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Small is still beautiful

Small is Beautiful was the title of a groundbreaking and widely-read collection of influential essays on a people-centred approach to economic development, written by the late British economist E. F. Schumacher and published in 1973 as the world was in the grip of the Arab oil crisis.

Debunking mainstream thinking which considered large was better, Schumacher, who delivered the first Central Bank of Barbados-sponsored Sir Winston Scott Memorial Lecture, underscored in the book that there are many advantages which come from being small, whether it is the case of an organization or a country.

He posed the question: “What is the meaning of democracy, freedom, human dignity, standard of living, self-realization, fulfillment? Is it a matter of goods, or of people? Of course it is a matter of people. But people can be themselves only in small comprehensible groups.”

In a thought-provoking guest column published in Barbados TODAY last Friday, retired permanent secretary and top diplomat Dr Peter Laurie, who once served as Barbados’ ambassador to the United States, revived Schumacher’s thesis by providing a timely reminder that small is still beautiful. The lesson is particularly apt in the present challenging circumstances of Barbados.

Indeed, the article contained an important message for Barbados and outlined a way forward to a better future beginning with fundamental reform of our governance model. Coinciding with the observance of our 50th Independence anniversary when many Barbadians are in a reflective mode, the message challenges Barbadians to look beyond the present difficulties and seize the opportunity to position the island to soar to even higher heights of greatness than we have achieved in the last 50 years.

Despite disadvantages stemming from their marginalization on the global stage, especially in relation to the major corridors of international power and decision-making, Dr Laurie noted that small states have still made significant strides in social and economic development, outperforming larger countries in many instances to be in the top 20 on several global indices of human wellbeing, innovation, ease of doing business, quality of life, ‘happiness’ and so on. In some cases, Barbados is definitely among them.

For the purpose of the discussion, a ‘small state’ was defined as having a population of less than 10 million and often five million or less. Among successful small states which satisfy this criteria are Norway, Finland, Maldives, Ireland, Denmark, Singapore, Israel, Sweden, Mauritius, Malta, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Iceland, Bermuda, Austria, New Zealand and Estonia. These countries all share a common characteristic — what Dr Laurie described as “soft power”.

Dr Laurie said small states can compensate for the disadvantages by means of a high degree of flexibility and adaptability that enable them to adjust to a changing environment more quickly. He cited studies which have shown that the major criteria for success for small states are, broadly speaking: intangible infrastructure, the ability to manage globalization and international volatility, and a high level of social trust.

“If we run down the list above, we see that Barbados has the prerequisites of success,” posited Dr Laurie. “What is holding us back is inefficient governance: the lack of visionary political leadership, and an unwieldy, bloated, archaic public service.” Arguing that “we can no longer wait,” the retired top public servant called for governance reform to be made the island’s number one priority with a focus on new forms of ongoing citizen participation, the full incorporation of the latest information technology, the renovation of the Social Partnership, a refocused trade union movement, a smaller, better paid and highly efficient public service, and a think tank promoting innovation.

We could not agree more as this paper in its editorials too has been emphasizing the need for governance reform. Let’s face it: our governance model has not undergone any major changes since Independence 50 years ago. Those arrangements may have sufficed back then but Barbados today is a fundamentally different place, existing in a world which too has seen sweeping change since 1966. A strong case for change therefore exists.

Our Golden Jubilee has focused a bit too heavily on the hosting of celebratory events when there is a real pressing need for a serious national conversation on the future. We may have lost time but it is not too late for such a conversation to begin, especially with the approach of the next general election. Interestingly, just this past weekend, the Opposition Barbados Labour Party identified governance reform as a priority.

We need more civic-minded citizens to come forward and express their views, in the way Dr Laurie has done, for the noble cause of a better Barbados, land that we dearly love and our sweet island home.

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