Over the course of the past several years, we have heard persistent complaints from the private sector about how difficult it is to do business in Barbados, especially the frustrating experience of dealing with a cumbersome Government bureaucracy notorious for inordinate delays in granting approval of project proposals.
Delivering the weekly lunchtime lecture at the George Street, Belleville, St Michael headquarters of the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) last Friday, Mr Henderson Holmes, executive director of Barbados International Business Association (BIBA), became the latest private sector representative to address the issue. He did so from the perspective of international businesses domiciled on the island.
Promoting the development of a thriving international business sector has been the source of great wealth and unprecedented prosperity for many jurisdictions, including the Cayman Islands. As Barbados looks to diversify its economy away from a present overdependence on tourism, international business has immense potential to do the same for our island by making a much greater contribution to the economy than the current $1 billion annually.
However, for this potential to be achieved, a much greater effort is required by Government, especially in terms of business facilitation. What particularly stood out in Mr Holmes’ address was his revelation that the challenges which the international business sector faces today, particularly in relation to dealing with Government agencies and departments, show great similarity with a list drawn up close to 20 years ago.
In other words, little has really changed, even though the concerns were brought to Government’s attention.
If this is not a serious indictment of Government, for which both political parties that take turns administering the affairs of this country must take responsibility,
then what else really is? It questions the seriousness of Government when it speaks of the importance of attracting new investment and of the private sector’s role in the modern economy as the engine of economic growth that generates revenues for the Government, provide jobs for our people and supports a general improvement of living standards.
It seems sometimes that bureaucrats who function on behalf of Government are not sufficiently sensitive to the generally urgent needs of business; are too preoccupied with control when liberalization is the order of the day; or simply have an inherent anti-business bias.
Leading businessman Ralph “Bizzy” Williams, responding last week to criticism from former Prime Minister Owen Arthur that the private sector needed to do more to propel the economy forward, cited excessive Government regulation as a major hindrance to business activity.
Mr Holmes said there were too many delays in getting approvals, work permits and certification from Government entities. In particular, he cited a need for “serious” service quality improvements in relation to Immigration, Customs, Town and Country Planning Department, as well as the Copyright and Intellectual Property Office. He also highlighted lengthy delays in getting judgments to resolve business disputes through the court system.
These issues have been around for simply too long. While we acknowledge the importance of Government agencies doing background and other checks to verify that the investment Barbados is attracting is good and clean, the extent of delays is unreasonably too long. That Mr Holmes can suggest the problems facing the international business sector have basically not changed in 20 years clearly implies addressing them has not received the urgent attention they deserve.
If this state of affairs is allowed to continue, Barbados may find soon itself in the unfortunate situation where its reputation becomes so ruined that not many international businesses may want to set up here. They have lots of options and can easily go elsewhere.
There is a lot of competition for investment out there, and countries are bending over backwards to do whatever is necessary to ensure that a conducive environment for business development exists. That is why we believe the time has come for the political directorate to grab the bull by the horns and fix the problem.
Minister of International Business Donville Inniss has frankly spoken time and time again of the need for Barbados to reform many existing structures within the public sector that are undermining business activity and stifling opportunities for economic growth. With his no-nonsense approach, he seems ideally suited to take on this assignment. He should be given the full backing of Cabinet, alongwith the necessary tools to get the job done.
If we fail to act now, five years down the road, we pretty much will hear another rehash of the same complaints. Wouldn’t it be wonderful instead to hear the private sector speak in glowing terms of a remarkable transformation in approach and attitude that causes Barbados’ attractiveness as a place to do business to go up several notches? Come on! Let’s just do it!