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New guidelines in Barbadian life

Ralph Jemmott

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I read some time ago that the Chinese word for crisis was the same as the word for opportunity. Today the tendency is to define every issue as constituting a crisis. More than one commentator has described Barbados as being in a state of “crisis”.
The economic difficulties must be clear to anyone who understands the nature and implications of deficit and persistent debt. In his June 20 column, Peter Laurie implored that “in the midst of hard times” we should be on guard against “unravelling”.
The recent tragedy in Tudor Street, The City, must bring home to all Barbadians the reality of the grave implications of an unravelling of our social fabric. Seems like only yesterday we were being told that we were about to achieve “First World status”. Typically, in all the apocalyptic narrative of Barbadian triumphalism, First World status was never quite defined.
It must be cold comfort that at the moment even the so-called First World doesn’t seem so First World as it ponders the possibility of a “double-dip recession”. Recently the governor of the Bank of England complained of the sluggishness of the British economy and The United States seems incapable of shaking off the phenomenon of jobless growth with an unemployment rate that continues to hover just below ten per cent.
One out of every seven Americans now lives below the poverty line, some 43.6 million people to be exact. Some of the stories of the social pain behind these figures are hurtful. While we wait for the tourists to return in their numbers and with higher disposable incomes and while we anticipate the inflows of foreign currency, there are clearly some local issues that must be put right. 
The future of this country may rest in new guidelines that will serve us better in the long term because they make for fundamental stability in both the social and economic spheres.
In nearly every aspect of Barbadian life there are certain critical changes to be made if we are to guarantee our long-term development. We must try to see past the often self-congratulatory notions of the ruling party and the doom and gloom of the Opposition.
The truth is that there is much in the local culture that imperils the possibility of overall, long-term development. The advice of Gisela Stuart, Labour MP for Birmingham, England, is germane to Barbados. She stated in the December 6, 2006 edition of the RSA Journal: “We are in grave danger of forgetting what the foundations of our economic prosperity are.
“We’ve taken affluence for granted. I think we need to have a serious stock-take of our own institutions and the way we operate.” 
Firstly, it must be obvious that we need to address the issue of reform in the Public Service and the way statutory corporations function. We are suffering under what British Prime Minister David Cameron called “the dead weight of bureaucracy”.
In a recent letter appearing in the Press, the chief executive officer of Invest Barbados is quoted as saying that “bureaucracy is a serious hindrance to economic recovery and growth”.
“It takes too long to get Cabinet plans actioned and to respond to investment proposals.” But this was being said ages ago.
Barbadians appear to understand the problems; every seminar and workshop spells them out. But talk is never complemented by appropriate action. Either we really don’t know what to do or we lack the moral and political will to do it. Secondly, there is need for serious qualitative improvement in our education system across the board.
BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY recently quoted a National Initiative for Service Excellence survey which showed that some 80 per cent of school-leavers admitted they were not ready for the world of work and many of the new workers in the job market lacked “most of the critical skills and the ethos” that employers wanted. The Edutech claim that it could forge a “learning revolution” was always an idle boast, based on the notion that educational technology had the capacity to enhance cognitive growth and affective development. 
Soon after his return to Barbados, the late Professor Stanley Reid made a statement I have never forgotten. He claimed that Barbados was enjoying a standard of living that it had not earned. One could question the statement based on the fact that this country has never defaulted on its debt. So it could be argued that we have paid our way in the world, at least up to now.
The present crisis offers us an opportunity to examine whether we are in fact living above our means, individually and collectively. A noted American academic warned that the notion of development based on the promise of ever increasing material gain is flawed even in the United States with its tremendous natural and human resources. New guidelines in Barbadian life, while not ignoring economic growth, might focus more on social stability, social equity and cohesion. Individually and collectively we may need to move away from what Avinash Persaud calls “consumption binging” based on reckless borrowing and marginal savings.
The unravelling of Barbadian society that Peter Laurie seems to fear is likely to be reflected in and felt more in terms of social dislocation. Economic recession does not necessarily cause social unravelling if basic values are intact to sustain social probity.
Ultimately the true development in the Caribbean will depend on the restoration of social discipline and, in particular, our capacity to govern effectively in the face of the threat from the drug and gun cultures. Our laissez-faire attitude to social behavioural issues, our insouciant handling of the affective instruments of formal and informal education does not bode well for social development which must underscore all other forms of growth.
Am I hopeful that new and effective guidelines will evolve in Barbadian life? As one writer said in another context, I remain hopefully pessimistic. Successive Governments’ record on solving problems relating to the ZR culture, large-scale praedial larceny and the drug and gun culture do not inspire hope.  Rather than taking hard decisions, Barbadians have become pedlars of clichés, moving from one simplicity to another. As a people we have become too obsessed with personal, material ambition and too little concerned with high public communal aspirations.