What is most disconcerting about the failure to tackle many of the challenges Barbados faces is the fact that most of the solutions that are required are known; many of them have been known for years.
The obstacle seems to be political will, the resolve to disturb the status quo in the interest of creating a prosperous and more socially cohesive country.
This view was reinforced after reading a very thought provoking article by Peter Boos in an August 2013 edition of Business Barbados. The article essentially discussed the findings of an unscientific competitive survey that was conducted among Business Barbados subscribers. Respondents were asked to provide a single response to the question: “From your business perspective, what single action would make Barbados more competitive with a view to attracting investment, creating jobs, earning foreign exchange and helping your business grow?”
The responses were both fascinating and encouraging. Respondents were made up of business owners, managers, civil servants, academics and leading entrepreneurs.
Despite the varied perspectives rendered responses could be placed in the following categories: (i) public/private institutions, (ii) goods market efficiency and (iii) labour market efficiency. In the realm of public/private institutions people with a stake in Barbados’ development expressed the view that Barbados is in need of more transparent governance, robust leadership, effective public communications and a clear strategy for nation building.
Additionally, the recognition that the country is in dire need of comprehensive judicial and public sector reform was also evident from the responses.
As a relates to goods market efficiency, readers of this column may find some comfort in knowing that they are others who share the view that any prescription for the ailing economy should include lower taxation and less government spending; exceptional but ubiquitous customer service; business facilitation, more foreign direct investment, and of course international skills transfer.
These issues are cross-cutting; therefore it should come as no surprise that respondents also believe that achieving labour market efficiency will depend largely on productivity pay schemes, the development of a culture of service excellence, managerial accountability as well as modern operations and labour practices at places like the Bridgetown Port.
What these sentiments highlight is that although the 2013 Budget represents a step in the right direction or rather a short-term fix, a lot more needs to be done in both the public sector and the private sector, with the support of the unions, to put Barbados on a sound footing.
There is no escaping the fact that some of the prescribed medicine may taste awful. However, as the Buckley’s slogan goes, “It taste awful and it works”.
The benefits to be reaped far exceed the costs. Much of the pain that’s slowly emerging is a direct result of continuously putting off the type of transformative change that is so desperately needed in Barbados. The consequences of delay, procrastination and misplaced self-congratulation have finally come home to roost. The economic crisis has peeled away the fa√ade and laid bare the structural deficiencies of the local economy.
For all the talk about restructuring the economy, what is really needed is a restructuring of the existing system of public administration. That type of reform coupled with exemplary customer service in all sectors of the economy will augur well for Barbados economic resurgence. Every one must play their part but it must also be accepted that good customer service should not be left to the whims of individuals employees.
Good customer service must be systemic. Poor customer service is a management problem; it’s not a question of being NISE. Management is responsible for training staff, setting standards and evaluating performance while customers (Barbadians) need to direct their complaints about poor customer service to management and be prepared to take their business elsewhere if no corrective action is taken. The feedback loop is critical to effective management of organisations.
My confidence has not sunk to the point where I believe that the country requires external help to solve the prevailing crises. However, the need to harness available human resources — “people with expertise in large-scale project and program management, a mix of internal personnel, private sector professionals” and members of the Diaspora with specialist skills and experience is paramount.
It’s time to stop putting square pegs in round holes. It’s time to stop politicising the public service and padding it with deadweight.
Here are some of the actual responses from the competitive survey which I would like to share with you:
(i) Government from the top must lead the way and send the right message and create an enabling environment to ENSURE the civil services become more productive through the use of integrated information systems and modern technology to enable enhanced citizen services coupled with revamping archaic legislation that inhibits this.
(ii) There is a need for Government to streamline the development/investment process for foreign and local investors. If Government had a single agency with the authority to deal with, or at a minimum, act as [a] fast track facilitator for all the regulatory processes, available incentives, waivers etc. associated with development, projects would become a reality faster…
(iii) Open the frontiers avoiding unnecessary problems to potential investors with the Immigration Department. In St. Kitts if you own a house or a business the Government gives you a passport very easy.
(iv) The consequent need is for qualified persons to execute the policy. There is a tremendous skill set within Barbados. But there are deficiencies in skills that are required to make us more competitive. The economic policy will [should] influence the immigration policy, etc., so that there is a coherent structure as to where we go. We have been doing more of the same in markets which are stressed.
(v) We need the courage as leaders to recognise our shortcomings and be prepared to execute change management that is relevant to today’s world. We have politics we need Government. We have labour, we need productivity. We have business exploiters, we need explorers. We have free education, but mental slavery. The basic core values of a vibrant society, honesty, trust, accountability, transparency need to be restored.
(vi) Provide a single portal (or office) to conduct core business transactions (pay VAT, NIS, Income Tax, Register Directors, obtain import licenses, compliance certificates, etc.)
(vii) A faster turnaround in the Town & Country Planning approval process.
(viii) We need to find a way to stimulate the housing market. Property prices are inherently too high and do not encourage purchasers although I accept that this is a function of the general cost of doing business in Barbados. Therefore, we need to look at the cost inputs. One of these is entry of goods at the port.
(ix) The Caribbean can get closer to each other by maintenance of a special airline. The airline airfares would help in this manner if most of the taxes are removed then plenty more persons would be able to travel and bring in more foreign money.
(x) Lower taxes for example VAT, Land Transfer Tax, personal and corporate taxes.
(xi) Make foreign investors feel welcome — too often the visa permits are restrictive and certainly do not make any work allowance for the investor partner and family.
(xii) Attract airlines from other European countries to use Barbados as a hub and stopover from Europe to South and Central America. There are many wealthy travellers and airlines from areas other than the UK who are seriously looking for a stop over hub in this side of the Caribbean.
(xiii) Float the currency.
(xiv) Innovation & entrepreneurship facilitation.
(xv) Internationally competitive customs rates and duties for imports and exports.
(xvi) Marketing Barbados: Simply put, the effort is too fragmented.
(xvii) The 24-hour work day is an absolute must. All of the reasons have been well ventilated already but primary amongst them must be that we get things done in an efficient timely manner that suggests we are serious.
(xviii) Making senior management accountable for its performance (public and private sector).
(xix) [Shift to] employee compensation in line with achieving set performance criteria.
(xx) Cap union practices. The cost of importation is unnecessarily high because of it. The dockworkers only have to unload or load eight containers from or onto a ship to meet their daily quota — everything after that is cream to them and extra cost to the importer.
The foregoing is just a sample of recommendations for how Barbados can rise like a phoenix from the ashes of economic and social crises. We may not agree with all of them. For instance I do not support a policy of economic citizenship. I am too patriotic to subscribe to that type of financial prostitution, and though I strongly support the maintenance of the fix exchange rate anchor, what cannot be denied is that credible home-grown solutions to the intractable challenges facing Barbados are ubiquitous.
* Carlos R. Forte is a Commonwealth Scholar and Barbadian economist with local and international experience. [email protected]