This week is not the Barbados we know.
Our expectations of the highest quality of public services, infrastructure and utilities are high for a reason.
We have known pipe-born water for 158 years, universal postal service for 167 years, telephones for 135 years, modern policing since 1835, and electricity for 108 years.
For generations, we have taken for granted wide access to modern conveniences hardly different from any industrialised nation and hardly paralleled in the Eastern Caribbean for sheer quality, stability and choice – daily newspapers, broadband internet access, multiple cable television providers, public libraries, scheduled air services and other creature comforts now become necessities.
Barbados is no late-adopter or newcomer to these services. In many cases, they were commercially available within a decade of their invention. Telephones were here merely eight years after Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. Merely six years after London’s Metropolitan Police was formed the Royal Barbados Police Force was established. Colour television was here earlier than all but two nations in the Commonwealth. We were the first island nation to be fully wired in digital telephony in the 1980s, then fibre optic cabling in the 2000s.
Barbadians, then, as now are used to innovation to the point of mind-numbing regularity, from satellite communication to Concorde.
For all these and many other things, Barbadians have long been used to long-range planning. Our first central bank governor, Sir Courtney Blackman, was long fascinated with how Barbados has gone about the business of management: making the most out of the least.
For him, management was not the historical way of the plantocracy with its disdain for paid labour by freed people in the post-emancipation period. And as he put it, rules are to guide managers not turn them into automatons, bereft of the impulse to innovate and initiate.
So it is in this vein that we turn to the Barbados Light and Power Company Limited, successor to the Barbados Electricity Supply Corporation, which began life in 1911. For all this time, successive Light and Power managers, many of whom were engineers, from Shettle and McConney to Gittens and Blackman have guided the growth of the national grid in war and power, hurricane and economic depression with deft hands.
At each epoch, managers have taken the long-view, saving its earnings to finance the replacement of generators over the decades.
Government, for its part, has over 53 years as an independent nation striven to run a well-oiled state, to pardon the expression, with greater success than failure.
So the collapse of Trinidad and Tobago’s oil refinery, Petrotrin, presented a crisis of supply to be solved.
But here as in the long-range plan for efficiency and effectiveness at Light and Power, cometh the moment cometh the manager.
There, however, has been a lapse of management that triggered catastrophic outages of electricity and water supply.
Light and Power knew that half its turbines needed to be replaced. The Barbados National Terminal Co. Ltd, the Government’s chief fuel supplier knew it was sourcing the fuel to run the power company from elsewhere. The Barbados Water Authority knew that it needed full independence of power to its way pumps.
And yet this week, as we appear to have dodged hurricanes this seasons we have run smack into a perfect storm of dodgy fuel, aging generators and a lack of power self-sufficiency in water distribution.
Now we are told about ‘alternative’ power projects on which the electric company were relying, have fallen through
The Barbados Light and Power Company, whose conduct is governed by the Electric Power Act and the Fair Trading Commission is not a mere private company selling a service to make a profit. It is a public utility, acting in the public interest, necessity and convenience.
As such, prime minister-chaired meetings will be insufficient to understand the challenges of producing power for a Barbados not yet fully made.
Public inquiries have taken on a judgemental tone with Puritanical devotion. But this does not invalidate the necessity of oversight of the operations so investigated.
And so we soberly seek a public inquiry into this week’s series of unfortunate events.
If nothing else, the business of management should again rise to the level of scrutiny that an inquiry should bring.
Out of a public commission should come the whole truth of multiple failures of both business and government that contributed over a number of years to this week’s debacle. Not naming and shaming but coming to and understanding of the past and setting a course for the future.
For this week, a nation’s fragile economic recovery was crudely imperilled and it is not a normal we are accustomed to or are prepared to accept.