Having retired years ago after 52 years in the sugar industry, including working closely with governments and regional institutions along the way, if there is one thing I have learned it is the extreme frailty of all grand plans.
In my experience, master blueprints have a terrible track record. For one thing, any plan known to man as soon as it is finished immediately begins to be overtaken by the dynamic of events. And the longer a plan looks into the future, the less likely it is to have any relevance to how things actually turn out. The poet Goethe sums it up when he dismisses all such academic exercises in his wonderful words celebrating the unexpected: “Grey, grey, my friend, is all your theory but green the golden tree of life.”
In every case the infinite fallibility of human beings means that any long-term plan begins to go haywire in its execution as soon as it is promulgated. At the heart of all strategies is that fatal flaw.
It is not really surprising, therefore, that every country in the Region is littered with the burnt-out corpses of plans not implemented and reports unread, except by scholars long after events have turned out very differently. One only has to think of that supreme repository of theory and discarded blueprints, the CARICOM Secretariat, to despair that any regional or national blueprint will ever serve a useful purpose however well-meant or assiduously constructed.
Having said that, it would be obtuse not to recognize that strategic planning, at least in outline, has its place. A nation, or a business, has to be given direction and set broad objectives.
But in all the plethora of expert debate and high-level planning which I am sure continues to take place, there is a question I hope will come up again and again in discussing development. It is whether we should not be re-defining completely what development means. I fear that it will simply be taken for granted that development means economic growth, making people better off materially, adding more and more tribute to that idol of the modern age, gross domestic product. Such an exercise is profoundly misguided.
In Canada, there is a serious effort to establish a national Index of Wellbeing to help in formulating policies and plans. The key to this work is to escape from the trap of taking only economic factors into account. This is the way the world is thinking. It is an idea whose time has come.
In this regard, an article in the June 1995 issue of CARICOM PERSPECTIVE by the late Professor Norman Girvan, entitled “Rethinking Development,” continues to be required reading for all of us. Professor Girvan points out that in the past planning has proceeded on the largely unquestioned assumption that human welfare is to be measured principally by levels of material consumption and that human progress consists mainly in increasing such levels ad infinitum.
Long ago, that greatest of all West Indian thinkers, C.L.R James, saw the fallacy in such a foolish assumption. In a public lecture in Trinidad in the 1960s, he asked his audience to consider the question: “What is the good life?” “I am speaking,” he told them, “about the good life from the point of view of society…….For example, Mr. Butler (then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK) has told the people of Britain that in twenty-five years time the standard of living will be doubled. It is this kind of inanity that I want to warn you against. That statement is without meaning. Fifty years ago I am sure that the amount of goods, the quantity of services, that were at the disposal of the average worker in a particular country were more or less half what they are today…Has that solved anything?…Has that solved any social and political problems which are today worse, more acute, than they were in 1910. The question, therefore, of the good life is not to be judged by quantity of goods.”
There might be development, CLR knew, but there would only be regression in real human terms if, for instance, constitutional arrangements remained unresponsive to the popular will or if runaway and brutal crime came to drive desperate fear and wholesale corruption into a nation’s psyche or if cultural creativity failed to flourish or if the safety and beauty of the natural environment could not be sustained.
In the course of his penetrating article Norman Girvan had the following to say: “The idea of human progress needs to be delinked from the fantasy of never-ending increases in material consumption. This has been seen to be physically impossible for the individual, morally questionable for society and ecologically non-viable for the human race.”
I hope our national development planning will always aim to take full account of this eminently sensible thinking.