By Zhivargo Laing
WE FACE many challenges in the Caribbean, but we need to pay special attention to the region’s most serious challenge – employment.
Many thousands of our people are unemployed. Thousands more are under-employed. And many thousands more are fully employed but faced with the triple burden of too much debt, rising taxes and a rising cost of living. All of the above are facing little prospect of relief in the near to medium term.
This is the real Caribbean challenge.
Crime, illegal immigration, regional integration, climate change, as important as they are, pale in comparison to this very practical challenge faced every day by too many Caribbean nationals.
Can Caribbean political leaders meet this challenge? Can the prime ministers, cabinet ministers, MPs and senators create jobs and improve income prospects for these many thousands of worried and anxious souls?
Unfortunately for those living on the edge, the unemployment statistics in the countries of the region, particularly in the last five years, suggest political leaders cannot.
Persistently high double digit or near double digit unemployment has been the order of the day in Jamaica, Barbados, The Bahamas, St Lucia, Guyana, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Only Trinidad and Tobago, and St Kitts and Nevis have been exceptions with lower single-digit unemployment rates.
Truth be told, while political leaders love to take credit or are given credit for the economic performance of their countries, particularly when employment and incomes are rising, they probably account for less than one third the reason for it.
Fiscal and monetary policies which do not hinder private enterprise tend to be politicians’ most helpful role. Political actions which do help are those which support social policies, boosting education, training and health care assistance as well as infrastructural development.
These are political actions that directly promote economic growth and development. However, such forward-thinking policies seldom manifest results in a single political term.
So, where will the masses of unemployed, under-employed and stressed out fully employed find relief?
The massive relief will come if and when Caribbean private enterprise finds a new wave of creativity and ingenuity to provide new or better products and services with which the world becomes enamored.
Caribbean business people will have to drive growth and development in the region with the same profit motives that brought the growth and development we have seen to date.
Politicians will help by adopting policies that, at the very least, do not hurt, but it will largely be private business which brings the jobs and higher incomes as they pursue profitable opportunities efficiently and effectively.
A Caribbean business revival will need similar regeneration in the international entrepreneurial community because so much of our fortunes are tied to international trade, particularly in such services as tourism and banking. So, a robust expansion in the business private sectors in other countries must accompany such expansion in the region’s private sector.
This needed private business expansion will not occur in the short term.
Indeed, it seems doubtful even for the medium term, though there is a modest and uneven occurrence of it taking place. Consumer anxiety in many of the developed economies combined with painful deleveraging on the part of many of those same consumers, tentativeness in the economic performance of both European economies and that of the USA and continuing concerns about sovereign indebtedness are not helping the situation. Since the Great Recession of 2008, recovery has been at best modest and for the most part, marginally job creating.
What, then, must the Caribbean souls looking for economic relief do?
Be diligent in their job search, after all — there are some opportunities out there. Try to join the ranks of the enterprising, for nothing breeds creativity like necessity.
It is possible that some of the creativity and innovations that will bring relief rest in their own bosoms. Accept the present challenge of their circumstances mindful that things do change; for now, make the adjustments for which the present moment calls.
What about those political leaders often looked to for the relief the people seek? Now is probably a good time to own up to the limits of your power and have one of those heart to heart talks with your constituents.
Focus on doing well the things governments should do and can do well: protect the peace and order of the society to make noble pursuits easier; educate and train your young so that they might be better able to pursue their ambitions; facilitate through better public services the business of the private sector by making it easier for them to do what they do best; invest in infrastructure that improves trade and commerce as well as enhances social life; and maintain a collective sense of purpose that nurtures bonds of unity so necessary for a thriving nation.
It is a daunting task to provide jobs for the thousands unemployed and the thousands more underemployed. It is a heavy burden to bring relief to many thousands more fully employed but faced with the aforementioned triple burden of too much debt, rising taxes and rising cost of living.
Daunting though it may be, this challenge belongs to those who stepped forward for leadership and those they lead; and nothing short of deliberate collective and diligent action will meet it.
Zhivargo Laing, former Minister of State for Finance with the Government of The Bahamas, is an economist, consultant and motivational speaker.