Today in Barbados, there are important political questions that must be raised about the relationships between state and society, and between wealth and power.
With perhaps less than 15 months to go before the next general election, residents and citizens of Barbados are venting their frustrations about the status quo as issues relating to the economy and society fuel consternation.
Barbadians are making their complaints known in a variety of ways, with the popular discourse often pitted in negativity coupled with a burning desire for positive change. Plain and simple, all is not well; and Barbadians are pleading for a better country.
In this article, I reveal several aspects binding the social, economic, and political issues that are consequential to the population’s anxieties. Many factors are giving rise to problems which are, in turn, erupting into social decadence, economic setbacks, and disarrayed governance. Blossoming in the current pessimistic environment are strains of power and wealth that feature in some uncertainties affecting almost every sphere of activity in the island.
Indeed, Barbadians are claiming that our governance structures need serious reforms due to poor macroeconomic management occasioned by paltry performances and everyday governmental blunders. The wishy-washy combination of ineffective policy programmes that are being repeatedly pursued by the Freundel Stuart administration have become quite staggering and damaging to the unemployed and perilous for the poor.
There is a noticeable free-fall of societal matters, with the politics of the day plunging into crisis proportions, thereby deepening the depths of national despair. On top of all that is happening, the fiscal dangers and debt burdens are expanding into a devalued sense of financial worth.
I well remember that on Monday, June 15, 2015, the Finance Minister, in presenting the budgetary proposals, stated: “The home grown economic stabilization and recovery plan which we [the beleaguered DLP administration] devised right here in Barbados is working. … The Barbados dollar is safe, the fiscal deficit has been cut by nearly half and is well on the way to more sustainable levels, and a tourism-led recovery in the Barbados economy is underway.”
Was the gullible Barbadian in any way misled by the catchy words and statements that fell from the lips of a political dramatist extraordinaire? Rather, the population was hopeful for recovery. Of course, there are others who are of the view that that the electorate was thrown a detour which would eventually lead to the sense of false hope that previously underscored the surprising victory achieved by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in 2013. A three-peat remains possible although highly unlikely in 2017/18.
Strangely enough, in that same presentation, the Finance Minister made the telling point that: “The single largest issue facing the economy is that economic growth in Barbados remains below 2.5 to 3.0 per cent.” At the same time, he was suggesting that “we must get back to normal levels of growth sooner rather than later.” Who would disagree? Certainly, the Governor of the Central Bank, the Leader of the Opposition, and the population need the road to prosperity.
Since 2008, economic growth in Barbados has fluctuated between the minus sign and the negligible. To date, apart from increased taxation and throwing almost everything into the tourism basket or selling state assets, there has been no clear articulation by the current Freundel Stuart-led government of a policy-direction that would bring about long-term sustainable and inclusive growth in the Barbados economy. Privatization, once publicly derided by the DLP, is seeping into the national architecture through fractures and fissures – some more visible and obvious than others.
Poverty reduction still appears as fleeting as the capacity for the authorities to reduce the public debt and to embark on serious initiatives for job creation. The provision of adequate social services inclusive of education, health care, transportation, water and waste management are far away from the ideal but clearly nearer to disaster. It seems unemployment and other informative statistical data continue to be cleverly manipulated so as not to expose the fact that a failing administration offers little respite for our youth, businesses, agricultural and manufacturing industries.
Taken together, these factors and issues are dampening ‘real’ progress in Barbados. Perhaps, five years is becoming too long an election cycle. One can speculate the degree to which DLP politicians will manage to hold on to their seats given perceptions within the population that most, if not all of them, have benefitted significantly at the expense of the governed. The recent restitution of 10 per cent of their salaries cannot have helped their cause, especially when public servants’ salaries have stood still for about seven years. How many of the more than 3,000 public workers, retrenched following the last general election, are gainfully employed today or reaping reasonable sources of income?
In addition, DLP politicians have not helped their re-electability after appearing to railroad the Public Accounts Committee and admonish anyone asking for detailed and accurate information on the Four Seasons, Hyatt, or other major projects that have been slated to bring much needed jobs to the local economy. With the thumping of chests by DLP politicians each time a new project is announced, can the average Barbadian forget the uncomfortable relationships existing between Government and a privileged few?
Public administration is marred by a lack of transparency and accountability on matters of national importance. There is certainly a correlation between the lack of transparency and the propensity for corruption. In Barbados, there is a strong incestuous marriage between political power and wealth.
In fairness to the politician, there is nothing wrong with the legal and transparent accumulation of wealth as an individual although government salaries are not of the enriching kind. More pertinent and, as one study suggests: “the ‘invisible hand’ of the market depends heavily on the support of a thick ‘glove’ of rules, norms, and institutions … but too often the glove is opaque, obscuring flows of information essential to the efficient and equitable functioning of both markets and the national and international institutions that regulate them.”
All persons coming to public office must be transparent in their dealings. Before the next elections are called, Barbadians ought to advocate for free access to information, particularly on the formulation of agreements which invariably impact the public purse. Barbadians must be mindful that the wealthy and those very proximate to the political elites will garnish favours in exchange for filled brown paper bags and/or external bank accounts.
Although the poor of spirit may yet again feel that a sold vote has more short-term worth than the long-term value of social transformation and economic empowerment, the nation must resist such temptations or be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Surely, Barbados has been placed into a position that threatens the livelihoods of every man, woman, and child. We, in this country, can no longer take things for granted and give blind loyalty to the politician or uncritically pelt support to the political party. We must make demands for reform and strengthen our institutional capacities at every level. The harmful status quo must be challenged; and the many prevailing wrongs must be corrected at once.
(Dr. George C. Brathwaite is a political consultant. Email: [email protected] )