When silence is far from golden
Speaking at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus Thursday night, during one of the series of lectures to mark Barbados’ 50th anniversary of Independence, lecturer in economics and political studies, Dr Kristina Hinds-Harrison, touched on a sore point for many Barbadians.
Dr Hinds-Harrison, during her discourse on the subject Pride And Nationhood, acknowledged the strides that Barbados had made but noted the island’s development had nonetheless been retarded over the years. And she linked much of this to an absence of proper accountability, transparency and people participation in our governance processes. The absence of legislation that gave Barbadians the legal right to public information, she said, was a critical factor that needed to be addressed.
The academic also touched on the vexing question of integrity legislation. She reminded those in the audience of the Prevention of Corruption Act that gained favour with both sides of the Lower House in 2012 but to date still remained meaningless black and white script since it had not been proclaimed.
As of 2016 there are more than 100 democratic countries that have enacted laws that give their citizens the legal right to public information. In some jurisdictions, such legislation is more than 200 years old. In countries such as Canada private citizens have been accessing information from federal bodies for more than three decades as a right.
Of course, in most if not all these jurisdictions, there is also privacy legislation that prevents persons accessing personal information that might be in the possession of the Government. But the overarching ideal is that citizens have a lawful right to be made privy to public information that impacts on their day to day existence and livelihoods.
It is almost embarrassing that 50 years after the attainment of Independence, when it relates to public information Barbadians are treated with scant respect not only by politicians elected to serve them, but also by state technocrats who mimic their political masters.
When one takes into consideration that the machinery of Government is serviced in large measure by the taxes of its citizens, it is a massive slap in the face when the servants of the people treat the general public with disdain when they seek to acquire information or explanation about public matters, whether enquired personally or through the facility of the media.
Within the Barbadian context, our politicians and senior public officials can smugly offer a “no comment” to any question of public interest and walk like peacocks into the sunset without fear of sanction or reprimand. Something must be wrong with such a practice. In jurisdictions such as the United States, a sportsman can be fined by his sport’s ruling body if he is designated to speak with the media and refuses. The rationale is that the people are the lifeblood of the sport and deserve to be accommodated.
There are several matters of public importance about which the Barbadian citizenry remains in the dark because officials are laws onto themselves. And one can argue that 99.9 per cent of the time the answers have no bearing on national security. The answers might expose corruption or incompetence but in several instances, people refuse to accommodate John Public because they have failed to carry out the functions for which they avail themselves of a monthly salary.
We have had a situation in Barbados where chicken wings were imported through official channels when they should not have been. To date, despite efforts for clarification, no one in officialdom has seen it necessary to provide Barbadians with an answer.
We have a situation where some years ago motor vehicles were brought into the island, ostensibly to be used by the Royal Barbados Police Force, but have never been part of that establishment’s fleet. No answers for the public on that or about the latest fleet of garbage trucks that reportedly landed in the Bridgetown Port.
Annually, we have an Auditor General reporting questionable financial practices in Government, and though some might be met with explanation, most go without full vent from those responsible for the infelicities. Sadly, such occurrences in Barbados are the rule, and not the exception.
Has anyone ever provided answers to the questions raised about the final costs attached to Greenland? Or Gems of Barbados? And what ever happened to Four Seasons?
Have all questions previously raised about the housing project at Coverley, Christ Church, and related concessions, ever been answered? And what about the goings-on at Constant, St George? Has the money paid by Government for contracted roofing work not done at Kensington Lodge ever been recovered, as once promised by a Minister of Housing?
It is these circumstances that add to our appreciation for the words of Dr Hinds-Harrison. One can only imagine what greater things could have been achieved in Barbados if there was greater accountability; if our politicians and state technocrats were under a legal obligation to answer to the public or provide documented information on the questions they pose.
Unfortunately, Barbadians settle for too little and often are fed much less by the persons they place in charge. Perhaps, it is our culture and one that our leaders are very much aware of and often are only too happy to exploit. The wall of silence and institutionalized indifference has become most palatable.