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Coming to grips with economic realities

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It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in meaningful public discussion, whether in the mainstream media or its social counterparts, on issues outside the narrow confines of party politics, the latest crime tidbits or those matters which the international news media highlight. Too many of us remain trapped in those narrow walls and seem unwilling to go beyond them.{{more}}

However, those of us who have the privilege of being afforded space and opportunity to influence public opinion have a great responsibility to take the initiative to try and broaden the scope of thinking to other areas, to spur our readers or listeners to think “outside the box” and to open our minds to new areas and alternative approaches to current challenges.

We live in a rapidly changing world, in a global economic situation which is not very kind to small, poor and underdeveloped nations like ours. This situation has huge impact on local developments, given the globalized nature of the world today. While, of course, governments and the character of governance have important bearing on the welfare of these nations and the standard of living of the people, more and more, on an individual level, the degree to which governments can significantly change the course of events is rather limited.

It is therefore vital that we take into consideration regional and international influences on our economies and how they impact on our own lives and possibilities for development. We need to understand the environment in which we function and the possibilities and opportunities available to us. How far can we go as individual states with small populations and limited resources, and to what degree can regional integration and international cooperation help us to face up to the enormous challenges of the modern-day world?

Even the most myopic among us can no longer deny the influence of the global economic environment on the Caribbean. Yet, regional politicians, on both sides of the fence, give little indication that they either understand our realities or are willing to come to grips with them. On the one hand, incumbent governments either try to excuse their own failings by placing overdue emphasis on the international environment, whilst on the other hand, those in opposition downplay international factors, place sole blame on governments and make rash promises of salvation, if only given the chance.

Both of these absolutist approaches are fraught with danger and often lead to some ridiculous conclusions and contradictory statements and positions. Let us take two of our closest neighbours as examples. Barbados is caught in the throes of its worst economic crisis ever, even worse than that of the early nineties which took that country almost up to the doorway of the International Monetary Fund’s bitter prescriptions. The Government there, dishing out its own version of the IMF’s medicine, appeals for sacrifice and patience, while sending thousands on to the breadlines. This course is bitterly opposed by the Opposition, making unenforceable demands in the process, (for instance giving ultimatum after ultimatum for the resignation of the Finance Minister, but seemingly unable to enforce these), and as yet failing to outline a clear alternative.

St Lucia is another interesting situation which we ought to be following. There, the government has admitted to grave economic difficulties, to the extent that public sector wage cuts in the sum of five per cent have been mooted. Just last week, the Government concluded a second round of talks with trade unions about this and other possible solutions to the crisis. (Our own unions and workers should take note). Not surprisingly, the same sort of politicking is going on there, with the Opposition blaming the Government squarely for the crisis. Interestingly too, while just one year ago people were screaming blue murder about the introduction of VAT, now that the possibility of public sector workers having to take pay cuts has been raised, some of these same people are putting forward proposals of raising VAT rather than pay cuts.

Fundamentally, to a greater or lesser degree, all Caribbean nations face the same economic and social challenges. There are no ready-made solutions. No government, either here or anywhere else in the region, can absolve itself of the blame, nor can any opposition party claim simply that it has THE solution. Clearly innovative approaches are necessary, but so too must be national and regional consensus and cooperation. It makes no sense to continue to mislead our people one way or the other; we must face up to the realities, discuss options openly and realistically and find the means to work collectively for our collective sakes.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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