IS THE POLITICS OF TELECOMMUNICATIONS DIVIDING THE FAMILY

In Antigua & Barbuda as in the wider Caribbean, we believe that our ability to politicize every issue is equal to our right to exist as freedom loving people.

Had the nation not been on the verge of possible by-elections pending the Eastern Caribbean Court’s ruling, Digicel’s desire to offer free internet connection to selected sectors of the community may have enjoyed broad appeal. I think Digicel’s gift is a commendable move that LIME, its main competitor, should strategically emulate.

However, some view the object of Digicel’s gift not so much to promote educational access, but to provide the United Progressive Party government with political favor.  They express that since the government intends to distribute the gift within constituencies where it is likely to face election challenges from the Antigua Labour Party opposition, “justice will not roll down like mighty waters.” In contrast, those who support Digicel’s social responsibility gesture see it as conforming to the tenets of good corporate citizenship. For them, Digicel’s gift further validates the need for the liberalization of the telecommunications sector in Antigua & Barbuda.

Yet, the Baldwin-led government has enough access to highly paid professional experts to know just how difficult the novelty surrounding the timing of this gift would be to accept. In light of our jaundice political culture, any consideration of the public’s perception of fairness might have been a remarkable rarity.

I can’t imagine that this heated issue would push the nation away from unbounded peace into democratic catastrophe. But I see its polarizing effect of highlighting differences between opponents and proponents, without recognizing that as a small twin island state, there is no room for “them” and “us.” These economic suicidal times make clear that it is “us” who share the same boat.

Apart from legitimate partisan opinions, progressive voices must advocate present and future developmental surpluses. They must also launch a movement towards our country’s ethical maturity and cultural progress. I suspect those interested in the poor, in national reconciliation, in the plight of women and children, in the resurrection of communal safety and in employment and entrepreneurial openings for our youth and their parents, will evaluate current challenges, in the context of long-term solutions, not short-term political ambitions.

Clearly, the political circuit in which Digicel’s gift is being offered gives the impression that conflicts ahead are likely to become more robust. What is lost is in all of this bantering is the emotional and developmental well-being of the people.

Although it is standard practice for industry leaders to combine long-term financial planning with customer based targets and operational goals, I wonder whether this arrangement reduces the market space Digicel needs to continue to enjoy organic growth.  I can only imagine that Digicel is desirous of maintaining its status as a thoughtful corporate partner who provides reliable support to governments throughout the Caribbean. If this is the case, then the perception of possessing a fair-play image cannot be taken lightly.

Perhaps the deeper issue that foregrounds this debate — least talked about yet deserving ample attention— is whether the government’s enthralling program to sell public assets to private investors is in sync with the current social priorities and economic needs of the people.

The government’s divestment program is as appalling as it is tragic. First, it is in direct contradiction to the government’s own people-first philosophy. In theory, it promised to use trade and competition policies to produce developmental-wealth within a culture of prosperity for all. But in practice, the evidence is visible, that leaders cowering under the pressure of the IMF’s economic recovery program are pursing a pathway that transfers wealth to an elite few, and are defending that strategy with the logic of what’s best for the poor.

Second, the notion of implied good governance should provide leaders with the maturity to surmount despair, not advance it. Third, a similar idea that the government is too inefficient to turn APUA into a financial regional power- house is both decisive and insincere. In fact, talk of governmental inefficiencies does not square with the grotesque forms of corporate inefficiencies and unethical behaviors manufactured by several prominent North American and European corporate giants within the past five years. In fact, the epic global financial tale of disaster that Caribbean governments have been forced to navigate was in large part due to the market inefficiencies of so-called ‘efficient corporate’ giants.

A truer account is that the trend is absolutely the reserve of the good intelligence espoused by our wise telecommunications minister, Dr. Edmond Mansoor. Generally, people are becoming deftly inclined to accept the vital role of governmental intervention in market affairs. And scholars and practitioners of finance and economics are readily defending the need to strengthen public institutions to offset inevitable market deficits.

Minister Mansoor seems fully persuaded that true patriotism is found in a soulful kinship with the government’s unquestioned good to link vulnerable students to the educational opportunities that the internet affords. Yet, the fruits of the wrongs the minister claims his government is attempting to right, spring from habits of social injustices, often justified in blind political parlance.

Perhaps a new doctrine of social stewardship should support the old conviction of balancing democratic impulses with justice in ways that do not destroy the potential greatness of every young person.  The late William Sloane Coffin’s prophetic words still rings true: “The primary problems of the planet arise not from the poor, for whom education is the answer; they arise from the well-educated, for whom self-interest is the problem.”

The real issue then is this: Given the global market failures, is the option of a public sector-led economic growth model more consistent with our present economic self-reliance orientation and political autonomy than privatization of critical public assets?

Put simply, will liberalization of the nation’s telecommunications sector, in the manner now pursued, generate employment, expand local business activities, and reduce widespread poverty, in favor of advancing the quality of life for the person on the street?

Aided by clear thinking and prudent acting, when this political dust settles, I do not want a revelation of a gripping episode of double-dealing. I hope the clearing of this dust does not demonstrate the short-sightedness of our leaders and the follies used to justify the inappropriate transfer of wealth from the masses to a wealthy cadre of elites, whose roots are not from the Caribbean.

Beyond our obsession with exercising our voting franchise, we must become keener to certain aspect of patriotic symbolism. Let not our political narrow-mindedness impair our sense of national maturity. Or else, we may be paving the way to undermine the democratic infrastructure and economic independence that our foreparents erected on our behalf. We owe it to our children to see the light. And we owe it to our grandchildren to behave as sane and compassionate heirs of an overcoming legacy defined by courage, survival, and deep struggle.

Dr. Isaac Newton is an International Leadership and Change Management Consultant and Political Adviser. He specializes in Government and Business Relations and Sustainable Development Projects. Dr. Newton works extensively in West Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America and is a graduate of Oakwood College, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia. He has published several books on personal development and written many articles on economics, education, leadership, political, social, and faith based issues.

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