Innovation is a word to which we pay a great deal of attention. Our business and political leaders in Barbados, the region, and around the world talk about this subject. A few years ago, we in Barbados held competitions which encouraged innovation and creativity; I’m not sure what happened since then. Even more to the point, none of these innovative products have found their way into the marketplace here at home or in the region. More pointedly, have we been able to get our population to be truly innovative and to develop viable products and services?
Before we respond to this question, we should take a look at our experiences up to this juncture in our history. Barbados, along with this region, as part of the Americas, was exploited for its mineral, human and agricultural resources by Europe. This region was a net importer of ideas, laws, culture, music, the arts, and finished goods. Most of the innovation and invention came from the Europeans.
Creative energies that would foster innovation were not encouraged in this part of the world. And why should this have been encouraged, given that not only were we seen as the providers of resources but also the market for the finished products from our European masters? Encouraging innovation and creativity would not be in Europe’s long term interest.
As a consequence, our populace yearned for foreign culture, goods and ideas as these were seen, particularly among the regions’ elites, as so much better than its own creole creative culture. This is still seen today as we examine the composition of our imports, what we watch over the airwaves and what we consume via the Internet. This mental conditioning of our populace, more than anything else, may have played a significant role in the rejection of homegrown innovative ideas. I use the word ideas deliberately because these have never been allowed to take root and develop. As well, the means for this development have been elusive.
Despite this mental conditioning, our Creole culture has produced a stunning array of talent. We, as a region, developed the steel pan, calypso and reggae music, and even made significant contributions to popular music; in the past, Harry Belafonte and for the present, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. We have developed world-class icons such as renowned writers Derek Walcott, Edward ‘Kamau’ Brathwaite, Sir Vidia Naipaul, Austin Clarke and sporting heroes like Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Vivian Richards, Michael Holding, Hasely Crawford, Don Quarrie, Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell, and the list goes on.
What is remarkable about these icons is that even though some of us may have recognized their innate genius, we only truly accepted them when their talents and abilities were accepted by the outside world. If my hypothesis is true, it says a great deal about our confidence as a people, that we harbour a basic self-belief that prevents us from taking on the rest of the world and demonstrating that we are more than capable. Our West Indies cricket team has, for most of the last half-century, demonstrated our potential as a people.
However, when we were in our primacy, we failed to take advantage of the opportunities to develop and revolutionize the game permanently. As a result, the fortunes of our team declined, and we have lost this initiative to the Indian subcontinent. Some may argue that taking advantage of these opportunities would require significant investment. To this argument I would suggest that the region got together in 2007 and hosted the World Cup; so where there is a will, there is a way.
I have realized that there have always existed individual pockets of excellence of which the wider Caribbean society took little notice. It may be that the inability to recognize and exploit our natural advantages may be the root cause of our lack of innovation generally; as it is from these pockets that innovative concepts originate. The development of such concepts takes time, effort and financial resources; it is this lack of financial resources that have been our real barrier to its full development.
It would require, I believe, significant changes to our financial sectors in order for the necessary resources to be made available. Economists in the region recognize that efficient financial markets are necessary to bring net savers into contact with those who require financing. Our regions’ financial markets are woefully underdeveloped. In addition, financial information which is required for investors to make informed decisions regarding the investment opportunities available in the economies is also not readily available.
As a consequence, we in this region must endeavour to correct these imbalances in order for us to fully utilize the creativity of our people. Until such is done, the region will remain economically backward.
(Edward Hunte is an attorney-at-law who holds an MBA with concentrations in Economics and Finance; he was also an Economist in the Economic Affairs Division of the Ministry of Finance.)