Professor Norman Girvan, who passed away last week following injuries sustained during a hiking accident in Dominica had, well before his death attained the sobriquet of Caribbean Man for the extent of his academic, policy and practical work over the Caribbean as a whole. Indeed, recognition of that title went well beyond our English-speaking area of the region, with the recognition of associates of Girvan in the wider Latin and Francophone Caribbean, and within the wider sphere of Latin America.
His original notoriety came from his extensive academic work on economic development as it pertained to what was, in his early academic years, known as the Third World, though with the Caribbean always retaining a certain focus. His extensive stay, with periodic interruptions, at the University of the West Indies, particularly in his native land Jamaica, but also in Trinidad & Tobago, provided the institutional base for most of the academic, wider policy and quasi-political work that he undertook. In this regard, his focus was always two-fold.
First, he perceived the universities of the region as central locations for teaching and researching on the keys to post-colonial West Indian economic and social development. Then secondly, much of his academic and policy work advocated the necessity to break the historical definitions of the Caribbean. For, in his view when reinforced by differences of language, these virtually segregated the territories from one another. And they therefore inhibited an appropriate definition of the relevant economic space that would permit the necessary economic and social scale for optimal and sustained development.
But thirdly, Girvan always insisted, and took as a persistent preoccupation, that the people of the English-speaking Caribbean could not create and sustain a long-term and viable economic existence, if they did not seek ways and means of coming to terms with the location of the Latin American sphere around the boundaries of the Caribbean islands, including the land boundaries of the Guyanas. And in that regard, he insisted that both teaching and research at the University of our Caricom region should also have that perspective as a focus of research and teaching.
In regard to this latter, it was not surprising that Girvan’s life of research and teaching, to which he added not only practical policy advice, but also involvement in a series of regional and Latin American and Caribbean academic institutions and arenas of policy advice, would have been recognized by the state systems of that wider arena, when he was appointed as the second Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States.
For this institution, an original initiative of ‘Time for Action,’ a report of the West Indian Commission headed by Sir Shridath Ramphal, which was welcomed by the Latin states bounding the Caribbean Sea, coincided with the long-term thinking of Girvan, an attribute that came to be recognized by the relevant Latin American states.
Much the same can be said of the decision, well known to Guyanese, of the United Nations Secretary General to nominate Girvan as the Good Offices representative in respect of the Guyana-Venezuela boundary controversy. For that decision could only be taken as an indication of a wider international acknowledgement that both Girvan’s academic work and interventions in practical policy arenas, had attained respect and admiration in significant international and regional arenas.
Girvan, of course, had, throughout his life, insisted that the role of the academic was not to be restricted to the cloistered arenas of academia, or even to government institutions. He insisted from an early adult age that academic knowledge crucial to economic and social development policy should be widely advocated to the general West Indian public; and in turn, that the concerns of the public should become concerns of academics, whose interventions, where possible were critical, and as well as being an obligation.
And it is, indeed, from that perspective, that almost his very last act before his unfortunate accident in Dominica, was his insistence that the fate of the, largely black, Haitian and other Caribbean citizens, who had migrated to the Dominican Republic, whether generations ago or more recently, should not be left to the decision solely of the Dominican judiciary or government. The campaign in which he participated, indeed partly initiated, rapidly gained traction in both regional and international circles, leading to the current efforts to ensure a regularization of the situation there.
Girvan was, of course, one of a group of anglophone West Indian academics who rapidly populated the University of the West Indies, and the University of Guyana. Guyanese of that inclination will recall the holding of the Caribbean Scholars Conference in 1965, signalling that a sufficient number of West Indian academics were now resident in the wider Caribbean to initiate organized discussion on the future of the region, particularly following the demise of the federation.
That initiative virtually coincided with the formation of the New World Group of academics and other persons in the territories interested in the advocacy of new ways of thinking about Caribbean development, and searching for ways to influence government policy. And in real life, so to speak, Girvan went on to have a significant influence on policymaking in his native Jamaica, particularly during the era of the governments of Michael Manley.
From there, as relationships between the Caribbean states and the countries of Africa rapidly developed, and especially after the foundation the African-Caribbean-Pacific grouping that was the consequence of the EU-ACP 1975 Lome Convention, Girvan found himself called upon to be involved in a variety of initiatives advocated as a result of the abolition of preferential trade, and the necessity for our region to come to terms with the new era of trade liberalization.
That Norman Girvan continued in these and related activities well after his retirement from what can be called his life-long academic base, the University of the West Indies, is a tribute to his dedication and determination in the service of his country and region.
We sympathise with his relatives on his death, in the knowledge that they, like us, acknowledge his life-long service to his region and its people.