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Eric Williams Memorial lecturer: New thinking needed to solve region’s problems

Monday, June 16, 2014
Franklin W Knight, director at the Centre for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, speaks with Bridget Brereton, emerita professor of history, University of the West Indies, at the 28th Dr Eric Williams Memorial Lecture at the Central Bank Auditorium, Port-of-Spain. PHOTO: SEAN NERO

T&T and Jamaica have been successful in maintaining political stability under the system of democracy 50 years after they gained political independence from Great Britain, even as countries around the world continue to grapple with the concept, Franklin W Knight, director at the Centre for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said on Saturday night.



Knight, who delivered the 28th Dr Eric Williams Memorial Lecture at the Central Bank Auditorium in Port-of-Spain, said after five decades of political Independence the islands had fairly good public health, education and economic systems. However, he explained, the challenges to political Independence and national sovereignty were not identical for T&T and Jamaica.


“In the first decade or so of after Independence, Jamaica was enjoying the same favourable economic winds as most or the rest of the world. Throughout the Americas the 1960s were considered the decade of rising expectation. Prices for exports were good, domestic food supplies were ample, wage increases generally exceeded price increases and the middle sectors expanded significantly. Everyone thought those times would last forever,” he said.


“But since about the 1970s, the economic winds have been generally unfavourable to Jamaica, as well as most of the rest of the rest of the world. Some of the economic maladies of Jamaica, if less so for T&T, have been self-inflicted and the economic problems have exacerbated greatly the institutional inadequacies with which Jamaica began its independent political existence. The challenges to politics, the economy and civil society in general have been severe, multiple, interrelated, sometimes unexpected and occasionally disastrous.”


Knight said T&T had been more fortunate with its natural resources and had been better served in its developmental policies. The local petroleum industry helped T&T weather the severe economic downturns witnessed during the 1970s, 1980s and post 2000, he said. “In T&T oil and gas account for about 40 per cent of GDP, 80 per cent of exports and five per cent employment. T&T is a major manufacturing centre in the Caribbean, as well as a major investment centre. 


“With half the land area and about half the population, T&T has roughly the same GDP as Jamaica—equivalent to twice the per capita GDP of Jamaica: US$20,000 versus US$10,000. But even a per capita GDP of US$20,000 is significantly less than that enjoyed in the Bahamas or Bermuda, so that is not much to shout about.” 



Knight said the four issues that would confront both countries going forward are economic sustainability in a rapidly globalising world where production and productivity could be trumped by malicious uncontrolled market manipulation; the problem of equality of meritocracy in a civil society that is fast approaching the Hobbesian state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish and short”; political succession and institution building where the basic political parties seem to have prematurely ossified and politics is guided less by consistent principles than by maximising greed; and the global problem of narco-trafficking and civil violence that constitute an unavoidable hazard to institutions and communities.


“As elsewhere in this increasingly globalised world, political stability is closely affiliated with economic stability, so everywhere across the Caribbean, given the relatively limited natural resources, each Caribbean state will need to be untiring and increasingly creative in the pursuit of economic sustainability,” Knight said. He added that resolving the region’s problems will require “consistent and seriously applied new ways of thinking, of anticipating problems and applying flexible solutions”. 


“That sort of mentality is rare anywhere in the Caribbean. Perhaps each Caribbean state will, after all the fits and starts, find efficacy in co-cooperativeness, not necessarily as a confederated or unified system like the European Community, but rather in selected avenues of applied pragmatic economic activity,” Knight said.


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