Transformation through Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Lessons from Israel

Twenty two years ago, while a post graduate student in the Botany Department of the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, I did a two month course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Rehovot campus. Those were the glory days when USAID money flowed freely through the Jamaica Agricultural Development Foundation, with the aim of creating a cadre of agricultural scientists who could and would tackle Jamaica’s specific agricultural problems head on. I was one of several students who benefited from this funding. We pursued post graduate degrees in agriculture, engaged in on-farm research and solved real life problems.The Israeli government partnered with JADF in sponsoring our participation in this sub tropical horticulture course.
I was struck first of all by the aggression of the Israeli nationals on the El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv. They were noisy and boisterous and the Hasidic Jews on the flight had no problem congregating towards the rear of the aircraft to say prayers at the appointed time. Flight attendants were hard pressed to maintain order. I remember chuckling to my then 24 year old self at the realization that there were people that matched the aggression of Jamaicans.
The second thing that struck me during my stay in Israel was the obvious unity among the Israelis. The janitor who cleaned the labs was treated with the same respect as the professors churning out scientific breakthroughs, and both groups treated each other with respect. The sight of professors tutoring undergraduate students in the university cafeteria was a common one, very different from my own experience at UWI. Laboratories, classrooms and enclaves were constantly abuzz with activity and vigorous debate.  Knowledge was freely shared.
The other thing that impressed me, and that I still reference to this day, was Israel’s approach to problem solving. Israel is not a nation blessed with fertile arable land and to say that water supply is a challenge is perhaps an understatement. Yet they are the source of many agricultural breakthroughs today.  Think drip irrigation… placing water precisely at the root zone, adding nutrients to said water, enabled crop production on the most marginal of land. It was amazing to drive through the desert and see swatches of green springing up. This was problem solving at its best! How to farm in the desert? Don’t bring more water: use less more efficiently!
Israel produced temperate fruit crops like apples and pears right there in the desert. This allowed them to capitalize on the European markets that are typically out of stock of these products when traditional producers shut down during the winter periods. Israel could have accepted at face value that these crops could not be grown in their conditions because after all, there is a huge and obvious difference between Israel’s climate and that of the temperate producers. But not being satisfied with a simple, obvious answer, Israeli scientists dug deeper and determined that the bud break seen post winter in temperate climes is not as a result of weeks of subzero temperatures, but rather exposure for a specific, very narrow band of time to these temperatures and light conditions. They simulated these conditions on potted apple and pear trees in refrigerated containers and bud break ensued as they knew it would. Thereafter, it became a simple matter to move them to open fields in the desert, feeding and watering them via drip irrigation (what else?) and making a ton of money via elegant, empirical problem solving
So fast forward 22 years to today. We were bemoaning the sad state that Jamaica finds itself in today, where passing IMF tests has superseded our own vision for ourselves and our nation. We were bemoaning the absence of hope and opportunity for our children. We were bemoaning the apparent levels of corruption that compromise decision making and further impoverish us as a nation.  We bemoaned the apparent absence of leadership able to transform our circumstances.  I posited a model for economic development that called for community based enterprises to rise up, provide said leadership, generate economic activity and empower and enrich Jamaica one community at a time. This can only happen through an innovative, pragmatic approach to problem solving.
My father and sister recommended that I read Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Senor and Singer, 2011). Suspend your politics for a moment and consider the facts. Israel is a nation that was birthed only in 1948, described by Shimon Peres, former leader of Israel, as “a poor people coming home to a poor land”.  Israel’s only capital was its human capital. They were surrounded by their enemies. They faced numerous economic and political embargoes. Yet still Israel today boasts a phenomenal number of start-ups. They are undisputed leaders in the high tech world that drives product development and commerce today. The book explained the observations that I made two decades earlier.  Senor and Singer proffered a number of reasonable questions aimed at uncovering the reasons for Israel’s relative success: did Israel’s adversity, like necessity, breed inventiveness? Did Israel have more talented people than any other country in the world? Perhaps it was the moderating impact of their military, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). But other countries have faced adversity, have well developed militaries and possess any number of talents citizens.  Through a number of well documented examples, the authors offered the following as reasons for Israel’s entrepreneurial and innovative successes: tenacity, insatiable questioning of authority (I called it aggression) determined informality (remember the professors and students, ancillary workers and academic staff?) a unique attitude towards failure and risk, teamwork and a mission orientation, and cross disciplinary creativity. 
I have tried to identify parallels between Jamaica and Israel, seeking to identify jump off points for us as far as revving up entrepreurship and innovation are concerned. I will touch on the main issues I think that explain why we, unlike Israel, have not developed since coming into our own nationhood in 1962. I dare you to challenge that last statement by the way… we are NOT better off today than we were in 1962. 
 Jamaica exhibits a cultural paradigm that cuts across public and private sectors that I refer to as “a preference for form over substance”. The “right way” seems to be more important than the “right thing”. The result is that we waste time ensuring that we don’t cause offence and we appease the right people at the expense of true problem solving.  Committees are formed and meetings are held and announcements are made and this is all applauded even when there is no transformation resulting from these activities…form over substance. Perhaps, per Senor and Singer, we should reframe our interpretation of aggression as assertiveness rather than insolence, and instead of a label of insubordination, look at it as critical, independent thinking. 
Consider too how we treat failure and our approach to risk management. Every military exercise carried out by the IDF is followed by the all important de-briefing. Here is where actions and outcomes are dissected in order to extract those critical learning necessary to raise the bar the next time round. What I observe in the public sector is an entire absence of tracking against goals, and the commensurate analysis that should be done to understand the present state against a desired state. The only meaningful tracking of government performance against stated goals, is a private sector led monitoring of performance against the IMF agenda. Where is Vision 2030 today? My own experiences suggest that the very opposite happens in some private sector settings today. There is goal setting and tracking of performance against these objectives. But a so called undesirable outcome is dealt with by a change of personnel and quiet abandonment of the original plan rather than an empirical understanding of the failure so as to get it right the next time around.  There is very little understanding and appreciation for so-called “smart failures”.
I still struggle with exactly how my (admittedly partially thought through) community based model for development will lift us from our current quagmire. Sure, private enterprises can create internal cultures that run counter to national cultural paradigms of how we perceive authority, how authority perceives itself, form over substance and so on. And certainly, the national benefits to be derived from a private sector which successfully develops an entrepreneurial and innovative culture go without saying.  But I suspect that based on where we are today, there is a critical role that state leadership must play.  You see, Israel had the direct involvement of the state from the very beginning in terms of setting policy and providing funding and setting the direction.  Israel benefited from the pragmatism of Ben-Gurion in the early days, and later on from the tenacity and can (must) do attitude of subsequent leaders. Jamaica, unlike Israel, is blessed with an abundance of natural resources…we have fertile soil, water sources, and raw materials with which to create prosperity as long as we stop abusing our environment. We have a naturally feisty people, but over the years, a culture of patronage and a swapping of colonial subjugation for home grown, ineffective (and I’m being kind here) leadership have failed to leverage our natural inclination to buck the status quo.

Is it beyond us, is it too late for Jamaica to become an entrepreneurial, innovative country and reverse our current trajectory?

Wanted: A viable, credible alternative to the PNP!

I will not spend too much time bemoaning our sad state of affairs as a nation.  I opt not to launch off into any long winded narrative replete with statistics aimed a demonstrating our status as a “failed state”. Who cares about an exchange rate of 113 JD : 1 USD.  The decline has slowed down!  But that has had zero effect on our grocery bill. We have certainly become very innovative in our bid to continue feeding ourselves and our families.  Good stuff! Now that we know the definition of employment (to be considered as employed you must have engaged in one hour of income generating activity in the week prior to the survey), who cares about the latest employment statistics that show that the employment rate has improved by 2.7% year on year in April 2014 to a whopping 86.4%! The fact that this administration claimed that Jamaica had 31 cases of Chik-V is great news…despite the fact that those of us in the productive sector are faced with  very real manpower issues as our teams remain at home, reporting “Chik-V like symptoms”.  Let’s not focus on that. The Prime Minister spent 70 minutes addressing Comrades and the wider public at the bashment that is the PNP Annual Conference.  She listed her administration’s successes over the past 2 ½ years and insisted that the PNP continues to “pass the people’s tests.”

There has not been a whole lot fact checking with respect to her claims.  The print and electronic media have simply by and large reported her statements.  Poor job, Media Peeps.  Two days after her speech, Nationwide Radio, having been chastened ion this regard by commentator Kevin O’Brien Chang, did a fact checking feature on PSMs speech.  Better late than never I suppose.  The youth arm of the Opposition JLP, G2K did something in this regard, although I would hardly term their efforts at fact checking “robust”:
“The organisation also noted the false portrayal of the PNP taking office in a period of 14 consecutive quarters of negative growth and would like to point out that in 2011, when the PNP took the reins of government; the country was on a growth path of over 1.5%.
 Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller must remember that this sort of analysis destroys her credibility and makes it more difficult for her to unite Jamaica to lead it down a truly transformational path,” added G2K Vice president, Matthew Samuda.” (
The only official statement I could find from the Labour party proper on the Prime Minister’s speech, was a statement from Audley Gordon, Deputy General Secretary ( 
It felt like the obligatory, predictable response from a party in opposition that is expected to rebut:
The Prime Minister’s presentation reflected a Party leader needing to ‘whip up’ her base but not a Prime Minister interested in the mandate of the people or the real issues affecting people. She dodged the issues of crime, the cost of electricity and even the current health epidemic! How can you then say you passed the peoples test?” 

He went on to lament the impending JPS fee hike and inflation and its impact on families trying to cope in today’s Jamaica. All true, Mr. DGS, but hardly breaking news.  We live it.  We feel it. We see it.  We live in Jamaica too, Mr. Gordon and the JLP, and we heard the Prime Minister.  Trust me when I tell you that we were more than able to come to our own conclusions as to the credibility and relevance of her pronouncements.
Former PM Bruce Golding defended the JLP against PSMs accusation of 4 missing years .  I’m all for setting the record straight, and I agree that PSM is entitled to her own opinions, but certainly not her own facts.  But establishing fact is only the beginning.
We need more from the Opposition party.  I suggest that they issue a specific mandate to the bright young resources of G2K to create a center for fact checking any and every claim made by the Party in Power.  Create and maintain a data base in this regard.  Very easy;  very, very important.  That’s the first step.  But more importantly, we need for the JLP to move beyond this very basic (albeit important) task of keeping the facts straight. What Jamaica needs is a viable, credible alternative to what we now have. Repeating to us what we already know adds absolutely no value to the process and renders you irrelevant.

I believe that the PNP is the default setting for Jamaica. The JLP is the override button. One only hits the override button if something has gone drastically wrong. More often than not, we hit restart, opting to start again with the same settings.  Think on these things, JLP.  You have to present a compelling reason for Jamaica to choose you.  That the PNP is not handling our business properly does not automatically mean that you’re it!

The JLP’s last press release as reflected on its website ( is dated July 21, 2014.  The home page has a statement attributed to Dr. Baugh about Chick-V dated Sept 6. There is an option to look at the JLP’s position on a number of issues of national importance. Again, comments where they do exist (there is nothing under “crime” for example) feel platitudinous at best. I looked for something along the lines of “The JLP’s Vision for Jamaica”.  You see, I am in search of an alternative.  A credible alternative does not merely pick holes in their opponent’s arguments.  A credible alternative does not merely sit back and criticize the other party’s every move and misstep. We can and do do that already.  A credible alternative is just that: an option that presents a better way forward. All I see on the JLP website by way of an articulated vision for our beloved country is a link to their 2007 manifesto and their 2012 local government manifesto.  What is the JLP really offering Jamaica?  How does Jamaica look and feel under a Labour Party administration?  How will the quality of our lives change under the JLP? How will they do it? This is what we want to hear from the JLP. 

In between rattling off the usual rhetoric to do with Jamaica being better off under the PNP and of course, the fact that the PNP will most certainly win the next local and general elections, Madam PM repeatedly referenced that fact that we had passed IMF tests.  Yet 52 years post independence, I can’t help feeling let down that we monitor with such alacrity an agenda imposed on us. And yes, perhaps we are here because of how we have (mis)managed our own affairs.  But monitoring our performance against an IMF agenda does not mean that we have to discard Vision 2030.  Where does the Labour Party stand on Vision 2030?

Let us reframe the narrative around our politics.  Success must be defined as more than one girl from the country now sitting in Jamaica house.  Success must be considered as more than simply winning power.  We know success when we see it and feel it, and we aren’t doing either right now. I invite the labour party go beyond their present modus operandi , the ethos of which is summed up in  Dr. St. Aubyn Bartlet’s very telling tweet in response to an entirely reasonable plea from a citizen on Sept 21 2014 :

@tonispencer: PSM, where is the opportunity for the average Jamaican?  Those of us NOT in politics???? #PNPConference #Leadership #JLP

@drstab56: @tonispencer @fayvalwilliams ask the PNP #MAMMA P

Dr. St. Aubyn Bartlett is a former Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) member of parliament for Eastern St Andrew, and he is reportedly seeking to represent the party in a Manchester constituency in the next parliamentary elections.  Dr. Bartlett and the JLP: We heard what Mama had to say.  We feel and live under the conditions resulting from her administration of our country’s affairs.  We want to know what the JLP is offering.  You, Sir, passed up an opportunity to convince us that the JLP is a credible alternative.  

Jamaica needs a credible alternative. But the JLP obviously loves being in opposition. 

Vision 2030 what’s the latest?


Dear Editor,
I encourage Jamaicans everywhere to have a look at Vision 2030. It is easily accessed online at
Vision 2030 has as its central aim, the vision of “making Jamaica the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business”. Vision 2030 is the result of true consensus across political divides and various civil interest groups and, to my mind, is truly something that all Jamaicans everywhere can embrace. It is for and about Jamaica and Jamaicans.
Making Jamaica the place of choice to live, work and raise families is defined via a series of easy-to-understand goals. We are able to know if goals are being realised by more detailed outcomes that are assigned to each goal. And the document goes even further than merely listing goals and outcomes. It goes into some detail on how these goals will be achieved by assigning what I would call “to-dos”, specific initiatives, which, if implemented, will result in the stated outcomes.
Vision 2030 was launched in 2009. The same online link mentioned earlier points us to how we are tracking against the goals. Here’s the issue: The progress tracker takes us only as far as 2011. How have we been doing since 2011? Is Vision 2030 regarded by the present Administration as the national plan for moving us towards developed country status by 2030?
Richard Byles and the Economic Programme Oversight Committee have been doing a great job of monitoring Jamaica’s performance against International Monetary Fund (IMF) targets. Madame Lagarde said as much in her recent visit to the island. No doubt the IMF intervention in our affairs, at our behest, has been inevitable. Yet, 52 years post-Independence, I can’t help feeling let down that we monitor with such alacrity an agenda imposed on us, and we are here because of how we have (mis)managed our own affairs.
But monitoring our performance against an IMF agenda does not mean that we should discard Vision 2030. I would like to hear from the present Administration if Vision 2030 informs our sectoral strategies. I would like to hear from the PIOJ how we have been tracking in terms of the Vision 2030 goals since 2011.
Kelly McIntosh