Need for radical shift

With Barbados still grappling with a stubbornly high fiscal deficit, the demands on the Treasury have been unrelenting.

In particular, the costs of health care, education and transportation have been rising globally – domestic circumstances have been no different. Health care systems have been under increasing pressure from an aging population, greater life expectancy and a higher incidence of chronic diseases. All this at a time when there is a legitimate need to increase health care capacity while improving tertiary care and long-term care (i.e. care for the elderly).

Similarly, the rising cost of energy has rendered the operation of land, air and sea transportation a monumental undertaking. Globally, airlines, shipping companies and public transit authorities have all had to increase their fares in order to remain viable. This has not precluded some airlines from filing for bankruptcy or metropolitan transit commissions from incurring multi-million dollar deficits. Since 2006, college tuition has also been on the rise in North America and Europe.

In the case of Barbados, it seems that the Government can no longer afford the attendant costs associated with the pursuit of the goal of having a university graduate in every household – a goal that seems to negate the national need for technical and vocational skills. Moreover, the bloated student enrolment at the UWI’s Cave Hill campus has been putting the quality of the student body’s education in peril while destabilising Government’s public finances.

These challenges have been in the making before January 2008 but the current fiscal crisis, economic decline and increasing social demands on Government has drawn them into sharp focus. Half measures will not suffice, neither will stop gap loans to the UWI or the Transport Board; loans which these institutions are not obligated to repay, loans which ultimately will have to be repaid by central government or rather the tax payers. What is needed is a radical policy shift on education, health care and public transportation.

It is against this background that I have a number of questions for our leaders in Government and those aspiring to take the reins of government. What lasting solutions to the aforementioned financial and social challenges are you prepared to implement during the next five years? It cannot be business as usual. We simply cannot afford it. Don’t you agree that there is an urgent need to restructure the operations of government for the benefit of Barbadians? Do you believe that Barbados can still afford its commitment to “free” education and health care? If so, is it realistic to substantially improve education, health care and public transportation in Barbados without a new approach to their management, operations and funding mechanisms? Shortfalls of $100 million here, $40 million there and $70 million yonder, for deteriorating services are unsustainable. Barbados cannot progress if we continue like this.

Given the importance of an efficient public transportation system to national productivity, do you think that the two-tier system of privately operated public transportation competing with publicly operated public transportation is adequately serving the needs of Barbadians?

Do you believe that the quality of service justifies the costs to the travelling public and taxpayers? There is a need for comprehensive rationalisation of transportation in Barbados. I do not believe privatisation is the answer. What do you think about restructuring, recapitalising and re-branding the Transport Board to ensure that Barbadians have access to reliable, convenient and affordable transportation for work, school and play?

Public Service Vehicles and the Transport Board should be complements not competitors. Have you considered phasing out PSVs or restoring order and discipline to our nation’s roads? What is the role of the Transport Authority?

In order to achieve reliable island-wide public transit some level of state subsidy will be required. The question is not if the Government should subsidise the Transport Board. The questions are: What magnitude of subsidy is affordable and appropriate in exchange for the social good that is public transit? And what standard of service should the public expect in exchange for their hard earned tax dollars?

How do you propose to revolutionise education and health care in Barbados? How will that revolution be paid for? Finally, I would like to ask the current administration, can you give us an update on the status of your proposal to partially privatise BNOC, GAIA Inc. and the Barbados Port Inc?

I want our politicians to tell us what their visions are for Barbados and how they plan to take us there. We would like to know what they want Barbados to look like in the next five to ten years. Can I hope to get any of my questions answered during the next eight months? I think the public would like to know…

Carlos R. Forte is a Commonwealth Scholar and Barbadian economist with local and international experience.

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