As individuals we have learned many things in the last three months. Chief among them is the primacy of home, kith and kin, support networks, work, access to food, good health, lifestyle and life itself. As a country we have learned that we can manage a crisis, that people are not as wayward as we might have imagined, that we are resilient and capable of great seriousness.
Maybe also the extent of our domestic poverty and imbalance between sectors of our society became more evident to those who had not cared to notice before.
I do not closely follow Tobago affairs but the expectations of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) does raise more than a few eyebrows especially in this time of economic strife which is set to get much worse. It makes one wonder about the real depth of difference in productivity between our two islands which became more visible during the lockdown. How could the THA find it fit to present to central government an unreal demand of near $5 billion in its 2020/2021 budget, roughly the same as last year?
Tobago is a taboo subject, just like politics, religion and telling the truth as you perceive it. The emotive expression of “speaking truth to power” was coined in the 1950s, but it has such contemporary resonance that it has entered the lexicon of everyday folk and even political leaders. And for all that, it still is not an easy matter to say what you think because, on the whole, most people do not want to hear or to know these inconvenient truths that challenge their interests or supremacy. It is therefore encouraging that various Tobagonians have been daring to point out – Trinis hardly would – the way in which Tobagonian politicians are behaving like the offspring of the rich. They’ve noticed how many people on the island have a very unhelpful sense of entitlement, demanding more than their fair share of the goodies. Watson Duke was right to point out the budget’s mismatch between revenue and expenditure.
Anyone would baulk at the luxury of recurrent expenditure of $3 billion and revenue of $2 million. Only incorrigible teenagers can entertain that degree of indulgence. Tobago’s main national revenue contributor is tourism and there is very little of it, except for wishful local, inter-island tourism, which means no foreign exchange earned. Personally, I find the tourism product not up to the required standard to enable us to compete with other Caribbean islands successfully but, then, there is not enough imperative to do significantly better when there are petrodollars in the bank, even if there are fewer than before. Prime Minister Rowley, himself a Tobagonian, lamented the fact that Tobagonians, with all their rich land, make so little attempt to grow food and are dependent on Trinidad for too much of what keeps them alive.
People on both islands, and politicians too, have all been spoilt by our energy riches. The THA budget exemplifies that in its singular lack of ideas on how to take advantage of the opportunity for change. Where is the strategic thinking? There is nothing in it that answers to the new realities, no entrepreneurial spirit, no desire to add to the country’s wealth.
Trinidadians residents may be irritated by the state of affairs but the real harm done is to the psyche of our fellow citizens in Tobago. Many Tobagonians are deeply aware of that fact, and it is not just politicians and economists, although they were vocal last week in response to the THA’s outlandish budget.
The big problem facing Tobago is the dead hand of bureaucracy. Whenever a too-large proportion of the citizens of a country are employed by the state the country usually comes to a grinding halt, killing all possibility of innovation, creating instead lots of room for corruption and overweening self-satisfaction. I don't know what the figures are or if my observation is correct but the THA must be the largest employer in Tobago and many businesses are linked one way or another to the state sector.
Nor do I know if my observation that poverty is much less evident in Tobago than Trinidad is borne out by the data, but Tobagonians seem to enjoy a standard of living that would make many people in Trinidad envious.
However, I have seen the eventual numbing, disabling and stagnating effect such an economic model has had in other countries.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and the woman, too. The ability to grab the right opportunities is a skill that risk takers possess. Political leaders must be super able to spot a chance and make good of it.
The current pandemic is going to have long-term disastrous consequences for citizens everywhere, but especially in small countries and vulnerable regions such as ours. Yet the possibility it presents for change is not to be underestimated. It is what our leaders do now that will allow us to capitalise on the beneficial, flip side of the corona onslaught.