Open letter to the government of Antigua and Barbuda

Antigua ACB Financial Centre Modern Building
Antigua ACB Financial Centre Modern Building

Dear Sirs:

I’ve become very concerned about the a situation that we, as a nation, seem incapable of learning from, no matter how long we’ve been affected by it. My first exposure to what I can only describe as abhorrent injustice came in the 1990s, but I’m pretty sure it existed well before that. It regards how our nation grants professional license or rather doesn’t grant it.

In the 1990s, were it not for some heavy and vocal communal discontent, the right to practice as an architect or a draftsman would have been, to this day, lauded over by the first movers in the architectural community – competitors. Based on the proposal they put forward and on their actions, they planned to guard the industry from people who, through offering better service, could topple them from their perches. That bunch was operating a closed shop.

I don’t have to ask whether you’re familiar with the Antigua Commercial Bank building on Temple and High Streets. The man who designed and oversaw the construction of that beauty inspired by the heritage of the sugar mills that once dominated the Antiguan landscape is Malcolm Payne, a professionally trained architect. The building has been proven sound in design and function. It is also no threat to safety, and time itself has proven that Payne knew what he was doing. For all his talent and training, Payne was denied Antigua and Barbuda Institute of Architects certification (ABIA).

He wasn’t the only architect, and the ABIA was adamant, in the legislation it proposed, that no draftsman, no matter how competent, could submit his work to the Development Control Authority without the stamp of a registered ABIA member. What that would have meant was that even someone with an extremely limited budget and wanting to build a two or three bedroom house would need a high priced architect to do so.

Construction isn’t the only area in Antigua and Barbuda in which this anti-competitive behavior is exhibited. More recently, it has been seen in great measure in the medical profession. Our government signed agreements with the government of Cuba for Antiguan and Barbudan aspirants to spend time (years) under the tutelage of some of the best doctors in the world. Those scholars, however, have had to engage in prolonged war with the Medical Council for recognition, some even left Antigua to practice elsewhere and others stayed but couldn’t practice what they were trained for. The Medical Council, staffed by practicing doctors, denied them registration and license.

It’s now a pain to see that these experiences have not caused us as a people and government to rethink the notion of making competitors the gateway to industries. I can already hear shouting, ‘Existing professionals are the best people to determine if new entrants are worthy of the craft. Just look at the Bar Association; just look at all the other places in the world where it works’. Well, I agree, if those ‘professionals’ act like professionals. The track record here, however, has shown a grand lack of professionalism.

There’s another argument that I anticipate – ONLY people who professionally practice a craft can properly verify the competence of up and comers. Well, I agree there too. That’s the reason my suggestion is for them to be consulted on the tests that should be applied and the framework for administering those tests. I, however, think that they need not determine on an individual basis whether to allow or disallow people who will be their competitors. The test, once designed and established, can be evaluated by people who have nothing to gain by denying a Malcolm Payne, for instance.

Industry professionals are not the only people who can determine whether someone fits the entry criteria. If they were, a court of law would have no place deliberating on whether an abhorrent injustice exists in any denial of the right to practice. There’s now a case in the High Court of Antigua and Barbuda, and the question being asked is whether there’s abhorrent injustice being meted out to a young Antiguan and Barbudan doctor, José Humphreys. Dr. Humphreys, who was registered and licensed in Antigua and Barbuda for three years, was shocked to realize that his routine application for renewal was denied. The Appeals Court of the Eastern Caribbean has granted him an injunction requiring the Medical Council to renew his license. The case itself, however, is still pending.

Whether construction or medicine or mechanical engineering, the only thing the courts will have to go by when deciding between council or institute and aggrieved applicant would be the law governing those professions, specifying the requirement to be registered and licensed. While the justices might be trained in law, they are not trained in medicine et cetera. Once professionals – whether practicing or retired or teachers at university – have been consulted on the criteria for entry, those who are active should step back and let dispassionate panels determine whether new entrants meet the established criteria. It’s evident that, in the case of Antigua and Barbuda, competitors are blockers rather than filters to allow innovation, fair play, and public good to flourish.