Minister of Education Ronald Jones is not known, at least based on his academic training and professional background, to be an expert on economic and financial matters.
A teacher of several years’ standing before entering elective politics back in 2003, Mr Jones holds a first degree in history and sociology and a master’s in educational management and administration. It was probably on the basis of the latter that that he was assigned the education portfolio by the late Prime Minister David Thompson after the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) won the 2008 general election.
However, Mr Jones’ performance, including a tendency to say things that rub people the wrong way, including teachers and parents, has earned him consistent harsh criticism. In addition, many believe the high education standards for which Barbados was once known, have fallen under his watch.
It was therefore rather surprising last week to hear Mr Jones speak, not so much about his plans for improvements in education, but about what he clearly considers to be the “sins” of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) against small and powerless countries like Barbados.
His scathing criticism of the IMF, at a meeting here of regional educators, came against the backdrop of various calls in the last two weeks from persons with known credentials in economics and finance, including former Prime Minister Owen Arthur, for the Freundel Stuart administration to seek formal IMF assistance to address the island’s serious economic difficulties.
“Barbados has been carrying out a programme of fiscal consolidation and economic restructuring as prescribed by Article IV consultations with the Fund,” Arthur said as he delivered a lecture sponsored by the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies and the St James South Constituency Council.
He added: “Barbados was essentially implementing an IMF style adjustment programme without having access to the IMF funding.” A formal IMF programme would provide access to other financing, to which Barbados would currently have some difficulty, in the wake of a series of sovereign credit downgrades. Mr Arthur calculated that up to about US$650 million could be made available.
Chairman Emeritus of Ernst and Young Caribbean Peter Boos has also come out in favour of a formal IMF programme, saying the economy was in crisis and the island was paying dearly for refusing to turn to the IMF for help. “It is the thing to do, and I don’t think there is an alternative,” he said.
But charging that IMF programmes were not geared towards generating economic growth and development, Mr Jones accused the Washington-based lending institution, among other things, of seeking to impose policies that would deny the children of the Caribbean an education, and take away health services from the entire population.
He further charged that IMF programmes take money out of Caribbean territories “to pay back those who have raped this region”. He suggested that Jamaica and Guyana in particular had incurred the pain of IMF adjustment over several years but had not really gained.
Coming at this time, Mr Jones’ comments are unfortunate but are typical of the IMF scaremongering and scapegoating heard over the years from governments, especially in the developing world, which have badly managed their economies and then found themselves with little choice but to seek IMF support to bail them out of a bad situation.
While there are terms, better known as conditionalities, attached to IMF loans, the fact of the matter is that they are not imposed by the IMF. It is the sovereign government which makes the decision to impose and it is usually the product of negotiations and a resulting agreement between the IMF and the country in question. That is how it is works. A country may not get what it wants but it certainly gets what it negotiates.
Should the incumbent DLP administration opt to go the IMF route, it certainly would not be taking Barbados into unfamiliar territory. Barbados have been in formal IMF programmes on at least two previous occasions – in the early 1980s under the late Tom Adams and in the early 1990s under Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford.
In each instance, Barbados had to make some sacrifices but benefited. And we did not end up like Guyana and Jamaica, the two countries mentioned by Mr Jones, which agreed to devalue their currencies. The circumstances of our economy are admittedly more complex and challenging this time around but Barbados can certainly draw on its past experience and available Barbadian expertise to inform an effective strategy for negotiations with the IMF.
This is certainly not the time for inflammatory talk but for cool heads to prevail to determine what is in our country’s best interest.