Okay, the BLP probably won’t achieve half of the promises it made in its 2018 manifesto, but that’s not unusual. Newly elected governments quickly run up against reality, not to mention the unanticipated crises that distract them from their main goals.
Much of the time and energy of the new administration will be understandably taken up in rescuing our economy and putting it back on a path of sustainable and stable growth with the help of the IMF.
Having said that, the 2018 manifesto shows both the vision, the imagination and the determination to transform Barbados, which is exactly what is needed at this juncture in our history. The path of development which we have followed over the past fifty years has yielded highly positive results but has now run its course. The ‘times they are a-changing’ and so must we.
The manifesto speaks to such important issues as upgrading our human capital, promoting the green, blue and creative economies, as well as technological and entrepreneurial innovation. It promises more inclusive governance, which is both politically and economically savvy. Finally, it also shows an awareness of pursuing at the same time both the short-term critical actions and the long-term transformational ones. A crisis is indeed a terrible thing to waste.
We can expect that the first term will be devoted primarily to cleaning up the economic (and sewage) mess and laying the groundwork for transformation.
But the transformation is not just a project for Government to undertake while the rest of us criticize or cheer from the sidelines, it is a task for all of us. We have to realize that we cannot continue to look exclusively to Government to finance our cultural and social development. It does not require a lot of ingenuity to find financial resources outside of Government for funding cultural projects: crowd funding, local philanthropy, tax incentives, diaspora bonds, international philanthropic foundations, and so on.
Size matters. Small economies frequently top international rankings on a wide range of economic and social outcome measures. Moreover, they tend to have high-quality public institutions as well as relatively high levels of social capital and trust. The World Economic Forum recently noted that ‘The ability to gather, combine and use knowledge embedded in people and technology to create a range of unique products will become an increasingly important competitive advantage.’
So, despite the growing intensity of global competition, a more complex and challenging international environment, and the emergence of potentially disruptive technologies such as automation and AI, because of the small size of the island, its homogeneity, its educated citizenry only too willing to help build up our country, and the high level of trust our people have in the idea of Barbados, it should be quite easy for us to turn Barbados around. As the political theorist Benedict Anderson has argued, a nation is an ‘imagined community’, which means that inspirational and visionary leadership can accomplish marvels. Lee Kwan Yew and Singapore is a classic example. Mia Mottley is in that mould.
Here are some forward-looking things I would like to see happen over the course of the next ten years, not in any particular order.
– Amending our Constitution to make a Barbadian our Head of State. Nothing would symbolize the ‘new’ Barbados so much as that, though I realize it is not a priority.
– Reforming our public sector is essential to our transformation.
First of all, it would allow us to cut public expenditure by reducing, over five years, both the size and cost of the public sector by 20 per cent while improving its efficiency and productivity, and all this with minimum or no mandatory layoffs.
Secondly, high-quality public institutions can develop and sustain effective policy planning and implementation and can respond quickly to external shocks.
– Reforming the Social Partnership to both broaden and energize it so that it becomes a meaningful form of participatory governance.
– Creating a People’s Initiative to give citizens the right, on successfully petitioning popular opinion, to oblige Parliament to debate a citizens’ legislative proposal.
– Buying new buses is good, but we need to re-conceptualize our entire public transport system.
– For a country so dependent on tourism we really have to improve our airport services, which are poor. A world-class airport experience is rooted in exemplary customer service. So, having to wait for ages in an immigration queue then another long wait in Customs is a real turn off. Surely, the immigration processing time can be easily cut in half? What is the point of having a green line in Customs that is always closed? I suggest we invite a senior official from the airport authorities in Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea (world’s best airports) to review our airport and make recommendations for its improvement.
– Let’s create an independent entity (Bridgetown Inc), along the lines of the Barbados Tourism Investment Inc. (BTI), that will have the clout and expertise to manage the maintenance and development of Bridgetown.
BI would be responsible for:
• ensuring that Barbados complies with all the UNESCO-mandated requirements.
• managing restoration and redevelopment (taking over the various Bridgetown projects from the BTI).
• liaising with Government departments about the supply of all services required for the Bridgetown community, and the architecturally and ecologically harmonious development of the city.
• a Bridgetown Future Fund (BFF) managed with transparency and accountability.
Much more of the tax revenues generated in Bridgetown should be re-invested in the city. The BI should also collect revenue from the installation and operation of parking meters and all public parking lots. All of the present Government-owned property in Bridgetown should be vested in the BI.
– Appoint Dame Billie Miller to chair the BI. She has a deep knowledge and love of Bridgetown, and she gets things done.
– The establishment of a national art gallery is long overdue. I suggest using an internally modified Main Guard, with its magnificent clock tower, to house the collection. This would give pride of place to our visual arts.
– Barbados needs to have a world-class museum of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery (African Holocaust in the New World).
A properly designed and equipped museum would not only be a place of education and heritage preservation but also a memorial to a human tragedy of horrific proportions and a place of contemplation. It should also celebrate our enslaved ancestors’ resistance, resilience, and cultural creativity under the harshest of conditions – a testament to the indomitable human spirit. It should also document and illustrate the rich and pervasive African heritage that our ancestors bequeathed to all of us.
Such a memorial might be financed by crowd funding and other innovative sources, and, indeed, might be part of an act of reparations for slavery.
– In foreign policy, we need to develop a clear strategic focus tied to our export-driven economic imperatives and the new technologies that are transforming the ways in which a country engages with the world around it.
– With the Trump-led US hell-bent on destroying the rules-based global trade and investment systems crafted in the decades since the Second World War, and with the UK shrivelling into Little England isolationism, our best international partner for development right now is China, which is increasingly going global as it is poised to become the most influential world power. Nonetheless, our people-to-people relations with traditional allies like the US and the UK remain strong and valuable.
In our hemisphere, Canada remains a good friend, though it is increasingly looking west, especially if Trump breaks up NAFTA.
In Latin America, it might be worth trying to further explore our economic relations with Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. Not many people know that Colombia has the second largest African-descended population in South America, some 10 million people.
And of course, we must try to re-invigorate a sclerotic CARICOM which has such unrealized potential.
In Africa, we should look at the possibilities offered by Ethiopia and Ghana, two fast-growing and buoyant economies.
We might try to develop informal special people-to-people relationships with the Nordic countries, whose small size and liberal social democratic policies provide a useful basis for cooperation.
Most important of all, we should stop thinking of embassies abroad as the most effective way of managing our foreign relations.
C’mon, let’s move into the 21st century.
(Dr Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States)