COLUMN – Bajans on the brink
We are creeping up to the brink of an abyss in Barbados.
Here is the problem: the forms of governance that by and large served us well for the first 40 years of Independence can no longer meet the challenges, internal and external, that we face as we approach our 50th anniversary of Independence. If we continue doing the same old things in the same old way, we will fall into the abyss, or, more accurately, we will, at best, cease to be a country that “punches above its weight” internationally, thus lapsing into mediocrity; or, at worst, become another statistic in the sorry category
of failed states.
The glue that holds us together and that has accounted for our extraordinary success up to recently is the belief of our people in Barbados (in sociological terms, a high level of social trust). Once that belief starts to crumble, Barbados could easily implode. Everybody will break for himself. Some of us will escape; most will suck salt.
Already we see ominous signs of the decay of social trust.
Young people are fast becoming cynical and totally mistrustful of politicians because they feel that the politicians are in it only for the money. They consider voting a waste of time (unless they are paid to do so).
Bajans of all classes feel frustrated, helpless and angry that neither the politicians in office nor the civil servants are prepared to listen to them or even talk to them. We are kept in the dark. People see no institutional outlet for them to participate in the decisions that affect their lives other than voting every four or five years. There is a simmering cauldron of resentment bubbling in Barbados.
The problem is not confined to the governing political party. The party in Opposition, like all parties in Opposition, no doubt feels that if only it were given the opportunity to govern, it would sort things out quickly and solve all our problems.
That is a dangerous delusion. Unless there is a radical change of governance in Barbados, we will fall off the cliff into the abyss.
Now, there are some people who think that party politics is the root of the problem. But our political parties, once they had strong visionary leadership, have by and large served us well over the years and have contributed to our political and economic stability. But they too need reforming.
The shenanigans that have gone on in both the DLP and the BLP over the past two decades over the issue of leadership and, to a lesser extent, the selection of candidates, have brought both parties into disrepute. The election of party leaders must be made in a more transparent, accountable and democratic manner.
The role of money in politics has become scandalous. We desperately need to look at how parties are funded and campaign finance reform.
A new party has been announced, but there is little scope for third parties in Barbados, unless the two major parties continue myopically along the path of complacency.
But reforming political parties alone won’t be enough.
Practically every aspect of public policy in Barbados is in a crisis of some kind: education, health, social welfare, the administration of justice, agriculture, and business facilitation being the worst cases. The first four of these especially impact on social trust.
Simply put, the policies which were put in place to raise masses of people out of poverty 60 years ago now no longer work. We cannot go on doing the same things over and over and expect different results.
Our Public Service has become bloated, inefficient and a drag on growth and innovation. That is not the fault of those who work there; it is the system in which they work. The system is characterized by archaic management structures and practices, and a shortage of expertise in the areas of finance, project management, change management, and IT management.
The good news is that public sector reform can be accomplished over six to eight years without any mandatory lay-offs. This would entail reducing both expenditure and staff by 15 to 20 per cent, and putting new management systems in place to ensure both
a humane and productive work environment.
It would then be useful to peg employment in the public sector to a percentage of the labour force. Most important of all, we should transition gradually to a performance-driven Public Service in which employees are compensated at private sector levels as in Singapore. All this should be done in close consultation with the trade unions.
Incidentally, both business and trade union governance also need reforming. Business lacks management skills, and trade unions must understand what it takes to promote the rights of workers in the 21st century.
At the same time, the trimming of the state is not simply a technical exercise necessitated by our fiscal crisis. We have to be sure we understand the political philosophy underlying the state. In Barbados, since Independence, there is a national consensus on social democracy that ensures the state both provides the fiscal and regulatory framework for economic growth and business activity, and also guarantees social justice and the common good.
That is why I have suggested previously that state reform should begin not by looking at the existing institutional infrastructure, but by asking and answering the question: given our political philosophy, what should be the purposes and functions of the state in Barbados
in the 21st century?
This leads us to the essential reform we need: a move to open, participatory governance. We must provide mechanisms for citizen participation in the policy decisions that affect us (including what is the shape of the state to be).
This is not a romantic notion about the cathartic benefits of direct democracy; it is essential to our economic well-being. The best ideas now reside in civil society, and we must find a way of institutionally tapping them.
(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)