creation and growth of businesses across the entertainment, culture, and creative industry (ECCI) sectors I found myself turning the story around to ask what are the expeditions we have of ordinary Jamaicans, who have roots in the cane piece, to evoke the spirit of departed professor Rex Nettleford, and their ability to function at the highest levels of business? Do we have expectations that they will manage, and not only manage, but thrive? What level of trust does our society demonstrate? Given some of the processes we put our fellow citizens through to access a business loan, or a mortgage for that matter, it is probably a very low level of trust when measured? Are we asking if our business processes are unduly onerous? And, are some of our financial institutions looking into ways that we can make these processes more dignified (or even just “first world”) and suitable to robust commerce built on mutual trust? I am not saying that due process and caution should be thrown away, far from it, but many of us know that some of the processes need not be so demanding/demeaning in 2021. 

In 2007 I was a part of a team that worked on a Creative Industries Development Plan for JAMPRO under the leadership of DPM International Limited. On the team we had economist Dr Kadamawe K’nIfe and at the time banker Beresford Grey, who later went on to co-found the Sygnus Group, in which Sygnus Credit Investments has been highly profitable (this past May they reported an 80% jump in net profits in that unit). One of the key points coming out of the plan was an examination of the linkages from the ECCIs with the traditional manufacturing, trading, and established service businesses. One of our challenges it appears was to treat the commercial possibilities of the ECCIs with the same level of seriousness as we treat traditional businesses like an ice cream manufacturer, a wholesaler, or a small hotel operator. Significantly then, one of the calls of the development plan was facilitating financial options for ECCI enterprises. This is something we are still struggling with today. I include this to make the point that we have had some of the brilliant minds of my generation apply themselves to putting forward solutions that are workable, yet their ideas get shelved. What accounts for that? But the track record of the Sygnus Group and what they do now exists objectively for all to see. [When the opportunity presents itself many among us are fully capable of surpassing any limiting expectations that had no place in the picture.] 

Source: Private collection

My use of ECCI refers to businesses in the sectors of music; events and festivals; radio; film, video, and photography; television and cable; telecommunications; internet and online media; electronic gaming; publishing and printing; sport and recreation; fashion; cultural and heritage tourism; amusement and theme parks; gaming and wagering; toys and games; performing arts; commercial art; cuisine and food culture. All in some way rely on, or trade on, some aspect of the Jamaica culture or our intellectual property for its sustenance. They sectors are not in every way discreet, a few functions overlap, but this structure helps in outlining what businesses we are talking about and how we might begin to organize them, particularly as we begin to dive deeper into how we can finance them in this technologized and globalized context. In this context finance needs to understand what entertainers, artists and other creatives are going on about, and so whatever we can do to simplify and cut through the esoteric the greater the chances of bridging the gap of understanding in order that we can build trust and defy the low expectations.

One love, and what I choose to call “One Love, Inc” is an unbelievable economic platform on which to reshape the economics of this country if we choose that path. Individual Jamaicans world famous our not have demonstrated that we are capable of greatness; it is within us. Let us expect more and reshape our institutions to deliver on those high economic expectations.

Kam-Au Amen has several years of combined industry experience across the areas of business management, brand licensing, media production, and eCommerce. He is a researcher of African and Caribbean entertainment and cultural enterprise management, and is a former Deputy Director of Culture in the Ministry of Culture, Jamaica. He has also served a member of the Entertainment Advisory Board. He is the conceptualizer and first coordinator of the pioneering BA in Entertainment and Cultural Enterprise Management at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.