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THE BIG PICTURE: Ideas of Barbados

Ralph Jemmott

THE BIG PICTURE: Ideas of Barbados

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The present difficulties in Barbados have provoked comment from some eminent persons elsewhere in the region. One such was “Denting Bajan Pride” by Terrence Farrell, former deputy governor of the Trinidad and Tobago Central Bank and former CEO of One Caribbean Media. Later, St Vincent and the Grenadines’ Prime Minister Ralph Gonzalves penned his thought-provoking “Idea of Barbados”.

Farrell professed himself an admirer of Barbados and Barbadians, seeing us as “easily the most disciplined of Caribbean territories . . . cautious, risk averse and not generally given to excess”.

Dr Gonzalves’ was an even more laudatory profile of our country, buying into the mythology of Barbadian exceptionalism. Barbados is, he posited, “an Idea”, suggesting a community vested with special qualities.

Even Barbadians were a little surprised by the generosity of the plaudits, reminding one of the widow who after hearing the high praise heaped in the eulogy for her departed husband, confessed she hardly recognised “the difficult wutless man she was married to for the last 30 odd years”.

The Vincentian prime minister contends that the idea of Barbados has become “manifest in reality”, but social reality is not an objective concrete thing. We perceive the external world through the prism of our individual experience and we do not all inhabit the same reality, even though we live certain shared experiences.

Gonzalves’ notion of Barbados as an “Idea” implies a level of cultural coherence that arguably does not even exist. Culture – the prevailing body of values, attitudes and sensibilities – is neither monolithic nor static. Since the 1970s, manifest Barbadian reality has appreciably changed.

In addition there are contradictions in all cultures. Let’s take Farrell’s concept of Barbadians as cautious, risk averse and not given to excess. The problem is that those qualities can work for the good or for the bad. They may have saved us from the kind of political and social adventurisms that have created havoc elsewhere in the region. However, those same qualities may now be working to our disadvantage.

In an age when we need to activate and innovate to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world, we seem incapable of implementing anything and that deficit is killing us. Barbadians are not given to real transformative thinking. Our conservatism renders it difficult to conceive of radical alternative forms of economic and socio-political organisation.

The promotion of radical change is often regarded as an invitation to disorder. We now seem like a Ship of Fools becalmed on a wide open sea.      

What then were the signature, defining achievements that once invited envy and sometimes emulation elsewhere in the region?

1. The high quality of material human development, given the relative paucity of the island’s natural resources. Much of that development was based on a strong work ethic and an appreciable level of welfare redistributions and transfers within the context a progressive social democratic polity. This has enabled us to avoid the extremes of wealth and expansive poverty seen elsewhere in the region.

2.  A high level of non-material psycho-socio development reflective of an appreciable level of public intelligence, itself reflective of a qualitatively sound formal education informed by moral understanding and common sense conducing to a recognisable degree of social order.  

3. While not an exemplar of excellence, Barbados has been true to its liberal democratic traditions with a reasonable level of competence and integrity in its governance in both the economic and political spheres.   

What Gonzalves might find in 2014 is that in each of these spheres Barbados now finds itself considerably challenged. If Barbados is an Idea in the sense conceived, then it should be understood that ideas can dissipate and lose their cogency in the face of socio-cultural change.

Institutions that incorporate and enhance the positives in the culture can for one reason or another, begin to lose their efficacy. Barbados, let me hasten to say, is not a failed or even a failing state. What is at question in the present crisis is the sustainability of the Barbadian Idea.

To some extent we became the victims of our own partial success. We focused myopically on economic and material development, supposing an ever-rising linear path to material progress without adequately looking to earn it.

The Barbados economy has never grown by more than three per cent since 1966 which would not suggest the affordability of the consumer binges in which we have indulged ourselves, bonfires of vanities and worldly cravings.  

We have failed even more in maintaining the psycho-social probity that was central to the Barbadian Idea. Professor Dan Arley, psychologist and behavioural economist at Duke University, notes that “people are strongly influenced by what is socially acceptable misbehaviour within their own culture”.

We have failed to sustain the limits of socially unacceptable conduct. Barbadians may still have some exceptional gifts, but we must look deeply within ourselves and overcome what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr calls “a most grievous temptation to self-adulation”.    

• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator; email [email protected]