The recent disaster at Caye Caulker – it is a disaster to attract tourists to your country and you can’t provide the basic services that they expect to receive – exposes a deficiency in management skills at the political level. Our utility companies are managed at the ground level by engineers and other people with technical skills, but it isn’t there that we had a massive failure on the island. The failure took place at the board level, which is the people appointed by our political leaders to oversee the utility companies, and the failure came from the political leaders themselves.
The managers at the ground level admitted that they were aware that their different capacities to provide electricity and water were strained because businesses on the island were growing rapidly. It is hard to believe that they would have failed to communicate to their bosses what was happening on the ground. The fact is that Caye Caulker had experienced problems before (not on the scale it did recently), so there is no excuse for anyone involved at any of the management levels to not have known.
We are not second guessing here. It is fundamental that the managers of the utilities had to have known that we couldn’t afford a failure such as the one that occurred. In this imperfect world, issues can come up that managers don’t have that much control over. A political upheaval, for example, is a situation that can prove difficult to address. A major hurricane is a force that it is difficult to fully prepare for. But some breakdowns we don’t have an excuse for.
One of the great hurdles for business persons who are not rich, for cash-strapped businesses in general, is that they don’t have the finances to remedy everything that goes wrong in an urgent manner.
Individual hoteliers might not have an extra week’s supply of towels and sheets in the event their washing machines break down. Small tour operators might not have an extra tour guide to put on tour in the event their guide falls ill or is called away in an emergency. The managers of these businesses have to be very resourceful to make sure they don’t let down their guests.
The people who work in the tourism industry have to be of the highest quality so that the image of the country is protected. Tour guides know a lot more about Belize than the average citizen, and all in the industry put a lot of effort into being the best they can be. Business owners were let down badly by this Caye Caulker catastrophe that was caused by government leaders and their board appointees not recognizing that they couldn’t manage the utilities in these areas with their eyes focused only on the bottom line, simply as profit-making enterprises.
The electricity utility was gambling that their generators would hold up until the connection to the national grid took place next year, and our water company was gambling that the one shaft they had in store was sufficient if anything went wrong with the one in operation.
Belize doesn’t have money to burn, but what this government has to understand is that we have to go the extra yard to protect our EARNERS. Sure, we all work and earn money, but those who bring in wealth from abroad – our agro-industries, our fishing industry, and our tourism – are PRIORITY. In our type of economy, our foreign exchange earners are paramount.
Our essential utilities should have been prepared for every contingency on Caye Caulker. We are building a road to Caracol, we are completing another non-essential road — the Link Road between Mile 8 on the George Price Highway and Mile 10 on the Philip Goldson Highway, and we are building a showpiece bridge over the Belize Old River at Haulover for a whopping $49 million, but we can’t address the sewerage problem on Caye Caulker.
Our reports are that at best Caye Caulker does not have water in storage to cover its needs for two days. Caye Caulker is not really on terra firma, so what happens if the pump station needs major structural correction? The island may need a lot more storage capacity.
We fell down flat at the most critical time in Caye Caulker. Our engineers are not the problem here. They are given budgets and physical resources to manage: they do not direct policy. Our political leaders and their board appointees managed the island’s utilities as “strictly business.” They saved pennies, and while they were doing that the Hicaqueños and the country lost a whole lot.
A year ripe with opportunity
We get a sense that a number of the leaders of the third parties may be losing faith because the system does not allow them an honest chance at the polls. It is more or less set in stone that in our First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system only two parties can win — the UDP, the party presently in power, and the PUP, the party formerly in power.
It could be that some third party leaders are still smarting over how the politicians in power handled the ICJ matter, and the results of the referendum. We hope not. It is possible that they are conserving their energies until the general election is called. If that is so, we may have to question their strategies or endurance.
Some of them get discouraged when they don’t get all that they want. We cannot, should not get frustrated when we don’t get wholesale changes in the system. That is only attained through bloody revolution.
This is no time for these leaders to be standing on the sidelines. There are reform agendas these leaders have been pushing for decades, and an election year is the moment when the main parties are at their most vulnerable. These leaders need to be like Ted Kennedy, one of the most celebrated legislators in modern US history.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in a 2009 article, “Ted Kennedy’s Leadership Lessons,” published in the Harvard Business Review, said that “Even when Kennedy could not move the needle forward on really big change (health care reform), he supported incremental improvements (children’s health insurance), which meant that he survived in office long enough for his big agenda to come close to being enacted.”
This is an important year for Belize. We need our third party leaders to actively engage the politicians running for the two parties that can win the election, force them to put in reforms to improve our governance. We must make hay when we have an opportunity that will not come again for another five years.