Country Profile


Country profile

Where is Barbados? In the Barbadian capital, Bridgetown, a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson stands in Trafalgar Square, looking sternly towards the war memorial which honours those who died fighting for England. Nearby, the stained-glass windows of the House of Assembly feature a line of British monarchs from James I to Victoria. Beyond the capital Barbados looks to some like a tropical Dorset, full of rolling countryside and pretty parish churches. Coastal resorts have names like Hastings and Worthing; inland villages called Highgate and Clapham are redolent of London suburbia.

Nicknamed either affectionately or disparagingly ‘Little England’, this is the most British of the Commonwealth Caribbean islands. The tourism industry has taken up the theme with enthusiasm, promoting Barbados as a familiar haven of cricket and Yorkshire pudding.

The island’s Englishness is partly the result of almost 350 years of unbroken colonial rule. Alone of all the Caribbean islands, Barbados never changed hands in the inter-European rivalry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thanks to its profitable sugar industry and strategic position, the British kept a tight grip on Barbados and have left their mark.

For most of the three decades after independence in 1966 Barbados has been something of a regional success story. A stable multi-party democracy, it developed a healthy economy, moving out of dependency on sugar and into tourism and manufacturing. Steady growth saw the island outstrip its neighbours, rivalling Greece or Portugal in per-capita income. The indicators are still impressive: health provision, education and housing are among the best in the Americas.

But recent developments have dented what many see as Barbadian complacency. The recession of the early 1990s battered the island’s tourism industry, revealing over-reliance on fickle European and North American markets. The derelict hotels and apartment blocks which line the south coast road are a grim reminder of tourism’s vagaries. Then the remnants of the sugar industry went into crisis, with low yields and under-investment blamed on droughts and poor management. The British multinational, Booker Tate, was brought in to revive the industry, but the results so far are uninspiring.

Now tourism has recovered somewhat, and the Government is keen to diversify further. Barbados has entered the offshore finance and services market, offering cheap data-processing and discreet bank accounts for tax-evaders. Manufacturing is growing, too, centred on garments and electronic parts for the US.

But renewed economic growth has not entirely dispelled the unease of the early 1990s. Critics of the conservative Barbados Labour Party claim that it tolerates a small white élite, descended from the colonial planters, which wields disproportionate economic power.

There is also concern that a structural-adjustment programme, introduced at the behest of the IMF in 1992, is targeting public-sector workers and jeopardizing services.

Even the cosy image of ‘Little England’ has come under fire in recent years, as activists have stressed the African heritage of most Barbadians and the legacy of slavery. And as young people look more towards the US for cultural models, the old imperial link seems increasingly tenuous. In 1995 it was even suggested that Nelson, a well-known supporter of slavery, should be removed from his plinth and replaced by a real national hero: cricketer Gary Sobers.

James Ferguson


LEADER: Prime Minister Owen Arthur

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $6,230 (UK $18,060)
Monetary unit: Barbados dollar (B$1=US$0.50)
Main exports: electronic parts, garments, financial services, sugar
Main imports: machinery, foodstuffs, chemicals. Tourism has taken over from sugar as the main foreign-exchange earner and employs about 16 per cent of the workforce.

PEOPLE: 261,000

HEALTH: Infant mortality 9 per 1,000 live births (US 8 per 1,000). As this figure indicates, health standards have reached rich-world levels: government investment in health services has produced impressive results.

CULTURE: 95 per cent of ‘Bajans’ are of African descent, but a small white minority remains powerful. British influence is still strong, but media and fashion are dominated by the US.
Religion: Christian – predominantly Anglican.
Language: English. There is also a Bajan dialect.

Sources Human Development Report 1995, UNDP; The State of the World’s Children 1996, UNICEF; World Development Report 1995, World Bank; Caribbean Development Bank; Caribbean Insight; Latin America Monitor; Americas Review 1996.

Never previously profiled


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Despite a substantial middle class, social inequalities and pockets of poverty persist.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
98 per cent: Barbados has a good track record in education, from primary to university level.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Diversification has ended dependence on ‘King Sugar’, but most food has to be imported.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
No censorship and little state repression, but police allegedly intolerant of youth.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Now a majority at university and prominent in government and the professions, women are still more vulnerable to unemployment and low wages.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
76 years - the same as for the UK, the US and Germany.


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Barbados has an envied reputation for political stability and open democratic debate. The conservative Barbados Labour Party is facing rising discontent over its austerity policies and stiff opposition from the Democratic Labour Party. Some observers see little difference between the two main parties.

NI star rating

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[image, unknown] Issue 283 Contents

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 283 magazine cover This article is from the September 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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