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Country profile: Jamaica

A woman and her children walking along a street in Ocho Rios.
Tim Smith/Panos

On a recent Uber ride in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, my driver told me about his three other jobs. On the weekends, he worked as an air conditioning repair technician. He also tended to a small plot of land in the countryside to grow food for his family, and sold the surplus for extra cash. He picked up Uber as a way to fill the downtime during his day job as a police officer. In a country with the highest homicide rate in the Americas, it’s remarkable that police officers have enough spare time to drive taxis.

Another recent driver was a civil servant: even the salaries of stable government jobs aren’t nearly enough to cover the basics. Many welfare programmes fail to reach the poorest individuals, who tend to be informally employed without access to proper identification or supporting documentation.

At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Jamaican government created the largest stimulus package in the country’s history, but many of the citizens it targeted faced barriers to accessing its funds. Throughout a pandemic that’s now been raging for two years, people have largely been left to their own devices to figure out how to make ends meet.

St Mark’s Anglican Church in Rio Bueno.
Tim Smith/Panos

While it may be tempting to think Jamaica’s current predicament is a mere consequence of being a relatively poor country, actually it’s the result of centuries of having terms dictated by outsiders: the Spanish, the British and finally, the International Monetary Fund.

After a long history of indigenous Taino settlement, Jamaica was colonized by the Spanish starting in 1494. Disease and overwork brought on the rapid decline of the Taino population, and in 1509, the first enslaved Africans were made to work on the island.

From 1655 the English (later British) governed Jamaica as a colony of exploitation, marked by high rates of absentee plantation ownership. During the slave trade era, more enslaved Africans arrived in Jamaica than in the entirety of the American South. Slavery was abolished in 1834. After a rebellion of Jamaica’s Black working class in 1865 against deleterious working conditions, the Jamaican parliament voted to abolish itself rather than submit to workers’ demands.

Jamaica became independent from the United Kingdom in 1962, after a failed political federation with other British territories. A little over a decade later the country began taking loans from the IMF to cope with successive crises in its balance of payments.

In 1980, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Michael Manley broke off all ties with the fund as he grew dissatisfied with its level of economic control. Jamaica had endured a managed decline of 25 per cent in its standard of living over the previous two years in order to continue receiving payouts. It was in its eighth straight year of negative growth.

That same year, an election was held, which saw at least 844 people killed and the rightwing opposition Jamaica Labour Party win an overwhelming majority.

After more than a decade of economic stagnation, Jamaica found itself once again turning to the IMF in 2010 for help with its debts. It wasn’t until 2018, after harsh austerity measures, that the country managed to get its debt to GDP ratio under 100 per cent. Yet, it was not a status it would hold for long; the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to that.

With an economic growth rate that hasn’t surpassed two per cent since 2006, the Jamaican government continues to store its hopes in its tourism sector, now more volatile than ever thanks to the pandemic. Yet a new, more ecologically devastating prospect may be around the corner: oil exploration. Jamaica is already predicted to reach its own point of no return in 2023, when its capital city Kingston will achieve climate departure, from which point on its coldest year is forecast to be hotter than the hottest year between 1960 and 2005.

Street vendors outside the Main Post Office in Browns Town.
Tim Smith/Panos

LEADER: Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

ECONOMY: GNI per capita $5,231 (Barbados $17,380; United Kingdom $42,130).

Monetary unit: Jamaican dollar.

Main exports: aluminium, bauxite, hard liquor, sugar, coffee, and tobacco.

Jamaica maintains a hugely negative balance of payments, importing ($1bn) nearly three times as much as it exports ($354m). The United States is its largest trading partner.

POPULATION: 2.7 million. Population annual growth rate: 0.4%. People per sq km 272 (Trinidad and Tobago 273; UK 281).

HEALTH: Under-5 mortality 14.19 per 1,000 live births (Trinidad and Tobago 17.5). HIV prevalence: 1.6%. Jamaica’s healthcare system continues to suffer from labour shortages due to healthcare workers migrating elsewhere for better wages.

ENVIRONMENT: Per capita CO2 emissions: 2.9 metric tonnes. Jamaica continues to pursue bauxite mining, which threatens freshwater reserves, and clear coastal mangroves for the construction of new beachfront properties. Deforestation continues to outpace any reforestation efforts.

RELIGION: Protestant Christian 64.8%, Atheist 21.3%, Roman Catholic 2.2%, Jehovah’s Witness 1.9%, Rastafari 1.1%, Other 6.5%. The Jamaican constitution establishes freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination. Conservative churches hold an unrivalled sway in Jamaican politics.

LANGUAGE: English (official), Patois (unrecognized vernacular language spoken and understood by the majority of the population). Holness has mooted making Spanish an official language but refuses to give the same recognition to Patois.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.734, 101st of 189 countries (Barbados 0.814; Trinidad and Tobago 0.796).

An oyster vendor in Port Royal reaches for his homemade ‘ganja sauce’. 
Tim Smith/Panos

Star ratings


Inequality in Jamaica is lower than most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, but nearly a quarter (23%) of the population lives below the poverty line, a figure that was already on the rise prior to the pandemic.


Jamaica’s literacy rate stands at 88.1%, and it is one of the few countries where women’s literacy rates (92.7%) are higher than men’s (83.4%).


74.5 years (Barbados 79, Trinidad and Tobago 73.5).


Often touted as having a greater percentage of women managers (59.3%) than any other country in the world, Jamaican women still face a significant gender pay gap. Additionally, Jamaica maintains a near complete ban on abortion, though up to 22,000 illegal abortions are estimated to take place yearly.


The Jamaican government’s crime fighting strategy has come at the cost of a massive loss of freedom for many. States of Emergency are frequently used as a blanket crime-fighting measure, as well as Zones of Special Operations (ZOSOs) which came about as a means of getting around legal challenges to indefinite State of Emergency declarations. The police have also clamped down on social media criticism of the government, forcing some citizens critical of curfew measures to make video apologies.


Jamaica criminalizes same-sex conduct and gives broad discretion to police officers to determine what conduct violates the law, with even holding hands being valid grounds for arrest. Employment and rental discrimination are also significant barriers for LGBTQI+ participation in society. Nevertheless, PRIDE celebrations have been organized yearly since 2015.


Voter turnout has been falling for decades, reaching a new low of 37.8% in the 2020 general election that saw the Jamaica Labour Party, led by Andrew Holness, remain in office. The opposition People’s National Party lost 17 seats. Most Jamaicans don’t feel well represented by either party.

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