|The Courier N° 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)|
|Barbados: Basking in the economic sunshine|
by Keith SANDIFORD
Now that Barbados is celebrating its 350th anniversary of continuous parliamentary government, I cannot resist the temptation to look at my native land from two different perspectives. The first is that of an angry emigrant who left over 30 years ago, determined never to return as a settled inhabitant there. The second perspective is that of an older, and I dare say, wiser, individual.
I was quite disillusioned with Bardados when I first left it, in 1956, to attend the University College of the West Indies at Mona. Since then, I have frequently returned for brief periods and have grown increasingly more respectful of that small island. I left angrily at the age of 20 because, in my judgement, Barbados had made too little social progress for 100 years. Slavery, it is true, had been abolished in 1834 and the apprenticeship system had been discarded in 1838. Blacks had won a certain degree of personal freedom, but they were still shackled by a host of petty conventions.
To understand this aspect of Bardados in the 1950s, one must remember that the country was the product of a sad colonial past. A small percentage of the population owned most of the colonys wealth, while more than 90 % of the people laboured for very little in return. Economic deprivation was accompanied by social stigma and political oppression. Blacks as a rule had no social standing, no economic power, and no political rights. This was the situation as late as 1950.
I very deeply resented that situation. It was compounded even further by a certain Victorian kind of class consciousness which bred snobbery of the worst sort, and a distinctive brand of racism which left Blacks at the base of the racial pyramid and placed browns and mulattoes somewhere in the middle, but far below the whites and the nearly whites. Social climbers often tried to distance themselves from their own roots and a wide range of barriers were set up between individuals, families and groups. You had to know your place in that complicated class structure and often could depend only on school certificates to inch forward slowly up the social ladder.
The social structure was so rigid in those days, that connections were more important than brains, and shades of colour could transcend academic worth. My elder brother (Basil) and I had no illusion about our prospects. We were both at Combermere School in the early 1950s, but we knew that, because of our colour and our background, our only hope of economic salvation was a job in the civil service, or as a teacher, beginning at $40 a month.
The situation was so comical that my younger brother (Harry), who was a curious kind of tumbric colour had a better chance. He, in fact, commenced his career as a messenger with Robert Thom at the age of fourteen and almost immediately began to make a name for himself in the Bridgetown business world without any certificates whatever. It is true that he subsequently upgraded his qualifications and his skills, while demonstrating an acumen that belied his tender age, but his running start in the field of business was based, to a large extent, on the shade of his complexion. By 1967, still only 30 years old, Harry had already rescued Gulstone and Perkins from the inefficiency of their previous managers. Basil, at 33, had moved in the meantime at a snails pace up the lower rungs of the civil service.
This was Barbados then: a poor colony, too British for its own good, and dominated by Victorian values which even the British had already abandoned. Our school system, for instance was still patterned on nineteenth-century Eton and Winchester and the emphasis was still then very much on the four Cs: Cricket, Christianity, Classics and the Cane. So we learnt an enormous amount of unnecessary Latin and Greek, and no natural sciences at all. We learnt a good deal of British and European history and no West Indian sociology at all. We knew some European geography, and could recite all the major European capitals, but we knew very little about Barbados and less about the Caribbean.
Everyone recognised a sharp distinction between the first grade secondary schools and the others, and most families who considered themselves important sent their children to Harrison College, the Lodge School, or Queens College as a matter of course. No one instilled in us any pride in our own past or heritage. We were brainwashed into detaching ourselves from our African roots and all things African were regarded in a negative light. Africa was a continent despised, like the vast majority of her millions of children.
This was Barbados then. And I ran away from it as soon as I could. But I left while the island was beginning to change. The real revolution even though I could not appreciate it at the time - had already begun, with the rise (during the late 1930s) of the Barbados Labour Party and the Barbados Workers Union. These had become two very powerful instruments by 1950. They forced the minority of whites to revise the constitution and establish a system of universal adult suffrage.
The immediate result was a black majority in the House of Assembly by 1955. A legislature which for more than 300 years had catered to the whims of a small white elite was finally representative of the real Barbadians. Two Labour parties shortly emerged, both led by black individuals preaching similar gospels, and the old Progresive Conservative Party, the last political bastion of Barbadian whites, was stifled almost at once. The followers of Grantley Adams and Errol Barrow completely dominated Barbadian politics from the mid-fifties onwards.
Within less than a decade after the democratisation of the franchise in 1953, all the whites had been swept from political power. The repercussions were enormous. Not only did the complexion of Barbadian politics change, but laws against racial discrimination were introduced at long last, and private clubs that had once been exclusively white were now compelled to accept non-white members.
Amazingly, in a society with about five or six percent white, all the secondary school headmasters, with the exception of Hayford Skeete at the Boys Foundation School, had been non-black up to my own time at Combermere.
The two Labour Party governments quickly put that matter right. Stanton Gittens became the first black headmaster of Combermere School in 1961, and Albert Williams became the first non-white headmaster of Harrison College in 1965. By 1970, without exception, all the headmasters at every level in Barbados were black, and so too were the vast majority of headmistresses. Few white teachers were left in any Barbadian school by 1975. Similarly, Barbadians had adopted the habit of appointing black cricket and soccer captains.
This revolution was not confined to sports and education. Consider the clergy, for intance. Up to 1950, the majority of Barbadian priests had been white or nearly-white. By 1970, that was no longer the case. Black Anglican leaders, like Dean Harold Crichlow and Canon Seon Goodridge had emerged. Up to 1950, the only non-white head of a civil service department in Barbados (so far as I could ascertain) was Robert Clarke, the Post Master General. By 1970, it was difficult to find any whites at all occupying such positions of authority.
This, then, was Barbados in transition. Within two short decades, the old vanilla guard had been supplanted by the chocolates, and even the strawberries found themselves in trouble. Political, administrative, clerical, educational, and social power had come to the Barbadian majority at long last.
The question of colour gradually ceased to be important, and even the commercial houses had to recognise that they were likely to be better served by educated blacks than by untrained whites. Hence the frantic search for local expertise which began during the 1960s. The political leaders encouraged this trend by insisting that white foreigners should not be brought in to undertake professional or administrative tasks that could be performed by qualified natives. Parent firms in Britain and elsewhere thus had to engage Barbadian managers, directors, accountants and technicians to run their Barbadian branches.
When I went back home to Barbados for Christmas 1962, I found that it was not only the schools which were coming under the control of blacks, but the hospital staff had already begun to change its complexion. The old UCWI was producing new black doctors almost at the rate of a factory, and the Barbadian natives were beginning to return from Mona literally in droves. So medicine, too, was gradually Barbadianised at long last. By Christmas 1971, when I made yet another pilgrimage to the island, young black doctors, like Dennis Bailey, Belfield Brathwaite, Michael Clarke, Charlie Harris, MacMilla Hodge, Edson Inniss, Noriss Procope, Alfred Ralston, and Robert Thomas had come steadily to the forefront of medicine in Barbados.
My point about all this is not only to demonstrate what political power can accomplish, but to emphasise that such changes cannot take place in an economic vacuum. I stress this because even on my last return to Barbados during the winter of 1988, some of the new men were still complaining about economic inequality. They were still arguing that the Barbadian economy was dominated by the old planter class and that this could be proven by any study of the modern directorates in Bridgetown. It was this conviction which persuaded a number of blacks to make their celebrated (but unsuccessful) bid for membership of the Board of Directors of the Barbados Mutual Life Assurance Society in December 1988.
I do not deny that a good deal of Barbadian money is still white, but I am happy to report that the complaints about white economic monopoly are exaggerated. In fact, after the restructuring of Barbadian politics, several white families preferred to emigrate rather than live in a true Barbadian democracy. Some of them sold their estates and took their money with them to Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. The business world of Bridgetown is thus no longer dominated by the planter class. Indeed, the old plantations have almost completely been broken up; and new business concerns have emerged. Most of these new business are largely run by the new men themselves, and even the old ones have been compelled by recent governments to employ local experts instead of foreigners.
Local lawyers and accountants have found many opportunities where none had existed in the 1940s. The young radical intellectuals at Cave Hill, who have struck so many telling and timely blows against the outrageous Anglo-Saxon mythology on which my own generation was weaned, are absolutely right when they advocate greater economic power for black Barbadians; but I do think they are quite wrong when they cavalierly dismiss the bulk of new black directors and administrators quite simply as lackeys.
The emergence of a powerful black elite is everywhere manifest, and most obviously so in the field of housing. Spacious mansions have been constructed all over the island and the vast majority of them are being occupied by blacks. When I first left Barbados 33 years ago, the bulk of the homes in such areas as Belleville and Fontabelle belonged to whites and mulattoes. The newer residential areas around Cave Hill, Clermont, Oxnards, and Stanmore are now occupied by the new black bourgeoisie.
I am not suggesting that the wealth of Barbados has now been evenly divided. There are still some rich white families, and there are still many poor black homes. Radicals and social democrats, like my good friend Dr. Hilary Beckles, must still continue their important quest for economic and social justice. But the situation is incalculably healthier in the 1980s than it had been during my childhood.
The root of our economic problem lies partly in our geography. Barbados is not blessed with abundant mineral and metal resources. Our soil is sufficiently fertile to allow us to cultivate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but our domestic market is too small and we are unable to compete on the international stage with the large North American producers.
It is also unfortunately the case that Barbados happens to be in an American monetary orbit and must therefore manifest all the symptoms of a severe cold whenever the New York market sneezes. That, as is well-known however, is by no means peculiar to Barbados. Some so-called developing countries are at the mercy of the IMF and are even more unhappy victims of economic imperialism. Even so-called developed-countries are experiencing economic stress. No less unfortunate is the fact that Barbados produces more trained professionals than can be gainfully employed at home. Thousands of graduates leave secondary schools every year and cannot all of them be properly placed in a very limited job market. That is, of couse, a real pity - especially since so many modern countries have cultivated the annoying habit of restricting immigration.
What worries me more, however, than the racial or the economic situation now is the strictly social one. The gap between rich and poor blacks in Barbados has widened. There is a powerful upper-middle class black clique which seems to be running everything in the island. So the traditional habit of using (and sometimes abusing) the old-boy network has come into play. The Mona Men, as I have called them, dominate everything from the banks and businesses to the churches and the schools. They have the capacity, therefore, to do considerable harm. I am, of course, one of these Mona Men myself, and cannot escape an uneasy feeling when I consider how privileged a person I suddenly become from the time I enter the Grantley Adams airport, where I am often recognised even by the younger immigration and customs officers..
My hope is that such power will be wielded humanely. I know that it once was. During the 1950s and 1960s, most of the emerging civil servants and teachers in Barbados had come from modest origins. They could therefore identify most easily with the poor and the destitute. This made the bureaucracy in Barbados at that time much friendlier and less impersonal than the bureaucracy with which I myself have had to deal in countries like Jamaica, Canada, and England. In those days, you see, the Bajan bourgeoisie, was mainly first-generation bourgeois and could not, as they say, play great.
Amazingly enough, when I got to Mona in 1956, I discovered that almost all the Bajans there were very much in the same boat as myself. There were a few exceptions, but most of us were desperately poor. We had no money and no influential parents, and often no working parents either. We had all arisen through the scholarship system and this had been our only salvation. We could relate to poverty in ways in which our Trinidadian and Jamaican colleagues at Mona could never have done. Now, the problem is: how will our own children relate to their less fortunate countrymen? I am much bothered by that.
My concern, however, is tempered by the knowledge that, generally speaking, Barbadians have always responded intelligently to practical difficulties. We are not, relatively speaking, a wealthy community; and yet we have consistently handled our budgets much more skilfully than others in the Caribbean.
It is by researching these kinds of questions recently that I am finally becoming less alienated from my native land. I feel a lot more proud today of being Barbadian than I felt 30 years ago. Barbados now is so much better than Barbados then. Successive cabinets, since the introduction of ministerial government in 1954, have pursued a wide range of social and economic policies which have left the country with fairly efficient schools and hospitals, good roads and new highways, an excellent water supply, light and power systems which are the most reliable in the Caribbean, and a communications network which is the envy of the Western hemisphere.
This improvement no doubt springs from the creative uses to which political independence has just been put. And it is especially in its treatment of the important question of education that Barbados has set a sterling example to the rest of the world.
We place more emphasis on education than anyone else. We have been devoting consistently more than 22% of our gross national revenues to the upkeep of schools, colleges, and libraries. This is a miracle. The Americans, for example, often spend less than 5% on education. The result is that we have more schools per square mile, and more teachers per capita, than any other society of which I am personally aware. At the most conservative of estimates, at least some 5 000 private and public teachers operate in a community of just over 250 000. We have also updated our curricula and have come to pay more attention to such disciplines as agriculture, biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering.
This magnificent obsession with education has paid off handsomely in the quality of our House of Assembly and our Senate. It has been reflected, too, in the astuteness of our electorate. The result is that there has been much less corruption and misgovernment in our recent history than almost anywhere else. Our elections are conducted with less violence than elsewhere and our electorate is one of the best informed in the world. The common people take a keen interest in public meetings and political decisions and have a much sounder grasp of Barbadian political realities than is the norm for modern proletariats.
It is the basic commonsense of the electorate which saves Barbados from the kind of political ruin which has befallen most independent countries. The Barbadian voters will simply not permit a ruling party, for example, to become too smug and arrogant. Hence comfortable majorities have suddenly disappeared during general elections, especially after the incumbents have already enjoyed two consecutive terms. Ever since the Barrow administration was allowed a third innings in 1971, the popular wisdom has been that governments do their best work in about 10 years before becoming stale and complacent. There is no place in Barbadian politics for any monopoly.
Making miraculous use of sugar, molasses, rum, cigarettes, beer, tourism and minimal manufacturing, Barbados has increased its annual revenues from about $44 million to more than $700 million in just over 20 years of political independence. It has spent these monies so frugally, that the interest on its debt charges has never risen to the point where the repayment of loans has interfered with the proper management of the governments budget.
And yet, since 1966, we have built modern hospitals, schools, government offices, roads, a cultural centre, and even a National Bank. None of the other West Indian nations, so far as I know, can boast this kind of performance in public works. A succesion of Labour governments from both sides of the fence have encouraged poultry and dairy farming and the gradual broadening of the agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy. Our record is so good that Barbados can seldom qualify for some of the external aid offered occasionally by the developed countries.
If this account appears too rosy at a time when my namesake, the prime minister, is under all kinds of fire for his monetary and economic policies, those partisans who complain about governmental failure and mismanagement should pay a visit, or a series of brief visits, to other developing nations. It is not even necessary to travel as far afield as Africa and Asia. In almost every neighbouring Caribbean and Latin American country, where public buildings are in disrepair, roads are impassable, water is scarce, telephones seldom work, electricity and gas outages are frequent, the currency has been devalued repeatedly, and all kinds of important commodities are in short supply. Well-to-do persons from other West Indian islands have thus adopted the policy of flying frequently to Barbados to purchase even food and clothing.
Such conditions have done serious violence to the tourist industry in neighbouring countries. Barbados, on the other hand, has been able to retain its appeal as a tourist attraction. In fact, by developing a vibrant Crop Over festival during the past 10 years or so, the island has been able to draw thousands of visitors in July and August. A community so staid as to have been the laughing-stock of its neighbours, as late as 1966, has gradually cultivated part of the Trinidadian calypso and carnival tradition. In the mid- 1950s I myself would have regarded such a development as totally impossible. But young cultural leaders, like Elton Mottley and Trevor Marshall, have performed a minor miracle here. Bajan Yankees and Bajan Canucks have begun to plan their summer itineraries around Crop Over, and the tradition has already become so firmly established that it would now be extremely difficult to destroy it.
Crop Over has helped to make Barbadians more culturally alert. We are now more consciously aiming at composing our own lyrics, writing our own ballads, forming our own bands, and producing our own records. We have become far more interested in drama and theatre than we were during the 1950s.
There are more Barbadian artists, musicians, and writers than there were in my youth. Such gifted teachers as Karl Broodhagen and James Millington, who first emerged in the 1940s, have already left an indelible imprint on Barbadian art and music. And journals such as the New Bajan and Banja are doing much to encourage the growth of Barbadian literature. The establishment recently of a National Cultural Foundation was also a most fortunate stroke.
There is another positive feature of recent Barbadian social history with which, as a firm supporter of the female liberation movement, I am extremely delighted. It is the gradual, albeit grudging, abandonment of male chauvinism which so completely dominated the islands ethos up to the time of my departure.
In 1956, Barbados still maintained a very sharp distinction between the sexes. Salary scales were different in most sectors of the public service and women were not expected to hold any positions of importance. Middle class wives were actually discouraged from working, and maternity leave was beyond our contemplation. Even the public schools were divided according to gender. After the publication of the Jacobs Commission Report in 1961, however, the government made a concerted effort to destroy the gender barriers in the teaching profession. Female salaries were brought into line with those of the men and co-education replaced the older Victorian norm. As it was impossible to treat female teachers preferentially, women steadily emerged to play a more prominent role in most areas of Barbadian life. Some of them have entered politics, medicine, law, and business. They have not yet won full equality, but they have certainly made huge strides in the past three decades.
What then can I say in conclusion? I may still not go back to live permanently in Barbados, having settled comfortably in Canada for almost 30 years. I have dug very deep roots here and my children are native Canadians. But I would certainly not be as unhappy in 1989 as I would have been in 1959 had I been deported and ordered back home.
I recognise, however, that we still have difficulties in Barbados. The unemployment rate, for example, is much too high. Our welfare system is not as sophisticated as the North American, some of our young adults are becoming too addicted to illegal drugs, and our health care system is still hamstrung by lack of funds. but these are not peculiarly Barbadian problems; most modern societies are currently grappling with similar difficulties. The Barbadian record is such, however, that we can rest assured that if any country can solve such problems, that country will be Barbados.