The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
by Dr. Peter Laurie
Are we in Barbados ready? For what? For the pressure of complex changes engulfing us. These changes are disruptive. They include the digitalisation of work and life, the crisis of present-day capitalism (essentially, the inherent generation of harsh inequality), the existential threat of climate change, and the pandemic. The pandemic itself is an earthquake.
By the way, from everything I have read in reputable media the Delta variant of COVID-19 is so transmissible that we’ll probably all be infected in due course, especially if we don’t mask-up and social distance.
Those who are vaccinated will have mild symptoms but very few will be hospitalised and die. Most of the unvaccinated will be hospitalised and many will die. Our national goal therefore should be to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible to avoid such a needless tragedy. Let’s get to 60 per cent by year end, 80 per cent by Easter, and 95 per cent by Kadooment 2022.
Never underestimate the common sense of Bajans. Those who are genuinely vaccine hesitant, and even some of the holdouts for religious reasons, will come around and get the vaccine for themselves, their families and their communities.
The small minority who are spewing misinformation on social media will never be converted, so don’t waste time on them.
The pandemic has unearthed structural flaws in our society.
Not, mind you, that we weren’t aware of them. We just ignored them. We’re a conservative society culturally inclined to inaction. Sometimes this is a good thing; sometimes not.
Let’s start with our overwhelming dependence on tourism, which has created economic havoc. Two lessons to be learned: re-examine the nature of our tourism product; diversify our economic activities.
We have long recognised the upmarket nature of our tourism, but still tend to pursue quantity instead of quality. We place marketing ahead of product improvement, not recognising that a clean and beautiful natural and built environment along with a safe, pleasant, social environment is worth a thousand ads.
A well-managed upscale boutique hotel with near 70 per cent return clientele is worth ten all-inclusive resorts. It’s not a question of whether a stay in Barbados is expensive; it’s whether a visitor gets value for money. Make Barbados a safe and enjoyable place to live for its residents and visitors will come.
What about other economic activities?
Agriculture will boom again, especially if we can really integrate the demand and supply regionally using information technology. The sugar industry as we knew it is dead. But there are opportunities for providing local and foreign markets with up-market specialist sugar and other semi-processed agricultural products.
At the same time, the cost of growing such food crops as ground provisions, green bananas, pumpkins, okras, Jamaican ackee, breadfruit, avocados, (all left relatively unscathed by monkeys) is low, so we can provide local markets with healthy food at reasonable prices. We can thereby reduce our extra-regional food import bill, and move towards food security.
In manufacturing, we’re unlikely ever again to see foreign or local investors opening large enterprises that employ dozens of people. New ventures will be smaller, targeting niche markets, employing fewer workers. But there’s lots of scope. Our best bet will be the development of new types of services.
An indispensable basis for new economic activities in all sectors will be the creation of a state-of-the-art digital infrastructure that will attract remote workers, long-stay visitors, and international entrepreneurs, as well as facilitating local innovators to engage in start-ups of all kinds offering exportable services, for example, in software applications.
This must be accompanied by public investment in training and the development of genuine regional integration in the provision of digital services.
New economic activities will also spin off from building the infrastructure for resilience against climate change and for renewable energy. This will save foreign exchange, provide energy security, and create jobs.
This ties in neatly with two other ideas that might help in the transformation of Barbados: decoupling a living wage from employment, and creating more opportunities for self-employment.
The former usually takes the form of a guaranteed annual basic income, just above the poverty line, that would replace the hodgepodge of welfare payments (education and health are not welfare: they are rights).
This idea is gaining acceptance worldwide. It probably won’t be much more expensive than the cash transfers and income-replacement schemes to needy households that the pandemic is making necessary. The basic income, coupled with investing in skills and innovation, should go some way to addressing poverty and inequality.
Opportunities for self-employment (and I include in the definition hiring fewer than three persons) would arise out of the ramping up of digitalisation, our ‘greening’ infrastructure, our creative/cultural enterprises sector, along with the development of a sustainable blue economy, and, of course, decolonising our minds about roadside vending.
But all this depends heavily on reforming our educational system to provide the skill sets, both hard and soft, like creative thinking, innovation, problem solving, and so on.
Educational reform is going to be a challenge. Just look at the opposition to abolishing the 11+ exam! This media-celebrated exam reaffirms and reinforces all our colonial middle-class prejudices. No one can deny that social inequality is partly due to the disparities in educational achievement which are tied to the 11-plus.
What happens to those children who do poorly in the exam? Think about the psychological damage we inflict on so many children at the tender age of eleven. All our children should be winners. No one should be left behind.
If we are to transform Barbados, we’ll need every human resource. Besides we will also remove a potential breeding ground for criminality. Successful transformation also depends on a more efficient and transparent public administration.
One that places citizens at the centre of service delivery and provides a more humane and rewarding work environment so that the public sector becomes a major enabler and facilitator of economic growth and social equity. Needless to say, complete digitalisation of services would be necessary with due attention paid to protection of private data.
What else can we do to transform?
Go with our strengths: small size, stability, high level of social trust, and the Bajan diaspora. True, we usually associate small states with vulnerability. Yet, in all the international indices measuring the success of the world’s countries small states (i.e. those defined internationally as having a population of less than 10 million) make up in each case about half of the top twenty.
Why? Because of their strong intangible infrastructure — factors like good governance, the rule of law, social equity, education, and healthcare. A small state, if it has visionary leadership, can be turned around relatively quickly, like a catamaran versus an oil tanker.
Stability is Barbados’ international brand. We should never forget that. Four factors form the basis of our current stability: a) despite the results of the last election, Barbados has a strong entrenched two-party system that is not torn apart by ideological differences; b) a longstanding responsible trade union movement (that now needs to reform itself for a radically changed work environment so it too can become an equal partner in our economic growth. For God’s sake, protect workers, not obsolescent jobs!); c) a social partnership that reflects the consensus in our society that when we disagree, we can do so civilly and resolve our differences peacefully.
One of our saving graces is a high level of social trust. Trust is the glue that holds a society together. What is trust? In our case, it’s a passionate attachment of our people to the physical island of Barbados, ‘the Rock’, and a deep belief in the ‘idea of Barbados’.
Another advantage we have is a diaspora of highly qualified, patriotic Barbadians across the world. This is a valuable human, intellectual and financial resource that is still largely untapped.
There are other things we can do. For example, we might try to raise our international profile by hosting centres of excellence that play to our strengths.
How about an international institute for democratic governance? What about Barbados as a centre for international arbitration? And might the Frank Walcott Labour College, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2024, not become an international centre for the role of trade unions in the 21st century world of work? What about a centre of excellence in green and financial technologies?
Or a hemispheric centre for combatting chronic non-communicable diseases? Or an international centre of spirituality? Next year all Bajans will have an opportunity to craft a new Barbadian Constitution. Let’s make sure we take that opportunity as a nation to ensure that constitution reflects the values and ideals of all Barbadians.
In Barbados we are blessed with the intellectual ability, the visionary potential, and the organisational capacity to lead the change. We will not only survive; we will thrive.
Dr. Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States.