We have seen an explosion of crime in Barbados in recent months and it worries me immensely. The economic situation is tense and set to get worse before it improves. The competing actors of Government, Opposition, unions and the disavowed groups draw lines in the sand and argue their perspectives while the underlying issue still remains unresolved. When unemployment reaches a tipping point that individuals feel compelled to take significant risks to survive, how do we as nation deal with that?
A friend of mine is a big-up criminal lawyer and one of the arguments we always have is about protecting people who have been accused of crimes, particularly when the defence attorney knows for a fact, or is compelled to believe by evidence presented, that this person really left home to rob, kill or do some other nefarious act. How does it feel when this man that you get off continues to live outside the fractured justice system and becomes a repeat offender?
Crime and violence are key bottlenecks to growth anywhere and in particular, the Caribbean. With a depressed labour market and one that does not easily adapt to changes, high crime rates create a vicious cycle by which young people who struggle with a lack of economic opportunities turn to illegal activities and crime, further depressing growth. We are, in essence, creating a cocktail for disaster when we continue to send home young people who already have a difficult time getting into the business market.
I am extremely concerned as I see more and more persons seeking assistance for basic needs. The stories will break your heart. This is just the first of many waves of public sector layoffs. A family of six with four working adults just lost three jobs in the same month; two with Government and one in the private sector.
They have never been able to save; they support two students and two grandparents on meagre pensions. I sat and cried with them this weekend. They feel completely broken, and God is not providing.
Growth in the region has stalled since 2000, generating few jobs and high levels of unemployment. The 2008 global financial crisis had an especially strong effect on the unemployment rate for those between the ages of 15 and 24, which jumped on average by five percentage points between 2007 and 2013—from 21 per cent to 26 per cent. In some countries (for example, the Bahamas, Barbados, and Jamaica), youth unemployment rates are nearly three times that of those aged 30 and over.
Meanwhile, crime has risen sharply since 2004 in the region and murder rates are now among the highest in the world. More specifically, violent crime in the Caribbean is significantly higher than in any other region (with 6.8 per cent of the population affected versus a world average of 4.5 per cent), according to a forthcoming IMF book, Unleashing Growth and Strengthening Resilience in the Caribbean. About 40 per cent of the Caribbean population identifies crime and security-related issues as the biggest problem facing their countries, even more than poverty or inequality.
According to the 2012 UN Caribbean Human Development Report, young people are both the primary victims and perpetrators of crime in the region. Victims of violent crime are predominantly between the ages of 18 to 30 and from lower levels of income while 80 per cent of prosecuted crimes were committed by people aged 17 to 29 years.
Studies suggest that being a victim or a perpetrator of crime can generate negative labour market outcomes, including lower wages and longer and more frequent unemployment spells because of decreased productivity and psychological costs. In a region where over 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 30, this could entail long-term consequences for growth.
As a result of the economic recession, successive governments, like those of the UK, Spain, Greece and others have been tackling the debt through austerity measures. A raft of public sector cuts has precipitated increasing unemployment rates and reduced the availability of public sector jobs and resources available to help young people transition into the workplace. Furthermore, employers are becoming more risk averse and are increasingly reluctant to recruit those with less experience and qualifications. A heavily aging population further compounds this situation.
Weak growth reduces economic opportunities for the young, increasing their vulnerability to victimization or gang membership. These trends further hurt growth by discouraging investment through lower productivity, higher security costs and reduced competitiveness. They also divert government spending from growth-enhancing investment in health, education, and productive infrastructure, create uncertainty for businesses and investors, and cause the emigration of highly trained people (also known as brain drain).
According to recent research by the Inter-American Development Bank, direct crime-related costs range from three to five per cent of GDP in the Caribbean every year, compared to two per cent of GDP in advanced economies. In addition, forthcoming IMF research suggests that if Caribbean countries were to lower their murder rates to those of, say Canada (for illustrative purposes), growth would be between 0.4–0.7 percentage points higher per year. Illustrative results using Caribbean victimization surveys also find that being a victim of a crime increases a respondent’s desire to emigrate by over 5 percentage points. In fact, addressing crime in Jamaica, Barbados, Bahamas, and St Kitts and Nevis would yield higher gains to growth than increasing human capital levels alone, as the latter can be lost to brain drain if crime is not addressed.
Our efforts to fight crime in the Caribbean have largely concentrated on punitive rather than preventive measures. As a result, prevention is often under-resourced with the bulk of public security spending flowing to deterrence. From an economic perspective, criminals chose illegal activities because their expected payoffs (that is, profits from crime) are higher than those of legal activities. The solution must therefore lie in an integrated strategy, where payoffs to legal activities are increased (for example, by raising the expected return to education in the domestic labour market and increasing formality), and crime prevention and deterrence programmes (parenting and mentoring programmes, urban renewal programmes, and victims’ support) are given equal importance.
Targeting at-risk youth for vocational and social programmes increases the possibility that they will gain legal earnings and obtain respect through nonviolent means, while concurrently reducing youth unemployment. At the same time, improved policing and a more effective criminal justice system increase the expected cost of committing crimes, improving deterrence.
The limited public resources should be targeted towards high-crime areas and the most vulnerable. Moreover, initiatives should be subjected to rigorous evaluations, which require better data collection, monitoring, and sharing (for example, number of arrests, types of crime, cases that proceed to trial and conviction, prison population, and program participation), and funding support. The private sector also plays a pivotal role, including through the training of at-risk-youth, funding urban renewal programmes, and directly sponsoring victimization surveys and data collection.
I see it as our collective responsibility to first be aware that we have a problem that will not fix itself. Secondly, we need to find a way to save these young men in particular who are ushered through our legal system daily who will never make a significant contribution to society. A friend suggested we start with sport and have them all be a part of a sporting fraternity; I embrace this wholeheartedly.
George Connolly is a Finance and Technology professional.