We need a narrative

At this stage in the elections season the focus is, quite properly, on the potential candidates for government. However, there are other larger questions that can get lost in the succession of political squabbles and skirmishes.  In fact, political discourse is merely one attempt to answer the central questions we face as a nation. These questions are of paramount importance and could perhaps be summarised as follows. How do we wish to live as Guyanese? What are our priorities as a people? What do we hope to achieve or resolve in the course of the next generation? Do we have a coherent vision for the future?

These questions presuppose a degree of consensus within the nation. The answers to them will always be slightly vague (to accommodate a range of views) and partial. The answers also evolve over time. They are neither static nor immutable and they may overlap.  They may come from many strands of our society; our artists, our calypsonians, our poets, writers, architects, our social commentators, our religious leaders, our trade unionists, our politicians, our teachers, our professionals, in sum, our people.

Ironically, these questions also reveal a paradox. It is in the interests of the electorate to know exactly what measure of consensus there is among those who propose to lead us. We need to know the extent of the common ground. Yet, it is in the interests of politicians (and political parties) to flag up their differences not their similarities, to make their pitch, to stake their ground.  There is, in every nation, a delicate balance between subscribing to a common agenda, identifying points of difference and losing sight of that common ground altogether. As with much in life, the importance of the unspoken (the common ground) only becomes apparent when it is under threat.
In a recent interview, former US President Bill Clinton was asked what it would take to pull America out of its current slump. As would be expected, his answer was complex and multi-layered. However, at its core was this statement: “we need a narrative that allows people to buy into America.” He identified the source of the impasse in American political life as a surfeit of ‘ideology’ and a decline in ‘philosophy’, or to paraphrase, too many divergent ‘versions’ and not enough of a shared ‘vision’.  The central question there, right now, he framed as of the remit of government: ‘what is too much government and what is enough?’ The American system of government, he explained, is based on a system of negotiation. In other words, it presupposes a degree of common ground, a degree of consensus. Once that common ground is eroded, the system seizes up.

In the Caribbean in general, and Guyana in particular, we seem to have lost sight of the common ground. We need a coherent and compelling meta-narrative, a grand plan. Or perhaps even a series of grand plans. We need plans that will endure and survive the next administration and the one after that. A glance at issues such as infrastructure planning, tax regimes and sources of energy will perhaps help to illustrate the importance of a meta-narrative and its attendant strategies.

A century ago, Vincent Roth worked as an apprentice surveyor of land grants in the interior of Guyana. In his memoirs, he describes what appears to be a parallel universe, though not just for the reasons we might expect. He repeatedly refers, almost casually, to a daily network of trains, steamers and boats linking outlying areas of the interior such as Wismar, Anna Regina and Rockstone to bigger settlements, towns and ports. This grid supported the flow of a steady stream of post, people, supplies and raw materials such as logs and crops. It was therefore both a communication and a transportation network. It no longer exists. It has not existed for at least half a century.

We might dismiss the colonial system as designed to maximise the extraction of resources from the colony. We have yet to conceptualise, plan or build replacement networks on this scale.

Elsewhere, cities engage in a prolonged debate about the type of transport network that will serve their needs over the next generation. They have realised that, given the finite resources of space (for traffic and parking) and fuel, the current trend towards individual car ownership is unsustainable. Their attempts to reconfigure public transport networks include ground-breaking initiatives such as public bicycle hire schemes (in Paris, London, Melbourne and Hangzhou) and car-sharing schemes (Autolib in Paris). These schemes are in their infancy. They are the fruit of long-term planning and leveraged financing. They have enjoyed a measure of success but will not be perfected overnight. In order to succeed, they will have to survive changes in local and national government. The commitment to them must override party politics.

Sometimes strategies take a generation or more to bear fruit. Without diligent planning and investment they simply would not happen. In Brazil, for example, a generation ago, the government decided to boost the economy of one of its hinterland towns, Manaus, in the state of Amazonas, by offering generous tax breaks to companies willing to build manufacturing plants there. These tax breaks are enshrined in the constitution. Manaus is now one of the major industrial centres in Brazil and is currently bidding for a US$12 billion contract to host the production of iPads.

There has been some discussion recently about the wisdom and viability of the Amaila Hydropower Project. Perhaps, the larger question here is: what are our priorities as a nation? As a relatively poor country, do we simply require access to cheap, plentiful and renewable sources of energy?

And, if so, is this what the project will provide? Or, is job-creation a bigger imperative? What is the pecking order of our needs?  Can we all agree on these needs and the order in which they should be addressed?

Over the years there have been official attempts to address these central questions and to sketch a narrative and a strategy. There was the National Development Strategy in 2000 and, more recently, the Low Carbon Development Strategy. Both tried to devise a long-term strategy for the nation, above and beyond the vagaries of the present and the political. The former is now in need of revision. Neither has had the unalloyed support of all parties or penetrated deep into the public psyche. There is always a degree of what Mr Clinton calls ‘disconnect’ between these formulations and the reality in which we live.  For example, we have, at various times in our political history, paid lip service to all manner of socialist ideals. Yet we have always doggedly followed a formula that equates personal success firmly with a big house and garden, a fancy car, ready cash and an army of low-paid labour to service our needs. When the ‘disconnect’ between what we do and what we say we believe is this pronounced, it is time to get back to the drawing board, to interrogate or update the narrative.

Sometimes the most compelling narratives arise in the most unlikely circumstances. Sometimes, for instance, an individual struggles against an imposed narrative to create his own.

A stellar example of this was the recently deceased Hungarian architect, Imre Mackovecz, who defied the Soviet-imported emphasis on a universal design solution and the trend to mass production in architecture and produced buildings rooted in his own beliefs (that architecture must relate to its landscape and to folk memory). He was ostracised by the establishment for much of his career. Yet his vision is now a cornerstone of his country’s narrative and his nation’s identity.

Our nation needs a coherent vision for the future. Within this ‘vision’ or narrative there may be several ‘versions’, several routes or means of approach. The foundations for nation-building are not, as our politicians might have us believe, confined to their words and deeds. They are rooted in the narratives to which we all subscribe and the long-term plans and projects to which these give rise. These narratives can arise from any quarter. Elections, and those elected, come and go. Narratives and national strategies evolve over a much longer timeframe and are equally important. We must not, in our focus on the present, lose sight of the future.