The most important resource by far

One man is running a company with the help of three old family retainers, two others who haven’t had a new idea in a couple of generations, and a whole raft of school drop-outs. He is given a hundred million dollars. Another man is running a company with the help of a couple of abrasive but energetic and innovative assistants and three or four bright young graduates. He is given a million dollars. In five years’ time who do you think will be at the head of the larger, more successful company?

Nothing worthwhile can be achieved without the right people. Problems are solved by people not millions of dollars. In the wrong hands the shiniest new machinery is like a load of old scrap. All these sayings are clichés but the essence of a cliché is that its truth has become hackneyed through repeatedly proved application. No plan however beautifully formulated, however well funded, and however persuasively presented has a chance of success without the people to implement it.

Look around you. The story is the same. The great danger we face is that not enough of the right people in the right positions will be available to give any governmental or business plan life and meaning. However brilliant the accompanying rhetoric, it will clap no roti if the people aren’t there. The danger takes three forms.

The first danger is contained in the exodus of people out of the country. This country is still inexorably losing good people. I wish absolutely accurate figures could be made available but, even in their absence, who can doubt that the exodus, if illegal is added to legitimate, is still running at as much as 15,000 people a year. These include many of the best, most skilled, most experienced, and hardest-working people in the community, not to mention the children who are going with their parents and who might be fashioning our greatness in the future.

I cannot understand why this threat to the whole nation is not more discussed in public, and with greater concern, especially as the exodus may even grow as the numbers abroad who can sponsor those at home goes on increasing. A couple emigrating a few years ago opens the way for others up the road. Remember also the devastating fact that people planning to leave have already left in the sense that they have lost all feeling of commitment and wanting to work hard and contribute as they coast towards the Promised Land. The cumulative loss of commitment slackens the sinews of effort in the nation most insidiously. And remember also that the rich developed countries increasingly are seeking in particular to attract the skilled from countries like ours.

Secondly, there is the danger that the skilled, qualified, and industrious people who do remain will increasingly be drawn off from productive and socially useful work into the get-rich-quick economy. This has been happening for a long time and will go on happening unless ways are found to reward useful and legitimate work at a higher level than at present. This remains one of the greatest challenges facing the nation.

Thirdly, there is the danger that those who, despite every inducement and temptation and every family pressure, do stay in the country and do remain in productive, socially useful work, will nevertheless transfer their services from the public sector (where they are desperately needed to run utilities, essential institutions, ministries, and the largest economic entity in the nation) to the private sector where the pay and perquisites are more attractive. This will certainly happen if public remuneration is controlled and private pay goes free. The only solution then will be to privatize everything except the bare bones of general governmental administration.

It is this tripartite danger – exodus out of the country, exodus into the get-rich-quick economy, and exodus out of the public sector – that is the biggest threat to real economic progress. It is a triple-bladed sword of Damocles hanging over all our heads. It cannot be ignored.

I continue to be surprised how well the phrase used by Sir Jock Campbell, Booker Chairman long ago, is remembered and still so often quoted: “People are more important that ships, shops, and sugar estates.” He said that in a speech opening the then rehabilitated La Penitence Wharf long, long years ago. It made sense then. It makes sense now, except we might rather heavy-handedly adapt it to say: “People mean more than any economic programmes you can ever hope to formulate.”

A less snappy phrase perhaps, but as true in its own way as Sir Jock’s original words ever were.

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