In response to last week’s column, a reader sent me a rather interesting email. It read: “Just being curious but if you were approached by the Dems and asked to give advice on how to deal with this economic crisis, what would you tell them?
The reader hit the nail right on the head by recognizing and stating up front that Barbados is in the throes of a crisis. A deep one, if I may add. From a political management perspective, a crisis calls for a specific type of response – crisis management where the overriding aim is to limit the damage and get things back to normal as soon as possible.
This backdrop establishes the context for our discussion this week. First, however, there are a few salient points/observations which I wish to make about the general nature of crises to put what Barbados is going through in the proper perspective. Contrary to common belief, a crisis is hardly ever a sudden occurrence even though it may appear so. Most crises are predictable and preventable.
A crisis, especially in politics, is often the result of what is known as risk issues not being promptly and decisively addressed by whoever has the responsibility for doing so. Often these issues are swept under the carpet or dealt with in a piecemeal manner in the hope that they will go away. They don’t, however. They remain and gradually progress from
bad to worse.
Let’s use a simple example to illustrate this point. A child develops a rattling cough after sniffling for a few days. The parents, who don’t seem too worried, choose to administer a common over-the-counter remedy in the hope it will solve the problem. Three days later, noticing the child was having difficulty breathing, the parents rush him to the doctor. The diagnosis: severe pneumonia.
The tragedy which has befallen our economy is similar. It was known for some time that there were structural problems that needed to be addressed decisively through a process of fundamental reform. This, however, was not pursued with the required urgency and the risk issues eventually became the crisis which surfaced in early 2013, a few months after the general election.
It can be argued, based on the evidence, that the crisis to a large extent is the result of political negligence by successive governments, even though external factors played a role. The incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP), to which management of the economy has been entrusted now for eight years, cannot wash its hands of responsibility by passing blame on to the Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
When people elect a government, it is with the expectation that whatever is wrong will be put right whether in the economy or the society. Under the watch of the Dems, signs of economic deterioration should have been evident in 2012. The question – and the conclusion can quite easily be drawn — is why didn’t the DLP take the necessary corrective action. It is my view that had these issues been frontally addressed then, Barbadians might have been spared some of the bitter economic medicine we have had to swallow since 2013.
It may be a bit too late now for the Dems to salvage the situation because confidence in their ability to manage the economy has nosedived. Listening to public discussion, it is quite clear to me that an emerging consensus is that the solution lies in calling a general election to bring about a change of government. The Dems’ management of the economy would make an interesting case study on what not to do in a crisis for any student writing a political management research paper or dissertation.
Getting on top of this crisis would have required the Dems, from the outset, to effectively engage key stakeholders in frank and open discussion. In other words, putting the cards on the table and levelling with the people. Reaching out to the Opposition with the aim of arriving at some kind of bipartisan agreement on a set of fundamentals going forward should have been the first critical step.
Afterwards, it would be the private sector, trade unions, churches, NGOs and the citizenry at large. Such engagement is a critical component of crisis management. It reflects a recognition that progress towards a satisfactory outcome cannot be achieved by those at the leadership level acting in isolation, but must involve persons directly affected by the crisis whose support and cooperation are critical for the successful implementation of corrective action.
A lack of sufficient engagement has been a major failing of this DLP government which has behaved throughout this crisis as if it has the solutions and public input was not necessary. Hence, the recurring complaint from the private sector, among others, about feeling in the dark on certain issues because
the necessary information from Government has not
In a time of crisis, negative emotions are dominant. There is anxiety, panic, mistrust, anger, to name a few which can cause persons to engage in behaviours which can actually contribute to making the situation worse. Taking this into account, the narrative of the leadership has to focus on providing reassurance and hope, thereby giving people the confidence that collectively they can overcome the challenges.
What we got from the DLP leadership was either deafening silence or, occasionally when statements were made, confusion because key spokesmen were obviously not reading from the same script – a big mistake during a crisis. Added to this has been the perception that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has been a bit too detached and not leading from in front, as previous leaders like Errol Barrow and Tom Adams had done during economic crises.
During a crisis, the leader must be seen marshalling the troops from the front and making his or her presence felt. Were I advising the DLP at the outset of this crisis which, frankly speaking, I would have tried to avoid, I would have recommended that Mr. Stuart take the finance and economic affairs portfolios to demonstrate he was in charge. I would have also recommended a National Task Force on the Revitalization of the Economy. It would bring together the brightest brains to devise a relevant economic strategy and also ensure that the Government benefits from the best advice in terms of the right options to exercise.
The draft economic revitalization plan would form the basis of extensive national consultations in which the Government, led by the Prime Minister, would have gone directly to the people and say: “We have a problem and we need to solve it but it is going to require your support and some sacrifice to ensure a bright future for us. This plan is what we propose to do. Tell us what you can live with and share any alternatives you have to what we have placed on the table.”
The result would be a national economic consensus so that the strategy to be implemented after fine-tuning would not be the Government’s but the people’s over which they would feel some sense of ownership. Pushing through the necessary reforms then would be so much easier.
General Douglas MacArthur, the distinguished World War II American military leader, once reportedly said: “Like Abraham Lincoln, I am a firm believer in the people, and, if given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring before them
the real facts.”
I share this view. Barbadians are a reasonable and patriotic people. Once empowered with the relevant information and given clear direction by their leaders, Barbadians will rise to the challenge. Our history shows this quite clearly. Leadership, however, is what makes the difference.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)