Mia Mottley did much to return some lustre to Barbados’ half-century-long contribution to global affairs with a speech that posed a problem only to the interpreters who had the unenviable task of relaying her extemporaneous thoughts in the United Nation’s other official and working languages.
What could not be lost in translation was her emphatic and memorable appeal to the international community to act boldly and decisively in the fight to maintain, if not reduce, the impact of natural hazards on the vulnerable small islands and coastal states of the Caribbean – frontline nations in the cross-hairs of sea level rise, climate change and variability – to say nothing of the ease which we are plunged into chaotic poverty, hardship and death when hazard become disaster.
It was fitting, too, that the appearance on the world stage of our first female Prime Minister should coincide with the only the fourth woman in 73 years of the global body for peace and development to preside over it.
Mottley’s dramatic departure from the carefully prepared text was sure not to strike terror in the hearts of her fellow Barbadians; we are used to the ready display of our Great Communicator’s talents at extemporaneous speech.
And indeed, we in Barbados have no experience of ignorant and intemperate leaders who are utterly averse to either acquisition of knowledge, new ideas, awareness of cause and effect, respect for science, or common humanity and empathy. Our tiny nation is used to producing leaders who by their speaking, however imperfectly, do credit to our nation wherever they go, addressing the major fora of the international system.
And Mia Mottley, the first child of Independence to lead our independent nation, lived up to the credo of our national pledge, with pride and industry, and much-needed earnestness.
It is worth revisiting her off-the-script statements here; words that must have been brewing for some time as she participated in global dialogue on sustainable development, coupled with sharp reminders of the recovery of fellow CARICOM neighbours from the last season’s tempests.
“Our path to economic growth is being choked off unilaterally by institutions in which we are not allowed to advocate for ourselves and from which others dictate our fate. Barbados, the Caribbean and other SIDS have had to confront the reality that our percentage in trade of goods and services is miniscule, but we are bound by the same rules that apply to those who dominate and can distort global trade. Small states like mine were shepherded out of agriculture and told that services were the route we should use for development. My country, for example, tried financial services pursuant to double taxation treaties, utilizing due diligence, operating a clean jurisdiction that is not a tax haven and complying with OECD requirements. Now we are being told our tax practices are harmful and unfair competition to those who still enjoy the bulk of the revenues in global trade and services. Where are we to turn?”
She sought to paint a stark picture of small islands struggling not only against rising sea levels but a rising tide of a Darwinesque, zero-sum, economic determinism, in which tiny nations with relatively miniscule gross domestic product, high indebtedness, and prohibitive financial policing by hypocritical industrialized nations that amounts to restraint of trade, are tossed into a ‘better-off’ category that shuts them off from the very assistance so desperately needed.
The situation, the Prime Minister told the UN, is only likely to worsen for us because of derisking.
“The unilateral cessation of correspondent banking relationships reduces access to capital and our capacity to engage in trade and conduct business in the international market place. Derisking jeopardizes our capacity to remain properly integrated into the global financial, trade and economic systems. Is there no door to development that our people can legitimately enter?
“Bad though all of this is, there is still more, Madam President. Our classification as middle income countries denies us the concessionary financing which we so desperately need to help to build capacity and resilience.
“Moreover, Madam President, the designation of middle income status of the islands of the Caribbean, based solely on GDP per capita income, yet ignoring vulnerabilities and the absence of resilience, really only serves to misconstrue wellbeing as entrenched and irreversible.
“That is a false perception when set against our experience, which demonstrates that the veneer of wellbeing is easily stripped away by sea swells, strong winds or rising rivers across the island chain.
“This has been repeatedly proven in every decade by Hurricanes such as Gilbert, Katrina, and more recently Ivan, Irma and Maria, which robbed several islands of years of work and effort, over 200 per cent of GDP and set back, by decades, their dreams of development.”
We applaud our Prime Minister for her earnest, forthright speech from the heart, a swift punch to the solar plexus of an international community that is used to expecting small states to speak softly for fear of the rich nations’ big stick. Once again, to quote the late former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Barbados is punching above its weight class in international affairs.
Needless to say, we would be derelict in our duty not to remind the Prime Minister that much now depends not on what Barbados will say – it hasn’t said an awful lot in the last decade, to be sure – but what it does about ensuring its own survival in a changed economic climate. For fine words butter not parsnips, as the expression goes.
We will hold her new Government to account to the people for the spending of the public purse, the care and protection of all our people, and the conduct of the people’s business by all its ministers and agents with decorum, decency and integrity.
Thus we fully endorse the Prime Minister’s conclusion:
“So who among you is listening? Which of you is really hearing? Who is prepared to stand in the breech, in defence of one world? Who are prepared to raise their voices in support of those of us who have been asked to remain mute and invisible, while the rest of the world gets on with the business of development? As all previous generations have been, our generation will be judged, not on nice words or appropriate incantations, but on the effectiveness of our actions.”
Go on, Prime Minister; your country is behind you.