Friday, April 19, 2024

ONLY HUMAN: A time to think


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When something goes wrong, we’re often quick to cast blame on those we consider responsible. But that “blame game” does not necessarily help to solve the problem, neither does it encourage those who misstepped to be candid about their unfortunate performance.
Instead, they tend to become aggressive and seek some trivial fact to defend their indefensible position.
Government’s urgent need to slash $400 million in its spending is such a situation. It would be easy to show how it was repeatedly warned about the consequences of misguided economic policies, and how such statements were characterized as negative and partisan.
It would be easy, too, to recite its failure to deliver on projects and promises like the Four Seasons Resort, and a new hospital. It would also not be difficult to show how in the Government’s tenure to date Barbados’ standing has seen a steady decline, whether we speak of our credit rating, where we were downgraded to junk bond status; or our faltering rule of law, with the non-payment of Al Barrack despite a court order; or the general quality of governance.
And now that the mess has hit the fan, instead of effectively communicating with the public, taking them into their confidence and seeking to demonstrate the paternal nature of a caring Government, the leadership has fallen silent on these burning issues, though they speak ad nauseum on peripheral matters.
It seems that the Freundel Stuart-administration has forgotten an undeniable truth: leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses.
Therefore, my focus here will not be to criticize Government. It would be more productive to look at possible solutions to the crisis we face, suggest ideas that may be helpful, but more so, ask questions that may be useful in encouraging people to think.
To date, several worthwhile suggestions have been made on how best to make the necessary cuts. These include the familiar amalgamation of departments and statutory corporations that do similar tasks, cutting down on wastage, eliminating excesses, reducing the work week, invoking early retirement, and attrition.
We all know that the Civil Service was padded in the years of plenty between 1998 and 2005. So from a trim 20 000/22 000 complement in 1994, it ballooned to about 30 000/32 000 by 2008, and the present administration added to this. Given this scenario, can sufficient savings be achieved with the urgency needed to really make a dent in Government spending?
If the answer is no, as I suspect – given the Central Bank Governor Dr DeLisle Worrell’s preference on a sharp swift cut – then layoffs would have to occur. Those most likely to be affected initially would be the hundreds of temporary staff on the payroll.
Already there are rumours of job cuts as high as 5000 people or more. Whatever the truth or nonsense of this, the fact is that such talk creates anxiety among those who would be most likely affected. This is most unfortunate, but demonstrates why Government should be having ongoing conversations with the public to calm fears. The reality is that in the absence of any official word, rumour tends to abound. I would urge people to desist from such speculation as it only serves to demoralize and scare.
Apart from the immediate job cuts, there are three areas which have been discussed briefly through the years but never fully ventilated because they were always considered sacrosanct. These are the payment of fees for tuition at the University of the West Indies and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and privatization of the Bridgetown Port.
In the case of the first two, why can’t a means test be carried out to ascertain who has the financial wherewithal to pay 100, 75, 50 or 25 per cent for their tuition or treatment. How can it be fair for someone who makes say $5 000 a month or more to have free medical treatment worth a few thousand dollars, if their salary would comfortably handle this payment? The same goes for tuition.
The fact is, if we want quality health care and education it must be paid for, and if the Government cannot afford it, those who benefit from the service should. Payments made by this group would offset the costs Government should absorb for the most vulnerable, that way no one would be disadvantaged.
As for the Port, we need to have an efficient 24-hour operation that is cost-effective to use by importers and exporters. Ports are the lifeblood of a country and their flexibility to various operational scenarios is a must in this day and age. Can we say that about the Bridgetown Port? Does it make sense that our handling costs are so high that we continue to lose business to other ports as they increase their efficiency?
• Sanka Price is an editor at THE NATION.


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