Economist Jeremy Stephen is calling on Barbadians to change the way they view sovereignty and for policymakers to urgently undertake several reforms of some sectors if the country is to turn the economic tides and prosper.
He said the country seemed to be stuck in a cycle where “we run down reserves, go into some form of recession and we get bailout”, and it was time things were done differently.
“That is not a position we should be proud about. I am fine with the measures that are being taken but should have been done ever since. That is my view and I am unapologetic in that, but it cannot persist because as we consume more, and as owners of capital ensure the price of things continue to rise, we will be in this position again any time soon no matter what happens,” he told the Democratic Labour Party’s (DLP) annual Errol Barrow Lecture at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus on Friday night.
The event, which formed part of the party’s Errol Barrow week of celebration, was held under the theme Towards a New Political Economy.
Stating that Barbados lost its influence in the region over the years under successive administrations, Stephen said “we have to understand that as a priority our sovereignty will dictate our future”.
However, he insisted that the way Barbadians viewed sovereignty needed to be amended, adding that he was concerned that the country still had no way of measuring the prosperity of its people.
“Sovereignty is not 166 square miles. In this modern world . . . sovereignty is not the land mass on which you live, sovereignty is a changing ideology, one that promotes prosperity for its people economically and socially no matter where they are,” said Stephen.
“That same measure of sovereignty has prevented us from, even before the Democratic Labour Party took power, from taking advantage of large spots of land in Guyana . . . that could be effectively supplement the agricultural sector we do have here,” he added.
“There is nothing stopping the investment we could have had in Guyana, upgrading the [Bridgetown] Port and shipping food back home, [while] maintaining good relations [with Guyana]. That is solved by changing our view of sovereignty. We should have investments [in] land in Guyana we should have investments in the same [in] Haiti,” he added, as he commented briefly on the situation facing Haitians who are stranded in Barbados.
He believed “one of the best things that could have been done was the fact that we improve our relations with Haiti”.
“Everybody see Haitians coming here and being displaced. That is an issue, but nobody is seeing the opportunities [for us] to go out there . . . people don’t understand what is in our own backyards,” he stressed.
With Barbados struggling to carry out several reforms in vital sectors such as education, health, tourism and agriculture, Stephen insisted that authorities could learn from various models around the world including that of Georgia, New Zealand, Singapore, Israel and Japan.
He told the room of DLP supporters, which included former Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and several of his former cabinet ministers, that the work and legacy of Errol Barrow, was no longer appealing to young Barbadians.
However, he quickly pointed out that “it does not mean it is not a legacy you can lift off on”.
Stephen said Barbados could use the Georgia model to reform its education system and improve the ease of doing business.
“What we lack, and I will say this unapologetically, is the willingness to call a spade a spade no matter who is in charge, and to ensure accountability on all ends”.
“And I speak to the Barbados Democratic Labour Party at this moment to ask what threats makes you rise from the ashes once again to be relevant, the threats don’t have to be current.”
Warning that some jobs were at risk of becoming extinct due to the proliferation of automation and continued advancements in technology, the blockchain technology enthusiast said he would not be surprised if some companies in Barbados started to use technology instead of cashiers, a job he said many thought would always be around.
“That is the reality. It will come upon us sooner rather than you think,” he said, stating that “we have come to that point where education is beginning to fail us and will continue to fail us”.
He warned that the country faced losing critical foreign direct investment if individuals here did not become well equipped to develop technology, adding that Barbados also faced the possibility of having to import labour.
Stephen also expressed disappointment that Barbados was yet to take advantage of the widening of Panama Canal, citing Jamaica as one country that has already started to benefit greatly from that passage.
Pointing out that Barbados had an advantage because of its position between Panama City and the gateway into the Middle East, Stephen said “the thing that made Barbados a trans-shipment [point] of slaves and sugar, literally could be the life blood of the economy going forward”.
“We can integrate all the technology in the world, we can have all the coders in the world, but the 20-year low hanging fruit is [the Bridgetown] Port, that can effectively, by having 10 more crate loaders, replace about a third of economic activity in about 20 years. It is the lowest hanging fruit, it can also interact in terms of foreign direct investment with respect to ship registry. These are easy areas that can propel growth, the type that no party in Parliament is talking about,” he said, while calling for the retraining and retooling of foreign officers and more focus on “economic diplomacy”.
In relation to health care reform, Stephen said Barbados should focus more on preventative measures rather than reactive, as he pointed to Japan as one country that Barbados could emulate.
“Even if technology takes over tomorrow you still need your people. So this has to be a priority,” he said.
With respect to the tourism industry, Stephen said within the next two decades Barbados will “have to challenge what it sees as viable tourism”, adding that he was “a very big opposer of how we view tourism right now”.
Indicating that it was difficult to track tourist spend currently, Stephen said the time had come for that sector be to linked “to a concept of sovereignty”.
He explained that this could be achieved through a greater focus on the country’s gross national product, as opposed to just the gross domestic product.
The economist, who had previously thrown his support behind the 2014 David Estwick economic plan, which recommended that the then DLP administration negotiate a $5 billion sinking fund from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to wipe out the country’s debt, said attracting investment from the Middle Eastern nations was another “low hanging fruit for Barbados”.
“Since we love race cars it almost boggles my mind that nobody has made the invitation to have these guys come down with their vehicles and drive around. Something as simple as that can bring about all manner of festivals throughout the year – more racing events. These guys will even build another track for you. I am not saying we should go cap in hand, but I see opportunity first,” he stated.