Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today Inc.
The Government Estimates exercise was recently completed and it was revealing for several reasons. Of note, and as I highlighted in my previous column; high public debt ($12,814,692,429) and seeming lack of accountability or consequences for inadequate policy, inadequate implementation and inadequate follow-through.
With such high levels of public debt, part of accountability and good governance is not only about, for example, freedom of information act, anti-corruption law, term limits for a Prime Minister, but also how a government spends tax dollars and a government’s priorities are spending borrowed money, as a loan today is a tax rise tomorrow. There is no spin that makes that fact go away.
Fix it We also can all agree that a government is accountable for problems it did not create, whether natural or otherwise. The Covid-19 pandemic is the most recent, the 2008 economic crisis that reverberated into 2018 was also one.
However, in both instances, it is not good enough to trod out, “it is a global crisis” as some sort of balm against critique or accountability for policies or lack of policies as the case may be. That only goes so far as it is the role of the government, whatever the origin of the crisis, to respond.
The same goes for matters affecting the environment. The front page of Barbados TODAY (8 April 2021) with a photo titled, “Wide Sargassum Reach” caught my attention and prompts the discussion to follow. The government obviously did not cause the sargassum but it has to respond.
Let us assess that response.
Where is the money going? For the year 2019 – 2020, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and the Blue Economy (MMAB) spent $18,841,564.
Remember that this is a new Ministry only created in 2018 and which seems to do little more than what was done by a few competent people in Fisheries as part of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Alarmingly, with more money, reach and a fish market upgrade programme, Oistins, a premier attraction for locals and tourists alike, has still not been properly upgraded.
Stalls remain too small, the seating area overcrowded and the place feels as if its best days are behind it.
We must do better. One wonders how the money is being spent, and what are the priorities.
From public announcements, we know the Government spent around half a million dollars in equipment including a seaweed harvester.
A Government Information Service (GIS) press release on July 10, 2020, by the MMAB, boasted about the purchase of a “sargassum harvester” at a cost of $300,000 that “once deployed correctly, it would help transform the country.”
The Minister of MMAB also “urged more small businesses to come on board to use the Sargassum seaweed”, and there were plans for exercises along the south coast to extract the seaweed. There was the announcement that the harvester would “help to innovate industries” and that a “biofuel drive” was to come on stream in 2020 after some tests done in 2019.
Why are we still here? Here we are faced with the issue of sargassum seaweed and it feels as if the Government is starting from ground zero.
What has become of the harvester, the biofuel drive, the small businesses engagement? Were these things just talk? Most recently the Minister of MMAB stated that we should prepare for seaweed season.
The Minister is quoted as saying: “That means it will be a big year for sargassum, and therefore, there has to be a big response,” and that “We are looking at a long-term solution.
The response will be a whole of government response.”
So, at this point, if by the Minister’s admission, we have a seaweed season and there needs to be a big whole of government response, what is that response? Is that an admission that we still do not have a long-term solution, after money spent, tests are done, people employed and the Minister is at the head for almost three years? Proper policy Governments may not create problems but it is the job of the government to solve them and do so in a cost-effective manner that benefits the taxpayer.
While we are at it, can we get some policy and enforcement on responsible and sustainable fishing? Why talk up the industry if you are not protecting the fish required to make the industry viable and sustainable.
Ask any former fisherman why he stopped fishing for a living and he will tell you because the catch no longer covered the expenses.
Proper policymaking is about accountability, good governance and the prudent use of tax dollars, not only about headline-grabbing issues about anti-corruption laws, promised but still not delivered, while the structure and exercise of government remain the same.
Drifting This approach of the Government to the sargassum does not seem limited to sargassum. The country seems somewhat adrift in a sea of sargassum; whether in education (announcement of abolishing 11 plus followed by no detailed plans or replacement), governance reform (renaming places, adding heroes, changing a ceremonial head for a ceremonial head but no prevention of corruption laws to implement all the international laws Barbados has signed or serious reforms such as term limits, fixed election dates), economic reform (debt restructuring being passed off as economic reform, with no plans for new economic drivers disclosed).
In many areas, it seems the public is treated to an announcement followed by poor planning and execution, while the core issue remains, waiting for the ‘whole of government’ to respond, as the Minister said.
In other words, for the Prime Minister, to respond. I guess nothing will happen about the sargassum until the Prime Minister intervenes. Or perhaps the Minister hopes that in another year’s time no one will remember what he says now or that the Prime Minister touted the Blue Economy as a new way forward for Barbados!
Stay safe everyone.
Dr Ronnie Yearwood holds degrees in Political Science, Sociology and Law. He is currently a lecturer in law at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. He is a Chevening Scholar, National Development Scholar, and Overseas Research Scholar. He is called a lawyer in Barbados, England & Wales, and the British Virgin Islands. His areas of interest are varied and include commercial law, international trade, politics and law, education and governance. Email: yearwood.r.r.f @gmail.com