Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Barbados on the Brink?

Barbados is struggling with the immense progress it has made in the 40 years since independence. Bajans now have most of the tangible signs of a developed country. They have good basic services (electricity, gas, and water), good public transport, many consumer goods (eg, cars, televisions, and household appliances), a well developed financial sector, a range of other public and private services, and some impressive physical developments (such as highways, airport, sports complexes). But the price of that progress is becoming high. Life has become very "busy". People are under much more pressure to do things in a limited amount of time.

Amongst daily pressures, traffic congestion, now worsened by extensive road works, is a frustrating and worsening burden. To avoid this, driving behaviour is becoming riskier: speeding and running red lights are more common, and common courtesies to other drivers are not displayed as often; buses, whether the large public vehicles or the minivans, are driven as if they are on Formula 1 circuits. Service quality is not good in many areas. Routine banking takes enormous time. Service workers seem to have little training (eg, they routinely continue private phone calls or sometimes eat meals while "attending" customers). Getting people to show up for their jobs on time is a major problem. Getting construction projects completed in a short time is for dreamers. Some of the major institutions that defined excellence are appearing brittle. For example, the main public health facility, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, has been the subject of a stream of controversial reports and suffered lack of equipment and financing.

Other strains exist from a range of decisions made by government or private enterprises, which do not seem to take the public along with them. These are the basis of a steady stream of complaints that can be read in the daily newspapers or heard daily on local radio. These complaints also get a more strident voice through the Internet, especially from some of the Bajan blogging community, such as Barbados Free Press and Barbados Underground.

My impression is that Bajan society has thrived on order and following rules. Now, there is a sense that rules can be broken or ignored, and that this can be done without consequence. Having lived recently in Guinea, west Africa, I saw for 3 years how a country can fall into a deep abyss when rule-breaking went without sanction: almost everyone, from the top to the very bottom, in public or private sector, was running his or her own show. It was anarchy. The developing world is littered with examples like that, and I suspect that Barbados, having built an image for itself of a "developed" country, which places a high status on "excellence" is struggling to preserve this image.

I don't know how tolerant Bajans really were in the past, but these developments are putting tolerance to the test. There is no longer acceptance that those in authority should be taken as always being right or cannot be questioned. The polite society is clearly under threat in daily life. Racial intolerance is becoming more evident (fuelled in some areas by feelings that foreign investors are plundering the country and in other areas by a sense of threat to jobs and culture as foreigners come to Barbados to fill a range of jobs). The change in social fabric has its roots in more than "youth culture". There is a vast body of adults who are contributing to these social changes.

I don't think lasting solutions will come from bans and censorship, as some have proposed, because the society's tastes might have shifted. Also, the things that need to be fixed are not all things that can be banned. Bajans have become accustomed to a different lifestyle, but never really understood what they were choosing, or its real costs (moral, financial, and physical). Repression does not seem to sit well with notions of a developed democracy. For me, many current problems arose from a sense that everything is possible, and that it can be preserved without effort. So, promise more, build more, consume more, import more. The only limitation put forward consistently has been availability of foreign exchange, so tolerate whatever brings in more foreign exchange. Barbados' social and physical fabric cannot take all of this expansion without changing. So, the immediate challenge will be to get an understanding and acceptance that limitations are needed in a wide area. This may be very difficult, given where Barbados is now. But the process needs to start because uncontrolled progress leads to chaos.

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