No reasonable, right-thinking person takes pleasure in seeing fellow human beings being placed on the breadline and losing what often is their only means of supporting themselves and their families, especially in small economies like ours where opportunities tend to be very limited.
Indeed, being gainfully employed and having the opportunity to earn a steady income represents, for most Barbadians, the only available path to true financial independence and sparing themselves the indignity of having to rely on others to satisfy their most basic needs which can be damaging to one’s self-esteem.
There are situations, however, when shedding jobs, as painful and unpleasant though the decision may be, becomes unavoidably necessary. It seems Barbados has reached such a critical juncture where Government is facing a moment of truth in relation to restructuring the high-cost, over-sized and under-performing public sector.
It follows a failure of efforts, over the past three years in particular, to rein in runaway public spending, increase revenue and reduce an unsustainable fiscal deficit which is putting the country’s future increasingly at risk, as various economists and international financial agencies have repeatedly warned Government.
The public sector currently consumes the largest chunk of Government’s annual expenditure. Much of it goes towards paying wages and salaries. However, an unpleasant truth is that for some time taxpayers have not been getting value for money to justify the rising sums spent on maintaining what the late Prime Minister and National Hero, the Rt. Excellent Errol Walton Barrow once described as “an army of occupation”.
Compared with our immediate post-Independence period when the public sector really delivered and oversaw the remarkable transformation Barbados recorded, standards have steadily fallen over the years to the point today where poor service, reflected sometimes in uncouth attitudes towards customers, gross inefficiency and wastage are defining features.
It seems so difficult sometimes to do simple transactions with the public sector because of the copious amount of red tape one has to skillfully navigate. Little wonder the public sector has come to be seen by some, especially in the private sector, as anything but a facilitator of economic growth and development. It is an issue Government needs to address urgently because the global competitiveness of Barbados is also at stake.
The gravity of the problem was driven home graphically late last week by Governor of the Central Bank Dr DeLisle Worrell, during a Bank-sponsored televised discussion on the economy. At a time when the institution is facing considerable criticism for printing money, Dr Worrell disclosed that every month the Bank has to advance $50 million to Government to cover wages and salaries because of a shortfall of revenue.
“… Our public sector is a break on our growth. It must be reduced in size to what our taxes can afford,” said Dr Worrell. Such a move naturally would force Government to live within its means. However, the question is: who will be bold enough to take this decision? The responsibility obviously falls to those elected every five years to manage the affairs of Government and to fix the problems that exist in the country.
Unfortunately, in the political culture which has developed, politicians often tend to give priority to safeguarding their own narrow interests to ensure re-election. Therefore, with a looming general election, it is highly unlikely that any such decision will be made because job losses would be tantamount to committing political suicide.
Besides, politicians have directly contributed to the public sector problem. To give an example, just before Christmas, Government appointed 555 persons to permanent positions in what some observers saw as a pre-election goody. Was this absolutely necessary given what was already known of our fiscal dire straits?
Over the years, politicians have also padded the public sector and contributed to inefficiency by securing appointments for party supporters who sometimes see the job, not as an opportunity to work hard and contribute to national development, but more as a reward for their political support.
Some appointees have also been blamed, because of their attitude, for introducing indiscipline in the public sector because they see themselves as accountable only to their political benefactors and therefore untouchable.
In the national interest, an urgent solution must be found to the problem which must be handled in the most humane manner possible. The longer action is postponed, the worst it is likely to become. The answer to the employment problem lies, not in politicians padding the public sector, but in promoting consistently high levels of private sector-led growth.
Such can only happen by Government adopting policies that facilitate rather than frustrate investment, the attraction of which is increasingly critical to our collective future.