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'Dump the noisemakers' - Former Barbados PM says civil society, church have no place in social partnership talks

Published:Saturday | July 18, 2015 | 12:00 AMErica Virtue
Former Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur speaks at the Gleaner Editors' Forum on CARICOM on Friday, July 17.
Kemesha Kelly speaks at a Gleaner Editors' Forum on CARICOM on Friday, July 17.

Former Prime minister of Barbados, Owen Arthur, is questioning the value of church groups and members of civil society in the social-partnership talks taking place locally.

The government, private sector and trade unions were the three parties at the table in Barbados when Arthur established a social partnership in 1993, in response to the severe economic challenges of the early 1990s, including a high fiscal deficit, declining foreign exchange earnings and rising unemployment.

That partnership enabled Barbados to overcome the economic crises of the 1990s and, faced with similar challenges, the Jamaican Government has crafted its social partnership, dubbed Partnership For Jamaica, but has included diverse groups, including representatives of the Church and civil society, which Arthur thinks is a recipe for disaster.

According to the veteran politician, any group invited to the table for the social-partnership talks should come with deliverables rather than making useless noise.

Addressing a Gleaner Editors' Forum last Friday, Arthur did not hide his disdain for elements of civil society and the Church at the level of the social-partnership talks, as he argued that interactions with them on development issues was a "recipe for inertia".

"They come in as open-ended institutions that cannot deliver. Nobody in Barbados stopped the non-governmental groups from participating in the dialogue (but) they did so as part of an established estate," said Arthur.

"So you had the labour movement and civil society. The labour movement invited the NGOs. So you had the partners clearly defined. I knew who was the labour movement, and I knew who was the private sector. But when they asked me who was the NGO community in Barbados I could not tell you ...," added Arthur.


Effective government


He said it was important that the groups at the table be clearly identified, as in the Barbados experience, because the discussions were solutions oriented.

"I am very serious. You cannot have informal government or open-ended government if you are going to have effective government ... and dealing with the Church is an impossibility if you want pragmatic results," said Arthur, as he claimed he was demonised by the Church in Barbados, when he asked why it should be sitting at the table.

Arthur argued that the views of civil society should be represented through government, labour or capital.

He told Gleaner reporters and editors that it was important that if a new institution was introduced to the table of social partnership, especially on issues of development, it must be able to justify its existence, rather than making useless noise aimed at self-aggrandisement


All voices should be heard


But Arthur's position was challenged by Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network board member Kemesha Kelly, who sits in the social-partnership talks.

According to Kelly, it is important for all voices, including the youth, to contend at the table.

"The social partnership was limited to a tripartite system (in Barbados), the government, the labour leaders and capital, the private sector. In Jamaica we have that, but there is always the civil-society groups ...," said Kelly.

She argued that in Jamaica, civil society has led discourse on environmental issues, including climate change and human rights, and has caused the Government to become more responsive to such issues.

This did not faze Arthur, who charged that civil society, especially in the Barbados experience, was largely misconceptions peddled to hinder what should be solutions from pragmatic institutions.

However, Kelly would find support from Professor of International Business at the University of the West Indies and social partnership member, Alvin Wint, who said it was important that Jamaica adopted a model that was applicable to our environment, while learning from others.

"Barbados did that in relation to their social partnership model, in terms of looking at Ireland, but didn't adopt that model. Instead, they tried to adopt a model that suited their environment," said Wint.

"We have a level of cynicism in Jamaica about a number of things, including the social partnership. One of the things we have recognised is that the social-partnership process that involved the trade union movement two years ago facilitated a void that was very necessary, and that prevented Jamaica from defaulting on its debt.

"That involved a process where our social partners came together and made decisions that benefited us in the long term," added Wint, as he argued that irrespective of who is at the table of social partnership, it is the government's responsibility to lead the process.