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THE REPORTED PERFORMANCE of the Barbados economy in 2015 is a major cause for concern, not from the viewpoint of the numbers that mean very little to most people, but more so from the perspective of its real state in a historical context. This is important given the emphasis on where we are currently as an independent nation. While the politicians are excited by the nation’s chronological age, it is more critical to look at its biological age.
To achieve the unusual objective, it is necessary to understand that it all started long before independence. To this day, there are several organs that still reflect the historical journey through which the country has travelled. There is much to be proud of and yet much that needs changing.
I was once accused of intellectualising politics. It never offended me, because like many others I knew the true private, not just public, value of the source. They are some who believe that politics is simply a game that requires only stage performances to impress the audience. Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to argue against such a view given the raving reviews that accompany mediocrity.
In assessing the country’s biological age, there are some major contradictions in our psyche that need to be addressed. One, that the society is happier because it has access to more and better things. Two, the economy is stronger once there are foreign reserves at the central bank. Three, the political class is more capable because it is more educated. In each of these cases, there is a sense in which the basis for measuring progress is flawed.
In the case of the society, it is the acquisition of the material things that matters more than the human spirit. In the case of the economy, there is still a sense in which a foreign dollar is valued more in every circumstance. And in the case of the politics, there is a reinforcement of the notion that the acquisition of knowledge is more important than the application of knowledge, such that certification is a sufficient condition for value.
At the beginning of the 1940s, West Indian colonies were grappling with an underdeveloped social system characterised by limited access to education and public health care. Barbados was no exception. Believe it or not, the physical components of our current social system were put in place as the “mother country” responded to a dire need. The psychological needs could not be addressed in the same way.
The West India Royal Commission 1938-1939 recommended that “there is a pressing need for large expenditure on social services and development which not even the least poor of the West Indian colonies can hope to undertake from their own resources”. A welfare fund was established to finance programmes for the general improvement of education, health services and housing among other others.
Unlike today, there was concern over the population growth and density in Barbados in the 1940s which prompted a recommendation that “the claims of this overcrowded colony must rank high for favourable consideration in connection with any project for the transfer of populations within the West Indies.” The only thing that prevented the project from being executed was the prevailing wartime conditions.
It is never difficult to understand why deprived societies would set the acquisition of material things as their measure of success. The problem comes when there is no consideration that the broader societal mandate involves balancing the economic resources with the expectations of the people. This process of balancing becomes the responsibility of the state. Perhaps this is the real source of the problem.
The historical lessons suggest that we have not yet resolved the perceived struggle between production and consumption. Some policymakers are still trapped in the mercantilist thinking that production is all as practised by the colonial master. The same policymakers believe that consumption must be stifled because of the unbalanced value assigned to a foreign dollar. There is a lack of balance which is part of the psychological scarring from the past that causes a disconnection between the country’s chronological and biological ages.
Notwithstanding the much publicised performance of tourism in 2015, the economy struggled; the society questioned and the government remained bewildered. The time has come to learn from history and craft a leadership strategy that recognises our unique human spirit; a clearly defined level of contentment and the value of our past and present knowledge.
As a start, this requires redefining happiness and rebranding politics.
Dr Clyde Mascoll is an economist and Opposition Barbados Labour Party adviser on the economy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.