We must live within our means

Sometime ago I had a conversation with a colleague about some persons allowing other people’s money to stick to their fingers.

After some discussion which still did not bring us to a place of understanding this behaviour, we just accepted that there would certainly not be one explanation for all cases and we may never be able to understand a person’s position without being in his or her shoes. However, his closing statement on that subject was relevant to both of us and remains true.

He reminded me that he had lived most of his life on a meagre salary and never stole. “If I have a little more now, why should I be greedy and interfere with somebody’s money?”

His observation reflected what we were both raised to believe. Work with what you have. His parents, probably like mine, instilled in him that contentment was indispensable to a comfortable life. A million dollars with which you are dissatisfied will leave you unhappy.

Living above one’s means is problematic. This is true at the level of the individual as well as at the national level. Deficit financing makes this possible and, at some level, attractive, for it allows one to enjoy a standard of living which one cannot truly afford. But the bills will have to be paid some time, and then what do you do?

It is our desire to live above our means that causes this country to burn up foreign exchange faster than we can earn it. Our food import bill is exorbitant because we have become accustomed to tastes that we are unable to satisfy by what we produce. All Barbadians know what is meant by having Champagne taste with Mauby pocket.

The tourism industry is central to our economy. Remaining relevant and on the cutting edge of this industry demands that we import foods that we either cannot produce here or are unable to produce in sufficient quantities. This would remain true even if our chefs were to make greater use of local foods. There can be no debate, therefore, as to whether we need to import food.

However satisfying the tourism industry does not justify encouraging all of us to relegate the healthy foods we produce to second class status in our food choices. If it does not come naturally to us after too many years of a different way of thinking, there should be a concerted effort to educate Barbadians on the virtues of eating what we grow.

The dieticians tell me that our local foods are healthier than the processed ones we import. They sing the praises of the various sweet potatoes, yams, breadfruit, cassava, eddoes, bananas – both green and ripe, pumpkin, squash, butter beans, carrots, beets, okras and many of the other things our gardens produce. Yet, our national dish is now macaroni pie and chicken.

A friend called me a few weeks ago while I was in the kitchen and when I told him what I was preparing he exclaimed, “What! On a Sunday! Man I would have to have some peas and rice and pork or something.” He forgot to add the pie on the side. Incidentally, we do not grow rice here and we import most of the peas that we use with it.

Pasta is just flour and water. Since macaroni pie is now an indispensable part of our diet, why not make the pasta with breadfruit, cassava, yam or sweet potato flour and stop importing pastas?

There is the issue of the cost of local foods. Some have noticed that the same foods we produce may be imported more cheaply than our producers are willing to make them available on the market. When I listen to the sturdy defence of our farmers from that sector’s spokesmen, they usually talk around this point without disputing it.

It may also be observed, however, that while international trade rules may prohibit this tiny country from subsidising its farmers, this is not necessarily happening in the more powerful countries that flout any rule and assist their farmers. Barbados cannot be more holy than the pope. We have persons here with enough brains and skills in these matters that should be tasked to develop ways and means of helping our producers of food and other indigenous goods to do so more competitively. And we should ensure that the organs of the state are all engaged in this exercise.

For example, there could be a policy that the caterers for national events would prepare only local dishes. This can extend beyond the Government so that local businesses can also take up this challenge and follow suit. Hotels that benefit from every incentive under the sun may be asked to offer a certain percentage of local dishes to their guests. I am sure that our chefs could create some fantastic dishes from our local foods, and I am equally sure that guests would be more than happy to try something new while on holiday.

This is just a sample of what may be done to generate a greater demand for local foods. If the demand exists, the supply would increase to meet it. Our farmers complain that when they produce a certain level of food, there is no ready market for it. As a result, there are stories of farmers having excess produce that they cannot sell.

What makes matters worse is that often they cannot sell their produce because the same foods are in abundance due to imports.
In time of plenty, people may be forgiven for splurging. We are not there now. It may be time to stop importing ten brands of oils, flours, ketchups, can peas, and so many other items, and let our local authorities or experts decide which one or two of these items may be most useful or healthy and limit our import of these items to the identified brands.

Import substitution could help us to reduce our import bill. We should identify what imported item we can find a local substitute for and put everything in place to develop the quality and quantity of the production of that item and replace the imported item with it.
Serious consideration should be given to developing a coconut industry. Coconut water is very popular, but there are several things that other countries do with the coconut. This stretches from the production of coconut oil to using the shells in agriculture, to make other items or as fuel. We have to think larger than drinking the water and discarding the rest of the coconut.

We would be better served if we were able to live a lot closer to what we earn and can afford. Limiting what we import and thus saving foreign exchange would be crucial in this attempt. We pay for everything we import in United States dollars. We do not print them here either.

Barbados Advocate

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