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Jamaican Bureaucrats Do Not Serve the People

Jamaican Civil Servants Do Not Serve the People Well

by Basil Waine Kong

The lead story in the Observer on May 21, 2009 concerned the slackness of Civil Servants in Jamaica. The town fathers and business leaders have had enough and demanding that our government straighten out the mess. This struck a nerve. As an expatriate who returned almost 2 years ago, I continue to enthusiastically encourage other expatriates to return. It was a good decision for my wife and me. We are having a fabulous time. Most of us, if not all, can contribute a wealth of experience, capital and human resources to this incredible country. However, my experiences working through the bureaucracies have not been encouraging. My experience so far leads me to believe that the institutions of Jamaica are incapable of functioning efficiently.

Whether applying for a US phone number or assisting my wife with a permanent visa and work permit, the system seems to be designed to prevent or stymie citizens from transacting business in an efficient and effective manner. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that they go out of their way to obstruct progress if you don’t know “somebody”. This emphasis on citizens having to be “nice and respectful” and not being facey is completely out of control. Everyone walks on needles and are deathly afraid to offend public servants or their paperwork will be sabotaged or they will be made to jump through additional hoops. Public servants here actually believe that having citizens wait all day hungry, thirsty and tired for services to which they are entitled is acceptable; and you dear not object or you will go to the end of the line. Whether it’s to cash a check or getting something approved, the lines are endless. There is no respect for citizens time. Shouldn’t the government try to facilitate rather than hinder? Are civil servants our bosses or should they serve the people?

Expatriates have lived in countries that have an infrastructure designed to assist the average person to transact business because transactions means that money is exchanging hands and if money exchanges hands, the system is that much richer. What I have run into instead, much to my chagrin and dismay, are civil servants who are inefficient, disrespectful and at times seem to make up rules to suit themselves. This level of bureaucratic morass is beyond any reason that I can fathom.

I offer this as an example, as a returning resident, I have had to register a business, obtain a driver’s license, an NIS number, a TRN number as well as open several bank accounts. My experience is mixed. On the one hand, the Registry of Companies and the Drivers License Division are in a class by themselves for inefficiency. These divisions are a travesty. Whoever devised them must have attended the Rube Goldberg School of Business. Rube Goldberg as you may know, devised contraptions for making the simplest transactions into the most complicated. On the other hand, obtaining the NIS and TRN numbers were faultless. Some departments do get it right.

Due to government regulations, the requirements for opening a simple bank account is defies logic. I have a few rass words for bureaucrat who devised the banking rules. They actually hold onto checks written on American banks for 90 days before you can use your money and no interest is paid in the interim.

For the uninitiated, here are the steps to open an account:

1. You must account for how you got the money you are proposing to deposit;
2. Obtain two letters of recommendation from a Justice of the Peace, notary
or some similar VIP attesting to your character; (If you lie, cheat and cannot get someone important to attest to your character, you cannot open an account no matter how much money you have.)
3. Submit a projected income and expense for the upcoming year as well as anticipate how many transactions you will have per year;
4. Show proof of your residence in the form of a bill from a utility company with your name as the owner of the property; (If you are a cultivator living in country, do not have bills as well as people who live in hotels or “Cotching”, you cannot have a bank account;
5. Purchase a “seal”. (The only purpose for this requirement is to generate income for the people who make these seals. The cost is $3,000!)
6. Have a Tax Payer Registration Number and a driver’s license. (I gave up trying to get a Jamaica credit card.)
7. Have your signature card certified by a Justice of the Peace or Notary.

This is madness. Consider the simplicity of opening a bank account in the United States. You produce your social security number, put down your money and get a bank book and checks. You can establish a savings or checking account in five minutes. In Jamaica, it takes weeks and then you even have to pay a fee each time you withdraw money if you do not use the ATM machine.

I suspected all along that Bureaucrats purposefully made the process of obtaining licenses and permits almost impossible to force citizens into submission and beg these public servants to take extra money to get it done “the easy way”.

The Registry of Companies otherwise known as the “Office of Circumlution” is particularly troublesome. By comparison, it takes about an hour to complete the paperwork and submit the documents to register a company in the United States—no attorney required. With the tremendous cost of registering a business in Jamaica, I now share the belief that it was designed to guarantee that poor people will never own a legitimate business. I don’t believe most lawyers could negotiate the process in Jamaica, so the public must almost always rely on expensive attorneys who specialize in registering companies. This is an un-necessary cost and headache.

Registering our company took three months of concentrated effort. When they found an error on page one, they stopped their review and return our application. After eight rejections and after addressing all their concerns, they still had a few more requirements that did not come up before.

Victory at last, the prized certificate is obtained. You are then directed to drive across town to the tax office to obtain your TRN number (not the personal one which is easy, but the business TRN). This office then directs you back to the dreaded Registry of Companies to obtain certified copies of all your submissions. The cost is J$150.00 per page and my application was 30 pages. Why couldn’t the Registry of Companies also issue the TRN? This is not pro-business and does not encourage citizens to become legitimate tax paying companies. Our police can then close down those who are not registered and blame them for not having a certificate. Is this any way to run a country? I completely agree with Mr. Butch Stewart and the business leaders quoted in the Observer article. We can and should do better.

Bullet Columnist Basil Waine Kong has written several pieces for this journal and especially likes to expound on his favorite subject: his beloved Jamaica. He is a former Atlien (resident of Atlanta GA), and was the CEO of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) for 22 years before his retirement in 2008 to return to Jamaica. This article is reprinted with his permission from his blogsite; Coming in From the Cold… Bob Marley

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