“The politicians cannot save us. Our allies overseas in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and China cannot save us…”
I was born in the small village of Boscobel in St. Peter. My family was poor, as were many around us. However, we did not let this reflect our state of mind. As was for many Barbadians, this provided the determination to create a brighter future. Better days were always ahead.
I saw a boy living in poverty. He stood proudly on the steps of his old house. The house was always about to fall apart and leaked when it rained. There was no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. The boy went to school only because of free education, as did many other boys and girls around him. Without that free education these boys and girls would not have been able to learn, for their parents could not afford food, little more than they could books.
His father like those of others around him was absent either by will or culture. So his mother fathered him, as was the way. His mother worked hard to do all she could to help the boy into a better Barbados. I was this boy, and as much as this story is mine, it is also the story of many Barbadians. Together our stories reveal the history of a country that was built on hard work and determination to succeed, especially in the face of slavery and colonialism. A determination, as National Hero The Right Excellent Errol Barrow once said, that took a collection of small villages and transformed them into a proud nation.
Today, we see men and women who are forced to choose between paying the rent or mortgage, and feeding their families. The economic situation is not improving. It will not improve left on its own. We see boys and girls who go to school but cannot read or write yet we boast 100% literacy. We see young people unemployed with few opportunities to become active and progressive citizens. We see a decline in public standards and service, yet we talk of having one of the best tourism products in the world. We see an inefficient Government, yet we claim that public sector reforms are working. We see crime, and anti-social behaviour in schools, on our streets and on public transport. We see a country that is distrustful, apathetic, and struggling to understand itself and falters in crafting a meaningful response not only to current economic crisis, but also failing in setting out a vision for a prosperous Barbados of tomorrow. There is a future beyond the current economic crisis and political staleness that plagues this country.
We all grieve for our country, but darkest is the hour when strongest must be the faith that there will be sunshine again.
The politicians cannot save us. Our allies overseas in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and China cannot save us, as they are struggling to save themselves. Contrary to popular belief money will not save us. Only through the unified efforts of all Barbadians, here or abroad, and with the help of our Caribbean brothers and sisters, can we create a prosperous country and Caribbean region for our children and generations yet born. I believe this time has come for Barbados.
Forty-five years ago, our declaration of independence, was a signal to the world that a small country albeit with few natural resources could succeed with the will, creativity and ingenuity of its people. We did not set out to build an independent Barbados for one moment thinking that it would be easy. We made the best choices with the knowledge and ideas we had at that time, and it has served us until now. Then, all we had were the archaic blueprints left over from the legacy of colonial underdevelopment. In an effort to make Barbados better for each successive generation of Barbadians, it is evident now that the Barbados of today is a tarnished inheritance. We have collectively grown, but our country has somehow remained the same, yet we seem to expect different outcomes. The Barbados of 1966 provided us with the necessary foundations of security and stability as we painfully emerged from a colonial legacy. However, now those basic foundations have been set, we must evolve because the original framework is not anymore fit for our country.
Analogous, there is a story of a man who on his way to the top of a mountain, had to cross a wide sea. Seeing some tress, he made a solid raft that took him safely across the sea. After crossing he tried to take the raft up the mountain with him because he felt it would keep him safe, but he did not get very far from the foot of the mountain, because the raft though light on the sea was a heavy burden in trying to climb. On realising this, he left the raft at the foot of mountain and climbed freely upwards to the top of the mountain.
Earlier this year in a public lecture at the Errol Barrow Gallery, at the Democratic Labour Party Headquarters, I asked what kind of society do we want? I ask this question again in this letter, because I believe that until we can answer that question, we will lack a commanding and progressive vision for what our future should and can look like. We can have an infinite number of ideas, but without an overall unified vision of Barbados, they will bear no fruit.
I received some criticism for going to George Street to speak on what I thought was an issue of national importance, that is, the economic crisis facing our country. I went because symbolically as a citizen it is in part duty and right to share my views anywhere in this country, beyond the confines of a colonial inherited system of divisional electoral politics. This is my country. This is your country. This is not Barbados Labour Party (BLP) or Democratic Labour Party (DLP) country. Barbados is our country. We are the owners. It does not belong to any political platform. We the people send them to Trafalgar Street, Bay Street, George Street and Roebuck Street to do a job: to make our society prosperous. At the moment we are all failing, because of narrow political confines and the resignation of the public. So if as a citizen I am provided with a chance to share ideas with other people, irrespective of politics I will do so in a genuine way. It is counter-productive to discredit and devalue ideas solely because they are suggested by the BLP, or the DLP, or any other persons within a political framework. Ideas are not and cannot be confined to a political allegiance. This idea itself has to be understood. We will then see change when enough of us demand better of our history, our country and ourselves.
I do not make excuses for our failings but I see what has happened to our country. We never truly took ownership of the systems that were left behind on independence. We function on outmoded systems of governance, that have little relevance to the lives that we aspire to live, and to the prosperous country we want to create. After independence we dabbled at the edges with what was leftover to us, but can we really say that ‘these fields and hills beyond recall are now are very own?’ While we accepted independence on paper we did not properly rid ourselves of the Westminster and Whitehall ideals of governance and fractional politics.
We talk boldly about change, but seem to do nothing. Is it because we are not brave? I do not think so. I think we are a brave and proud people who set out against tremendous odds to build a great nation. We introduced free education when we had little money as a country, and only a belief that we could be better.
I sense that we all feel disappointed with the progress of Barbados of late. This does not mean that we are not doing some things right. But there is no one that can say on a broad scale Barbados is working to its full potential to generate the prosperity and wealth we all seek to enjoy. To do so would be to speak aloud an open and silent truth we all know.
What is happening to our proud country? Why do we appear to dislike each other? Is the man or the woman who live next door to you in the new heights and terraces not your brother and sister? Why is this distrust and dislike for each other reflected in the services we provide?
“Is there not something wrong when you cannot get the most basic service at any office, or when you are greeted with disdain for merely asking a question? It is almost as if you are offending people when you simply want them to do their job.”
Is there not something wrong when you go to any office to do a simple task such as renewing a certificate or, something of that nature, only to stand painfully for hours while workers chat or ignore you? Or you take your hard earned money and go out to eat only to be treated like you are not deserving of being there. Why do we treat each other like this? Why are things not working? Institutions of all kinds appear to be barely coping, and with reduced budgets, it will mean doing more with less. We need leadership to speak to us directly, clearly and take us in confidence. Most importantly, we need unity for if as brothers and sisters, we fail to learn how to live together, we shall surely perish individually.
Do we really believe that tomorrow will be better simply by wishing? No, we have to work hard and rid ourselves of a culture and national psyche that encourages failure, complacency, and irresponsibility. In the current world, we must realise that we cannot continue to act as if nothing is happening or that somehow the economy will magically bounce back, and we can go back to business as usual. We must remember that we only became a peaceful and prosperous society in the first place through hard work and the sheer minded determination to transform this collection of poor villages into a great nation despite its small physical size.
What is the vision for our country? Where do you see Barbados going? What shall she look like? If what we have is what we want, then we probably have the political, social and economic institutional set up we deserve. But I must ask, are we not better than what we have now? What is your image of yourself? What we have now is clearly not fully working to the best of our potentials.
I have a vision for Barbados. I am sure you have one as well, and we probably share similar ideas. Let me share with you what I see.
I see a country that does not beg for handouts but makes her way in the world. I see a people that are industrious and creative. I see a country that can feed itself. I see Government that is supportive and open. I see Government that creates a framework for enterprise and business to grow, so we can have sustainable economic development. I see discipline return to our schools and on our streets. I see grown up politics being practiced and a unified country charting its way in this troubled world. I see the talents and skills of each citizen put to productive use. I see an open, fair and meritocratic society. I see us putting the best technologies at our disposal to drive clean efficient transport and energy systems. I see a return to a quality national health care system. I see a healthy environment, which we all protect because it sustains us. I see a Barbados that is peaceful and prosperous. I see a Barbados where we protect each other, and our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean from the vagaries of the changing world.
Imagine a politics where our leaders did not try to wrap us in cotton wool and spoke to us about the depth and magnitude of the problems that we face as a country. Imagine a Barbados where we were told that there is a need for deep spending cuts on the part of the state, and people were involved in the process. Imagine a country where we were told that wages would probably have to be frozen and taxes increased. Imagine that whatever pain was needed to get us on a path of sustained economic growth was clearly explained to us and we were involved in the process. So we understand that we take the pain now, because later we would walk in the sunshine. Imagine a politics where we openly discussed reform to our educational, health and governmental systems. Imagine a Barbados where leadership took responsibility for its action. This is a Barbados I imagine. In fact it is a Barbados that we can all imagine, and make real, if we are willing to change the very fabric and DNA of our society.
We must be willing to examine every institution, structure, system, idea and ask does this work for Barbadians, and then we must be willing to build new ones. Nothing can be off limits. Everything must be open to examination and rebirth. How can we think anew if we are stuck in the same structures, that were originally not of our making. It is like pouring new wine into old wineskins. The new wine is spoilt. The one thing that holds us back and has for a while now, and explains why our country appears stalled is that we seem to have a collective fear of wanting to change, from top to bottom, the current systems that govern our lives. How many reform commissions, committees, strategic plans and reports have we had, about a way forward? There are more than I would care to mention. We seem to have resigned ourselves to the fact that our systems that govern our way of life may not have been of our own making or work to suit us fully, but it is what we now know. This means that we do not try anything new or change. When did we as a country become afraid of trying? When did our pioneering can-do spirit that made us who we are disappear before your eyes? The change we seek is not only about the systems but must also be a change in our views from top to bottom. We are the drivers of any change and it is time we realise this. Let us live up to the ideals of our national anthem that ‘We have no doubts or fears, Upward and onward we shall go. Inspired, exulting, free. And greater will our nation grow. In strength and unity.’
How do we change to realise the vision and imagination of a new Barbados? It is simple and yet the most difficult thing. There is no one easy answer. The starting point is to ask yourself to change; the most difficult task that anyone can set out to do. The reason is that the task requires us to drop the way we do things and try something different. We all like to think we can, or at the least we try, to change the world, but to do that we ourselves must be open to change. As a nation, perhaps we do not want change. Who really wants to change? We usually do not like new things because they are new, because we are being asked to try something different, even if what is familiar to us is not working satisfactorily. What do we have to be afraid of? Nothing. The way we do things and the way we are as a people will change over time, because that is the very nature of existence, constant change. We can either let change happen to us or be active agents of our own change. There are no defined Barbadian ways that we did not create. Therefore, there are no Barbadian ways that we cannot change. But we must believe that we can share a unified perspective of change and progress, which can bring us sustained prosperity.
Allow me to leave you with this thought. Observe and become aware of our national flower, the Pride of Barbados. See how it blooms in what may appear as the most unforgiving of places. The Pride is resilient and will thrive even when conditions are difficult.
The time has come to wake up and look at ourselves in the mirror as a country, and ask what is the image we hold of ourselves. There will be many who will bet against us doing so, for they will say ‘Bajans will complain but will continue doing the same thing. No one ever does anything’. We will prove them wrong. When people say change cannot work and we cannot have a bold new vision for our country, we will examine ways to make it work. When we are told it is impossible, we will make it possible. We will do all of this knowing that it is difficult. Before us lay two futures, two destinies. We can choose to stay as we are and drift through this world. We can choose to be bold and fearless, and make our place in this world. In the moment we choose one future, we will slam the door shut on the other. Whichever we choose, it is only our choice to make.
The one thing I think ‘we loyal sons and daughters’ need more than anything, as we again become ‘firm craftsmen of our fate’ is a readiness to change and learn; to do something new, for the old ways will not suffice.
I pledge allegiance to my country Barbados and to my flag,
To uphold and defend their honour,
And by my living to do credit To my nation wherever I go.
Ronnie R. F. Yearwood
St. Peter Barbados The Caribbean
(This open letter is a preface to my presentation as part of the Barbados Entrepreneurial Foundation’s first Innovation Think Tank on ‘Barbados: A New Governance Model’.)