Striding to a late lunch with my long-suffering business partner, I caught a glimpse of the budget speech on a television screen in a restaurant. Admittedly my first thought was not of the future of the country, but of my groaning stomach. My second thought though was: “bloody hell I’ve missed it!” My third thought was: “should it matter?”
In banking and business, listening to the budget is a hallowed ritual. And in a statist economy, where more than 50 cents in the dollar is related somehow to the government: that makes sense. Farmers were no doubt overjoyed by their (sensible) tax breaks. We should all be happy about policies like the new cure violence roll-out (which I wrote about last year) that will treat crime as an epidemic. Others probably wondered how a 15 per cent hike in Cepep and URP payments would tackle a “poor work ethos” or a “culture of irresponsibility.”
There is always more to be done, from divesting a still bloated state, to slashing red tape, and making our experience of government delightful. At our state of development we do still need the state to catalyse growing industries: give businesses that little boost. Indeed, the Finance Minister even invited proposals for the development of the tech industry at Tuesday’s TT Chamber of Commerce post-budget briefing.
But the State’s old role is changing. The Government has acknowledged this, reducing spending by 20 per cent and reforming a now-profitable Heritage. All steps in the right direction.
Yet chat over lunch though was not about grand government policy but on more pedestrian fare: momentary annoyance at our India-based programmers, and talk about how to make people more comfortable with using apps.
I knew I’d pore over the budget later on: after all it is critical to the country. But in that moment I realised that it wouldn’t be all that important to my start-up.
I’d had the realisation that many businessmen and entrepreneurs have: we don’t start our businesses because of any expectation of government investment, support or tax breaks (though they surely help). We start them because we see a problem that we can solve. That problem might range from not having a doubles vendor on a busy corner to reinventing an electronic payments platform. That is what fires us all up.
The reality is we remain inundated with stories that lend scant hope. It is not hard to feel a sense of immense injustice when you see a picture of a cassava farmer’s family hugging each other, consoling themselves next to their dead dogs after thieves “took everything” for the third time in a year. The resilience of that family was not drawn from the state.
Our great figures started from nothing. Behind many a Land Rover’s wheel is someone who still remembers what’s like to drive a donkey cart or carry a bale of cloth, though they may only relate that a few rum punches in.
The hot-shot kids find a way: the programmers in coffee shops that need orange tinted glasses to protect their eyes, because they can’t look away from their laptop screens. Why would they look away? What they are doing is too important. Behind their lines of code they are changing the lives of people who don’t even know it yet. They aren’t waiting for a tech policy. They are the tech policy.
We talk about the many people that have fled this country for easier lives abroad, but we don’t discuss the many who stay “despite…” They have not stayed because they expect the state to change their lives or their country. People like Living Water’s Rhonda Maingot or founder of Vitas House hospice, Dr George Laquis have taken progress and compassion into their own hands.
These people are resilient enough, driven enough, brilliant enough and committed enough to take our destiny into their hands. The rest of us may have a small spark of their will, but that spark is enough. We can fan it to action. That action may be as simple as searching for a new online course, ringing up a potential Mexican buyer in halting Spanish; or just catching ourselves whenever we sense ourselves falling into inertia.
More than ever, the national budget invites less a cry for government help, and more a call to individual action.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh