I have always called things as I see them. All of us knew, whether some care to admit it or not, that ‘we’ had to change the political directorate of this country no matter who won the election. It had to change. For too long we avoided the hard task of dealing with the systemic rot that continues to undermine real economic reform. For too long successive political parties and the worker’s unions have created a papier mâché ecosystem of mediocrity, mendicancy and entitlement that has brainwashed many citizens into believing that the government or their employers have to support them without reciprocity.
I would admit that the last administration should have engaged the public more in explaining the steps taken to reduce expenses, raise taxes and preserve foreign reserves. Yes, the lack or the avoidance of regular civic engagement has been interpreted by the public as gross disrespect, arrogance and lack of empathy – or as summed up by a partner in Fitts Village, “it feels as if they doan give a so and so bout we”. That interpretation may yet be proven as incorrect.
It is plain to see that one cannot expect perceived actions to speak for you; the public needs to feel engaged and involved in the running of the country. Something, I must admit that this current administration has demonstrated with great skill. Although, how talking and not saying anything compares to not actually saying anything is a story for another time. However, this is a mistake that the party will never make again going forward.
Rest assured that going forward is what we will and must do. The last administration does not define the DLP, in so much as Owen Arthur does not define the current BLP administration. The DLP is an ideology which will keep growing, changing and adapting to modern circumstances until they get it right because the end result is the betterment of the public of Barbados.
The events at play are Shakespearian in nature and very much like Julius Caesar’s funeral where the confused but focused Anthony proclaims ‘the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred in their bones’. One would believe that the former administration did no good and the financial issues of the country began in 2008. It’s the same argument Adams used on Barrow in 1976; then Barrow used it on Tom in 1981, and the pendulum of finger pointing has continued unabated since then. It will end when we make constitutional changes to limit the power of Ministers.
I was born here and I plan to die here. My role, as I see it, is to leave a better country than I found, and arm those coming after me to be better. Everything I do is for love of this country. I want Barbadians to stop jumping from one iceberg to the next and think carefully about what we really need as a country in order to avoid the cycle of growth through incurring public debt. What we certainly do not need is more politicians, a sentiment shared by the current administration while they were in opposition but forgotten immediately upon taking office.
We need real open dialogue that addresses the issues and non-partisan solutions to fix them through a process that works for the benefit of the entire country. The tribalism, the flagrant hostility and the poisonous rhetoric mostly veiled by the quasi-anonymity of social media does nothing to move us forward.
While giving support, in part, to the restructuring effort, it is egregious to punish your own citizens by the process. There has to be a sober reflection on the position taken with respect to T-Bills and Debentures and the impact it has on both the corporate, public and private sectors. This two-year timeline is too aggressive and will have attendant austerity that is unnecessary. It took time to get to this point, and it is unreasonable to expect that it will be fixed in a day or a year especially when this hardship is being put squarely on the backs of tax-paying Bajans. I will go to my grave saying that this particular act will cause the most harm to the economic spine of the country. In retrospect, had an IMF programme been negotiated earlier, we might be having a different conversation today.
Regarding the retrenchment of jobs, while LIFO may seem appropriate on paper, can it work in reality? These are people not stock; different methods should be applied. I see no point in shelving new talent – imagine if we applied that to the current political administration. Some of the best talent in the current administration are the new comers. The same applies here. Have the public servants near retirement age take special packages that afford them a full retirement package. Retool your best people and avoid institutional ignorance by taking all the historical knowledge out of each department.
The new Ministry of ICT has an opportunity to develop and converge technologies and have Government lead in this area. Given our demographics, by enabling and partnering with some of the extraordinary talent we have in this space, no Government ICT solution should be purchased externally. Supported by the UWI and leading software engineers, just like India, each product the public sector needs should be built locally. We should then market these products globally. We have the talent to do it all.
While education is moving towards STEAM, particularly robotics, our next step is to prepare our students for the OECD’s Professional International Student Assessment (PISA) to see how we match up against the rest of the world in Math, Science and problem solving; and the World Robotic Olympiad (WRO) to expose our engineering and computer science students to what is happening globally. The depth of our faculty is the fulcrum of success in this area, thus, this is where we need to put the initial focus supported by the software applications that convert the current curriculum into a dynamic or electronic model.
The SANDBOX project has the potential to be transformative if properly implemented. While the Micro loan/grant initiative will be needed due to the harsh austerity measures, I am sceptical as we have so many entities like EGFL/BIDC and Fund Access that do not function as per their mandates. Why add another layer or instrument, why not simply make the ones that exist, work?
What I do not see that needs to be done
BIBA is the most important institution in this country. This organization and the work it does, has the potential to single-handedly reshape the economic structure of this country. The BIDC and Invest Barbados need to be consolidated and work closely with the Ministry of International Affairs to house private sector trained business development officers at overseas missions in concert with BIBA to surgically target and engage with potential businesses and investors across the globe. Our Doing Business Index has to be fixed – period.
Ministers should function as non-executive Chairman and maintain oversight and delivery of mandates through the several boards in different departments of the Ministry rather than taking day-to-day operational responsibility. Permanent Secretaries should therefore be retooled to act more as a corporate financial regulator rather than in the current operational and financial role, therefore reducing the need for so many and putting less strain on government finances.
With the existing medical universities, the entry of Ross University and the potential of another medical college taking over the now underutilized Cable and Wireless Head Office on Windsor Lodge and adding a 100-bed hospital, we have a unique opportunity to create industry specific support for these medical colleges. The Government should lead the dialogue and create a forum to discuss R&D, electronic medical records, medical transcription, nursing training, NCD management, telemedicine, epidemiology, pathology and the testing or use of new technologies for the industry among others. This, all in an effort to create new private sector industry, not with a view of providing services on their own.
The country needs to be prepared for a softer landing on the issue of health insurance, education endowment plans for tertiary education and pension plans. The time will come where the cost of all these services will outstrip the Government’s ability to fund it completely. Insurance companies, corporations and private citizens should move with earnest to ensure these areas are supported by the appropriate instruments. This is not a matter to be taken glibly and should be seen as priority going forward.
George Connolly is a Finance and Technology professional.