COLUMN – Business deserves better break
Barbadians have a generally negative image of business that is also the source of an underlying hostility. Business historically has been such an ugly word that the mere mention triggers, in the mind of the average Barbadian, an almost instantaneous association with greed, exploitation and putting profits before people and principle.
While examples of such behaviour may have abounded in the past and undoubtedly still exist, they are more of an exception than the rule because business is tightly regulated today. The blanket characterization, therefore, is unfair. There are many businesses which demonstrate a social conscience, are ethical in their dealings, and practise a high level of corporate social responsibility. A major failing is not sufficiently defining themselves through more effective telling of their story.
Who or what has been responsible for giving business such a bad rap? With increasing calls at this critical stage of our development journey for the private sector to play a leading role in generating economic growth and increasing national prosperity, I have spent considerable time reflecting on this question lately to come up with a plausible answer. It seems to be a combination of historical factors, some of which linger even though actual conditions have improved.
From my analysis of Barbadian history, especially the modern society which evolved following the 1937 labour riots which represent a watershed, it seems the hostility to business, within the majority black population, is the culmination of decades of indoctrination. It occurred, unknowingly to most Barbadians, through consistent exposure to the anti-business rhetoric of political parties, trade unions, and some academics especially historians. The media have also contributed through their news coverage and social commentary.
Barbados is essentially a pro-labour country with a distinctly socialist orientation. However, the masses, in their political thinking and behaviour, are, ironically, conservative. Indeed, it can be said that the modern post-1937 society is largely the creation of the trade union movement and the two dominant political parties over which organized labour, at different times, have wielded considerable influence. While capital and labour need each other and must co-exist, labour is inherently anti-capital and vice versa.
This situation is not unique to Barbados. Indeed, it is replicated across the Caribbean in countries with a British colonial background where Labour parties, often with a trade union arm, have dominated politics and maintained a stranglehold on government for the past 50 years. As a result, labour’s agenda often became the government’s agenda. It was given expression, for example, in the generous welfare state which became a defining feature of modern Barbados and contributed to improving life for working people and spawning a black middle class by the 1970s.
It was a rebalancing of sorts. Whereas the state had served as a tool of the wealthy during the colonial period and had advanced their interests to the general disadvantage of the working class, the tables were now effectively turned. Labour was now in political control, even though the former ruling class retained economic dominance including ownership of business which came to be seen, through this association, as a representation of the old order. Perhaps the best-known examples were BS&T and Plantations Ltd, which today are no more.
The context of this sometimes bruising struggle between labour and capital provided fertile ground, therefore, for the seed of anti-business sentiment to germinate and flourish. So much so that if any black working class boy from my generation had told his parents that he wanted to go into business after leaving school, the plan most likely would have been met with resistance. Their advice was either to get a job in government if you had done well in school and were looking for gainful employment, or study law and medicine in particular if you were thinking of pursuing a profession.
Such parental thinking probably explains why so many thriving black businesses of yesteryear never made it past one generation, often dying with the interment of the founder. It is instructive that in many cases, the owner of the business, usually the father, made a special effort to ensure that his sons in particular received a better education than he did, thus preparing them to channel their energies elsewhere instead of helping to build further success for the family business.
It could be that the founders also shared society’s negative image of business and never saw their ventures as meant to last but more as a convenient way of meeting the needs of the family until better came along. This negative image of business and making money is, however, changing. Increasingly today, young people leaving school are expressing an interest in doing business which is a positive development. I’ve always maintained that the ultimate objective of Errol Barrow’s social revolution which began with free education, was empowering ordinary Barbadians through ownership.
Anyone who has carefully studied what Barrow had to say would notice his repeated reference to the need for Barbadians to take control of the “commanding heights” of the economy. As he opted not to pursue this objective through nationalization which Eric Williams, Michael Manley and Forbes Burnham had done in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana respectively, the logical conclusion is that Barrow, through education, was laying the groundwork for Barbadians to quietly do so through establishing and owning businesses which would come to dominate the economy.
With the demise of the old Barbadian business class and increased foreign ownership and control of the economy, there is a clear need for pro-active government policy to nurture the development of a new indigenous business class. The policy on entrepreneurship is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough. The sale of state assets to Barbadians through credit unions and the outsourcing of some government services to enterprising Barbadians can be effective steps towards spawning a new business class. A major problem, however, is that the culture of government is so anti-business that government often comes across more as a frustrator than a facilitator.
We need to nurture from an early age a positive image of business in our people and the best place to begin is within the primary school. Such an approach would instill an appreciation in our children, as part of their socialization, that there is nothing bad about doing business and making money, provided that it is done ethically and responsibly. By so doing,
we could very well be laying the groundwork for many future Barbadian Bill Gates to emerge.
A bright future for Barbados is inextricably tied to a bright future for business. Business generates national wealth and prosperity, not big, inefficient government such as what we have. Creating the right enabling environment for business to thrive calls for an appropriate public policy response, beginning with the creation of a wholesome mindset in our people.
That is the economic challenge of our time, especially for the two political parties which take turns running the country. Otherwise, all the talk of Barbados becoming a thriving business hub will remain, to use the words of Haile Selassie I, “nothing but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained”.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)