Towards economic independence
Economic empowerment, as opposed to job creation, is an ideal worth struggling to achieve. For years, increasing the number of jobs in a country has been a boast for politicians.
It looks good when the number of persons employed increases and it certainly doesn’t augur well when that number decreases.
Moving beyond job creation to economic independence is as important a means test for any society as the employment figures are.
Economic empowerment and independence do not necessarily mean not working for someone else but it can involve a combination of being gainfully employed while at the same time ensuring the wealth one is acquiring is utilized effectively and increasing in worth.
Easier said than done for some as, for many, the struggle is to keep up with bills and financial commitments, especially in an economy with a spiralling cost of living and more taxes added to the burden.
What is needed is the creation of a climate and culture of economic enfranchisement that permeate the society. This certainly can be achieved if we seriously and sincerely put our hearts and minds to it.
From our homes to our schools to our financial institutions to our Government, all can work in tandem to create such a mindset. I believe Barbadians already exhibit such a capacity and it is simply a case where energies can be focused on tapping into this characteristic. It requires giving motivation and the tools necessary to achieve that potential.
I come from a community and a background that instill pride in an individual to be economically independent. It is a mindset that is cultivated from a young age, reinforced through the community and ensured through cooperation and mutual assistance.
Several cultures have varying ways of ensuring similar economic empowerment strategies. Barbados throughout its history has employed several methods aimed at helping people to maintain financial stability and independence.
The Gujarati community here in Barbados is unique among the Caribbean islands. Gujarat is a region in western India. Today, that region is highly industrialized and performing comparatively well economically.
Back in the early 20th century, while still under British rule, that area was mainly agriculture and impoverished. Many Gujaratis, for economic reasons, migrated to several parts of the British Empire.
Sabir Nakhuda’s book Bengal to Barbados documents the first Gujaratis arriving here in the late1920’s. They fell in love with Barbados and, being part of the British Empire, they stayed and established themselves in a business enterprise that survives until today and provides a unique form of doing trade on credit.
I was invited to present at the recently held Genealogy Marketplace put on by the Archives Department and the Barbados Tourism Product Authority. I was asked to look at the genealogy of my family. As I prepared for that, I came across an interesting article entitled the The Gujurati Way: Secrets of the world’s best businesspeople. It was carried in the Economist in December 2015.
The article examined the successes of Gujaratis who migrated to various parts of the globe starting from the late 19th century. These stories from Australia to Africa to North America highlights penniless people leaving their dust swept villages in Gujarat for distant lands in search of a more economically secured standard of living.
“Gujaratis have never been put off by small matters such as distance or temperature. Nowadays they form one of the most prominent immigrant communities in Canada, and at the other end of the Earth they constitute a large proportion of the 155,000 immigrants of Indian origin in New Zealand.
And at all points of the compass in between, from Fiji to Britain, from Myanmar to Uganda, they have built flourishing communities. It may even be true, as one Gujarati organization has claimed, that the only countries where they have not settled are “those which are very small, undeveloped or are merely small islands without much business opportunity”.
We in Barbados know that last sentence to be not true. Gujaratis indeed found a home in Barbados and a business opportunity in the unique itinerant trade. It was a trade started by their predecessors, the Bengalis, who came in smaller numbers from around 1910 and whom the Gujaratis found here when they arrived.
The stories of these early migrants are worth sharing and I was happy that the National Cultural Foundation, in its oral history research project, chose to interview my father on the experiences of these early East Indian migrants.
As I sat in on the interview, I heard recounted the struggles of our forefathers to establish themselves in business and the conditions that existed in Barbados post 1937 riots and pre-Independence. I also understood more clearly that intense desire to be economically independent.
The Economist article spoke to the business acumen of the Gujaratis:
“Business, indeed, is the principal business of Gujaratis. Everywhere, they are to be found running businesses, from corner-shops to hotels, from tech start-ups to some of the world’s largest conglomerates. Like the Jews, Chinese, English, Scots and Lebanese, they have come to form an impressive global commercial network. In proportion to their numbers (about 63m live in India, and there could be anything from 3m to 9m abroad), they could even claim to be the most successful.”
More importantly, the article also highlighted the fact that being economically independent was almost in the DNA makeup of the Gujarati.
“These stories point to a couple of outstanding characteristics. Most fundamentally, those Gujaratis who turn to business say that they are constitutionally unsuited to working for other people.
“For them, the best way to work for yourself is to run your own business, “to take your destiny in your hands”, as Russell Mehta, the head of Rosy Blue, a large diamond processor, puts it. For these people, enterprise is virtually a cultural obligation, and has always earned the most respect. Starting a small corner-shop is seen as more impressive than holding a mid-level management job in somebody else’s company.”
Other key characteristics were the role of family and community in building the business spirit:
“Traditionally, most of the finance to start a business comes from within the family, or at least the community. This brings other advantages. “We don’t have to deal with government too much, and mostly not with the banks, as most money comes from families,” says Dinesh Navadiya, the head of the Surat Diamond Association. “So there is little scope for corruption.”
Business failure is also largely handled within families. Gujarati entrepreneurs are risk-takers, but they know that the family network provides a safety net. Even so, failure carries a stigma that may never be wiped clean, especially if the person who has failed is suspected of extracting excessive profits for selfish reasons.”
Newer generations perhaps are now not very much like their predecessors but capturing those ingredients that allowed for the successes of the past is worth attempting. Whether we have our own business or work for others, creating a culture and mindset of being economically independent and empowered is something that can only help build our nation.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI.