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The Barbadian project

Ralph Jemmott

The Barbadian project

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In 1996 in the lead article in Barbados: Thirty Years Of Independence, Dr DeLisle Worrell posed the question as to whether the gains which Barbadians have made in living standards could be consolidated and used as the basis for further development. In 2013, the question is even more poignant and there is even greater cause for doubt.
Some caution that the Barbadian project seems to be stalling as the country faces an array of problems, of which the present economic distress is only a part. Anyone who believes that the problem is simply one of making a $400 million adjustment to our fiscal deficit must be seriously deluded. There are times when one wonders whether Barbados is not economically, politically and socio-culturally on the wrong developmental path.
For a country that likes to boast of its social capital, the social indicators do not augur well. We seem to be planting more marijuana plants now than we plant canes. One wonders who is consuming all that dope. Could the human capital be going up in smoke?
For a country that does not make ammunition, we seem to have an awful lot of guns, most apparently in waistbands of unemployed and unemployable young men. Larceny of all kinds seems to be the order of the day. You can’t even revive two ageing horses before they are stolen. While we obsess ourselves with the preservation of Bridgetown and its environs, the human environment decays and the alleys of the City reek of urine. We built a new and expensive Supreme Court, but a veteran lawyer claims the judicial system is becoming “dysfunctional”. Could all these be symptomatic of what Hal Austin, in his April 28, 2010 column called “a system rotting away”?
Perhaps even more bothering is the state of a current political class that seems bereft of energy, creativity or intellectual depth. The recent outburst of the Minister of Education within Parliament could be indicative of the depths to which we may be sinking. A veteran leader has described the last Parliament as “poor-rakey”. While we should be facing up to our challenges with honesty and zest, we are distracted by “the idols and antics of escapism” of our new-found “we culture”. Robust popular entertainment, “the excesses of a superficial society”, cannot constitute the totality of a progressive culture. But the Minister of Culture promises more. The Wild Coot says: “Too much foolishness going on and all we thinking about is feting.”
The mantra that Barbados is a society and not just an economy is valid, but it must go beyond the idea that a society can be constructed on handouts and entitlements at a time when the country is increasingly incapable of sustaining traditional levels of social spending. In both the short and long terms, the “clientalist” tradition of benefits for votes will have to be restrained. Governments in Barbados must say no to persistent importuning of the public purse. Meanwhile, the imperatives of a good society, discipline and the enforcement of law and order, remain unheeded. There is more to successful living than simply earning a living.
All that said, Barbados is by no means a failed or a failing state. The United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean recently noted the existence of stable public institutions and an educated workforce as positives that could aid recovery. However, Barbados has reached a fork in the road and must decide which way to proceed as too many inefficiencies have crept in.
Boom and bust are not uncommon in the public finances of most capitalist economies. Since 1966 this country has faced three definable crises. Firstly, there was the 1970s when world oil prices rose sharply from 1971 to 1973 and later in 1979. Secondly, in 1991 Barbados’ national income fell for the first time in 50 years as the economy stagnated and our national creditworthiness dissipated. A balance of payments crisis forced the country to go to the International Monetary Fund which imposed stringent conditions. Now there is the present crisis marked by extended slow or non-existent growth in the key productive sectors and a severe crisis in the public finances characterized by recognizably high and unsustainable fiscal deficits and debt.
The present crisis is different. It is part of the worldwide crisis that has its origins in the sub-prime mortgage investment scandal that broke late in 2007 and had repercussions across a world that is still struggling to recover. Lower growth rates of one or two per cent will be the new normal. The British economy grew by a mere 0.6 per cent so far this year. The Daily Telegraph notes that Britain ended July with a debt approaching 90 per cent of GDP. The Bundesbank expects the German economy to grow by no more than 0.3 per cent in 2013. Any argument that seeks to divorce our current economic woes from these circumstances is bogus and deceiving.  
Sir Frank Alleyne is right when he opines that Barbados faces serious problems on both the expenditure and revenue sides of the nation ledger. More taxation seems out of the question. Already excessive taxation may be drying up the productive sectors. The tax and spend nonsense must cease. Greater efficiencies are needed in revenue collection. Tax loopholes must be closed and tax cheats brought to account.
The spending side is the critical issue and this, we are told, will be the core of an upcoming Budget. It should long have been recognized that the correction had to come on the spending side, but perverse politics stood in the way of fiscal discipline.
• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator; email [email protected]