For all of the blunders of the last administration in the management of the Barbados economy – and these errors were as multiple as they were near-fatal to the futures of thousands upon thousands of citizens – the Freundel Stuart administration was not half-wrong on this point if no other – Barbados is a society, not merely an economy.
Indeed, blind obeisance to Social Man is no less fraught with peril than mindless subjugation at the feet of Economic Man’s ‘Barbados Inc.’ To be sure, money makes the mare fly; our economic fortunes pay for the social services that have propelled this nation to the top of the heap in human social development among developing nations. In turn, a people who are healthy, wealthy and wise, tend to be productive and create more wealth.
This explains in large measure how Barbados has been able to punch above its weight in global affairs. We didn’t have some phalanx of clever diplomats telling fine lies abroad for their country. We have no minerals to mine, no other precious resources than the double hundred-thousand souls who inhabit this tiny outcrop of Atlantic rock. It was these souls into which our brave political forefathers, Sir Grantley Adams and Errol Barrow among others, poured vast investments in healthcare, sanitation, education, social security, public transport, labour protections and benefits, and public assistance.
It was not for nothing. The postwar period of 1945 to 1966 was a period of both gradualism and radical reform to lift a nation mired in the muck of high infant mortality, stunted development, illiteracy, communicable diseases, and countless lives that were, not to put too fine upon it, nasty, brutish and short. The Deane and Moyne Commissions of 1938 are a lasting historical testament to this inheritance.
This was a society that saw the average wage for newly emancipated citizens who were once slaves stay untouched for a century. For what society could survive a hundred-year wage freeze without exploding in civil unrest and political upheaval?
So the Adams-Barrow axis of political power in the postwar and Independence era – despite the propaganda of their respective political tribes and their own divergent leadership and policy styles – had a singular mission: defeating the iniquity of inequality.
It was this mission that transformed a plantation island colony into a vibrant, confident, proud, sovereign nation. From eliminating infectious diseases to establishing a university degree as birthright, the vast raft of social policies ensures that vast numbers of have-nots, descendants of former slaves, could rise up from poverty, alienation, discrimination and despair.
Many families can trace this upward reach to their acquisition of higher education. A university degree or advanced technical and vocational certification, then as now, is a strong predictor of higher income and all that it buys.
So when the new administration made good on its promise to restore fully-funded (we dare not describe as ‘free’ that which our tax dollars have prepaid) UWI undergraduate education, we lauded a return to sanity. For how can we acknowledge education and the bootstraps of social progress while denying the bright but poor their shot at mobility?
Just as Errol Barrow did in 1963 with the building of the College of Arts and Sciences for the University of the West Indies, so has Prime Minister Mia Mottley done with retaining this vital clause in the social contract between government and governed in this realm: they both followed a very Barbadian tradition of combatting inequality.
Most nations of the Commonwealth Caribbean do not have such a long track record. St Lucia, for example, gleaming tourism jewel for many years, only introduced compulsory education in 1997; it has been a reality here since the Education Act of 1944. Jamaica, at Independence in 1962 could only boast of an adult literacy rate of 65 per cent, prompting a Marshall Plan policy of adult literacy education, JAMAL. That nearly half-century struggle is still not over there.
In Jamaica, and to a lesser but still palpable extent in our Windward Island neighbour, St Lucia, inequality remains a part of their DNA worthy to be excised.
But as this country begins to wrestle with the economic misfortunes that have piled up over the last decade, we would still do well to remind Economic Man that the health and well-being of Social Man cannot be neglected.
The warning signs are there, however, and it took an economist not of our ilk to send these signals. Barbados has become “clearly the best performer is terms of rising inequality”, according to the findings of development economist Collin Constantine.
His study noted that as of 2015, the average household income of the richest one-tenth of Barbadians was 3.7 times that of the general population. In 1960, these ‘ten percenters’ received only 2.8 times as much.
“This trend is even more pronounced for the top 1%, the elite of the elites,” Constantine noted in his study, “A Community Divided: Top Incomes In CARICOM Member States”.
In 2015 the average household income of Barbadian one-percenter was 10 times the average; in 1960, it was just four times.
Stealthily and insidiously, inequality has gripped our nation. “This clear concentration of top incomes shows that growth in Barbados has been especially extractive, but what has changed in how elite power is maintained to enable this shift?
“This depicts a remarkable rise of income inequality during these four decades, notwithstanding periods of growth and stagnation in Barbados. Moreover, within the low-income inequality group, Barbados is the only country that is converging towards its high-income inequality peers. In Barbados, it appears that the top ten per cent was successful at increasing their holding power.”
According to him, “a simple back of the envelope calculation shows that the average annual economic growth for Barbados over the period under consideration stood at 1.92 per cent, while the average growth of income share for its top one per cent and five per cent were 12 per cent and five per cent, respectively”.
We are faced, then, with not one but twin peaks of challenge for Barbados the nation and Barbados Inc. Economic stagnation and income equality.
We await to see how, beyond Economic Man’s knee-jerk austerity and rhetorical lipservice, Social Man – and Woman and Child – will be considered, not as drains on the public purse, but as the tributaries of wealth creation they have been these past three-quarters of a century.
To lift Barbados out of the economic mire would be a pyrrhic victory indeed, if inequity and inequality stalk abroad.