Barbados recently played host to a distinguished Caribbean-born, United States-based economist who has imparted some timely words of wisdom and warning that are worthy of serious reflection by the political leadership of the region in particular, and the populace as a whole.
Participating in the second Caribbean Economic Forum sponsored by the Central Bank of Barbados, Dr Peter Blair Henry, Jamaican-born dean of New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School Of Business, raised a number of pertinent questions related to economic strategy, quality of leadership, and the general capacity of governments to deliver on the promise of development.
One of the telling observations he made relates to the failure of leadership and the fact that the Caribbean, in terms of economic performance, has been lagging behind most of the rest of the world.
“We have to be honest with our citizens,” he said. “We have not delivered the kind of growth that the world has seen, and we have not delivered the kind of growth that emerging economies have seen.”
The critical question which needs to be asked is why has the region posted this dismal record. In our opinion, it relates to the fact that regional countries, to a large extent, have stubbornly refused to move with the times in terms of implementing the necessary reforms to build capacity and reposition their economies to participate effectively in the 21st century global economy. In this region, we spend too much valuable time complaining about problems, and always seem reluctant when it comes to taking decisive action to find and implement appropriate solutions.
We seem somehow to believe that a fairy godmother or godfather will always emerge at the eleventh hour to deliver and bring us to safety. That may have been the case during the Cold War when the Caribbean had geopolitical significance in the context of the East-West conflict and could use it as an effective bargaining chip in the relationship with the major Western powers.
However, in the context of today’s world, where every country is basically expected to fend for itself instead of relying on the generosity of other countries, such a posture amounts to wishful thinking.
Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Caribbean was given more than adequate notice from the early 1990s onwards that the world was poised for fundamental change, that the era of liberalization was upon us, and that survival required a fundamentally different approach to how we had traditionally done business in the region. Caribbean countries, except when under external pressure from, for example, the International Monetary Fund, have generally not heeded the call for reform.
Not surprisingly, as Dr Henry tells us, “there are a lot of angry citizens in the Caribbean” today because the dreams and aspirations which the region had, coming out of the decolonization beginning in the 1960s, have largely not materialized. Having lots of “angry citizens” is a recipe for social instability and unrest, which the region can ill afford at this time, especially considering the economic importance of tourism and foreign investment. Already, rising crime is a major concern.
Drawing from the experience of countries which can be considered success stories, Dr Henry identified a way out for the region in terms of an effective response to the prevailing malaise.
“The countries that have managed to have high growth have done so because their leaders have demonstrated . . . discipline, clarity, and the combination of discipline and clarity has produced trust among [the] people in the leadership about the direction of the country.”
To that we would add a commitment to a clearly defined philosophy of politics and a vision of national economic development.
Effective communication has to be factored into the picture. But, except for rabble-rousing on party platforms during general elections, Caribbean leaders today are generally not known to be effective communicators when it comes to articulating solutions to serious national issues. Compared with visionary leaders of the past like the late Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow and the legendary Dr Eric Williams, leaders today seem unable to articulate a clearly defined vision of the future that inspires confidence and rallies the population behind national goals.
Hopefully, Dr Henry’s words will cause our region to sit up. Ideally, at the individual country level and within the regional context of CARICOM, there is need for an urgent conversation to begin on improving governance and identifying a set of development priorities which can make a real difference for our people.
Time is not on the side of the region. The alternative to decisive action is further marginalization in a world which is moving full steam ahead and has no time for stragglers.