Thursday, December 11, 2014

An Open Letter to the Strict Guardians of Male Privilege and craftsMen of Women’s fate

Before the sun could set on the Sixteen Days of Activism Campaign 2014, yet another young Barbadian mother was savagely attacked in a case of Gender Based Violence (GBV).  It serves as a chilling reminder if we ever needed one that domestic violence continues to be a very serious scourge on our society.

At the forefront of the campaign continues to be women’s organisations as the issue disproportionately impacts females. Should it be that only women’s organisations are in the forefront of this effort? Indeed one social commentator reviewing the sixteen days noted that new voices needed to be added to the fight. Another questioned the extent to which the Barbadian public had become desensitised, in the same way that we are no longer shocked by the killing of unarmed black men by police in the USA. The danger of being desensitised is something we must fervently guard against. Failure to do so means that we become unmoved by the plight of the victims and provide a level of legitimacy to would be perpetrators to undertake their heinous acts.

What is to be done is always the question confronting any organisation or social movement attempting to bring about change. Seeking to modify behaviour, raise consciousness and change entrenched mindsets is never an easy task. For this reason the struggle waged by the women’s movement must be lauded since the positive gains are not only beneficial to women but to children and also to men.

As much as these voices continue to be in the forefront of the fight against Gender Based Violence, it is imperative that new voices be added to the struggle. Not as a means of drowning out those in the vanguard of protecting women’s rights but instead to magnify the call for an end to domestic violence and gender inequality in all of its manifestations.

Gender Based Violence is not solely a women’s issue it has to be a male issue too since our sons are negatively impacted and as the statistics irrefutably show men are the main perpetrators. It is for this reason that the silence by leading male organisations in our country needs to be broken. Indeed they do speak but seldom is it in condemning the heinous acts such as occurred on the morning of December 10, 2014. More often the speeches seem calculated to provide excuses or to detract from the real issues.  

For example on the heels of legislation to guard against sexual harassment, we hear a strong call from a leading men’s group that women who falsely accuse men of harassment should receive hefty fines. The real issue here is that harassment in the workplace and elsewhere is persistent, pervasive and petrifying for many women. It is the lived reality of thousands of Barbadian females and far surpasses any consideration of false claims. If an organisation is truly serious about empowering men then it needs to stand behind our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, nieces, daughters and friends to raise the conscious of all men in ending the acts which cause our women significant pain and discomfort.

It baffles me that in the 21st century some male headed organisations still hold on to archaic notions of females being less than equal. That these organisations openly resent the gains women have made and seemingly wish to turn back the hands of time is tragic if not laughable. Such was the case in a recent panel discussion on GBV which I was honoured to be part of.

Sentiments such as women are taking over, women are forcing men out and women were being disobedient and not taking their rightful are the philosophical underpinnings of key figures in one male organisation. In my response to these neanderthal beliefs I stated that the influential figures in my life (mainly women) taught me to stand up on the side of fairness and justice no matter the class, colour, belief system or sex of those being oppressed. For that response I was chastised for ‘siding with women’ to which I showed no remorse.    

One of the major flaws of our Independence project was that while it sought to fix several issues and to improve the standard of living, it did not pay enough attention to gender inequality. This could be seen by the limited subject choices for girls in the early school system, the glaring absence of females in our parliament and even in the selection of a lone heroine in the pantheon of national heroes despite Barbados’ claim to being a matrifocal society.  

Just as white privilege in the USA has resulted in the death of innocent black males; male privilege in Barbados in all sectors including the pulpit, parliament and press has been complicit in the deaths of women by gender based violence. The complicity has come through our failure to condemn domestic violence, our sluggish approach to legal and institutional reforms, unwillingness to raise our consciousness and to understand the plight of Barbadian women and our failure to teach our sons to respect, appreciate and value the lives of our daughters.     

We inherited a system of inequality which attempted to break the body, soul and mind of black women and men for profit. It is time that we disabuse ourselves of that old colonial, patriarchal system which has provided our men with a sense of false entitlement and false superiority. It is time that we throw away the signet of oppression, inequality and violence shamelessly worn by our former colonisers, take responsibility for our actions and emphatically denounce all forms of violence and inequality against this country’s women. GBV is not characteristic of a modern, progressive or enlightened society and will only destroy our social fabric if our males refuse to join the fight. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

When freedom of Expression is taken offline

Issues of freedom of speech online are not solely "rights issues" or "Internet issues"; they are located somewhere in the middle and will need to be addressed by all stakeholders.”
The Internet Society, 2014

The internet has brought with it a plethora of new possibilities. From online shopping to crowd funding for projects, it has been transformational to the lives of ordinary people around the world.
In the last five years or so the ability to interact with friends and even strangers has become a major feature of this technological innovation. With the advent of Web 2.0 tools more commonly known as social media, people from every corner of the earth have been able to connect with each other sharing ideas and information. In so doing they are able to go beyond the limitations of traditional media. 
Previously radio call-in programmes provided the most significant avenue for ordinary people to express their opinions of social, political and economic issues. However there are limitations as a radio station can easily face a law suit for potentially defamatory remarks made by callers.

The internet has not totally displaced the radio call-in programmes or even the newspaper. However it provides citizens with greater freedom to express themselves in comparison to traditional media. In so doing it has become an important tool for raising awareness and amplifying the voice of the common man. However this free speech has become an increasingly contentious issue.

In recent times many debates have been raised at all levels over issues of privacy, security and free speech on the internet. Freedom of speech particularly in the face of repressive political regimes has emerged as one of the most significant issues.  A 2011 report by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) highlighted social media platforms as being invaluable in countries which lack independent media. These platforms provide individuals with a significant opportunity to share critical views, to network and research important information to advance their cause.

The UNHRC further goes on to cite article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These documents outline the right of individuals to hold opinions without political interference and to freedom of expression. However the UNHRC states that these rights come with certain conditions. It cautions that freedom of speech should be exercised with respect for the reputation of others and should not pose a threat to national security or public order.

Herein lies a very ambiguous issue. Any citizen can claim his right to freedom of speech. On the other hand a state can arbitrarily create or interpret legislation which claims that a citizen has compromised public order, national security or the reputation of others. In the majority of cases ‘others’ really mean the privileged few who hold public office and who have the power and financial backing to zealously protect their reputation.

The Arab Spring was a clear example of ordinary people using the internet to circumvent state owned and private media. In so doing they mobilised grassroots support and protested against oppressive conditions in their countries. Of course several individuals were routinely targeted for expressing their views and attempts were even made to disrupt the internet in some countries. The Caribbean has come a long way from such extremes with respect to our system of governance, however the voice of the citizen is still limited with most electronic media entities being state controlled.

Recently in Trinidad, well known comedian Rachel Price used her Facebook page to criticise the attire of the head of state’s wife. President Carmona’s wife was attending a side event at the United Nations in which she wore a midriff outfit. Price staying true to character, made light of the first lady’s fashion sense. This drew the ire of President Carmona who responded by issuing a cease and desist order preventing Price from making any future public remarks concerning his wife.

As expected the President’s reaction created a stir in the twin island republic which is never devoid of political intrigue. It also led to the question of whether the state official had abused his power in curtailing free speech. This was taken to heart by many Caribbean people as for years ordinary citizens have been verbally abused by the political class on platforms and using the veil of parliamentary privilege.  

The internet and the advent of Web 2.0 tools has now placed some of the power back in the citizens’ hands. However with states’ ability to make and interpret laws, the increased resources to conduct mass surveillance, monitoring and identifying activists and criminalising legitimate expression it is difficult to see how freedom of expression online will be maintained.

Citizens must be cognisant of their responsibility not to engage in character assassination and other malicious conduct online.  Where they fall short of this appropriate legal action should be taken. However a government which truly respects the right of its people to free speech will work hard to find a balance and involve its people in policy formulation of this nature.

Outdated ambiguous legislation will not cut it in the 21st century. A caring and fair government will also set the example by establishing and enforcing a code of conduct which protects citizens from the arbitrary and menacing verbal abuse by some of its members. Failure to do such creates a double standard which privileges the unfettered speech of the powerful and punishes those who dare to speak out.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Are the lives of young black men less valuable? (Part 1)

Outstanding African writer Chimamanda Adichie presents a sobering critique of race relations in America through her latest novel Americanah. Adichie’s protagonist in the novel, Ifemelu is a Nigerian born young woman who migrates to further her education and chase the American dream. For the first time in her life, Ifemelu is shocked to learn that the colour of her skin matters.

Unlike Nigeria where she is accustomed to blacks in positions of power, the stark reality of American life leads Ifemelu to do some real soul searching. The simple things she takes for granted back home such as employment opportunities, getting decent service at a restaurant or walking the street without the possibility of unlawful arrest are now threatened in America by her skin colour. 

While I was engrossed in the final chapter of Adichie’s award winning novel, another African American teen was fatally shot by a police officer in the USA. Eyewitness reports suggest that the young man, Mike Brown, was unarmed during the confrontation with law enforcement officials, but this did not prevent him from receiving six shots about his body.

The plight of the young black male in American society, like an endangered species facing extinction, was again thrown into the spotlight. The issue of racism so carefully sidestepped by leading American public figures particularly those of African origin, rose from its slumber to grip the country and to mock premature proclamations of a post-racial society. Mike Browns’ death follows on the heels of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and the countless stories of the unlawful incarceration of young black men which hardly make mainstream media.

Days of protests followed the death of Brown with African Americans berating that tenets of freedom, justice, equality and democracy only applied to one race in that country. As if to prove the protesters correct as to the locus of power in the country, police units with equipment reported to be more advanced than US led ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, squared off against Ferguson residents to control and combat their calls for justice.  

One online blogger and experienced protester stated that the unfolding events in Missouri reminded him of his days in the Black Panther movement, where its fight for racial equality was systematically undermined by American law enforcement entities. Ironically while protesters battled tear gas and rubber bullets, the Klu Klux Klan an organisation which has historically terrorised and murdered several black Americans, publicly offered its protection to non-black businesses in Fergusson. It also threw its financial support behind the officer who shot the unarmed teen. 

The question to be asked in the wake of this latest shooting centres on the value of young black males across America and indeed the world. Are the lives of young black men less valuable than other races and if so why?  Racism (and classism) as Adichie notes in Americanah are about maintaining power and control. Often times it is an elite few who create the laws, control the wealth and dictate the state of affairs. Ferguson’s population of around 21,000 is estimated to be two-thirds black but its political leadership, education system, public administration and law enforcement are predominantly non-black.

In a true democracy equal representation and participation would have been encouraged. Where there is a threat to the system of unequal power that threat is kept in check by whatever means necessary. In the earlier years of the civil rights and Pan-African movements articulate young black men (and women) such as Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, Marcus Garvey, Huey Newton and Martin Luther King were targeted as they threatened to dismantle the system. These men have given way to younger generations facing less overt struggles of racism but still situations of disenfranchisement, poverty and police brutality. However it is now easier to eliminate such threats.

Through the images popularised by negative elements in rap and hip hop music which have glorified young black men as gun toting thugs and gangsters, it is now easy for the system to justify the elimination of those who are potential threats to laws and practices fuelled by racial inequality. The implications of the gangster image in a system prone to police excesses is a reality which young American black men must grapple with. In addition they must also raise their consciousness and determine how to successfully challenge the unequal status quo in a non-violent means. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

When Silence is not Golden

When I first started contributing to this space, I was aware of the fact that I was opening myself to public scrutiny. It wasn’t the first time I was sharing my personal thoughts in a public forum but it would be the first time doing so on a consistent basis. Given my background in youth work, I naturally gravitated towards commentary on societal issues particularly impacting young people. 

I was well aware that Barbadian society though considered democratic does not always encourage diversity of opinion especially when people feel they are the object of your concerns. For instance I have been accused of being an operative for the opposition party when raising awareness of youth unemployment and then labelled by opposition supporters as being partisan when endorsing government measures to address the same issue. 

The lesson I learnt was that it was impossible to please everyone but to always canvass the ideas of the young people who I represented and express their fears and concerns with as much conviction as they did to me.   

Being outspoken did not happen overnight. It came from taking small bold steps and through the advice and encouragement from other outspoken people. Even now I do not consider myself sufficiently outspoken much of it stems from the fear of victimisation which has been passed down from generation to generation in Barbadian society. 

Evidence of this was highlighted in another section of the media recently by way of an interview with a University of the West Indies Student. The interview took place after a planned protest against a range of tax measures and cuts taken by government. When asked why she was present when many of her peers were not, the student noted that her parents had always encouraged her to be outspoken. On the other hand several of her colleagues were warned by their parents of jeopardising their career prospects if they were associated with the march.

It reminded me of my UWI days when I was one of the very few Barbadian students protesting the planned hike in amenities fees among the scores of non-national students who helped to bring some sanity to the debate.

But it is not only in Barbados where being outspoken gets the disapproving eye. The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be invoking condemnation from countries all across the world. Improper actions have been committed on both sides but disproportionate use of force from Israeli raids resulting in the deaths of mainly civilian women and children ought to be condemned by the international community. The claim has been that militants have been using civilians as human shields but among these deaths included four children who were playing football on a beach.

In response to the ongoing tragedy NBA star Dwight Howard who has a following of 15 million on Twitter posted #FreePalestine. He was immediately blasted for ‘choosing sides’ in the conflict and deleted his tweet with an apology.  Barbadian Pop Sensation Rihanna did likewise but later deleted her tweet and offered a lengthy apology. The support from both of these international icons to the plight of thousands of women and children could have gone a long way in forcing people across the world to take note and place pressure on their respective governments to speak up about these atrocities. Sadly however commercial and political interests have won out over human rights issues.

The events in Palestine are but one of the many situations across the world which requires the voice of the international community. History is replete with tragic lessons of the evil that flourishes when we sit back and watch those with economic, political and military power muzzle our voices while promoting their agendas. It is always tempting to sit on the fence and allow other persons to do the speaking or to await the outcome of such situations, that is until we find ourselves in similar predicaments and then wish for others to rescue us as we struggle to find our voice.

Over the past two weeks I have been fortunate to engage three colleagues who have done humanitarian work in the Middle East and in Palestine. From the information they shared and from critically assessing the various media reports I have come to the conclusion that silence is not the best option from my end. I asked my colleagues what I could do to bring awareness about this issue to my small sphere of influence. Their simple message was that if each person raised their voice in unison in whatever way they could, it would force world leaders to stop turning a blind eye. It would also give hope to the children of Palestine that they have a future beyond fleeing bombs and being treated as less than humans. 

Whatever our ethnic, religious, national or political origins and persuasions we are all human beings and the unfair treatment of any one group of people will eventually cause great discomfort for several other groups. Our silence is not always golden.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Respect is due to our Caribbean People

We Caribbean people are known to be hospitable, warm and friendly. When we welcome guests into our homes we tend to roll out the red carpet ensuring they are served with the best food using the best cutlery and that we are on our best behaviour. Little do they know of the struggles and sacrifices we undergo to accommodate them and to make our house a home.

All that we ask in return is for our guests to appreciate our efforts and not to speak ill of our place of abode. If they do we become irritated by their behaviour and it is worse when such a person comes from a position of privilege.

It is the idea of the privileged, critical and unappreciative guest which comes to mind with the recent two day visit to Jamaica by Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde. Speaking at the invitation of the UWI, Mona Campus Ms. Lagarde delivered a speech entitled, ‘The Caribbean and the IMF—Building a Partnership for the Future.’ The speech centred on the notion of change for both the Caribbean and the change the IMF has made in its dealings with member countries. The speech also waxed poetic with quotes from outstanding Caribbean writers and musicians.

Between the flowery quotes and acknowledgement of the Caribbean’s vulnerabilities, Ms. Lagarde also made some unwelcomed remarks. She insisted that the Caribbean needed to rid itself of its lethargy and trade this for ‘lift off’. She also scolded the region for ‘having a tendency to get stuck in the doldrums of stagnation—low growth, high debt, low competitiveness and high unemployment’.

Ms Lagarde insists that the poor and vulnerable are the worst hit by economic crises, that youth unemployment has impacted a third of Jamaica’s youth population and that the poverty rate has doubled to 17.5 per cent. That stagnation, debt, economic inequality, disenchantment, crime, insecurity and a dwindling quality of life have all been features of Caribbean economies and societies.

Strangely enough Ms Lagarde’s description aptly fits several countries where IMF structural adjust programmes have been undertaken. Perhaps Ms. Lagarde would have been better off doing a comparative analysis of IMF structural adjustment programmes implemented twenty years ago and the state of third world economies now.

No thought seems to have been given to the special circumstances and historical forces of dependence and exploitation which impacted Caribbean countries. Surely as a French citizen Ms Lagarde must be aware of the sterling legacy of French colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean. The struggles of the formerly enslaved peoples of Haiti who fought against their French masters comes to mind. Even worse, they were forced to pay France reparations so as to be recognised in the international system of states. The millions of francs paid out crippled the Haitian economy and took away from significant investments in health, education and infrastructure leaving Haiti with a legacy of debt and impoverishment.

Such historical facts are of no concern for the IMF official who referred to the Caribbean as traditionally a lethargic place. Lethargy can be substituted for words such as lazy and inefficient.  A word which could also be attributed to the IMF’s handling of several financial crises including that of Greece which resulted in massive nationwide protest against the IMF.

Ms Largade suggested that it was time for the Caribbean to move from lethargy to lift off. Such sentiments are similar to liberal economist Walt Rostow’s theory of modernisation. Modernisation theory suggests that countries develop in five linear stages and that the lack of development in third world countries is due to internal issues such as poverty and backward values. Like Lagarde, Rostow ignores the special circumstances of countries like those in the Caribbean which were for centuries exploited for profit. These countries are now struggling with great debts because a significant portion of their earnings have had to be spent remedying social problems of unemployment, illiteracy, inadequate housing and health care.

Despite her claim of lethargy Ms Lagarde acknowledges that the Caribbean has shifted from an agricultural based economy to a tourism economy, a ‘leap that has eluded many others.’ Such a leap or skipping stages in Rostow’s modernisation model would not be possible by a lazy and lethargic people. Indeed it has taken many developed countries centuries to accomplish what several Caribbean countries have done in under fifty years of independence. 

Unfortunately Ms Lagarde does not recognise the contradictions in her own speech but at least she comes to the realisation that ‘the Fund has not exactly won many popularity contests in this region.’ She further states that ‘for too long, the IMF was viewed in harsh terms, hindering rather than helping, much of this criticism is, I believe unfair.’

Ms Lagarde would be better advised to ponder on her own words. I respectfully disagree with her and in fact  believe the criticism to be justified. However Caribbean governments would be better off solving their problems and seeking support from international institutions which understand their unique circumstances.

In the words of Frantz Fanon from A dying Colonialism ‘liberation (economic) does not come as a gift from anybody, it is seized by the masses with their own hands and by seizing it they are transformed; confidence in their own strength soars and they turn their energy and experience towards building, governing and deciding their own lives.’ 

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Consequences of Crime and Corruption: Fighting against the New Normal

Of all the Caribbean islands I have visited Trinidad holds the most special place in my heart. Perhaps it is the friendliness of the people or the easy pace of island life, but for sure the cultural, racial and religious diversity makes it the true melting pot of the Caribbean as evidenced by the numbers who flock to the island each year for carnival.

Overshadowing the ease of life, infectious rhythms and carnival like atmosphere are the dreadful stories of crime and violence in the Caribbean’s most prosperous economy. The gruesome murder of former independent senator and legal luminary Dana Seetahal has sent shockwaves across the Caribbean. That there is little regard for the life of an outstanding representative of the law indicates the extent to which criminal elements are willing to defy the justice system.   

In spite of the numbness it has created, some Trinidadians have noted that this lawless mentality has been on the horizon for a while.  One Trinidadian colleague while not minimising the impact of the murder, argued that the country had been in great social decay for several years. He cited gang violence, the murder and rape of innocent children, aggravated robberies, human trafficking and corruption in government and the private sector as some of the problems.

As though the murder was not enough bad news, days after, a section of the media reported that one of the suspects was tipped off by someone inside the police force and had gone into hiding. If that report is indeed factual, it will have a telling impact on ordinary citizens. It will become increasingly difficult for them to place their trust in an entity which is supposed to serve and protect.

Trinidad thus faces the prospect of this type of crime becoming the new normal if not dealt with swiftly. Other Caribbean islands cannot ignore these developments since what affects one will in some way impact all. The question is how best can the crime situation in the Caribbean can be resolved?  The conventional method is to place more resources such as guns, vehicles and surveillance equipment in the hands of the security forces. While this works for a while it can be seen as simply stoking the fire with criminals equipping themselves with high calibre weapons and deepening complex networks within and across countries.

The situation can best be tackled with leaders across all sectors committing themselves to integrity, transparency, fairness and equality. While much of the focus is on blue collar crimes, much white collar crime in the Caribbean goes unreported and unpunished. Ordinary people who are not blind to abuses of power and profit making by those in authority will no doubt ignore the laws which are created mainly to regulate their activities.  

When corrupt officials partner with criminal elements the only result is the total disintegration of society.  Such examples can be found in oil rich Nigeria where an estimated 20% of the population enjoys 80% of the wealth with corruption between state officials, foreign oil and business tycoons being the norm. The kidnapping of some 250 young women and the relative impotence of the Nigerian government and army to have them returned has shocked the world, but not many Nigerians. The same could be seen with Jamaica and the Dudus Coke fiasco which forced the resignation of a top government official and cost many innocent lives.

Where there is a lack of values and principles, corruption spreads like a cancer.  When corruption becomes the norm violence flourishes and it does not discriminate against its victims. Worst of all the lives and future of young people are jeopardised. It will take a herculean effort for Trinidad to overcome this tragedy however the solutions are clear. Let us hope the leaders will set their house in order and begin the healing and recovery process for the country. Hopefully other Caribbean leaders are also watching on and are themselves making wrong things right.   

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A lost Economic Generation does not have to be our reality.

During a recent debate in parliament an Honourable member of the House spoke of the consequences of Barbados not having a viable economy. By his assessment, if our economy is not managed well, the island faces the certain prospect of having a lost economic generation. 

In January of this year similar sentiments were echoed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) at its Davos meeting. During that meeting, income disparity and social unrest were highlighted as major issues likely to impact the world economy in the coming decade.  At the centre of this economic tragedy was the world’s youthful population or what the WEF described as a “lost generation”.  According to the WEF this generation consists of several young people recently thrown on to the job market who lack both jobs and skills and are likely to cause social unrest as they vent their frustrations.   

Barbados is in no way isolated from this economic nightmare. Our young people too are facing significant challenges with diminished job prospects and with the luxury of switching jobs not available like before. Employers can reduce wages due to the high demand and oversupply of labour and with limited experience many young people are either bypassed or forced to take lower wages. 

Even for those who are able to obtain jobs there is still some difficulty. One recent study conducted in the USA noted that obtaining a job during the economic downturn can have possible psychological effects for many years. This occurs when persons aren’t working in their ideal jobs and there are limited prospects for growth, they may resign themselves to that job experience as being their fate in life and thus not grasp other opportunities which come along.

There are other impacts such as delaying marriage or the purchase of a home because the financial stability simply is not there. Those pursuing tertiary education would have been spared the encumbrance of student loans in the past. However with government’s new position on paying university fees this will mean that many will have to acquire student loans. Such a scenario may lead to a situation where there are many young persons with high debts who are also jobless causing further social and economic dislocation.  

All however is not lost for those young people facing these challenges. Experts assessing this global situation have recommended that young people remain flexible and be willing to move and try different things. These experts also encourage youth to consider delaying certain material goals until such time as they have stronger job offers. In addition continuing to upgrade one’s education with important and practical skills is also a sure way to increase one’s job prospects.

The G20 Young Entrepreneurs Summit of 2013 was held under the theme ‘Avoiding a lost Generation’. This summit of young entrepreneurs from some of the world’s most advanced economies reflected on the economic situation impacting youth. Coming out of the summit, entrepreneurship was seen as the main tool to tackle the youth unemployment situation and to increase economic growth for countries across the world. However some of the barriers cited in achieving this included a lack of entrepreneurship education, tax and regulatory systems which proved extremely prohibitive to potential entrepreneurs and inadequate investment funding.  

The G20 Youth Summit made certain recommendations which should be followed locally. These included expanding funding alternatives for young businesses as well as quality mentorship and business support services. In addition, embracing a culture where young entrepreneurs were celebrated even if their businesses failed, providing incentives and reducing red tape and excessive taxation were seen as critical to a youth-led economic recovery.

Whether or not we wish to admit it, this is a special time in which we find ourselves. Gone are the days of finding a ‘good job’ after completing one’s secondary or tertiary schooling.  Of course our young people must recognise that they have to work harder and smarter to achieve and to understand that they are competing with others from across the world when it comes to employment or even establishing their own businesses.  For this reason they must have an eye focused both on the local and international landscape and be willing to explore all opportunities.   

A lost economic generation does not have to become our reality. Both the public and private sector must play their part in helping to overcome this daunting prospect. Young people must also recognise that they are not entitled to life's luxuries. They too must play their part by agitating for change, embracing new ideals, becoming more aware of the economic and global difficulties which confront them and grasping opportunities which can lead to a more prosperous future despite the gloom surrounding us.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Population Growth does not mean Economic growth

In 2011 the world surpassed the 7 billion mark, a significant milestone which was recognised by several countries and international development agencies. In its state of the world population report to mark the event, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) noted some implications for this rise in population. Among the concerns was that population growth would outpace economic growth and where there was a lack of family planning this could cause severe problems. The report also emphasized that the attainment of a stable population was necessary for economic growth and development. We can assume that by a stable population we mean one in which there is a steady increase with a slightly higher birth rate to the death rate. 
Caribbean countries have faced the problem of population growth outstripping economic growth before. In the 1940s period the Moyne Commission reporting on the living conditions in the West Indies expressed its fears at the growing population, the lack of economic and social development and the need for family planning measures to be introduced. Population growth at that time certainly did not result in better economic conditions. There is a link between economic growth and population to be explored but one also has to consider economic development. Economic growth is related to an increase in a country’s output and income, it is largely fuelled by greater consumption. So that population growth necessitates a rising demand for products and certainly the need for more persons to work and to deliver these products and services.

We often speak of economic growth without considering economic development. Economic development is traditionally seen as the move from an agriculturally based economy to an industrial or services based economy through a range of policies including the adoption of new technologies. It usually results in an increase in living standards for a population. It is therefore possible to have economic growth without economic development, but growth alone fuelled by a larger population and increased consumption does not mean better living standards for a people. There are many places across the world which have had massive increases in population yet there are thousands of citizens without meaningful jobs and without access to basic things such as food, water, shelter, access to proper health care and education.

Resources such as land, water and energy will also come under increased strain with population growth. The British political economist Thomas Malthus’ writing at the height of the industrial revolution posited that population growth outstripped the rate at which food could be produced thus inevitably leading to hardship and suffering. While Malthus’ theory has been disproved by the ability to significantly increase food production through new technologies, there are still concerns over the ability to sustain large population with scarce natural resources. A country such as Barbados with very limited natural resources and a limited land mass will face unimaginable problems with a rapid population increase.

The recent suggestion by a senior government official of increasing our population to over 300,000 people will certainly create an increase in demand. However it does not mean that such demands will be met unless persons have the necessary disposable income to purchase these products and services. Higher incomes are achieved through economic development and economic growth. Economists have noted that there is a strong correlation between the reduction of population growth rates and increases in economic growth and higher incomes. Those countries with a higher level of economic growth also have a lower rate of population growth while conversely those with higher population growth rates have a lower economic growth. 

The introduction of a family planning policy and access to free education have both prevented a population explosion in Barbados. Those with a higher degree of education usually delay or limit the number of children they have. On the other hand those without such tend to have more children. These policies have worked in Barbados with a reduction in the population growth rate and a strong investment in our human resources leading to economic growth, higher wages and greater consumption.

At the beginning of the new school year last September, a local radio station in its newscast highlighted the plight of a young mother with six children. The mother lamented that the monies which she received previously from her Constituency Council had been reduced unexpectedly and queried how she was going to find school supplies. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Any increase in population growth is likely to be done by those who can least afford to support their offspring. It is a signal of the hardship and difficult circumstances which we are likely to find ourselves in if we pursue a population growth strategy without thought to sustainability and the implications it will have for our resources and economy. Population growth therefore does not lead to economic growth it is a false assumption. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Retrenching in a Humane Way

There is never a perfect time to hear the disappointing news of the loss of one’s job and ultimately the loss of income. In the trying economic circumstances with which we are faced the words retrenchment, restructuring and downsizing have all been used to placate harsh news delivered to employees almost on a weekly basis. 

Whether in the private sector, civil society or the public sector job cuts have been the order of the day no matter the size of the organisation. It is acknowledged that things cannot remain the same with the ripple effect of declining revenue. However the manner in which downsizing and restructuring have been ongoing is certainly a cause for concern.  

There is no shortage of press coverage highlighting irate workers and union leaders voicing their displeasure at the manner in which dismissals have been undertaken. From letters delivered while on vacation, early morning calls not to report to work, locked office doors and dismissals in the middle of union negotiations; workers have been having a torrid time.

Being treated in this manner by an employer is understandably heartbreaking particularly for those who may have been with an organisation for ten years or more and have given of their best effort in whatever position they held. Not only is the emotional attachment severed but there is also disruption to other aspects of their lives.  

Many of these persons will have dependents; children still in school or elderly parents who may need to be taken care of. There may also be mortgage or car payments, groceries and of course utilities to be paid. Barbados is still a society comprised primarily of single parent households. The majority of such households are headed by females. In light of the current retrenchments we can safely assume that women are more likely to be affected than men and will find it more difficult to become re-employed. With all the various responsibilities of a typical single parent household and suddenly being thrown into a state of unemployment, one can easily imagine the emotional distress of many single mothers across our country.   

The way in which restructuring has been carried out in some sectors has certainly been anything but humane. It raises the question as to whether our society and its institutions are really as caring and compassionate as we make them out to be. One social commentator giving his views on the issues noted that there is no easy way to tell an employee that he or she will be let go. The commentator also noted that the employer has to take into consideration the possibility of retaliation such as physical harm, damage to the equipment and property and the destruction of critical information and documents if advanced notice is given.

In my estimation, while an employee is not likely to express joy on hearing of job loss, he or she is certainly less likely to react in an expressly negative manner if that loss comes with a human touch to it. In many circumstances persons are hired through an interview process and go through an orientation process with management and human resource personnel before assuming their duties. If the process coming in requires such formalities then going out should also have a human touch to it, particularly where an employee has been dismissed not due to underperformance but the need to  restructure.

Retrenching an employee with simply a piece of paper stating that his or her services are no longer required makes it appear as though some invisible hand has intervened and decided that person’s fate. Such an approach leaves a lasting impression on the former employees, on the general public and certainly on those who remain with that organisation.

For the employees retrenched, trust is broken and there is a feeling of betrayal or what some in management may refer to as a break in the psychological contract between employer and employee. For those employees still within in the organisation there is every possibility that they will become distrustful of committing their time and energy to the organisation having seen the treatment of their colleagues. As is currently the case in many organisations, the remaining employees will be expected to undertake additional duties with greater pressure exerted on them to produce without commensurate adjustments in pay while operating in a climate of uncertainty.

Our late Prime Minister often stated that Barbados is more than an economy it is a society. With the plethora of management professionals, management textbooks, courses available at our institutions of higher learning and unlimited seminars, our country should be better equipped to manage the process of downsizing across the various sectors.

We must remember that the retrenched worker is also a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, a potential customer, voter, and future employee within the society. In a small society such as ours it would not take much for lower morale to impact productivity, profitability and any other indicators of economic growth. Our people must be treated as human beings and not merely as economic or financial statistics. The current situation calls for greater emotional intelligence and for a greater sense of dignity to be accorded to our ordinary workers especially in circumstances where they are to be relieved of their jobs.  

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Vybz Kartel Tragedy and Dancehall’s Future

A major feature of Jamaican dancehall music has been the glamorisation of violent images and personalities over the years. Many dancehall artists have come to exemplify the image of the bad boy, the rude boy, the shotta and the don. Dancehall has created a powerful subculture and even counterculture of its own spreading throughout the Caribbean and even internationally as it is big in places such as Germany, Japan and South America.

Despite its international acclaim a strong element of violence still persists. As Jamaican cultural expert Brenda Pope has noted, the gun remains a symbol of liberation as well as masculine and personal power in dancehall music.

At the heart of such lyrics are often poor communities suffering from unemployment, teenage pregnancy, poor housing and neglect. Some have argued that such lyrics are merely symbolic of the day to day struggles of ghetto people. However the lyrics are more than symbolic, they are often the lived reality of many of the artists who have originated from such backgrounds and find a way of expression through music. 

The guilty conviction of Adidja Palmer more infamously known as Vybz Kartel brings to the fore these issues of violence, representation and the double impact of dancehall music. 

There is no doubt that Kartel is one of the most gifted artists to emerge onto the dancehall scene in the last decade. Whether or not one agrees with his lyrics, his writing ability is exceptional. Kartel became the iconic figure in dancehall music and for some the voice of the poor people. From his lyrics to his skin bleaching, Vybz rum, his own condom brand and even shoe line, his popularity soared. He has had international collaborations with the likes of Rihanna, Jay-z, Pharrell and Eminem and the popularity of songs like Clarks saw him featured prominently on international television. 

All of this of course was mired by controversies such as the infamous Gaza/Gully rivalry between himself and former label mate Mavado. The rivalry spread across the seas even to influence many young people here in Barbados. A show was promoted as a Unity concert featuring the two artists but a strong public outcry forced the intervention of the late Prime Minister, the Hon. David Thompson and its subsequent cancellation. 

At the time, as head of the Barbados Youth Development Council my opinion was canvassed on whether the artists should have been allowed to come for a Unity concert and Youth Forum. Personally I saw nothing wrong particularly with the youth forum. I welcomed the idea of young people interrogating the two gentlemen over their actions and the negative reverberations they caused.

As with most things in Barbados, the more conservative forces won out, never mind that only a few months before, both artists had performed on the island with no objection whatsoever. As was expected, the ban had the opposite effect. Kartel’s popularity soared with local radio DJs seemingly protesting the ban with a heavy rotation of his songs for weeks on end. 

In months to follow Kartel would accept an invitation by the UWI Mona, Cultural Studies department.  A presentation similar to the youth forum was held with Kartel being heavily bombarded with questions about his skin bleaching, his violent lyrics and sexually explicit content.  Kartel was clearly on the defensive as he attempted to make a distinction between Kartel the entertainer and Adidja Palmer the father, son and ordinary human being.

He tried to further distance himself from his influence, but the clear message from the gathering of very conscious youth was sent; to whom much is given much is expected. Yet this artist has produced songs such as Life We Living, Poor People Land, Ghetto Road and more recently School. These songs have drawn attention to the plight of the poor and even encouraged his young audience to take stock of their lives and educational opportunities. This is interesting since Kartel cannot claim to have been impoverished and destitute like some other dancehall artists. During his trial, his sister who is a high school senior teacher lamented that Kartel was raised in a good home with both parents who insisted on education and strong morals.  

Kartel has therefore created his own fantasy world as evidenced by his self-proclamation as ‘World Boss’. One has to admire his business ethic and the vision to take his music globally. However inflicting violent punishment on dissenting members of his music label and being implicated for the heinous act of murder must be strongly condemned. An artist with more sway than any politician in Jamaica has forfeited his chance to become a true champion for ordinary people, to give them a voice and the hope of a way out through the music industry.

The debacle of Vybz Kartel or ‘di Teacha’ as he also calls himself is a lesson to all young people: that power, influence and money used for the wrong means can lead to self-destruction. There is still a place for dancehall music and its artists. The other way is shown through Shaggy’s recent concert in aid of the Bustamante Hospital for Children. If only such acts can be replicated with a greater focus on the use of dancehall for good, we can see greater positive transformation in the lives of the many ordinary young people who follow this music.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Demise of Collective Responsibility?

Growing up in church there were many catch phrases which never really made sense at the time, but which I became appreciative of as I matured.  One particular phrase, ‘a house divided against itself shall not stand’ became increasingly apparent as I joined organisations and later assumed various leadership roles. The phrase was one of the favourite lines of the older preachers, who in retrospect tried their best to keep the congregation in line and to stem the wider divide which often afflicted the church.

It would seem that the proponents of the parliamentary system which we inherited also had great respect for this biblical excerpt. The doctrine of ‘Collective Responsibility’ is one of the key pillars of the Westminster System of Government. This doctrine of cabinet government holds that all ministers are obligated to give public support to government policies. It ensures that within parliamentary democracies members of the Executive Branch of government do not break rank with the decisions made by Cabinet.

If this is done elected officials holding ministerial portfolio can be expected to be stripped of their positions and relegated to the back bench. In a way this is reminiscent of the old time Pentecostal churches. In such churches   whenever one brought public embarrassment to the pastor and the congregation, one would be sanctioned by being asked to sit at the back of the church.  

Recent political events in some Caribbean countries have gone contrary to this custom of Collective Responsibility. Some have found it appalling even at times amusing to see Cabinet ministers distancing themselves from decisions taken by the highest decision making body in Caribbean countries. Even more surprising has been the absence of any sanctions for these types of breaches as is customary under systems such as the British parliament.

This trend provokes many interesting thoughts and scenarios. In the past there has always been the feeling that representatives never fully put forward the interest of their constituents as they were forced to tow the party line. If the current trend continues there might be in fact greater direct participation by the people, if representatives speak and vote on a more independent basis.  It could very well reverse the notion of the parliamentary system being seen as an elected dictatorship, not reflective of popular sentiment. It also provides for an environment in which there is greater need for consensus building and where the position of Prime Minister is no longer seen as having almost unlimited power. Traditionally the Prime Minister can hire and fire as he pleases particularly for such outspokenness. 

On the other hand there is the likelihood of confusion. A government in which publicly expressed opinions are contradictory has the appearance of being weak and unstable. The locus of power becomes difficult to locate and there appears no real consensus in decision making. This has implications for the level of confidence reposed in the country from investors, the electorate and from the members of the Executive/Cabinet itself who may still hold fast to the doctrine of collective responsibility.

Throughout the Caribbean where there has been a departure from this norm, the leadership should signal that public expression of divergent views is allowed. Failure to do so only heightens uncertainty and makes for much unwelcomed speculation on the direction of the country and its stability. Such clarification is urgently needed as economic crises often precede political crises and signal the demise of factious regimes in small island states.