By Garfield Joseph
If the newly elected Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) is going to lead Antigua and Barbuda on a path of economic recovery, one of the most important things that the government must do within the next six months is to craft a five- to ten-year strategic plan that speaks to the social and economic development of the nation.
A strategic plan is a document outlining the organization’s mission and future direction, near and long term performance targets and strategy. Strategic planning is needed to mold and shape independent actions into overarching objectives. Furthermore, strategic planning is needed to proactively shape the direction of the organization. Absent a strategic plan, there is no framework for weaving individual actions that will lead to the accomplishment of objectives that are truly important to the survival of the organization.
To be sure, strategic planning is hard work. It requires data collection, data analysis, debate and discussion and, of course, hard choices. Because of the amount of work that is involved, and the uncertainty of elective politics, it seems that many governments do not truly appreciate the importance of strategic planning or take the time to plan.
Strategic planning, rightly understood, is an actual vision of where the leader of the organization, in this case the prime minister, wants to take the country in light of the social and economic aspirations of its citizens and macroeconomic realities. It includes specific performance objectives, clear accountabilities, methods of implementation and execution, tracking and evaluating performance and correcting course when not on track. A government that manages on the fly, or fails to plan, is planning to fail.
For Antigua and Barbuda to realize its full potential as one of the leading economies in the Caribbean, the country cannot be managed on the basis of manifesto promises and five-year election cycles. The country and its citizens deserve better. These outdated approaches to governance, borne out of a desire to maintain political power at all costs, are no longer suited to the 21st century, as the results of the recent elections have so clearly demonstrated. A change of governance is required.
But it takes a certain kind of rare leadership to chart a new way forward. The newly elected prime minister, the Honorable Gaston Browne, has a golden opportunity to chart his own course and become an Eric Williams of the Caribbean, or a V.C. Bird of his time, by leading and managing strategically.
In crafting a strategic plan, what are some of the key areas of consideration that should be included? Key elements of the plan must include but will not be limited to education, energy, environment and equity. These are critical issues that must be addressed given where we are today in the history and economic life cycle of the country.
The difference between prosperity and poverty in the new global economic environment depends on a government’s educational policies. Recent economic research has indicated that the human capital is a predictor of economic growth over time. Available research data has shown that poorer countries are able to close the gaps on richer countries by investment in the human capital of their citizens primarily in education.
As such, the government must invest in numeracy, technology, entrepreneurship, language skills, problem solving and small business development at a minimum. There must be stated outcomes and timelines by which these objectives should be realized, the details of which cannot be included in this article because of length constraints.
The next area of importance as a part of the country’s strategic planning process is a national energy policy; this is where bold, courageous leadership is required in order to address and rectify the energy policy mistakes of the past that continue to plague the nation today. The reality is -- if information shared in recent newspaper articles and other public forums are to be believed – Antigua and Barbuda is paying too much for its use of imported fuel and energy generating infrastructure. High energy rates not only affect the ordinary man and woman, but also affect our competitive positioning in the hospitality, transportation, manufacturing and public sectors.
Our hoteliers and restaurant operators and supermarket owners will tell you that one of the most significant operating costs is the cost of energy. Even one cent per gallon above and beyond the actual price is one cent too much that places an unnecessary burden on the backs of the people and puts the country at a competitive disadvantage and must be viewed in that light.
In addition, renewable energy, through wind power or solar energy, provides a significant and viable opportunity to lower our dependence on imported fossil fuel. This is one area in which the government could have made significant headway over the last ten years given the rapid development in renewable energy technology. However, no progress has been made because there was no political will to move forward in this direction.
The absence of any progress on this front – when developed and developing nations alike are moving swiftly to take advantage of these resources – begs the question of whether government policy was handcuffed by private economic interests. The more we import, the more various private interests benefit, but the nation is worse off as a result.
Only a national energy plan will suffice to make these wrongs right. And the new political leader needs the moral, civil and political support to change the status quo. Because there are too many vested interest in this matter. These are not easy decisions, but in the interests of the country and the next generation, they must be made.
We cannot continue like this. Writing off the debts on outstanding areas – while a noble cause and a benefit to the debtors – is not a sustainable energy policy that will improve the competitive position of the country, nor is it a wise formula to make clean affordable energy accessible to the masses.
Another crucial element of the government’s strategic plan must also include sound environmental policies and objectives. A broad-based environmental policy should be prescribed in law and should not be left to the whims and fancies of the developmental control authority and/or certain government ministers.
All too often, genuine issues and concerns relating to the environment and sustainability are pushed to the sidelines in the interest of jobs. Obviously, jobs are important but we must also protect the environment so that we can maintain those jobs and protect the quality of life that flows from a well-managed environment that an employed populous expects.
Without a sound environmental policy -- documented, communicated and prescribed in law -- what are the guidelines? Who determines how waste water from sewage plants and electricity generating plans should be managed? Without a sound environmental policy, who determines how close we can build new hotel and condominiums to the shoreline or environmentally sensitive locations? Without a sound environmental strategic plan, the damages can be far reaching as we have seen from the sand mining operations in Barbuda. Let us learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them.
Any discussion of the environment must, of necessity, include the way forward for the Guiana Island project. This project, should it be realized, promises to be a potent catalytic mechanism that will improve the economic output of the nation and transform the tourist industry in the coming years. We need it.
And while we believe that the government will be prudent and perform the necessary environmental impact studies before green-lighting the project, too much is at stake to leave this project solely in the hands of the government. The citizenry must be consulted. The environmentalist must be given a voice. For our future and that of their children could be severely eroded if the project is not environmentally friendly to say the least.
The final piece of the strategic planning process must include what I now term as equity-national equity. National equity is the belief that the country of your birth must provide you with the same or similar opportunities and protections in the economic life of the country that are afforded to non-nationals.
National equity is the belief that citizenship must count for something. And while we welcome those who want to make Antigua and Barbuda their home and invest in the country, native born Antiguans and Barbudans should not feel excluded from the economic opportunities of the country to the benefit of non-nationals. I admit that this is a very sensitive and sometimes political issue. However, it is an issue that merits consideration and, unfortunately, it has not been addressed in a rational manner.
The advent of a new government presents us with an invaluable opportunity to reassess the impact of the country’s immigration policy and implement a national policy that makes sense going forward.
Such an assessment must begin with an acknowledgement that we live in a global village and the free movement of people is now the norm rather than the exception. But at the same time, every country -- including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and several Caribbean countries -- have implemented what can be termed “managed immigration” policies. Under such policies, the doors are not left wide open for all and sundry.
If I were to speak on behalf of many citizens, both United Progressive Party and ALBP supporters, and those flirting with the political middle ground, too many of them feel like second class citizens in their own country. This is not because they are abhorrent about the presence of non-nationals but, rather, because they believe that too many non-nationals are given an unfair advantage in many areas of the economy and the feeling that their government has not done enough to protect their heritage.
Take for example the Cedar Valley Bau Panel Project. Is this a project that locals have the capacity to resource and execute? If yes, why not give us the opportunity? And if not, what must we do as a people now to be able to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities in the future? We cannot continue to be hewers of wood and carriers of water. As the Monarch King Short Shirt sang a few years ago, if honey is in the rock, I want my share.
The Honorable Gaston Browne, our newly elected prime minster, is a fine illustration of what ordinary men and women can become through hard work and the right opportunity. He must now work assiduously to level playing field and create even greater opportunity for his own people. There must be a feeling that there is fairness, equity and above all equal opportunity. Too many are tired of picking up the scraps while the majority of large projects and contracts and management positions go to foreigners.
A friend of mine recently related to me that the development of a web portal for the ministry of tourism was contracted to a foreign based company. And this was not because locals could not do the job at the same or higher quality for a better price to the taxpayers. We cannot continue like this.
To be sure, I do not believe in tokenism or cronyism but I do believe in affirmative action. Affirmative action is practiced in the United States and Canada and in other developing countries such as India. It is the policy of providing opportunities for members of disadvantaged groups who suffered from historical discrimination. Too many gifted Antiguans and Barbudans have been, in the past, slighted as far as economic opportunities are concerned. That is why affirmative action, in relation to economic equity, should be a critical part of any five- to ten-year strategic plan given our current realities.
To be sure, a well thought out five- to ten-year strategic plan -- a vision for the future -- is not a guarantee that the country will achieve the social and economic objectives that will fulfill the dreams and aspirations of all its citizens. Such a plan, however, will almost certainly increase the chances of success.
A government that lacks clear cut directions and strategies to improve its competitive positioning or has muddled or flawed strategies, or cannot execute its strategy competently will probably be voted out of office after one or two terms. In short, the better the strategy and more proficient its execution, the greater the chances the government will be a leading performer by any measure.
That is why a five- to ten-year strategic plan is so important for this newly elected government to lead its economic recovery effort that will rebound to the benefit of the Antiguan and Barbudan people.
Garfield “Bacchus” Joseph is a son of the soil and an international business manager domiciled in the USA.