OUTSIDE THE BOX: Be brave for love of country
A NUMERICAL TABLE appended to a document should not have the power to make a big man or woman afraid. Perhaps it should, so what follows is a sense of the urgency of now.
I have written about Government debt in this column before but I want to return to it again. Appendix C, Statement of Public Debt and Sinking Fund of the recent Estimates laid before Parliament stated that the total outstanding debt of Government stands at just over $13 billion.
That should scare us all. The stuff of nightmares is that according to Appendix C, some of these foreign debts will become due and payable very soon.
As at February 2017, Barbados had only around $658 million of foreign exchange reserves, as reserves have declined each year over the last four years, as foreign direct investment declined and Government’s worsening credit rating meant that, instead of borrowing on international markets at reasonable rates to replace maturing debts, government appears to use the reserves to repay the debt.
This current strategy to service the debt is unsustainable as Government will soon have to repay two large foreign debts due in 2021 ($300 million) and 2022 ($400 million). Remember this Government told us that the downgrades were nothing to worry about.
Our debt driven economy has been fuelled by successive Governments. This is a fact. To switch from Democratic Labour Party (DLP) to the Barbados Labour Party will not instantly make the debt evaporate or create a more transparent system of governance. The point is that whichever party forms the next Government will have to face debt and governance issues.
It will have to be honest enough with Barbadians on the tasks required to restructure the economy, reduce Government spending and lay the framework for new businesses. This means reform of both Government and private sector, because far too often the public sector takes lashes as if the private sector is immune from criticism.
The Global Competitive Index (2016) out of a rank of 138 countries, with 138 being the worst, ranked Barbados 57 for production process sophistication, 83 for industry collaboration in research, 85 for capacity and innovation and development and 93 for company spending on research and development. Across the board, there is work to be done and time is running out.
Instead of having open and frank discussions about the state of governance in the country, the nearness of an election and constant calls for an election are starting to have the opposite effect. The Government is going on the defensive to defend the indefensible and obstructs itself from taking tough decisions to reform our country.
What we get is an unhealthy diet of DLP Facts. The losers in this game will be the voters, as our systems of governance stink and sink under a lack of accountability and lack of transparency. The matters of good governance, accountability and transparency are bread and butter issues as a poorly governed country will cost its citizens.
Here are some of the facts.
The Auditor General Report on the National Housing High-Rise Apartments at Grotto and Valery stated that the proposed budget for the Valery of $15.79 million increased to $23.58 million, meaning an overrun of $7.78 million. The proposed budget for the Grotto of $18 million was revised to $27.85 million, meaning a cost overrun of $9.85 million.
The Ministers of Finance, Education, Housing and Commerce from recent media reports would have us all believe that a cost-overrun of over $17 million in total for low cost housing is somehow okay or in fact does not exist. It is not okay and does exist.
Therefore, to address corruption and the perception of corruption, it is important to put measures in place to create more transparent and accountable government. A good place to start – as the bill has already, as I understand, passed both Houses of Parliament – is for this Parliament, government and Opposition, before the next election to have the Prevention of Corruption Act proclaimed as law.
Recently, making the rounds on social media has been a video from the BBC News, Business Live, featuring Barbadian Carlton Cummins the co-founder of start-up Aceleron, which transforms end-of-life batteries into low-cost, efficient energy storage solutions.
Cummins has won the Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and has been placed on the short list of Forbes Magazine for the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Class of 2017. Like all Barbadians, I was very excited and proud when I saw the video and even more so, given what it could mean for renewable energy solutions.
I, however, also had another thought. What would it take from a governance and economic perspective to have that sort of start-up operating in Barbados? I have written in this column (February 13, 2017) about attracting Barbadian talent to set up businesses here, through establishing a Barbados Centre for Innovation by rationalising existing Government departments.
But I had to ask myself another question: would any start-up or investor set up business in a country with a national debt that appears out of control, a Parliament and Government that refuses to proclaim a bill it has already passed to prevent corruption, and that scored poorly on a global index for ease of doing business, capacity for innovation and transparency?
I am left to wonder what universe the current ministers of Government occupy. I suppose it is one where any person who seeks to exercise their democratic right to ask questions of the Government whether about Valery, the Grotto, the current Hyatt project or to demand prevention of corruption legalisation, in an effort to hold the Government to account would be in one of Ministers words, an “enemy of the State”.
If speaking out for what is true and right means being an enemy of the State, by all and for all, then that is what is required for the future of our children. The stability of this country may very well depend on it.
• Dr Ronnie Yearwood is a Chevening Scholar, National Development Scholar and Overseas Research Scholar. He has practised law in London, Brussels and the British Virgin Islands and is an international trade specialist, having published and lectured in World Trade Organisation law. Email: [email protected]