Advancing Jamaica’s Development through a Knowledge Economy (September, 2022)

Advancing Jamaica’s Development through a Knowledge Economy

 Abdullahi Abdulkadri, Mareike Eberz and Raquel Frederick[1]

Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)


9 September 2022


Keywords: Knowledge economy; skills; workforce; productivity; global market; teleworking.


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have lingering effects on livelihoods and economies as individuals, households and countries adjust to the realities and challenges of our times.  At the onset, Jamaica, as did the other Caribbean countries, implemented a variety of emergency measures to address the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. The response of Caribbean governments to the pandemic has since evolved from immediate and short-term measures to those aimed at strengthening the subregion’s resilience to shocks in the long-run. While a pandemic adds to existing vulnerabilities of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Jamaica, it has also challenged conventional thinking about the workplace and opened a new frontier for the knowledge economy—a sector Jamaica is favourably placed to benefit from.

The 2021–­2022 edition of the Human Development Report (UNDP, 2022) indicated that for the first time, the global Human Development Index (HDI) declined for two consecutive years, in 2020 and 2021, corresponding to those years since the advent of COVID-19.  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Report 2022 also alluded to the reversal of years of progress in development gains and the threat posed to the achievement of the SDGs. These realities are acknowledged in the second Voluntary National Review (VNR) that Jamaica presented at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) in 2022.  In his opening statement to the VNR Report, the Prime Minister, The Most Honourable Andrew Holness, highlighted that “pre-existing social and infrastructural issues related to accessing information and communication technological services have also exacerbated disparities in education and productivity of workers” (PIOJ, 2022, p. 18) while assuring that the country’s long-term response will continue to prioritize human capital development, among others. Such a strategic approach, which puts people at the centre, indeed, is a sustainable path in advancing Jamaica’s development.

Jamaica has a cherished history of advancing Human Capital Development. Since 2008, Jamaica has ranked in the high human development category on the HDI. Between 1990 and 2019, the country’s HDI value rose from 0.659 to 0.719. Nevertheless, the steady progress in human capital development (aside from the recent reversal in HDI due to COVID-19) has not translated into improved productivity for the country. For instance, Jamaica’s labour productivity held steady over 2000–2002 compared with an average labour productivity growth of 0.8 per cent recorded for the Caribbean. During 2014–2017, labour productivity even declined by 1.6 per cent in Jamaica compared with an average decline of 0.5 [er cent  for the Caribbean (ECLAC, 2020). The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) attributes this decline partly to the learning gap in the education sector where critical thinking and creativity skills of school leavers and graduates have been noted to be deficient, resulting in low skills levels of the workforce which constitutes a major obstacle to innovation and entrepreneurship. Given the low growth rate of the Jamaican economy in the past decade and the recent thrust to stimulate growth, the competitiveness of the economy will be a key determinant of growth in an increasingly global market. While Jamaica performed well on the Global Competitiveness Index (Schwab, 2019) holding the 60th rank among 141 countries on the level of the skills of the national workforce in 2019, the country’s ranking dropped to the 74th rank based on the skills of the future workforce. This implies that Jamaica’s current workforce is better positioned to compete globally than the students currently enrolled in school who will constitute the workforce of the future.

The Jamaica Education Transformation Commission alluded to the learning crisis in Jamaica’s education system in their report.[2] The Commission highlighted deficiencies in literacy and numeracy skills at the primary and secondary school levels and observed that most students leave secondary school with no marketable skills. At the tertiary education level, the Commission noted its concern of significant emigration of graduates and high dropout rates of students despite the considerable investment made by the government to foster tertiary education.

Although the education sector[3] has been significantly affected by COVID-19 with learning losses for Jamaican school-aged children estimated at 1.3 years[4] (PIOJ, 2022), the pandemic has aggravated existing learning challenges rather than causing them in the first place. At the same time, the necessary, albeit costly adjustments that were made in the education system and in the labour market provide an opportunity for Jamaica to channel a national development path along a knowledge-based economy. The emigration of skilled Jamaicans, especially in the health and education sectors, and their notable contributions to the economies of their host countries speak to the historic caliber of the Jamaican workforce[5]. However, it also adds to Jamaica’s vulnerability as the economic and social dividends to government’s investment in tertiary education are not optimally vested in promoting national development, except through remittances. Meanwhile, since the advent of COVID-19, the notion of presential schooling or work as the norm has been seriously challenged. Not only were schools forced to go online full- or part-time, but also teleworking or telecommuting became the preferred mode of working in certain sectors and accompanied by improved productivity. In essence, the pandemic has produced positive externalities that will shape the future of work and countries that leverage these opportunities will earn the dividends that accrue to early adopters.

The Caribbean Development Bank (2017) has advocated for a Caribbean knowledge economy. ECLAC proposes that achieving such knowledge economy would require implementing targeted policies, devising school curricula and pedagogical methods that are aligned with global standards to build functional skills. This includes information, communication and technology (ICT) skills in graduates and school leavers; incorporating experiential learning opportunities in schools and other training programmes; and adequate and sustained financing of research and development, including from the private sector and through innovative financing that includes the diasporan community. Having started the discussion on education reform and capitalizing on the government identification of human capital development as a priority, Jamaica is arguably best placed to launch a knowledge economy in the Caribbean.

Many of the recommendations of the Jamaica Education Transformation Commission have the potential to create an enabling environment for a knowledge economy, in which the workforce will have quality and functional skills that will make them globally competitive.  An economy in which the school system will incentivize students to be curious, and to identify, nurture and hone their interests and creative potential, as well as serve as an engine of growth and development that it ought to be. An economy in which young and experienced professionals alike will telework in Jamaica but for global companies and institutions, thus directly contributing to economic growth through their foreign exchange earnings and domestic consumptions whilst helping to reverse the trend in the emigration of skilled persons from the country. An economy in which service call centres will give way to high-value knowledge hubs for ICT, fintech, or telemedicine companies that are eager to tap into the innovative minds of highly skilled Jamaicans who are ready to participate in the global market but from the comfort of their homes.  The list of possibilities goes on. 

A critical mass of highly skilled workforce would not only improve Jamaica’s economic fortune, but also enhance the quality of the country’s social institutions and governance, which are critical for advancing and sustaining the country’s national development. However, for Jamaica to realize the potential of a knowledge economy, the identified gaps in the country’s education system must be bridged so that schools and training institutions are purposed to produce graduates with skills that are globally in demand and who are best placed to exploit the new global workplace that has emerged from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. 



ECLAC, The Caribbean Outlook 2018 (Santiago: United Nations 2018).

ECLAC, The Caribbean Outlook: forging a people-centred approach to sustainable development post-COVID-19 (LC/SES.38/12) (Santiago: United Nations, 2020).

Klaus Schwab (ed.), The Global Competitiveness Report 2019 (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2019).

Planning Institute of Jamaica, Voluntary National Reviews Report on the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (Kingston: Planning Institute of Jamaica, 2022).

Platonova, Anna and Lydia Rosa Gény, Women’s empowerment and migration in the Caribbean (Santiago: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2017).

UNDP, Human Development Report 2021/2022 (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2022).

United Nations, The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 (New York: United Nations, 2022).


[1] Abdullahi Abdulkadri is Coordinator, Statistics and Social Development Unit, ECLAC Subregional Headquarters for the Caribbean, Mareike Eberz is Economic Affairs Officer and Raquel Frederick is Associate Economic Affairs Officer, both in the Office of the Executive Secretary, ECLAC.

[2] The Reform of Education in Jamaica 2021 Report is available at

[3] See Transforming Education Summit convened during the 77th session of the UN General Assembly in response to the global crisis in education

[4] In learning adjusted years of schooling.

[5] See Platonova and Gény (2017), ECLAC (2018), and ECLAC (2020) for detailed discussion of the issue of emigration of skilled labour from the Caribbean.


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