AS I SEE THINGS: Institutional reforms and the public interest
In last week’s contribution, I encouraged people to stand up and express themselves on matters of national significance in the public interest to ensure that real problems such as increasing poverty and high unemployment could be addressed and resolved for the good of the massive. But in so doing, it is important that certain key aspects of our economies and societies are fully incorporated into the deliberations. Why?
A sizeable proportion of Caribbean countries’ working populations are public officers/civil servants. In several countries, civil servants easily account for about 40 per cent of the workforce. More importantly, these officers are, by law and regulations, not permitted to make public utterances without permission from the relevant authorities, usually public services commissions. The irony here is that often, these individuals are among the most educated and knowledgeable sections of the population.
Hence, therefore, this rule of “inscrutability” of silence has to be the subject of meticulous debate with a view to appropriate legal and regulatory changes so that the most educated among us are not hobbled. Without such action, the idea of getting people to speak out on critical issues in our societies will only resonate with those among us who are permitted to speak and write publicly, many of whom have to consider two other factors.
First, Caribbean societies are small, to very small, to tiny. Victimisation is easier in very small societies and it affects not only the individual who stands up and expresses his/her opinion but also other family members.
Secondly, even those working for private businesses can come under immense pressure – pressure brought by politicians on the businesses they work for and, thus, indirectly on the workers.
Indeed, we have to remember that to conduct transactions, businesses have to obtain licences from relevant departments of government: import and export licenses, just to name obvious ones. Businesses also have to negotiate with governments things such as tax waivers on, say, the importation of key inputs for production.
Clearly, there is often a heavy dependence on the state both in the above ways and often also for contracts and other issues that are essential to the success of private enterprises. In small societies, those controlling the levers of the state have far more powers over private businesses than in large, economically developed countries.
Family and friendship ties can also inhibit many from speaking up in circumstances where it may be believed that such action would hurt the reputation of a family member or close friend. These realities matter far more in small societies where everyone is related to nearly everyone else.
The political culture of not speaking up will need to be broken and legislation imposing severe punishments on anyone trying to stifle dissent will also need to be part of the package of changes if we really want to see people unafraid to speak out on matters of national potency in the public interest.
Finally, all and sundry must recognise that our small societies in the Caribbean can benefit tremendously from individuals standing up for what is right and being willing to take concrete action to bring about real changes in the way we do things in the name of the public. But, alterations in existing laws and regulations, especially those affecting the ability of public servants to challenge even governments’ policies, must become a major and inevitable feature of immediate institutional reforms in our countries.