Government is being warned that the success of its widely publicised 12-month remote visa programme could be placed in jeopardy if steps are not taken to improve the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, “island backwardness” and overall standard of living in time for an influx of remote workers from Western countries.
Director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), Dr Don Marshall was responding to the open invitation being extended by Prime Minister Mia Mottley for persons from across the world to live and work remotely in Barbados for a year.
While commending the PM for grabbing hold of “low hanging fruit”, Marshall is worried that the demographic to which the Government is appealing will not be satisfied with the “poor” internet facilities and inefficient services which Barbadians have grown accustomed to over the years.
“We have had a number of discussions via webinars within the intellectual community about immediate solutions to the tourism challenges and the need to have people who work remotely in these North American countries and Western spaces come to the Caribbean, and do so,” Dr Marshall told Barbados TODAY.
“But this business of calls dropping out and static when you go on the web is ‘dinosaurial’. That is backward, and while we in Barbados have grown accustomed to it, Barbadians who have travelled and see how their handheld phones operate marvel at the speed, the ease of communication and so on. Then they come back home to see that the only thing that greets them are dropouts and buffering,” the academic lamented.
Last week, Cabinet approved the Barbados 12-month Welcome Stamp in an effort to enhance the country’s tourism product, and according to recent reports, the initiative has gone viral among members of the international community, who have been learning about it on CNN, Business Insider, BBC and the Telegraph among others.
Efforts to reach Minister of Innovation, Science and Smart Technology Senator Kay McConney for further details on the initiative have been unsuccessful.
In the meantime, Dr Marshall suggests that the Government should start by demanding improved standards from local telecommunications companies as well to compete with the 4G and soon-to-be 5G networks that exist in the developed world.
“So improving our telecommunications environment is going to be absolutely critical, and the service providers here will have to shape up and the state will have to use its influence to ensure that visitors are getting value for money and that the service is very reliable. But I applaud the Government on that initiative. It’s one of those low hanging fruits and we should seize the opportunity,” Dr Marshall stressed.
In addition to upgraded telecommunications, the SALISES Director believes remote workers will demand an overall first-world experience from transportation services to recreational activities.
“People don’t want to work remotely from home and then step out into decrepit spaces. A digital native does not want to experience a certain kind of island backwardness. It doesn’t make sense. We must first conceive what a first-world island looks like,” he declared, before adding that the administration ought to be doing more to develop ‘smart’ cities.
“You will get to experience greater levels of foreign exchange accumulation and international business if you have your smart city that also features efficiencies in your transport systems, telecommunications provisioning and access to services that are reliable,” Dr Marshall suggested.
He admitted that financing for such “regeneration” was unlikely to come from organisations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund who have so far supported Government’s digitization drive, and suggests that Government pursue more progressive lenders.
“We need to have a plan. We can’t be simply creating rhetoric around initiatives that the [International Monetary] Fund and the World Bank are sponsoring.