With Government already signalling the necessity to reduce the size of the public service – more than likely in compliance with the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – thousands of public workers will be waiting anxiously to see if their respective jobs will be among those earmarked to be cut.
Already the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) has stated that the announcement of imminent cuts in the public sector has caused great disquiet in their ranks. However, recent statements by Attorney General Dale Marshall would have at least allayed the fears of one group of public workers for whom they have been previous suggestions that they are an unnecessary drain on Barbados’ struggling economy.
There have been suggestions in several quarters that the Barbados Defence Force (BDF) be disbanded in order to save the country some of the millions that Government spends on its public sector salaries and wages bill. Just two years ago trade unionist and now Senator Caswell Franklyn made a public call for the BDF to be disbanded. Following debate on the 2016 Estimates of Expenditure and Revenue in Parliament, Mr Franklyn had this to say: “Right now we could better well shut down the Defence Force cause it is a drain on our resources. Give the police more resources, give them a couple better stations and get rid of the damn Defence Force.” Mr Franklyn pointed to their ceremonial duties and to the fact that every so often – as required by law – the Governor General signed an order allowing them to assist police officers in certain public duties. Mr Franklyn derided the BDF as a fighting unit, asking the question, “who we gine fight, St Lucia?”
Of course, Mr Franklyn is not the only person who has questioned the necessity for the BDF. The BDF was established 39 years ago and from the very beginning, its presence has been questioned on the political platform, in homes, in song, on street corners and rum shops. Some of the naysayers have suggested that as a fighting force the BDF is handicapped by a lack of high-tech equipment, artillery and highly specialized personnel. They have pointed to the fact that any external threat to Barbados’ sovereignty is highly unlikely and in any event, close relationships with western allies such as the United States and United Kingdom, or entities such as the Regional Security System (RSS), would present greater comfort than dependence on the local militia.
With thousands of public sector cuts on the way, it is virtually a natural response for workers in certain agencies to compare their importance and what they offer to Barbados, to other civil institutions. It is also very likely that many will be looking around the country and quietly pointing out to their various representatives the areas that should be cut. Some with a bullseye on the BDF will undoubtedly point to the situation in Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Genada where there is no standing army. The RSS has the responsibility for the defence of these sister Caribbean islands and even if some might have small paramilitary units or a coast guard, they have no unit that mirrors the Barbados Defence Force.
But any worries that our soldiers and their families might have had within the context of cuts here, there and perhaps everywhere, would have been eased with the statements and assurances given by Mr Marshall on the occasion of the BDF’s 39th anniversary parade and sunset ceremony this past Saturday at St Ann’s Fort, the Garrison. Mr Marshall pledged Government’s support to the BDF and the intention to furnish it with all the necessary resources to mount effective responses.
The Attorney General noted: “We will protect the lives of Barbadians and reduce the incidences of desperation that occur in the immediate aftermath of disasters . . . with that in mind, the Barbados Defence Force is a critical component of Barbados’ national response infrastructure, it is, therefore, necessary that in collaboration with all other disaster response agencies, the Barbados Defence Force will be resourced to effectively undertake disaster response. Our intent is to improve the force’s capacity in the area of disaster response, engineering, youth development and maritime domain dominance.”
Mr Marshall stressed that the BDF would be modernized and suggested that Government’s input into the organization was an insurance policy and an investment in the charting of Barbados’ future. Thus, the message was clear – the BDF is here to stay. The purpose which it has served and can serve internally has not been lost on successive Governments. The part the BDF has played in assisting countries such as ironically, Dominica and Grenada in times of natural disaster, has not been lost on Barbados’ policymakers.
But as Government looks within itself to see where they can be rid of 2000 to 4000 ‘financial burdens’, those working in the public sector can also look inward at how they have functioned within the past ten to 30 years and whether their productivity merits them remaining on Government’s payroll. The next few weeks could see much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands but at least one sector seems likely to remain unscathed.