Sat | Oct 20, 2018

Editorial | The possibilities of Mia Mottley

Published:Sunday | May 27, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Mia Mottley, who has become Barbados' first female prime minister after her party's landslide win in Thursday's general election, has, on the domestic front, a difficult job ahead of her: that of fixing the economy. That will require courage and skill. She is up to it.

On the regional front, her victory is likely to be good for the Caribbean. For, unless she has changed, Ms Mottley believes in the ideals of the regional integration movement - that the product of the combined whole is greater than the value of the individual bits. In that regard, the Caribbean Community may have found a new champion to help breathe life into the stagnating movement.

Among Ms Mottley's great assets is that she is extremely bright, with the uncommon ability to carry, at once, the strands of many complex ideas, then pull them seamlessly together into a clear and compelling narrative. Anyone who has watched or listened to her display this feat in the delivery of major speeches, without written text and few, if any, notes, can't but marvel at her skill and intellect.

Moreover, Ms Mottley is an experienced politician who has been in Barbados' legislature for 27 years, 24 of them as a member of the Lower House. She has also held several ministerial positions, including that of deputy prime minister to Owen Arthur in the Barbados Labour Party administration up to 2008. Yet, at 52, she is young enough to have the energy for tasks she will confront and be close enough to the issues that animate Barbadian youth, who have disproportionately felt the burden of the country's economic problems and are most likely to be impatient for a turnaround.

 

PAINFUL RECOVERY

 

Like most Caribbean economies, Barbados was badly stung by the Great Recession and financial meltdown of 2008 and has been slower than most to recover. Largely, unlike the early 1990s when Erskine Sandiford's government dived into a tough and painful recovery of a limping economy, the defeated Democratic Labour Party government has moved gingerly in its approach to the present crisis.

Freundel Stuart's administration has undertaken some reform and fiscal consolidation programmes but recovery, despite the flutter of 2016, remains sluggish. The economy is expected to grow by around a half a per cent this year after expanding by 0.9 per cent in 2016.

The current account deficit, having declined in recent years, hovers at around three per cent of GDP, maintaining pressure on foreign reserves, which amount to less than two months of imports. The government deficit is projected at three per cent of GDP; the government debt, broadly defined, though falling, stands at nearly 129 per cent of annual output. One in 10 Barbadians who are actively seeking a job is unemployed.

The International Monetary Fund had told the Stuart government that it should accelerate fiscal consolidation, including cutting spending on public-sector employment, while broadening its tax base and improving collection. The government should be more aggressive in divesting state-owned enterprises.

Ms Mottley will no doubt hear the same message from the Fund. It won't be easy to navigate the many competing interests that will be affected by any action taken. Indeed, the scale of her victory - all 30 seats in Parliament - will add to these pressures. At the same time, the electoral margin, if wisely used, provides insulation.

At least, in the short and medium terms, Ms Mottley has political capital to spend on her economic programme. At the same time, if she is so minded, she can assume the fresh and intellectual leadership of CARICOM, which the institution can so badly use.