EDITORIAL: Let’s talk divestment
EVEN AS the country looks to new avenues to boost national productivity and open new streams from which to earn more foreign exchange, it is vitally important that we do not forget a debate that has been taking place off and on going back to the days of the Owen Arthur administration.
We refer to the general issue of public sector reform and specifically the divestment of statutory corporations as well as functions carried out by the state that no longer need to fall under its portfolio, or which all evidence suggests could be more efficiently performed in a competitive environment.
All indications are that Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler will be paying detailed attention to this either during the annual Estimates debate in about two months or some time after when he delivers the annual Budget speech and leads the week-long debate that will follow.
In the interim, however, we believe this is a matter that Barbadians generally, as well as representatives of various sectors of the economy and society, should turn the spotlight back on. Let’s have a national debate in a sensible and constructive manner, free of partisan political distractions. A robust and thorough discussion should help to inform our governmental leaders about how the country feels about the matter, and the comments of persons with critical knowledge would help to pitch the parliamentary debate at a much higher level when it eventually comes.
The island’s major unions, particularly the National Union of Public Workers and the Barbados Workers’ Union, which together represent thousands of workers in the public sector that could be impacted by divestment, need to speak loudly. Organisations such as the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Barbados, the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association and other sectoral bodies must also join the debate in the national interest.
There is also a most important place for academic voices in this issue and the relevant units and experts at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies have a part to play. And we refer not just to the traditional talking heads, but some of the younger scholars who, in the eyes of the public, have not yet been tainted by political affiliation or past rhetoric.
As is apparently clearly accepted by sensible people across the country and beyond, post-recession Barbados cannot operate the way it did a decade or more ago. We owe it to current and future generations to maintain or create the kind of environment that would allow them to benefit from the kinds of social services and structures that have helped the country to reach the standing for which it has been recognised.
But the world in which we operate today is in many ways much more competitive and unforgiving and the kinds of inefficiencies and luxuries in our operating systems that we took for granted for so long with little impact on our success can no longer be afforded.
For example, our people, particularly schoolchildren, the elderly and a significant portion of the working class, still need and deserve an efficient public transport system, but we absolutely cannot afford it today if it will be characterised by the kind of wastage that has been a hallmark of the Transport Board for the last quarter-century or more. In this sector outright divestment or private/public sector partnerships have to be part of the future.
And if we approach this issue of divestment sensibly it does not have to be as painful for workers as some believe. It’s time to bring the divestment debate back to the public space.