Who needs a think tank?

Barbados does.


If you have to ask…

Let me put it this way. Barbados is a tiny resource-poor island. We’re too small to influence world events.

We don’t make things happen; things happen to us.

Right now things are happening fast and furious. Uncertainty is the only constant.

One reaction is to bemoan this state of affairs; to blame colonialism, neo-colonialism and any other ‘ism’ you can think of.

But whining won’t get us anywhere.

Another reaction is to adapt and do something about it. To learn to live with adversity and, more to the point, to profit from it.  Like tiny remora fish in a world of sharks.

Small countries like Barbados must be opportunistic, nimble, and, yes, lucky.

We have to be constantly looking for new opportunities for creating wealth and growing our economy. Fortunately in today’s world the main impetus for economic growth is ideas.

The American economist, Paul Romer, has shown how human prosperity is largely limited by ideas, not by material things. People don’t need coal or copper wire or paper, they need ways to heat homes, communicate, and store information. Those needs don’t have to be satisfied by increasing the availability of physical resources; they can be met by using new ideas to rearrange existing resources to yield more of what we want; i.e. new recipes.

The power of ideas is limitless. As Romer points out:

“Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered.”

That’s the good news. But where are those growth-creating ideas going to come from in Barbados?

There is no a shortage of brainpower in Barbados, but that brainpower is organised for different ends. Most of the brainpower in the civil service is engaged in tasks related to administration rather than research. In the private sector it’s devoted to enhancing profitability. In the political parties it’s dedicated to getting or staying elected. In the university it’s devoted to academic research and teaching. And in the trade union movement most of the brainpower is devoted to issues concerning the rights of workers.

That’s why we need an independent think tank to generate big ideas about how to make Barbados more prosperous.

Such a think tank would constantly re-focus the national strategic vision by creating new ideas that anticipate global trends and force us to challenge the status quo.

Since we don’t yet have a ‘bricks and mortar’ think tank, let’s start now with this Think Barbados Virtual Think Tank.

At some stage we hope to organize a small forum of imaginative, innovative and unorthodox thinkers (both Barbadian and non-Barbadian) to brainstorm wealth-creating ideas for Barbados.

One critical matter for us to examine is the speed at which we move to get things done. Right now we are on the wrong side of leisurely. This simply won’t cut it. Opportunities in the international business sector arise and vanish in the blink of an eye. The public and private sectors must shape up. Radical public sector reform is essential.

Another vital area is education. A knowledge economy such as ours depends on human capital, which demands a highly educated citizenry. But our 11+-driven secondary school system is consigning too many of our young people to functional illiteracy and making them targets for the illicit drug trade. What we need is secondary and tertiary education that produces informed ethical citizens as well as entrepreneurs and innovators.

Without a beautiful natural environment both tourism and international business will decline. Yet we’re rushing into building here, there and everywhere seemingly without any forethought.

When it comes to energy, why shouldn’t Barbados be a world centre for research and development in alternative energy technologies?

Should we not also become the ‘intelligent’ information technology island?

All this suggests innovation and rapid change.

But there’s a paradox. Let’s call it the Bajan paradox. A great deal of our economic success hitherto is attributable to our almost legendary political and social stability. This in turn is due largely to the high level of social trust, i.e. to people’s sense of security in the social safety net, in trade union protected jobs, in subsidised businesses, and in the responsiveness of the two social democratic parties to their concerns.  But this high level of social trust may have unintentionally induced a dependency that robs people of initiative and makes them not only averse to taking risks but to change itself.

Hence the paradox: no future prosperity will be possible in the absence of political and social stability; and no future prosperity will be possible in the absence of rapid change.

We appear to be caught on the horns of a dilemma.

Or maybe not.

Obviously we cannot afford the kind of rapid, deregulated, market-driven liberalisation that has led in the past to social chaos and mafia capitalism elsewhere. So we must induce swift change that people will buy into, thus keeping the level of social trust high and our moral values intact. That is our challenge.

And this is precisely where the think tank comes in.

We need to tap the ideas and imagination of Barbadians at home and abroad, as well as friends of Barbados. Big ideas, unusual ideas, innovative ideas, futuristic ideas, weird ideas, all kinds of ideas. Ideas that government, entrepreneurs, the trade union movement and the academy can draw on. Ideas that, when combined, may lead to astonishing breakthroughs and new ways of doing things. Ideas that will help forge a continuously prosperous and just Barbados.

So let’s get the ball rolling.