Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Column: Caribbean hungry for change. Who will lead it?

Published:Sunday | May 17, 2015 | 5:00 AM
Pole indicating the direction and distance to several countries, from the Mayan Riviera.

Across the Caribbean there is a pervasive view that the Anglophone part of the region needs to find a new pathway to development, and a fresh narrative about its future. The sense is that the regional integration process has failed, and there is an absence of leadership, vision and implementation.

As Professor Andy Knight, the director of the University of the West Indies' (UWI) Institute of International Relations at its St Augustine campus, so succinctly put it at the recent forum on the future of the Caribbean in Trinidad: "There is a hunger across the Caribbean region for change in the way we think of ourselves, the way in which we interact with one another, and the way in which we are governed."

The conference, which could be viewed online, brought together figures from academia, the private sector, civil society, and government to debate the future of the region by encouraging participants to think differently, even disruptively.

According to media reports, its conclusions suggested five general themes: the need for a clearer long-term vision of where the region is headed; coordinated responses within a broadened Caribbean space; a focus on education, talent development, youth unemployment, poverty reduction and wealth creation with a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship; the need for a regional disaster prevention, emergency support and reconstruction facility; and the creation of policy driven by knowledge, data generation and research.

Subsequently, it was said that the intention is that UWI will play a central role in bringing together the findings of the forum and 'will meet within two weeks' to define a work programme with detailed plans for action, allocated responsibilities and timelines for implementation.

issue of leadership

While it will be instructive to read a full summary of the outcome and understand the detail of what happens next, what is less clear is whether this interesting event marked a breakthrough, or is destined to run into the sand because those involved lack the political power, sustained will, or the ability or money to deliver new thinking across the region.

At the heart of the Caribbean's problem is the issue of leadership, and whether in a pan-Caribbean context it any longer exists in a visionary and deliverable sense, and where it might come from in future.

As matters stand, the elected leaders in the region seem on the whole unwilling to implement agreed common positions other than in relation to foreign policy initiatives that involve development assistance, security, the environment or public health. Even then, the spur to action is all too often a response to external diplomatic encouragement or pressure.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions, but by far the most common response is inaction, even when issues arise that relate to core Caribbean interests such as the future of its rum industry.

If further proof were needed that the regional integration process has lost its way and there is an absence of leadership and new ideas, one only has to consider the matter of the CARICOM strategic five-year plan 2014-2019 agreed last year by Caribbean Heads. The plan which can be found on CARICOM's website is extravagant. Although intended to 'build economic resilience; social resilience; environmental resilience; technological resilience; strengthen the CARICOM identity and spirit of community; strengthen community governance', even the CARICOM secretariat has noted that the proposed priorities and arrangements will have to take into account 'the resource limitations, both human and financial, across the implementing agents'.

accountability

In the real world, in business, in better managed academic and NGO circles, any strategic document of this kind would include some indication as to how the executive authority involved - in this case a multitude of sovereign governments facing in different directions - intend delivering what has been agreed; a clear timeline; details of the deliverables to measure performance against; a basis for regular reporting; and above all, someone to take responsibility.

It is sad to observe that the plan emerged at a time when an educated younger generation no longer thinks in the same way about the region, its institutions, geographical boundaries, sovereignty or planning.

This is not to say that the Caribbean and CARICOM have ceased to be relevant. However, the internal, external and generational dynamic has changed so dramatically since the body's inception that trying to embrace a plan seems at the very least an outmoded approach for open economies that have to deal on a daily basis with a multifaceted and constantly changing hemispheric and global environment.

This suggests the need for new forms of leadership able to encourage delivery through passion, inspiration and, concentration on results rather than through rhetoric.

Some in the Caribbean believe that the age of charismatic leadership is over. It went, they say, with those that fought for independence or who came immediately afterwards to harvest the fruits of their labour. They say that what is now required are strong institutions that provide long-term structures and certainty, and that set aside the tribal nature of Caribbean politics in favour of responsible and consistent administration.

Others believe it will not be elected representatives or institutions that create the future but it is individuals, business leaders from major companies, and open-minded academics that are now best placed to engineer a change in thinking, create a new regional consensus, and influence a new generation entering politics.

younger generation

A similar informal debate is under way beyond the region among external friends, old and new, that are looking to a younger generation of educated professionals better able to see the way that the world has changed and understand why it is essential for the Caribbean to recognise on its own terms that it is not immune or isolated from economic globalisation and competition.

In this context, it is no coincidence that in Jamaica, President Obama chose to meet at UWI with those who may become tomorrow's leaders, that Britain's government-related conference centre at Wilton Park is to hold with Caribbean partners in early June a conference titled 'Caribbean 2030 - new thinking for a new generation', or that China, in common with many other nations, is inviting to visit or offering scholarships to the some of the brightest individuals in the region.

The Caribbean's shortcomings are well known. They have been exhaustively discussed. The issue now is about new leadership, be it technocratic, political, academic or from the private sector; how it might inspire future generations, and above all, the delivery of practical results and prosperity that benefits all.

David Jessop is a consultant with the Caribbean Council. david.jessop