When I examine history in its totality and zero in on the driving factors behind every major leap of human progress, there is a single recurrent feature. It is the awesome transformative power of new ideas which, once fully unleashed, triggered a wave of technological, social, economic, political and other change that redounded to the benefit of humanity.
It was Plato, the ancient philosopher, whose ideas helped to mould the great system of democracy that has enhanced human freedom and dominates the current global political landscape. Think of the modern marvel and convenience of air travel and the determination of the Wright brothers to demonstrate it was possible for human beings to fly through the sky
in a mechanical contraption.
Think too of common infectious illnesses which were once an almost certain death sentence, and we cannot help but laud the ingenuity of Sir Alexander Fleming. Hadn’t he come up with the idea that penicillin could be used to effectively treat such bacteria-driven ailments, the antibiotics revolution that transformed medicine would not have occurred.
These are but a few examples of the transformative power of new ideas. What also stands out in history is that new ideas generally encounter opposition from detractors wedded to the mainstream view on the particular issue. Isn’t it quite interesting that outside-the-box thinkers who come up with alternative and better ways of doing things are initially considered crazy or, as we say in Barbados, have a few screws missing?
For every society to progress and develop, especially in the knowledge-driven economy of the 21st century, an enabling environment must exist for new ideas to emerge and be tested to establish their validity. Prosperity in the contemporary economy comes, not so much from the traditional production of goods and services, but more from intellectual property, in the form of patents, for example, related to a technological discovery which is always the product of new ideas.
When it comes to encouraging and embracing new ideas, Barbados is somewhat of an enigma, a paradox of sorts for a country which over the past 50 years has made such
a substantial investment in education. While there is never a shortage of ideas among ordinary folk who are eager to contribute to national problem-solving, the challenge lies with the decision-making establishment which is inherently conservative and anti-intellectual.
Barbados has lagged because of this environment which stifles outside-the-box thinking and creativity. Little wonder our major institutions currently appear intellectually bankrupt. It is evident, for example, in our political parties which should be key engines generating innovative ideas to renew our society and economy.
You doubt what I am saying? Ponder on this simple question! When last has the political establishment articulated any novel and exciting idea that has really captured public imagination and inspired hope of a brighter, better future?
Not since the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, perhaps! Even though our economy continued to record growth that camouflaged structural weaknesses, we have largely been playing for time since then, going around in circles and mistakenly believing we were making progress.
The current deep crisis provides strong confirmation that our day of reckoning has finally come. Nothing but new thinking to produce new ideas to inform new approaches will extricate us from the current crisis.
The poverty of ideas in the political establishment reflects the long-standing culture of our political parties where a maximum leader rules unchallenged and supporters are discouraged from critiquing the status quo by offering differing perspectives on issues. Those who dare to step out of line are often branded troublemakers and accused, among other things, of seeking to upset the apple cart in the selfish pursuit of position or power.
Constituency branch meetings and annual conferences serve little useful purpose but to validate the status quo. Without an environment conducive to generating new ideas, it is no wonder our political parties seriously lack capacity organizationally to analyse and come up with effective solutions to vexing problems facing our country.
Even though it is badly needed, neither party has seen it fit so far to establish a modern Research And Policy Unit.
The overriding objective of our parties is to win elections. This is reflected, for example, in the way manifestos are produced. These platforms are hardly ever the product of wide internal discussion or serious research to inform an evidence-based approach to the development of policy. Quite often they are nothing more than a hodgepodge of promises hastily put together by a few persons based on what they believe the electorate would fall for.
What I find particularly interesting is that Barbadians somehow feel the island made its greatest progress when its political leaders were educated abroad. Errol Barrow, for example, attended the University of London, while his chief adviser Sir James Tudor went to Oxford, also the alma mater of Sir Grantley Adams and his son Tom Adams. Our present leaders are either locally or regionally trained at the University of the West Indies.
The benefit of studying abroad –– as someone who has gone through the experience myself –– is that it allows a temporary but complete detachment from the home environment in a way that allows really critical examination and analysis. From afar, one is able to see the situation, especially the faults, much more clearly than if one is fully immersed in the environment under examination.
Which explains why Barrow and political contemporaries like Dr Eric Williams returned to the region with a zeal to effect change, which is hardly seen in UWI graduates.
Education is not only about the ingestion and regurgitation of knowledge to get a piece of paper. The true purpose is to develop the human capacity to think in order to creatively solve problems. Sad to say, our education system is geared more towards legitimizing and reinforcing the status quo instead of challenging it for the purpose of effecting meaningful change.
The next great wave of development for Barbados will come, not from putting old wine in new bottles, but through harnessing and unleashing the creative energies of our young people by providing them with the right opportunities within a facilitating framework to come up with innovative development ideas. That is precisely what Errol Barrow did in the 1960s.
I genuinely thought that the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP), when it was elected in 2008, was going to do the same for this generation of young people, seeing that it went to great lengths to produce an historic Youth Manifesto. Our young people must
be sorely disappointed.
They need to say to both parties that they are longer prepared to sit on the sidelines. They must effectively organize, develop their own policy agenda, and use their bloc of votes as leverage to secure a binding agreement from both parties for its inclusion and implementation. As natural risk-takers, our young people have the energy, creativity and ideas to make a difference in bringing about meaningful change for a better future. What they need to recognize is their immense political power through unity and collective action.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)