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THE BIG PICTURE: Corruption in Barbados

Ralph Jemmott

THE BIG PICTURE: Corruption in Barbados

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I am always amazed when I’m told of some perceived high level of corruption in Barbados. Amazed, because Barbados is supposed to have a relatively low level of malfeasance. In fact, here we don’t speak of corruption, we prefer to talk euphemistically of “infelicities” to imply some “petty misdemeanours”. 
In November 2006 Transparency International gave Barbados a seven out of ten grading on its index with regard to how business and politics are conducted on the island. With three representing a rampant level of wrongdoing, overall Barbados received a favourable ranking – 24th out of 163 countries worldwide.
In 2012 Barbados ranked 15th on a list of 176 countries working to stamp out corruption.
On July 12 the BBC, as part of a series on corruption worldwide, noted Barbados as among the least corrupt polities at a time when the report concluded corruption was in fact on the increase worldwide. Reporter Nick Davies conducted a number of interviews with Barbadians across the social spectrum. Most people, including Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, felt that the “bribe and backhander” culture, either at an individual or institutional level, was not systemic in Barbados. He himself noted that “the rules that are not written down are the ones that hold a country together . . . . Just doing the right thing, these are rules that we take for granted in Barbados and that we seek to promote”. Assuming that the respondents’ opinions reflect some measure of objective truth, Barbadians may still be a fairly morally intuitive people, which makes this country arguably one of the better places in the region in which to live and work.  
Barbados has not been without its fair share of scandals: the so-called Bath Plantation and the Carsicot issues, for example.
It is symptomatic of the ostensibly covert nature of corruption here that up to the present, not much is known about the details of these “infelicities” and no one was ever prosecuted. Depending on one’s level of moral consciousness, it may be flattering to know that Barbados places so high. On the other hand, it may be cold comfort and one might wonder, with a score of seven out of ten, what level of malpractice the three missing points represent.
There are some factors in Barbadian culture that may foster a regime of covert corruption.
As C. Wright Mills points out in his text The Power Elite, political and corporate corruption is but part of a more general immorality, reflecting a wider decline in moral sensibility in which “the private conscience is attenuated and a higher immorality is institutionalized”. A female student caught cheating in a test admitted to cheating but quickly said to me: “Sir, I admit I cheated but, sir, don’t you know you have to do what you have to do to get by in this life?”
I was shocked that at age 14 she had already come to such a conclusion, but admitted to myself that the view was not singular.
The rumours of vote buying and selling in the recent Election may be symptomatic of growing moral corrosion in the culture. It was interesting that in the BBC programme a gentleman in Oistins noted there was not much corruption among his class of people, but that “I don’t know about those white collar guys”.
If we conclude that Barbados is a less morally governed culture than it once was, it may be fair to conclude that immorality is not limited to the political or corporate strata.
Corruption in Barbados as elsewhere is assisted by a lack of transparency. Barbados is a very opaque society in which information that in a more mature democracy would be made available to the public, is held close to the chest. In spite of the professed advocacy of ‘integrity legislation’, no Government has seen it fit to really push the case. Politicians often evoke the virtue of democratic accountability, but when in power, do little to effect it.
Invariably in Barbados, the truth or untruth becomes a matter of rumour, innuendo and conjecture and no one is ever the wiser. Similarly the laws governing libel and slander here are very strict, obviating any real possibility of substantive investigative journalism of the type we see elsewhere. While the state-owned media becomes the propaganda arm of the ruling party, the private media retreats into self-censorship, afraid even to hint that a person might come into political life as a Lazarus and demit office as a Dives.
In some way connected to that fact is the reality that generally speaking, Barbadians do not speak truth to power. Most are fearful of the prestige aura of power, authority and controlling wealth. In his book The Quality Of Life In Barbados, sociologist Graham Dann quotes a well known Barbadian as saying: “Barbados is rapidly becoming a ‘hush yuh mout’ society and it will not be long before Barbadians become mere spectators of the goings on in their own country.”
Barbadians do not speak out loud concerning corruption, but they like to whisper about it. Perhaps it is the disconnect between what is not said and what is so frequently whispered that constitutes the reality of corruption in Barbados. Maybe every one of us needs to look in the mirror and ask himself how truly incorruptible am I and how subject are we as a people (in our haste to “get by”) to what an Economist Magazine writer calls “a culture of perverse incentives”.
• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator.