I was grateful to have been the recipient of the 2017 Jennifer Caldwell Fellowship from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights. The fellowship allowed me to return to my native Jamaica for three months to do preliminary field interviews for my dissertation in sociology. My dissertation explores how different state officials, private sector interests and international institutions collaborate to shape public policy and its implications for democracy and political participation. I was particularly interested in using a series of tax reforms between 2009 and 2017 and involving international financial institutions, the Jamaican government and business and labour leaders as a case study. In addition to interviewing the representatives from these groups who participated in the policy reform, I interviewed ordinary Jamaicans about their attitudes towards the process.
While the issue of tax policy reform – and perhaps policymaking in general – can feel quite dry and technical, this feeling belies the incredible importance that it has for the lives of people. Taxes have a direct bearing on social problems like poverty and wealth inequality. Ultimately, governments rely on taxes to pay teachers to educate, to build courts of law and to buy beds for hospitals. Tax policy is therefore materially important to ability of citizens to live in security and dignity. As a country with one of the highest levels of public debt in the hemisphere as well as one of the highest rates of murder in the world, I was particularly interested in whether, and how, tax policy is being used to address Jamaica’s social ills.
The policymaking process also seemed intriguing because it involved an unusually-high number of non-government actors — the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, several private sector associations, and public sector labour unions – in addition to government ministries and the Central Bank. Governments typically try to guard against outside influence in setting tax rates since taxes represent their only real source of revenue. I interviewed a dozen participants in the policymaking process. These interviews, drawing from IMF representatives, government officials and business and labour leaders, allowed me to better understand how different groups viewed tax policy in relation to social problems and to see whether and how these views shaped the final policy.
It is often the case that what or who is not included in a policymaking is as telling as what or who is. I therefore interviewed persons who were not participants but who are nonetheless impacted by changes to the tax structure. Since all 2.7 million Jamaicans fit this criterion, it was important to get a broad cross-section of persons from my initial sample of 12 persons. I travelled to different parts of the island and spoke with people from a range of different socio-economic backgrounds, ages and genders. However, I was mindful that the poor and women tend to be among the most vulnerable in society and are disproportionately affected by tax policy.
I was reminded of this reality in talking to interviewees about their life experiences in a society profoundly marked by class and ethnic divisions. But I was also reminded of the resilience and social power of Jamaicans, the sort of enterprise that allows a single mother to put all three of her children through school on a $50-a-week salary. This was also evident in how persons described the ways in which they navigate social and political systems to meet their individual needs and realize the hopes and aspirations of their communities. Ultimately, the interviews and my time in different communities helped me better understand what political participation meant to persons outside of the policy networks of the ‘big men’ (elites) and the extent to which they felt a part of, represented by or implicated in the tax reform.
Seemingly arcane issues like tax reform cannot and should not be removed from the social world within which they unfold. If communities felt removed from the policymaking, they were also more likely to feel distanced from the levers of political power and disempowered in their own lives. I took from my three months in Jamaica the recognition that the civil and political rights extend beyond the ability to vote, to freely associate and openly express views. Rather, they help provide a sense of human worth and community inclusion in places impacted by social and historical patterns of inequality and marginalization.