Stiffening Private Sector Resolve In A Hostile Environment –  Growth And Stability The New Messiahs.

Good Afternoon private sector leaders, specially invited and Distinguished guests, a special good morning to BCCI Vice president Tracy Shuffler and CEO Lisa Gale. And to Mrs. Selena McDonald! When I was first asked to make the February address to the chambers’ monthly luncheon I was very hesitant, as, at the time I was very new into the post and I was still getting myself better acquainted with the membership and what their peculiar perspectives were as it related to the BPSA. Time and circumstance however took care of the matter and I very happily deferred to the very enlightening presentation made last month by Mr. Gordon “Butch” Stewart. That presentation, coupled with my deepening interaction with member organizations’ of the BPSA and the developing situation in our country has crystallized in my mind an address or if you like a position which we, may want to relate to. My theme looks at private sector lead Growth and Stability as The new Messiahs in the ongoing effort to leverage us up to new economic model. But I will argue that there is an underlying inhibitor that may prove obdurate, if we don’t attack it soon.

As I began to think of today’s address, somehow the very strong image of a train hurtling down the tracks came to mind and I was reminded of a poem, a part of which I would like to share with you today.

Who is in charge of the clattering train?

The axles creak, and the couplings strain.

Ten minutes behind at the Junction. Yes!

And we're twenty now to the bad--no less!

We must make it up on our flight to town.

Clatter and crash! That's the last train down,

What is that sound? 'Tis the stertorous breath

Of a slumbering man,--and it smacks of death!

Full sixteen hours of continuous toil

Midst the fume of sulphur, the reek of oil,

Have told their tale on the man's tired brain,

And Death is in charge of the clattering train!

So who is really In charge of this clattering train?

I have, over the past few months observed an increasing pressure of public and political commentary calling for private sector led growth and more private sector economic activity and at each occasion when engaged, these voices of derision always seem to fall away into vitriol and shallowness as they themselves do not actually know what they are calling for. What is it that is meant by private sector growth? What is it that is meant by stability? What is really meant by the private sector? And do we really understand what the real requirements of our times are, and are we all pulling our weight?

The very first challenge is that we must realize that the private sector is not 12 burnished gods sitting down in some darkened room plotting the fate of our country, it is in fact a sobering thought when we realize that the full scope of the Barbadian private sector encompasses all persons who are invested in the economy, people who are actively planning an investment and those who are merely contemplating investment projects, the Barbadian private sector is in fact, in part, as much the expression of the global investment community as it is the locally invested community of micro, small, medium and large ventures existing in our island  

If we truly grasp this concept then we can begin to understand some of the aspects that shape and drive the Private sector and its reactions to the changes and challenges in our environment.

The largest part of our private sector IS Barbados with all of its inherent strengths and weaknesses and deeply imbedded culture, so an expectation that the private sector will behave counter culturally is unrealistic. We are a people who are known to be for the most part, cautious, reserved, aware, educated and naturally distrustful of flash and dash, indeed we have coined a phrase "tekking time ain't laziness" which sums up our underlying attitude to speed. Realizing that this is the native bed on which we - all of us rest, then it stands to reason that true growth and meaningful change in who or what we are, MUST be stimulated through a number of simultaneous events that encourage the attitude of entrepreneurship that seems to be the requirement of the current age.

Ecosystem of growth

The first thing I suggest as a prerequisite for growth is that we must develop an ecosystem or if you like an environment within our social apparatus that encourages new inward and outward investments. In this new system we should strive to have less rules and regulations, less manual processes, less no's and more yes's. Barbados must be seen as a place where doing business is easy, with processes that are well understood and people with a work ethic that matches the aspiration of the new economy.

If we are to believe the latest World Bank Report on ease of doing business in Barbados, we have a long way to go in this regard, we are in the lower half of the list at number 91 out of 189. Slightly down from last year and snuggled nicely between Albania and the Russian Federation. If those are the countries that we want to be compared to then we are doing just fine thank you! If not, then who is to be held directly accountable for driving changes through to improve this ranking if not the public sector executives? But to be fair we also have to look at what barriers that we, in the private sector have put in place that makes doing business simply too hard. Across both private and public sectors there can be found to some extent endless paperwork, invasive questioning, too many uninterested front line staff and too many unsympathetic managers. These are all the hallmarks of a struggling business friendly ecosystem. We as a private sector have to set the example, and in this regard I laud the work of NISE in their 100 improvements in 100 days initiative. We should have all been on board this as a vehicle to drive change. Notwithstanding previous criticisms, of both sides, we cannot escape the fact that all of the aspects of the World Bank report in which we score very poorly are outside of the real influence of the private sector operatives, e.g.: registering property, protecting investors, paying tax, and enforcing contracts, in fact a closer look really underscores a real need for judicial reform, a point that we know only too well, so, who is in charge of that clattering train.

Engagement.

The second idea I wish to leave here,  is the need for private sector players to start engaging more meaningfully with our public, we are the tax payers, we rise and fall as our nation rises and falls, or put more directly, if we rise or fall our nation rises or falls, yet we, the drivers of the society and economy seem to have been lulled into a sleep as it relates to commenting and leading in discussion about the very critical things that will ultimately and fundamentally affect us collectively and individually.

Issues such as the way forward for health care in Barbados - choices and options, what about a discussion and recommendations on free education In Barbados who pays and when?  Has the 50 year experiment come to an end? How about modernizing public transportation in Barbados we may have ideas for a cheaper, better managed solution - who will do what? Or let's look at Agriculture in the 21st century. Is Barbados interested in planting, growing and rearing what we eat? Manufacturing, tourism, revenue collection and so forth should not escape our attention.

My colleagues, there are hundreds more topics that have come up, and do come up, and yet it seems that there is lack of commentary in our island, save and except those few regular commentators who “make noise” we seem to prefer to have our say in the comfort of our offices and around our water coolers. I put it to you that in a mature developed society, leaders lead in all aspects of development, not only in the narrow confines of their own businesses, but in the development of the national discourse of their countries’ advancement.

And so, we are left to wonder why, why is it that our very educated, intelligent and articulate private sector participants are muted? This is what we have observed, because we are small and highly interconnected, some of us have direct access to policy makers and therefore don't see the need to engage publically, some of us speak eloquently in private and safe settings, and far too many of us say nothing at all, giving the impression of aloof disinterest, when nothing could be further from the truth, inside they are just boiling up.

So when we press on this issue further, the simple truth is that we as a people are at best unwilling, or at worst afraid to speak up. There is a perception that If we challenge the status quo, that we will be punished, either commercially or socially. And the biggest fear for businesses both big and small is that if they rock the boat that there will be swift and sure retribution for daring to be critical of the system.

How can we grow and develop in this environment? How can we really hope to blossom as a productive people and community, when victimization or the fear of victimization grips us into somnambulance, where the way to express dissatisfaction is have a quiet word with a friend in the ministry. Where a lack of transparency in decision making opens us all to possible prejudicial judgment calls by someone that we have upset, where all roads lead to a Minister for a final say on even what may be seen as very simple decision. Fear of victimization is a killer of the growth agenda, just as crime, and the fear of crime are negative societal inhibitors, so too does the mere fear of being a victim to powerful state interests paralyze that exuberant explosion of new thinking and challenge for which we seem to thirst.

If we are introspective we can, maybe see that in our own businesses we have not fully eliminated the idea that in order for our customers to get the best from us, that they need to conform to our bureaucracy and understand our processes. This type of thinking too, when we find it, has to be addressed and dealt with. For maintaining this type of stance leads us nowhere and itself opens the door to abuse of the uninformed customer who is unaware of how we do business, but that is another clattering train, for a different station!

Our friends in the labor movement have to be key participants in the new Barbados and its new Private sector. Labor unions, colleagues, whether we like it or not or whether we like them or not, hold a significant key to unlocking new growth potential for Barbados. Yet for those companies who have union representation, it appears that the process of engagement when dealing with radical changes in our business processes often becomes protracted and many times acrimonious, so this voluntaristic system of labor relations that we have adopted over the course of many decades is often (wrongly) blamed for holding business back. I am not able to judge the accuracy of these charges, but what I can say Is that the new and Growing Barbados must free itself of the specter of negative relationships, we have to mature and do so quickly into a community that respects the role that capital plays without putting labor on the back burner as we advance. The era of the big stick on both sides should by now be dead.

The politics of Politics

I now turn to the elephant in the room as it relates to Barbadian development, especially in the area of economic development. Our political structure.

This aspect of our society more than most, it seems, affects and pervades nearly all of what we do and it has over the decades, become such a mighty force in our island that it is in some regards the ONLY thing that really matters. Increasingly it has become more and more difficult to offer commentary about both our economy and society without being branded as a political agent for one or the other side of the political spectrum. We all have our biases, and generally we have friends of all political Shades, this comfortable and easy association of all of us regardless of ideology has been a key characteristic that has kept Barbados well ahead of the destructive tribal politics that has so characterized many developing states, increasingly, it appears to me, that attacks of the most spurious kind have been launched on members of the private sector who have dared to espouse points of view that are provocative and counter ideology. This has to stop, attacking messengers is a dangerous practice that stifles creative ideas and approaches, it is in fact a practice that is sure to kill off the very blossoming that leads to the kind of growth that we need.

We have to deal with ideas and not people. I encourage the political class In this island to focus on transforming our landscape both socially and economically and to leave off attacking those who can at best be classed as defenseless private citizens, we don't have the umbrella of parliamentary privilege to hide behind, If we are serious about stopping bullying then this would be a good place to start. Speaking truth to power or the powerful, should be a national trait that we embrace just as much as we do pride and industry. So who will be in charge of that Clattering Train I wonder?

If we are to be true to ourselves we also need to turn our eyes to developments in the public sector. Twenty years after the announcement of public sector reform, have we seen the fundamental changes in how our colleagues in the public sector work and deliver services in the interest of the public of Barbados? How can we take full advantages of the developments in the world around us when it appears that we do not seem have full grasp of the real requirements of the new look public sector.

In a recent forum, I heard senior public sector managers lamenting the fact that all the flaws are known, the bottlenecks defined, but that it seemed that there was just a lack of will to deal with the structural issues of right numbers in the right places to do the right job, as an example was given of the chronic shortage of legal drafters to give life to policy statements made by Ministers it was relayed that  those same drafters have to review nearly everything that has a legal aspect to it in the Government.

If we are to solve these problems we have to be imaginative in wrestling these types of issues to the ground. This is important to us as we in the private sector are intimately dependent on the inherent efficiency of the public sector as a partner in progress.

So my friends where does this leave us? In normal circumstances the private sector must can and should lead. My argument is that this economic downturn has exposed significant and deep cracks in the shell of our economy that would have not become apparent in the good times. Or even If we were aware of them it seemed that we let the lure of having a relative easy time lull us into inaction. We now have the opportunity to reshape and reimagine if you will, the very construct of what we do and why. So what must we do to drive this process?

Growth in the private sector needs to be sponsored not only by talk and concessions, but what I have tried to outline is that this much desired commodity (growth) must be cultivated in new soil, free from the weeds of fear and the fear of victimization, and nurtured in a new greenhouse, one that encourages the robust germination of new ideas and approaches.

For our part we must also transform, more thinking about what we can export, be it tourism, manufactured goods, agricultural products or our intellect, skills and services. The type of economy on which our country has rested is now due for an overhaul, you in this room can and must play your part, if we are to survive and indeed thrive.

I have too often heard that our private sector has not changed for three hundred years. That at heart we are all still traders who buy low and sell high to a captive market, this may on the superficial level appear to be true, but closer examination leads one to see that behind this very modest façade lies a private sector who, quite apart from being skilled traders are also entrepreneurs, some of whom have built successful pan Caribbean businesses, in the automotive industry, others who have taken their modest beginnings and have diversified into significant regional players in the retail and traded sectors, others, smaller still have become the “go to” players in their niche markets for Caribbean services in engineering, marine technology, law and accounting, never mind the blossoming entertainment industry where Barbadian entertainers and musicians are even as we speak the top ranked features on the US college spring break calendar, and lest we downplay that achievement I need only mention one name RIAHANNA to show you what the power of this type of Barbadian brand can do.

Tourism and the offshore industries, which have themselves been supported by manufacturing and agriculture, have been our tried and true development accelerators will have to bear new investment, thinking and redevelopment as it is on them that the new cultural industries, service sector and e-based economy will have to rest, but all of this will be for naught if we as a people do not reimagine ourselves and our society into one which encourages constructive dissent, where the fear of targeted aggression is minimized and that the full and truly creative son and daughter of the soil feel that they have the “ground-up” ability to be better than we have ever been before.  It’s time to get off this clattering chattering dangerous train.   THANK YOU FOR YOUR KIND ATTENTION.

 

Chariman of the BPSA- Mr. Alex McDonald