Barbados at 50: Challenges and Opportunities

Barbados at 50 poster

By John Stevenson

 
 
Barbados, the most easterly of the Caribbean islands, celebrates 50 years as an independent country on 30 November 2016. 
 
It is a tiny nation (34km long and 23km wide) with a population of 285,000, which has arguably punched above its weight in a number of areas. 
UN statistics from 2013 confirm a 99.7% literacy rate among the island’s citizens and an average life expectancy of 74 years.
 
It is perhaps one of the most developed countries, in terms of infrastructure, in the Caribbean sub-region, with more than 100 primary and secondary schools, four tertiary education facilities (including a campus of the University of the West Indies), a comprehensive network of highways and major roads, excellent telecommunications, reliable electricity and water provision, and above-average private and public health facilities.
 
Although Barbados has one of the oldest parliaments in the Western Hemisphere, dating back to 1639, it was not until the franchise was widened, first in 1944 and in 1951 with universal adult suffrage, that democracy and adult representative government for the nation’s black majority became possible. 
 
The island’s politics have been dominated for more than half a century by the Democratic Labour Party (whose co-founder Errol Walton Barrow led the island into Independence) and the Barbados Labour Party. 
 
Democracy has been vibrant, with peaceful, free and fair elections.
 
Stormy times
 
The good ship Barbados has in recent years entered choppy economic waters. 
 
The island has relied heavily on tourism and financial services for the past 40 years, having largely abandoned its agricultural roots in sugar and food crop production. 
 
And while Barbados has managed to dodge the physical destruction meted out by recent hurricanes (Matthew, Tomas, Sandy and Ivan) which have dealt severe blows to its neighbours, "Little England" has not managed to escape serious fiscal challenges in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.
 
With spiralling debt, shrinking foreign reserves and unemployment currently running at a worrying 12% of the able-bodied population, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s further downgraded Barbados’ sovereign credit rating to B- (junk bonds status) in September 2016; in 2009, it had a favourable BBB+ rating.
 
Telecommunications possibilities
 
Amid the gloom and doom, the island’s telecommunications sector offers a beacon of hope. 
 
Recent statistics indicate that in the period ending December 2015, Barbados had 149,532 fixed telephone lines (including payphones and ISDN); 334,792 pre- and post-paid mobile subscribers, 172,716 mobile internet subscribers and 66,969 broadband internet subscribers. 
 
Hallam Hope, a Barbados-based Caribbean information and communications policy consultant, is upbeat: "Barbados has one of the most advanced telecommunication networks in the developing world and is well-placed to attract foreign investment in existing and new areas of business that require high quality and reliable bandwidth. For persons working from home, they have up to 300 megabits of bandwidth.
 
"Both Cable & Wireless, trading as Flow, and Digicel have continued to invest in their networks. Barbados has a 100% fibre network and was hailed as the first country to achieve this in 2016. I believe Barbados is well-placed to compete with any Caribbean country and even some in the so-called developed world,” he told Caribbean Intelligence.    
 
But a communications framework is only as strong as its ability to withstand attack, and Barbados’ telecoms infrastructure remains vulnerable, as Mr Hope explains.
 
“Cybersecurity remains a major concern and there is a general view among security professionals that it is not receiving adequate attention from the business community as well as individuals," he says. 
 
"Another issue is that the cyber-criminals are targeting the Caribbean, where monitoring is not as advanced as in the developed countries. They are also perceived to have sophisticated tools. Industry experts also suggest public information is not being fully disclosed, for example, in the case of commercial banks, where reporting of attacks is deemed sensitive to commercial operations.”
 
 
National work ethic
 
Though the national motto of Barbados is "Pride and Industry", the scrolled inscription adorning the country’s coat of arms appears not to live up to expectations. 
 
This 50th anniversary year has seen several articles published in the island’s print and online press which have taken on the issue of Bajan attitudes to employment and productivity. 
 
Acutely aware and sufficiently concerned about this issue, the Barbados government embarked on a Human Resource Development Strategy 2011-16. 
 
The strategy covers the broad areas of educational attainment, workforce skills, population health and "employment policies connecting people to business enterprises with the required skills to reap the maximum benefit from economic opportunities".
 
Has this grand and laudable strategy delivered the required results?
 
The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Competitiveness Report returned the damning verdict that out of 144 nations, Barbados ranked 55th – a drop from 47th in 2014 and 44th in 2013. The report went on to state that a "poor work ethic" contributed to Barbados’ lacklustre competitiveness.
 
A news report published in Barbados Today on 25 May 2016 carried the headline, "Work ethic approaching national crisis". The article quotes the vice-president of the Human Resource Management Association of Barbados, Donna Hope, as stating that many young job applicants (including secondary school leavers and university graduates) are unaware of the formalities around resume writing and interview technique.
 
Among the litany of issues, she says: “You are looking at the letters of application and looking at the outline of the resume and you are wondering, what happened here?"
 
She also said that some applicants were turning up to interviews knowing nothing about the organisation at which they intended to work.
 
Culture and national identity
 
No discussion of Barbadian culture and the arts is complete without mentioning Robin Rihanna Fenty, aka Rihanna. At 28, her meteoric rise, from being discovered as a teenage singer in 2003, by producer Evan Rogers, to global superstardom, has been nothing short of breathtaking. 
 
Social historian Trevor G Marshall credits the pop diva as a “truly original Barbadian phenomenon who sings her own song and brings a distinctive flavour to the world stage”.
 
In Mr Marshall’s view, Barbadians have "slowly become more culturally confident".
 
He cites the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in 1969 as a significant factor in releasing the potential of Bajans in various cultural spheres including music and sports. 
 
Despite attaining "flag and anthem" independence, there have been several challenges along the way to Barbadians fully embracing their African heritage. However, through various music and dance forms, film, theatrical productions and literature, Mr Marshall says Barbadians have reclaimed a "psychologically marooned and suppressed" culture.
 
As an example, he points to the development of Barbadian calypso and the pioneering work of Lord Radio and the Bimshire Boys in the 1950s and 60s. By the 1980s and 90s Trinidadians - seen as the natural custodians of the artform - began to sit up and take serious notice of the way the artform was being transformed by calypsonians such as Red Plastic Bag and the Mighty Gabby.
 
Caribbean powerhouse
 
Barbados’ history of renewable energy use actually goes back more than three centuries, to when windmills were first introduced to power sugar production. Thousands of Barbadian houses sprouted solar roof-top water heaters from the 1970s, giving Barbados the fifth highest level of solar heating penetration in the world.
 
Speaking earlier this year at the launch of the Barbados Renewable Energy Association (BREA) International Conference and Exposition, the governor of the Central Bank of Barbados, DeLisle Worrell, outlined plans to "explore and discuss all that we need to do to achieve sustainable energy independence in Barbados and in the rest of the Caribbean".
 
He said: "We used to think that the greatest windfall that a country could experience was to find oil in commercial quantities." He feels that Barbados has the capacity to produce "all the power” necessary for the island from unlimited sources of renewable energy. 
 
Though the take-up has so far been limited, electric cars are now becoming a feature on Bajan roads, with a reported 160 of them currently in use.
 
Barbados Light & Power (which already operates a $43m solar project) has signalled the desire to team up with external investors to construct a wind farm which generates up to 120 megawatt hours of power at Lamberts in St Lucy – which will take excellent advantage of the 9 hours of sunshine the island enjoys on a daily basis.
 
Utilising water pumped from a lower to a higher elevation through the use of affordable off-peak electric power before being channelled through power-storing sluice gates - the island now boasts of having pumped-storage hydroelectricity.
 
These constitute exciting times for Barbados, which is poised to provide employment opportunities at home and energy development leadership to its regional neighbours.
 
From the perspective of a half-century innings, the island's power base looks set to see it through another 50 years without running out of juice. 
Originally from Barbados, London-based John Stevenson is a communications specialist, freelance writer and broadcaster.

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