Privatization by stealth
The level of comprehension analysis in the average Barbadian primary school graduate is nowhere near an acceptable standard.
The deficiencies are not corrected at secondary school and thus, by the time Barbadians reach adulthood, participation in various debates and discussions show a lack of ability to follow sequences, internalize instructions or synthesize and analyze information.
I think this basic challenge in comprehension is at fault for Barbadians not being able to “see down the road”. Barbadians are regarded generally as a people who cannot see something before they are experiencing it. Even when the first signs of an issue appear, Barbadians often seem to miss basic cues.
This time and again feature of Barbadian society is now playing out with the issue of privatization and how it is being approached by the current Government. Former Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and political scientist Professor George Belle asserted months ago that the fundamental problem Barbados faced was a political problem. He opined that nothing would be fixed in the economy or society in Barbados unless it started with fresh elections.
Pollster Peter Wickham wrote a few articles in which he concludes that the incumbent administration of the Government of Barbados does not have the necessary political capital to lead the country though its current challenges.
There is a common thread in the thoughts of both commentators. The simple takeaway is that the current Government does not have a mandate to carry out the adjustments needed to correct the wobble in the Barbadian economy and society. While Wickham stopped short at the diagnosis of the problem, Belle went further to offer the solution to fixing it.
The 2013 election campaign in Barbados ended up being a trial of one fundamental issue which was put forward by the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) as a critical part of turning Barbados’ fortunes around. The BLP wanted to have a discussion with Barbadians about privatization and its place in restructuring the economy.
Due to the comprehension challenges outlined above, the messages were lost in the noise of election campaigning and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) skillfully used visual and new media to reimage the privatization debate into one about employment and loss of social welfare benefits. In shifting the debate, however, the DLP also committed to an agenda of governance without privatization as a tool in addressing the economic issues.
Now, the DLP-led administration seems to be making an about-turn on its campaign stance, creating a situation where they are now executing a programme that the people of Barbados have not agreed to. The discussion around privatization has started again, this time with the Government announcing that it will pay private waste haulers to facilitate waste collection.
The current Government feeds into the lack of comprehension skills in the general population by providing scant details of arrangements. This leaves any discussion which comes up at the most basic level. It is even easier to miss the connections and significant points in the broader picture.
It is not only a discussion about privatization in the waste sector that we are having in Barbados. We are having a general discussion about privatization and I do not think the average Barbadian realizes exactly how much of the crown silver has already been divested. Past the fears about the crown silver though, we should also be watching how the corporate culture that has become associated with Barbados over the years is being eroded among foreign investors.
Barbados has, hitherto, been seen as a country with strong leadership, low levels of corruption and a generally fair playing field from which to do business. It seems as though Barbados has now run out of options and we are on a rushed course of “selling out”. Some of the features which have been introduced with this fast tracked divestment stand to hurt our international business reputation.
In August of this year, the Chief Executive Officer of Rubis Caribbean, Mauricio Nicholls, expressed concerns about the sale of the Barbados National Terminal Company Limited (BNTCL) to Simpson Oil Limited (SOL). Nicholls made the point that Rubis was concerned about the proposed takeover from the point of view that SOL was a retail competitor and then would also control the primary terminal facility.
The article also outlined that Rubis had put in a bid to take part ownership shares in the BNTCL. That offer had been rejected. Nicholls hinted that the rejection could have implications for the presence of Rubis on the island in coming years.
Some of the concerns voiced by Nicholls mirror questions that have been asked by waste haulers regarding the relationship with private waste haulers, the SBRC project and the Government of Barbados. If we stop dealing with these issues singularly and address the underlying meanings, there are some serious and urgent lessons for Barbados.
If every divestment exercise that the Government is involved in receives similar comments from the business men involved, it suggests that the Government needs to outline a clear plan to govern the process of privatization. Further, the Government would need to have strengthened its regulatory agencies to ensure that businesses with concerns could avail themselves of information and a process of complaint.
In spite of what the best practice would suggest, the Fair Trading Commission (FTC) is still operating with a fairly weak structure and far from having explained the plan and approach to privatization, the current Government has no mandate for privatization from the electorate.
Even if there was a more useful administrative mechanism for privatization, however, the overarching issues which Professor Belle and Mr Wickham highlighted are still relevant to the discussion. These are the real reasons why the economy of Barbados is not attracting needed investment.
It is the reason why our investment grades continue to free fall. Barbadians opt not to be active participants at the moment and they probably will not get involved until there is an all-out crisis.
We’ve spent time and energy to nurture a little country and now we seem content to watch it unravel before our very eyes.
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)