Barbados has undergone tremendous change in the past year. Just this past spring, Barbados overwhelmingly elected Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, the first woman to hold the post in the island’s history. Prime Minister Mottley’s ascension is a strong signal that Barbados is turning its back on the politics and economic policies of the past. Mottley is tasked with turning around a stagnant Barbadian economy which has been caught in a vortex of slow growth and rising cost for years. Her early pronouncements and conversations with trade partners and agencies such as the IMF have been largely embraced as setting a positive tone for further reform. Barbados is in a double bind of confronting unique structural challenges while also navigating the larger economic global malaise born of increasing gaps in wealth inequality and austerity policies. Barbados has an opportunity to write a new story for the long-term direction of the island. The old ways of operating will no longer suffice in a global economic system that is undergoing rapid change and dislocation. Barbados must create a future that will ensure a thriving social, economic and political future. Now is the time to embrace a new ideology of stewardship and position the country for a new economic and social reality.
Stewardship is defined as the shared responsibility of a society to oversee, protect and pass on its critical resources over the course of generations. Stewardship is predicated upon a commitment to long term strategic planning, efficient use of resources and efficient wealth creation. A stewardship value system that is incumbent on transparency, collaboration and trust is in direct opposition to existing neoliberal policies. The ill effects of late stage capitalism and austerity fiscal policies have created a moment of acute crisis throughout the world. Countries are increasingly faced with social institutions that are strained to provide basic services: quality education, affordable housing, universal healthcare and meaningful work. At the same time the gap between the wealthy and everyone else continues to grow wider. A recent World Economic Forum report on worldwide risk cited inequality as one of their primary concerns. The additional wicked problems of climate change, technological displacement and social isolation are all elements that make for a murky and unstable future. The very real pain being manifested through poverty and political upheaval on a global level is a result of new ideas struggling to find their way through the morass and breakdown of an old operating system that no longer serves the world and its inhabitants. Barbados should do everything in its power to avoid falling into well-worn patterns that do not produce meaningful results. Barbados should adapt an ideological framework embracing the principles of stewardship that are far more attuned to the emerging global social and economic realities. A stewardship driven agenda could hopefully redefine Barbados for future generations.
Right to Return
Barbados is blessed with one of the most well educated societies in the world. The literacy rate of Barbadian citizens stands among the highest in the world at over 99%. It is a small country with the power to “punch above its weight” and the primary driver of that success is its people. The forces of colonization and migration have over the decades created a situation where tremendous amounts of people of Bajan descent are living overseas. Countries include but are not limited to the United Kingdom, United States and Canada. I am the son of a Bajan mother and I have been fortunate throughout my life be afforded the opportunity travel back home to Barbados. I would count myself as part of the great Bajan intelligence Diaspora. We are the direct descendents of those Bajan citizens who have left the country over generations. Barbados should institute a “Right to Return” program similar to the Israeli program that allows anyone of Jewish origin to return to the country and apply for citizenship. A Bajan “Right to Return” would stipulate that anyone of Bajan origins would be allowed to return to the country with a path toward citizenship. This would allow Barbados to tap into the creative, financial and social resources of its sons and daughters no matter where they are in the Diaspora.
Tourism is the Barbados largest business sector and employs about 10% of the total workforce of the island. Barbados tourism is dependent not on visitors but on the countries ability to protect, enhance and replenish it’s natural gifts of beach, water and wildlife. Conservation efforts to protect the vital natural resources of the island are essential. Development does not only mean resorts and high-end tourist locales. Reforestation should be a signature part of a tourism plan anchored in stewardship principles. Organic farming has the potential to create new opportunities for local residents and become a sustainable part of a generational eco-tourism extension. Barbados can redefine tourism in a way that strengthens the national economy, reclaims the environment and creates jobs with higher wages and benefits. Service jobs do not have to be low wage and exploitative. Trends in tourism point an increase for active and engaged experience facilitated by knowledge based host and guides. A commitment to the rich cultural and food traditions of Barbados could also rebrand the tourism experience in fresh ways that empower native Barbadians as equal partners in the industries future.
Economies are shifting from tangible, extraction-based assets to knowledge-based intangible ones. Heavy materials and machine intensive work are on the hunt for the cheapest labor and most exploitative environments. Barbados should not desire to be in either of those categories. Barbados should take advantage of a highly trained, educated and motivated population and commit to an idea centric economy. Barbados is perfectly situated to act as a conduit between United States, Central America, South America and the rest of the West Indies as a knowledge based and creative hub. International conventions, startup accelerators, creative conferences, etc should all find a natural home among Barbados exceptional academic scene. The growth of SaaS companies is another opportunity to empower Bajan ingenuity. SaaS or “Software as a Solution” companies are knowledge based intangibly grounded. Committing resources to SaaS companies makes sense, as they are low cost and less infrastructure intensive relative to industrial age companies. Encouraging Barbadians to start their own technology/digital companies is also a critical part of empowerment. Barbados should position itself to provide technology based solutions to the world and extend the brand of the island beyond traditional tourism. Technology based solutions to some of Barbados challenges could have applications in other countries much in the way the traffic app Waze was developed in Tel Avivand then acquired by Google.
The potential for electric vehicles in the Caribbean has already been widely touted. The natural gift of plentiful sunlight can in turn be harnessed to power electrical charging stations and thereby encouraging electric vehicles. Barbados should create initiatives to subsidize both informal (ZR locally owned vans) and formal (public transportation) electric vehicles. The best use for electric vehicles is in the public sphere rather than to emphasize the traditional consumption model of individual car ownership. By leading the way in the integration of electric vehicles in their public and “semi-public” transportation Barbados will send a strong message regarding their long term energy independence. ZR vans are an important and culturally relevant part of the Bajan local commuting and social experience. This already existing ecosystem should be encouraged and supported in the transition to electric vehicles. Transportation is the tip of the iceberg. Barbados should be a leader in adopting clean energy technologies even as other West Indian nations (Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana to name two) double down on a reliance on fossil fuels.
Novelist Arundhathi Roy famously stated, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing”. I believe if we listen intently we can all hear the sound of breathing emerging on Barbados. Leadership is in place with a dedication and vigor to tackle the numerous challenges facing Barbados. The future is an inevitable reality. The type of future we will create is still inconclusive. What is conclusive, however, is the operating system of the past is no longer adequate to meet the complex needs of our emerging social structures. Stewardship values offer a compelling new narrative that will allow Barbados to not only grow but to flourish.