In May 2018, the Barbados Labour Party won the nation’s general election with an unprecedented majority, making its leader, Mia Mottley, Barbados’ first woman prime minister. Since taking office, Mottley’s government has worked hard to turn the country around following a difficult 10-year period that saw public debt balloon and the economy stagnate. Here, Mottley discusses the new sense of hope that has taken hold in Barbados as the country embarks on an economic recovery program and works to re-energize community-based activity through an ambitious initiative called We Gatherin’
How do you explain your party’s landslide victory in 2018?
I think Barbadians were able to accept that we had a reason to turn this country around and that it was rooted in creating opportunities. The last 10 years have been a difficult period for the country: regrettably, we moved from being a top economic performer to having a debt-to-GDP ratio of 177%, making Barbados the fourth most-indebted country in the world.
How did Barbados reach that point, and how did you turn things around?
For a decade there was a failure to address key issues relating to infrastructure, and to creating opportunities in productive sectors of the economy that had become stagnant and in some cases had actually receded. We were able to put forward a platform of hope for the country based on a commitment to share the burden, but also to share in the prosperity when it comes. Previously, Labour was always alone on the frontlines of economic adjustments, but this time we said no, this is going to require a contribution from everyone: from labor, from capital, from Barbadians living in the country, and from people coming into the country, since the infrastructure is not only used by those who live here. We have been able to introduce an economic recovery and transformation program that is shared across the different sectors, and that is what’s been responsible for the early signs of recovery and stabilization in Barbados.
What were your first initiatives when you entered office?
The first thing we did when we reached government was to call a meeting of the social partners and to set out the mission, which was to save the Barbados dollar from devaluation. Barbados has had a fixed exchange rate since the national currency was introduced, and we feel that this issue goes beyond simple economics. Fortunately, that perspective is shared across every sector: everyone agreed that this was our mission and that we would do whatever it takes in order to save our currency. Once you identify the mission, it is easier to establish the pathway to achieving it, and that is what we did. Luckily, we were able to unlock that commitment. Without everyone’s contribution, this wouldn’t have been possible.
You have launched the We Gatherin’ 2020 program to increase trade in Barbadian goods and services and to reach out to the Barbadian diaspora. What effects do you hope it will have?
We knew it would take 18 to 20 months to stabilize the economy, but we felt we needed an additional initiative to get Barbadians to start a conversation about who we are and where to want to go, and we could think of no better year than 2020, which is a metaphor for perfecting a final vision. We recognized that by doing this, we would also be creating economic activity at the community and parish level. Barbados has 11 parishes and of course there are 12 months in the year, and as a twist of fate our national independence day is November 30, so from January 1 to November 29, we are focusing on each of the parishes, one month at a time. Then, from Independence Day to December 31, we will celebrate island-wide. The first goal is for us to share ideas, then for families and communities to reconnect with each other. It’s not just about Barbadians returning from overseas but also about those who are already living on the island and who may be inspired to go back to the parish of their birth, to revisit their old church and school, to see relatives and to engage in small business activities. We aim to refocus and re-energize community-based economic activity while at the same time building an outpouring of philanthropic activity that is necessary in order to stabilize any country because governments will never be able to do everything by themselves. But even more important than giving money is giving time and reconnecting with families, communities, schools and churches.
You are the chairperson of CARICOM for six months out of this year. What strategic role does Barbados want to have in the Caribbean community?
The integration movement is a relay race and there are still a number of things we are trying to push forward, particularly within the CARICOM single market and single economy that will make communication and transport easier. We do not have as much experience as Europe with this, but we have the same commitment because we recognize that without such an expanded space, a lot of the individual countries would not do as well as they can.
How do you see the potential investment opportunities and synergies between Germany and Barbados?
Germany is a country that we greatly admire, particularly on the issues of industrial development, technical and vocational training, and financial matters. Its role as a leader in Europe has served to reinforce many of the values that are not as constant in the global community as they should be. Whether this leadership is expressed through the protection of the rights of individuals, freedom as it relates to privacy, or to the creation of opportunities, fighting the existential threat of climate change, or perfecting industrial designs and engineering, we believe that Germany is an example of what can be done if you apply yourself in certain areas. We also feel that many of these values are shared. In the early 1970s, Barbados began introducing fiscal incentives for the use of solar water heaters at a time when other countries in the world simply ignored it. Today we have one of the highest densities per capita of solar-powered heaters in the world, while at the same time Germany was able to use its economic might to support photovoltaic and solar energy at a time when it was just a buzzword. So there are many things I admire about both countries in terms of recognizing and doing things and preparing themselves for the kind of reality they are facing in the world. We are very happy and look forward to creating a bridge between Barbados and Germany that will see many more Germans come to Barbados and many more Barbadians go to Germany.
Do you have a final message about your country?
I hope that people will come and gather here not just once but several times, to get a flavor of the difference that we have across the island. Most people don’t realize that in 166 square miles we have so many different environments: St Lucy is flat and cool, but if I carry you to the east coast you will see that it is hilly, and if I carry you to St Thomas you will see gullies and a lot of greenery. On this small island right in the middle of the Atlantic, we have so much to offer. We may not have a lot of natural resources, but one thing we do have is the people. I recently gave a speech where I made the point that in 1900 there were 200 primary schools, six secondary schools and one tertiary institution right here on Barbados. That’s unheard of for an island this size at that period of time, and that passion for education has stabilized our people and lifted us out of poverty to prosperity. A passion for education, the importance of land ownership, and a keen sense of social justice are the three elements that really describe what it means to be Barbadian.