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Barbados – 50 years on

GUESTXCOLUMNThe Golden Jubilee of Barbados’ attainment of Independence is worthy of celebration.  It creates an opportunity for all citizens to pause for both celebration and reflection on the significant strides made over the past 50 years while recognizing that maintaining the social and economic improvements in the quality of life of Barbadians is a work in progress and not an end in itself.

The task and responsibility of ensuring that such celebrations, as are currently in progress, embrace the widest possible cross section of our citizens must be borne by each and every one of us.  In this context, it might be very useful to consider what role has been planned for the inclusion of senior citizens, the infirm, the differently able, those who are poverty stricken, the vulnerable, and marginalized and persons from all walks of life who have been forced out of mainstream society for reasons known, unknown or imagined.

Put differently, every effort must be made to ensure that irrespective of one’s station in life, the feeling of belonging to and being included is generated by both officialdom and all other citizens as well. It can be likened unto a momentous family celebration where only those who are seen as being “successful” or “socially and economically connected” are given pride of place while others are relegated to the side lines and left to wallow in their misery.

We have come this far because a significant number of Barbadians have made a wide range of contributions to national development in their respective fields of endeavour or by being the average, unpretentious citizen who has paid his or her taxes while pulling the load ascribed by virtue of the vicissitudes of national life. Of special mention must be the role of the NGO community which very often rose to the occasion and met essential needs which successive governments, for whatever reasons, were unable to adequately address.

One such NGO was the Barbados Family Planning Association which was 12 years old on November 30th, 1966.  This organization was established by a group of volunteers for the purpose of improving the quality of life of Barbadians at a time when the infant mortality rate at 136/1000 was devastatingly high (i.e. for every 1000 births, 136 died before reaching the first birthday). Additionally, many mothers died while giving birth or shortly thereafter from complications of child bearing while village midwives did the best they could, very often by trial and error with disastrous consequences in some cases.

The population birth rate was 34/1000 (for every 1000 women of child bearing age, 34 gave birth in each year). In addition, the national landscape was characterized by poor housing conditions, underdeveloped health care services, malnutrition (especially among children) and very limited opportunities for social and economic advancement. It was recognized that something had to be done to break the existing cycle of impoverishment and underdevelopment.

The BFPA rose to the occasion and provided a range of advocacy, education and services which not only shattered the very negative cycle of deprivation permeating the society but demonstrated a vision of hope and advancement, especially for women, girls and families.  In the face of fierce opposition which was then rooted in backwardness, self-interest, demagoguery and hypocrisy, these trial-blazers pressed on with sustainable policies and programmes which are now grudgingly hailed by some as having been “too successful”.

History will certainly record that the current population of approximately 280,000 could easily have been 450,000 today without the intervention of those BFPA pioneers in 1954.   The recognition that 50 years later, the current population growth rate is considered to be too low and that there is a measure of consensus for some nationally agreed acceleration rate is an opportunity for the BFPA to give the leadership which is now needed and which is well within its capability.

A national population policy is absolutely necessary at this time and, if executed with the required effectiveness and efficiency, can result in the achievement of the most appropriate population growth rate possible at this time.  Included in any proposed population policy must be the provision of a comprehensive range of compelling incentives, coupled with a carefully designed and administered education and advocacy campaign which must be characterized by respect and sensitivity for the fundamental rights and freedoms of men, women and the entire population generally.

Celebrating our nation’s significant milestone, therefore, cannot and must not only be about fun, merriment and patting each other on the back or re-enacting those important cultural expressions necessary for the enlightenment of younger Barbadians. Our 50th Anniversary of Independence must also be about taking a fresh guard and setting our collective sights on the way forward and of necessity ensuring that lessons learnt during the first 50 years are not lost but rather used to shape the course of our nation’s social and economic development for years to come.

Of the utmost importance must be the recognition that we are living in a 21st century world which has emerged as a consequence of significant technological advancement as a global village and that Barbados must not be allowed to either stagnate or regress but rather move forward with a new vision and a clarity of purpose commensurate with our level of education, our place in the community of nations and our sacred commitment to today’s generation and to those who will inherit this nation long after we are gone.

A happy, healthy, peaceful and an enjoyable 50thAnniversary of Independence to all Barbadians!

(George S. Griffith is a social development advocate and former executive director of the Barbados Family Planning Association.)

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