Evaluating Barbados’ WEF GCI Competitiveness Scorecard: Is Top of the Regional Class Good Enough?

Alicia Nicholls

Barbados made its grand reappearance on the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) 2016-2017 after data shortages precluded its 2014-2015 inclusion. According to the WEF’s scorecard, the region’s star pupil topped its Latin American and Caribbean peers in the following subjects: infrastructure, labour market efficiency and technological readiness.

Barbados is a 166 sq  miles (431 sq km) island nation with a population of about 280,000, a GDP of US4.4 billion and a GDP per capita of US$15,773, which puts us in the high income non-OECD range according to the World Bank. On the surface Barbados’ scorecard is commendable, particularly for a small island developing state (SIDS) whose recovery from the 2008/2009 global economic and financial crisis has been slow and protracted. Personally for me as a Barbadian I am proud of the achievements my country has made since our independence from the UK just shy of 50 years ago.

But before we uncork the champagne, several things should give us pause. First, Barbados’ current rank of 72nd out of 138 economies marks a precipitous drop from its ranking in the GCI 2012-2013 where it was ranked 44th place out of 144 economies. Second, contrast this slide with the performance of another small island developing state (SIDS), Mauritius, which was ranked 54th in GCI 2012-2013 and has risen slowly but surely up the ranks to reach 45th place out of 138 economies in GCI 2016-2017. Third, only three other Caribbean economies were included on the index this year. While Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago lost ground, the other two Caribbean economies, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, improved their rankings. Fourth, Barbados’ performance on eleven of the twelve pillars has been on a downward slope since 2012-2013.

The Good

Barbados’ top scores were in higher education and training, and infrastructure, where it ranked 29th and 30th respectively. For example, it ranks 6th in fixed-telephone lines /100 population and 25th in overall quality of infrastructure.  These have for a long time been among the island’s competitive advantages despite its small size. However, while the gross tertiary education enrolment rate is 36%, this is likely to decline given the removal of tuition-free tertiary education in 2014.

Barbados also ranks 31st in technological readiness which is the only one of the twelve pillars on which the island’s performance remains on an upward trajectory. It ranks a commendable 10th in internet bandwidth kb/s/user. Unlike the other three Caribbean economies included, corruption was not seen as a major problem in Barbados.

The Bad

The GCI is a useful tool for policy makers to benchmark their economy’s current against its historical performance across over 100 competitiveness indicators. Factors which, according to the WEF GCI, affect doing business in Barbados are: poor work ethic in the national labour force, inefficient government bureaucracy, tax rates, restrictive labour regulations and access to financing.

Not surprisingly, market size and the macroeconomic environment are the island’s Achilles heel and are a drag on the island’s competitiveness. The Central Bank of Barbados reports economic growth of 1.3% for the first half of 2016 but the island’s fiscal deficit and public debt remain unsustainably high. The island’s economic fragility is reflected in the low rankings on indicators such as government budget balance as % of GDP (122nd), gross national savings (127th) and government debt (127th). The island is rated 72 out of 100 for country credit rating, reflecting the successive downgrades since 2009 and could decline as the downgrades continue. Under the market size pillar, the country ranked 135th out of 136 on GDP (PPP).

The Way Forward

The GCI is an important scorecard showing the areas in which an economy is doing well, and those in which remedial attention is needed. Barbados remains a preferred jurisdiction in the Caribbean for doing business and the report shows that the island has clear competitive advantages in some areas that policymakers and the private sector should continue to build on and leverage in our investment promotions.

However, I believe that while Barbados remains top of the class in the Caribbean, the island’s continued slippage in the rankings, including in areas which are our competitive advantage, is a concern. I dare say that top of the class in this case is not good enough. Discerning investors consult several indices, including the GCI, when considering potential investment locations. Barbados’ previous A-class performance on these indices was one of its selling points and this would carry less weight if the island continues to decline in its rankings.

A useful feature of the GCI is that it allows for benchmarking against other economies and is a good tool for identifying best practices. Singapore, a small island developing state, currently ranks second place overall on the index and there may be some areas in which Barbados can learn from the reforms they have made. Besides Singapore, we can examine another top 50-rated SIDS, Mauritius, to see what best practices we can consider. We may also be able to learn from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica which, while ranked below us, saw improvements in their rankings.We have strong rankings in our technological and infrastructure capacity. Let us build on these strengths by improving the incorporation of ICTs for improving the ease of doing business and reducing some of the inefficiencies.

Perhaps the best utility of the GCI is that it provides empirical evidence for identifying policy priorities as countries craft and evaluate their national competitiveness policies. As any eager pupil would, Barbados should take these findings to heart. Several competitiveness reforms have been on-going aimed at tackling some of the weaknesses which the GCI 2016 has again brought to light. For example, the $50 million fund for SMEs announced in the August budget should assist SMEs’ access to finance. The island also received a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank for competitiveness improvement called the Barbados Competitiveness Programme. These are good strides. However, if Barbados wants an A-grade and to be truly at the top of the global class, the island needs to quicken and deepen the pace of its competitiveness reforms, strengthening those things it is good at, working on those which it is not, while also putting mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation of their performance.

Nonetheless, the responsibility for ensuring long-term and sustainable competitiveness does not rest with government alone but requires strong collaboration, honest dialogue and feedback among all national stakeholders, including for instance, through the social partnership.

Private sector involvement is key for ensuring Barbados’ obtains a score card each year. A few years ago, I was part of the survey team which administered the WEF Executive Opinion Survey in Barbados, the main instrument used for gathering the data utilised in a whole suite of WEF reports, including the Global Competitiveness Report. While in each instance our team was able to meet our quota, the biggest challenge we found was the unwillingness of some business executives either to participate in the survey, or to complete it satisfactorily and in a timely manner. If insufficient businesses complete the survey, the country will not be included in the index. To encourage greater private sector participation in the survey, I suggest there be closer collaboration between the country partner institute and the various private sector bodies in the country.

 Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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