I was doing some research which engrossed me in Lloyd Best’s theory of plantation economy. Best and several Caribbean academics partly used the new structure of the University of the West Indies (Mona) to create the New World Group in 1962. The group produced several publications about various aspects of Caribbean economy and social condition. One of the major contributions of the New World Group to Caribbean intellectual thought is the theory of plantation economy.
As we begin to prepare our individual to-do lists for the new year, I think we would agree that our country is at the point where we should want to think about how we can pull it back on track in 2017. The world is no longer in recession but Barbados continues to limp along with low or no economic growth. I therefore thought this week that I would spend some time trying to create a layman’s understanding of the plantation economy theory as we begin to consider how we can take Barbados out of the current rut.
The first and major difference between the plantation economy theory and other theories of economics was that it was one of the first attempts to create a model which was factored in Caribbean history and reality. Proponents of the plantation economy theory argue that in order to understand the current state of Caribbean economies, one has to begin at the slave creation of the society and work forward since all of the features currently engrained in the economic character of the societies, started at that point.
Using that historical base, Best makes five general observations about all Caribbean economies. He first explains that the Caribbean has hinterland economies. These are economies which are tied to metropolitan economies by virtue of providing a primary product for export.
Barbados transitioned from sugar to tourism and much of the value added from the tourism sector is collected offshore. However, supporting industries around tourism have not developed and caused wealth creation on any significant scale. Much of the food, furniture and other products used in the sector come from overseas, thus keeping Barbados firmly in the hinterland category.
Moving forward, the question has to be for Barbados how do we move beyond talk of synergies between agriculture and manufacturing and actually create them. These types of activities, though not completely capable of breaking our hinterland relationship, can begin to reshape it. Several of the activities like sewing and furniture making which we have moved away from, must be revived both to produce for the tourist industry but also for local consumption. The only real way to guarantee the survival of these industries is for the Government to change taxing regimes and other economic structures which work to the detriment of such enterprises.
Establishing industries which move Barbados past being a primary producer assists in rectifying the second feature of plantation economies. Best called the phenomenon the muscovado bias. A few weeks ago, we had a farmer trying to get rid of a significant amount of paw paw. We have not yet build out industries around agriculture which focus on making value added products like ice cream or juices from our agricultural crops. If we are serious about moving the economy of Barbados forward, then these are the areas we must focus on.
The third feature of plantation economies is what Best calls the navigation provision. It speaks to metropolitan companies being used for the shipping of the staple being provided. Barbados and the Caribbean have not been able to establish shipping lines for food and exports. Therefore, we still spend significant amounts of foreign exchange with the international companies which handle shipping.
We have barely been able to establish airlines that carry people across the region and to international destinations. The regional airline, LIAT, in particular, is fraught with issues including financial viability and quality of service challenges. Although the region receives cruise ship passengers as a critical component of tourism, none of these vessels is owned or operated by Caribbean interests. These are some of the considerations bound up in adjusting the navigation bias in terms of moving Barbados’ economy into a more stable position.
The fourth feature of the plantation economy, the metropolitan exchange standard, explains the relationship between Caribbean monetary and financial systems and those of metropolitan countries. Barbadian currency is tied to the currency of the United States. Additionally, there are foreign banks and monetary institutions which control the financial sector. This feature is still with us as the reality of correspondent banking issues reveals.
The credit union movement of Barbados continues to be an integral component of wealth and asset attainment for the average Barbadian. The task is to continue bolstering and building the movement so that it can provide more of the services which we depend on overseas institutions for. The discussion around more local and regional players in the financial and banking sector has a real place in recreating our economic story. Alas, we seem to be overlooking the significance of developments such as Sagicor just having fled our shores to preserve its international financial rating.
The fifth significant feature of plantation economies which Best outlines is the imperial preference. An element of imperial preference is the preferential treatment of goods coming from the metropolitan country to the Caribbean. This preferential position results in Caribbean people developing tastes for items which are not produced or grown in the region. It also keeps Caribbean economies in a mood for consumption.
We have not done much to curb the tastes and consumerism of Barbadians over time. Over the last few years, we have seen expansion and significant entrants into the supermarket and retail sectors. The latest of these is the new Popular Supermarket at Kendal Hill. The shelves are stocked almost 90 per cent with foreign imported food stuff items. From the food that we feed our three month olds to what we offer them as school meals is largely foreign produced. We talk about altering those tastes but we are yet to develop any serious mechanisms.
Notwithstanding the taste challenges, the new Popular has created a few more jobs. The Government, instead of supporting the venture as a stimulus for the economy, has stopped the bus from passing in front of the supermarket. This has left workers to travel in darkness to try to get public transportation.
Perhaps, it is also a true and clear representation of how the plantation master has changed but the mentality of the master remains the same. The plantation master is still doing all in his power to ‘down trod’ those who seem to be rising too fast or doing too much too soon. This is done without realizing the overall damage to wider economic survival.
As much as we adjust the internal dynamic, all of the plantation economies are too small by themselves to become major players in the international arena. Therefore, Caribbean integration was seen as necessary to rectify negative elements of the plantation economy.
We still need it as much today as we needed it then. It is all heavy stuff, but it is all stuff which we must seriously consider if we are committed about bringing the Barbadian economy around. With that, I have sent you into the New Year laden.
Blessed New Year!
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communication at the University of the West Indies. Email: [email protected])