FIRING LINE: What else is there to be cut?
It seems like it is all bad news for Barbados. At every front, the country is facing serious challenges to its social and economic fabric. The economic report by the governor of the Central Bank indicates that despite all of the layoffs, cuts to tertiary education and all of the other so-called cost-saving measures instituted by Government, there is still a need for us to cut another $174.6 million from the deficit by March, which is just another five months away.
I deliberately used the words “for us to cut”, because, when we say Government, it makes it seems like there is some entity out there that is taking the responsibility for the cuts which is divorced from the rest of us. In reality, while it is true that the mere mortals we have elected and put our trust in will make the decisions about what is to be cut, as a society we all bear the burden of this deficit.
I am not sure that I can say every man, woman and child but most of us – although this situation is not strictly of our making – will have to carry the further weight of any new economic measures directly on our shoulders and not just for the long term. We will bear this weight for a very, very long time. Most of us will perhaps not feel the real impact until we become of pensionable age and there is no pension or until new analysis shows that we would have lost our competitive edge which was fuelled by our education system, particularly our tertiary education.
The private sector was out front to note its concerns over the report and some sections of the sector are already cautioning the society to further tighten our belts and brace for more austerity. As we face the imminent prospect of new cuts, my question is where are these to come from? What else is left to be cut, squeezed and diced up?
More importantly, if all the austerity measures that we endured for most of this year were only able to yield a $77 million reduction in the deficit, what will the Government have to do in five months to raise $174.6 million? Even if it dismantled every social programme that has been the distinguishing factor of this country’s progress, I fail to see how the Government could make the necessary amount of cuts to meet the targets. The austerity will have to go deep and wide.
There should be an early indication of the proposed options and a coherent programme of action that would assure us that our politicians have a well-thought-out plan. Unfortunately, I am sure that once again we will miss the opportunity to awaken the latent nationalistic fervour that is intrinsically Bajan in a call to arms and, instead, our political actors will revert to the lowest common denominator, consumed as they all are by the need to chest thump and speak with false bravado.
I am not a pessimist; I can only call it like it has been shown. We should therefore prepare for the political backtracking, name-calling and blaming and the airy-fairy logic that only politicians can come up with when they want to justify that which can make no sense to the rationale person. Of course, our current crop of politicians continue to outdo themselves pretending as if there is no crisis and there is no issue.
Luckily, politicians and their actions are not the be-all and end-all of the society (many of them might faint at the idea that they are not). If they were, we could as well read the last rites and lay down to die, but they are not. As a society we must realise that we are also political agents even though our actions might only impact our households.
There is still an opportunity left for us all and I want to issue my own call to arms.
I want to ask the independent, progressive development economists to speak out and provide a space for honest reflection and discussion on the way forward. I want to ask them to put alternatives models and options on the table that will allow us to move forward. We have too many good analyses and solutions hidden away behind walls for fear of a political backlash. The time has come for them to stand up and be counted in the national effort.
I want to ask the trade unions to speak again on the behalf of the poor and disenfranchised who have no more notches on their belt to tighten and no more dollars to squeeze. In the coming austerity, who will speak up for them and their plight to remind us all that they are the greatest beasts of burdens in this economic malaise.
Can I ask the academics to come down from the top of the hill and provide the type of analysis that is necessary to help us understand and prepare for the coming social changes. The quarrel with the Government over cuts in income is one thing; right now there is a cause to be fought.
Will the new up-and-coming crop of politicians come forward? We need a regeneration in our political class but importantly people with heart and passion and the intestinal fortitude that provides good, strong and just leadership. Next election will be too late.
Most importantly, the church needs to engage in earnest prayer as this will, above everything else that has gone before, will be our only saving grace.
• Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.