A make or break Budget for Barbados

On May 30, Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Chris Sinckler will present what will be the final Budgetary Statement and Financial Proposals of the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration before its stewardship comes up for review at the next general election, constitutionally due in early 2018.

Given the various challenges confronting the economy that constrain opportunities for higher levels of growth and development at this historical juncture, this budget is perhaps the most eagerly awaited of all that Mr Sinckler has presented since assuming the finance portfolio from the then Prime Minister David Thompson in 2010.

The challenges relate in particular to a runaway fiscal deficit which Government has been struggling to bring down to a manageable level, the public debt which, at just over 100 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), is way beyond the comfort level, and insufficient capacity for earning foreign exchange as reflected in the Central Bank’s foreign reserves levels being below the minimum international benchmark of the equivalent of three months’ import cover.

It is clear that some critical decisions urgently need to be taken because the country does not have the luxury of time on its side. Any delay is only likely to complicate the situation. Seen from this perspective, the Budget is a make or break one for Barbados. It is an opportunity not only for the incumbent to spell out what additional solutions it has devised to tackle these deep-rooted issues but also for the Opposition to outline an alternative approach which the country, no doubt, is also eager to hear.

However, a question which obviously arises is whether the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) will be courageous enough to take the bull by the horns, to use an old saying, which, in the prevailing circumstances, could be costly in an election year. Political parties, generally speaking, are not known to willingly accept being sacrificial lambs in an election year. We can only hope that the DLP, whose narrative often speaks to patriotism, will do what is best for the country.

A budget, as an official policy statement, is meant to serve as a problem-solving tool. However, the right choices have to be made and implemented. In the prevailing circumstances, decisive action to address the problems facing the country must be accompanied by a demonstration of sensitivity and compassion, especially for those who are likely to be directly affected by any belt-tightening measures. The aim must be to ensure that adverse effects are kept at a minimum.

What is quite clear, as gleaned from an analysis of public debate over the past few years, is that Barbadians want the best for our country. Had the incumbent DLP taken the opportunity to go directly to the people, placed the options on the table and asked Barbadians what they were willing to give up in the national interest, the task could have been much easier because whatever action Government ultimately takes, would have crucial public buy-in.

Public debate clearly shows that there is no shortage of ideas on how to solve the problems. These ideas have come not only from highly trained and well-meaning professionals in the fields of economics and finance but also the ordinary citizen who often brings a unique perspective to bear on the analysis of issues. Being able to tap into such wisdom can only serve to enhance and enrich policy-making at the Government level. It highlights a need for Government to adopt a much more inclusive approach to policy making in the national interest that allows significant input from the citizenry.

Increased access to higher education over the last 40 years has meant that the best talent is no longer limited to the corridors of Government as was the case before. Having invested heavily in the education of its sons and daughters, Barbados should be in a position to benefit from their expertise wherever they are, whether at home or in the Diaspora. It is the responsibility of Government to put in place an appropriate mechanism that would make this possible so that the country reaps the benefits.

Between now and May 30, Government still has an opportunity to consider any alternative measures which some citizens may put forward and use them to fine-tune fiscal policy and produce a winning Budget for Barbados. It is make or break and such an opportunity must not be lost. We hope for the best and wish Mr Sinckler the best of luck.

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