Reflecting on the road just travelled
Michael Witter is a Jamaican economist and committed regionalist, who teaches at the Mona, Jamaica Campus of the University of the West Indies. This week’s column comes on the heels of the November 28th elections in St. Lucia and Guyana, and the December 28 elections in Jamaica.
By Michael Witter
One year ago, Jamaican economist Norman Girvan circulated a brief discussion paper asking, “Are the Caribbean countries facing existential threats?” The question had been prompted by the destruction of the banana crop in St. Vincent by a “weather system” that had also caused great damage in St. Lucia, Barbados, Dominica and Tobago, and had come on the heels of Tropical Storm Nicole that had severely dislocated the economy of Jamaica.
These natural hazards appear to be coming more frequently in recent years when the economies have been marginalized from their traditional export markets, and governments, hampered by persisting fiscal deficits and rising debt burdens, are unable to re-position the economies in the global economy and to manage the rising crime wave throughout the region.
The focus of his concern was directed to the politically independent Caricom countries, which includes Haiti with its stalled democracy, its stagnated economy, and most recently, its capital crushed by the earthquake. But it is relevant as well to Cuba facing a transition of leadership from the generation of the revolutionaries to the generation of their grandchildren, with the economy still blockaded by the USA, and with the island located on one of the most frequented tracks of the region’s hurricanes.
It is also relevant to the many non-Independent territories, some of which are so low-lying, like some of the Turks and Caicos and the Cayman Islands, that simulations of sea-level rise show them disappearing by the end of this century.
Nor have these territories with their relatively high GDP per capita escaped the impact of the global crisis, dependent as these economies are on tourism and off-shore financial activities. These latter activities have come under scrutiny by the governments of the OECD countries that are anxious to halt the diversion of potential revenues to tax haven facilities, including those in the Caribbean.
So much has changed since the era of constitutional decolonization began in the English-speaking Caribbean. Once the centre of the global economy with its sugar and banana exports, the Caribbean is now chasing the tourist dollar in an increasingly competitive market that pits them against each other. The economic hardships have spawned predatory behaviour and made the region’s youth, particularly the males, susceptible to the lures of the illegal drug trade and the gang life that it sustains. Even a once gentle society like St. Lucia is experiencing periodic out-breaks of bizarre crimes against each other and against tourists. In societies with racial and class divisions, the tension is palpable, and though Girvan never cited this as a social fracture, it is often the most visible fault line in our societies. Migration is the number one survival strategy for many people, particularly young professionals.
The natural hazards, climate change, and the pressures from the global economy threaten our societies. Families are weakened by migration of bread-winners; the influence of social institutions such as the church and the school on the behaviour of the youth is declining; and the organs of the state have less and less credibility because of the failures to address the socio-economic needs and the corruption and the perception of corruption that undermine the legitimacy of the state.
Our leaders seem to have lost the confidence to articulate and pursue the big visions. Instead of development, they seek economic growth, more often at the expense of those who are supposed to benefit from it. Austerity for the poor as a strategy for growth is reminiscent of the USA’s strategy of bombing the Vietnamese to establish democracy. Too often, the rights of vulnerable social groups are pursued because of national commitments to international conventions, rather than the completion of Emancipation and Independence. Governments pay lip service to the fragility of the natural environment, even as they promote the export of goods and services at the cost of environmental despoliation.
Remittances are often reported as achievements of the economy, without acknowledging that they constitute a very small share of the value created by the migrants in the society where they live. Indeed, remittances remind us that the economic failures force our best and brightest to seek their livelihoods in other countries.
Too often it appears that the confidence our leaders once had has been shifted to international financial institutions that promote policies and programmes at the expense of the social services provided to the Caribbean people and the wages they earn.
Maybe we need to re-define the problems that we have in ways for which there are solutions. So, instead of the futile efforts to repay the national debt, maybe our best brains should be mandated to find ways not to pay the debt, without alienating our international partners.
Maybe the fixation on economic growth should be moderated by more concern for greater equity in the distribution of income. Consumption levels that are marketed on North American television are not affordable, and certainly not sustainable in the Caribbean. Is it possible to promote living standards that are less import dependent, and more in sync with the natural environment and the capabilities of the domestic economies?
Today’s Caribbean must include the people of the Diaspora in its projects for social and economic development, and re-balance them to focus first on people and second on things and places. The modern identity must conceive of the Caribbean Sea as connecting the peoples of the region, and not separating them.
With countries all over the world cooperating ever more closely in various kinds of economic integration arrangements, the frustration of the movement toward a Caribbean Single Market and Economy by narrow nationalism is out of step with modern global trends.
All states must redefine their sovereignty in the era of globalization. For small societies in the Caribbean, this is all the more urgent, as alliances and partnerships are the only avenues to express their sovereignty.
The modern state in the Caribbean began as an instrument of colonial rule and as such, a guarantor of the relations of exploitation that helped to build the metropolitan countries to which they were attached.
But the state has to be transformed into an instrument for the development of the people and the institutions that sustain them. It must support the penetration of the global markets by the region’s business enterprises, and where necessary lead the process, so as to re-position the economies within the global economy. Eliminating the legacy of inequality and deprivation must again be the priority of the policy agendas.
Our leaders should declare 2012 as a Year of Consultation on the state and future of our region. The business community should be encouraged to develop creative and innovative, national and regional strategies for economic recovery with the major focus on providing employment and earning foreign exchange.
In this regard, management must find ways of reorganizing production processes to increase productivity and competitiveness, and in the process, reduce the costs of management itself. Workers’ organizations too must engage the challenge of increasing productivity, both as an element of enhanced competitiveness and as a basis for higher incomes.
Our farmers must be mobilized and supported to ensure greater food security. If ever there was an obvious modality for cooperation, it is in the cultivation of the lands of the continental Caribbean territories, with labour from these countries as well as guest workers from the rest of the region, to supply the demand for food by the region’s citizens and tourists.
Maybe a regional youth service for unemployed and unattached youth could benefit from these opportunities to learn skills and develop a Caribbean consciousness as opposed to the narrow chauvinism that sees them identifying more with gangs and communities than even their nation state.
Our social service providers must find ways to deliver more and better services for each dollar of public expenditure allocated to them. We really have no choice but to provide more and better education and health services to our people to reduce their vulnerability and enhance their resilience to cope with the inevitable economic, social and environmental shocks that they will face. Not even Trinidad and Tobago can sustain the energy intensity of our lifestyles, based as they are on petroleum. Some countries are more blessed with alternative sources, such as the hydropower of Guyana and Suriname. All of us have sunlight, and the potential for ocean thermal energy, and the technologies for tapping into these sources of energy are increasingly affordable and accessible. But there is no escaping the imperative of energy conservation in all forms. The region needs to face the issue of mass transportation. Our societies cannot afford the energy, the foreign exchange and the polluting impact of the private motor car as the main form of public transportation.
Together we have to speak in a loud voice in the international forums for the mitigation of climate change by the major polluting countries and for the allocation of resources to small countries to fund adaptation.
We can no longer take the Caribbean Sea for granted, using it as a dump for our waste and a transit for toxic wastes from other countries. For us, climate change is a fundamental issue of survival.
The generation of young Caribbean adults who did not live under colonialism, nor the dictatorships of Batista in Cuba and Duvalier in Haiti, must play a leading role in the re-thinking of our region and its identity. It must be a collective reflection on many levels: regionally and across language differences; nationally, and across the gender, ethnic and class differences; locally, and across the political partisan divides; and across generations, with the young harnessing the experiences of their parents and grandparents to texture their visions of a new Caribbean. After all, it is this post-colonial generation who will pay the national debt, who will endure the uncertainty of physical, economic and food insecurity, and who will feel the intensifying impacts of climate change.
In the 50s and 60s, migrants and students from the English speaking Caribbean met in England, and at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.
Few were lucky enough to sail on the Federal Palm and the Federal Maple as they made their rounds to the ports in the Caribbean. Communication by snail mail was as slow then as now.
Caribbean societies have all embraced information and communication technology, more for entertainment than production, for yet another form of net foreign exchange outflow. Nowadays, young people meet continually in cyberspace via email, chat rooms and various forms of social networking.
They have access to more information, but perhaps insufficiently developed lenses to view the information and conceptual frameworks to interpret the ideas that they perceive.
There must be a way that the content of their communication can engage the issues that challenge the survival and sustainability of Caribbean societies. A year of national and regional consultations may just be the context to stimulate creative reflection by our young people.