Recent queries on the whereabouts of a growth plan for the Barbados economy have been met with characteristic prime ministerial scorn – how dare we doubt her?
Yet, for all the bluster and bombast, this vital question remains to be answered to our certain satisfaction.
Her response seemed a replay of a widespread impression, conveyed in a tabloid headline, of a clueless UK Labour government under James Callaghan during the ‘winter of discontent’ that was 1979 – “Crisis? What Crisis?” With inflation at 10 per cent and slashed public spending in return for an IMF bailout, “Sunny Jim” Callaghan’s nonchalance, redolent of a Freundel Stuart shrug, was met with the electoral rejection; in came Margaret Thatcher.
Happily, Mia Mottley is no James Callaghan.
But what he hoped for was not rosy rhetoric but a clear game plan. We have been anticipating not a speech but a cogent strategy, a Marshall Plan, if you will, for growth.
Any history of the post-war reconstruction era recalls the Marshall Plan, named for the American general-turned-Secretary of State George C Marshall, in which the Allied Powers dropped billions of dollars in economic recovery after four years of dropping bombs on European cities and factories.
So entered this shorthand for any comprehensive plan for restoration and recovery – “Marshall Plan” – into the political lexicon.
The plan’s impact may still be debated by historians but there is no doubt that a ‘Marshall Plan’ of our own is needed to repair the bombed-out hulk of a Barbadian economy. This is what the people have been hoping for since before the general election – to be lifted out of the doldrums and ushered toward a marvellous light of prosperity and productivity for our young people and generations to come.
So we dare hoped, for example, that there would be plans for the creation of a knowledge-based economy that builds on the promise of digital technology, renewable energy, agriculture, sustainable development and the creative economy.
We have had expectations of significant development of renewable energy production, distribution and consumption, from mass uptake of solar photovoltaic cells to battery charging infrastructure for electric cars and buses.
We wanted to see a knowledge-based economy based on extracting all manner of food, fuel, fibre and feed from fishing and farming. And there needs to be more than just lines of lip service for our renowned national treasures, the black belly sheep and West Indian Sea Island Cotton, to say nothing of sugar cane.
The creative industries, too, have had many fine words and minuscule deeds by the powers that be. Vast numbers of talented filmmakers, coders, animators, musicians and makers of fine art and popular art need outlets for their talents, not just for export but also for creating a domestic economy that puts bums on seats to appreciate the best of Barbados.
All these things, we will be told, need money, which we do not have. But risk-averse politicians, civil servants and business people have long cautioned against dreaming big even when the public coffers were gorging on the Value Added Tax, the state’s most successful get-rich-quick scheme since Pay As You Earn was introduced in 1957, 36 years after income tax.
And yet, we have world-leading solar water heater penetration that was fostered not by cash but by benevolent public policy and good banking business. Our solar vehicle penetration is already at record levels – even as the very cars that could save millions in foreign exchange-purchased petrol are being taxed like luxury vehicles.
There are so many more industries, some established, other nascent, but all based on creating wealth out of knowledge. We envisage a Barbados that is limited only by the imagination of our best and brightest, yet employing masses of skilled and semi-skilled people.
Yet for too long, too much of our success has depended upon flukes and the luck of the draw. It was unfortunate and ill-judged for the prime minister to make reference to Ross University’s setup here as an example of growth in progress, predicated as it was on the destruction of a fellow Caribbean nation by hurricane. We need to remind her that, we too, a generation ago, put all our eggs in one basket, that of chip maker Intel. They turned that grand vision into a shopping mall and parking lot. England cricket’s tour of Barbados, though requiring an outlay of cash from the taxpayers to secure its arrival, does not a growth strategy make.
Structural reform of the Barbadian economy must not continue to distinguish itself by public disinvestment and national suffering. It requires bold, game-changing efforts to transform our economic landscape. We have done this before; we can do it again.
So, Prime Minister, we await a Marshall Plan for Barbados. The hour for history-making change is at hand.