When we transitioned into March, our collective eye as a nation was on the Central Bank and the state of our economy. Now, at the beginning of April, we seem to be willing to be sidetracked by every other passing issue besides the significant challenges which our country is facing.
We have gone through a cycle of Estimates, which to my mind, took us further from where we should have desired to be because there were projected increases in government spending as opposed to reductions. Several of our political leaders have admitted that we need to engage in a frank discussion about where we are and where we need to be. Yet, up to now, there has been no effort to commence the national talk.
The last time we received a measure of our foreign import cover, it was around the $680 million mark. Former Prime Minister Owen Arthur had warned us that things were at a critical point for Barbados’ economy and we had about 90 days to create a tangible and workable solution to our challenges. All this was just before the Estimates Debate in Parliament, so we are now at least 30 days into those 90 days.
Word came that the Minister of Finance had reached out to former Prime Minister Arthur about leading an Economic Council to advise the Minister and Ministry of Finance. PM Arthur voiced concerns that in order for the council to be effective, it needed credence form Cabinet or ideally through the Parliament. He had further outlined that it made no sense to have a council which worked behind the passing of the Estimates and Appropriations for the year.
Political noise ensued and the Social Partnership met. The result of these events was that former Prime Minister Arthur seemed to be overlooked to lead the Economic Council and The Social Partnership agreed to convene two working groups to report to the Prime Minister. There are a few questions which beg answers about the position of our country.
Whatever his political affiliation or not, there is no question about Arthur’s expertise and qualifications to take small open economies to international financial support agencies. He has been used across the region as a consultant to several governments with economic challenges. He has also spoken widely to various audiences on economic and related matters.
In the same way that we know Arthur’s qualifications and experience that made the nation seemingly agree across party lines that he was the best person for the job, it would be nice to know who the members of the two working committees are and what their competence areas are. It would also be nice to know what relationship they established with the University and other professionals as they created their rescue plan.
There was neither a call for pubic engagement nor an invitation for union or any other stake holder group to contribute. Perhaps the interest groups were already represented on the working groups and perhaps the public consultations will come after the plan. There is no one way to do the exercise but as a citizen of Barbados, it would have been nice to get some further details about the modus operandi.
Another outstanding issue is how the recommendations of the group will become operational. We know that the current Prime Minister is not the Minister of Finance. How then will the group’s submission to the Prime Minister find its way into the Ministry of Finance for action? Has there already been a mechanism set up for how the recommendations will be implemented and monitored?
The working groups convened and completed their plan of action in two weeks. Although I admit that I have not yet seen anything recommended by the group, I feel as though the exercise did not match the serious condition of our economic challenges. I also believe that the silence on the matter since the Estimates debate and the over-dependence on straw men in the public communication space, was not what we needed to prepare and keep Barbadians in the right frame to face our challenges.
Added to this, the sale of the Barbados National Terminal Company is sub judice. This sale was touted to be a major plank of the economic recovery of the island because of the ability to boost the foreign reserves. We are now in April and the traditional tourist season is quite mature. We are in the quarter of the year where foreign exchange is usually lost. What are the implications of all of this for our economy?
Pretending that our issues do not exist will not get us moving in the right direction. Frank, honest and open discussion has to be a major factor in our recovery. Let us convene the public discussion about our economy. Let us start to craft plans around our sectors to make the productive ones boom again and to streamline the non-productive ones. The government has to engage the citizens of the country. If we all are going to take a journey to rescue Barbados, we all need to agree on the road we are taking.
(Marsha Hinds Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.