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Re-examining the post colonial project


by Ralph Jemmott

Re-examining the post colonial project

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In 1962 the short-lived Federation of the West Indies was dissolved and in the same year both Jamaica and Trinidad proceeded to political independence. If we take 1962 as marking the start of the decade of independence, this means that in 2012 the region would have achieved 50 years of effective self-rule. The passage of time might occasion the need to reassess the state of the post colonial project. The imperative of review might also be occasioned by the current state of affairs in the region which gives some cause for concern and provides “a teachable moment” from which, hopefully, we might actually learn something. No one making a judicious review of the English-speaking Caribbean today would suggest that the post-colonial enterprise has failed, but there are some very worrisome situations in the region which need to be addressed.The enterprise has not been an unmitigated success. In the midst of an extended and extensive crisis in global capitalism, the economies of the Caribbean are beset by economic anxieties as they continue to show an extreme fragility and vulnerability to external shocks. President Bharrat Jhagdeo of Guyana observed earlier this year that many regional economies are broke, facing huge deficits and large debt burdens. It is cold comfort that many of the economies in the so-called developed world including the eurozone are also experiencing severe difficulties.Social problemsPerhaps more daunting is the seemingly intractable social problems in the region. Crime rates have shot up in islands like St Lucia and Tobago where violent crime was once minimal. A 2007 World Bank report that the Caribbean had the world’s highest homicide rate of 30 murders for every 100 000 population. The crisis in Jamaica has exposed not only the extent of criminal activity but an even more frightening, the connection between criminal gangs and politics. Other social issues relate to gross inequalities of living conditions, a grinding and persistent poverty, high unemployment and disturbing signs of deviant behaviour among a not inconsiderable percentage of our youth, particularly males. Even the current state of West Indies cricket, the one area that unites and esteems us internationally has spread a pall on the region. It has become common now to quote management guru Peter Drucker on all areas relating to governance. Drucker’s notion that “there are no underdeveloped countries only undermanaged ones”, comes to mind. It could be argued that in some respects the post-colonial Caribbean has been undermanaged or perhaps mismanaged, particularly in the social sphere.  But management is meaningless unless there is an overarching vision, a narrative about what the management is about. The leaders in the post-colonial Caribbean have failed to articulate a consistent narrative of not only what they were managing but to what ends. What narrative discourses there are have tended to do two things. They have focused too narrowly on considerations of economic development, ostensibly increasing levels of material advancement, brick and mortar investments. Not only can material progress never be a goal in itself but it is a faulty premise for social ordering particularly in a region so economically vulnerable and lacking in resources.The other problem with economic development as a primary motif of the narrative is that too often the proceeds of that growth are unevenly distributed. Some sections of society fall behind becoming frustrated and alienated providing a source of social deviance, crime and violence. Secondly, what narrative there has been is too often infused with meaningless populist rhetoric. Heroic myth is invariably followed by prosaic performance and sometimes by colossal failure. Limited palliative care is offered to the poor and in the worst cases the ‘dons’ and gangs rush in to fill the breach. Political parties in the region have become election winning machines showing little sense of purpose beryond either the gaining or retention of power.   What Sir Courtney Blackman calls “the institutional capacity of government” must deal not only with the imperatives of economic growth but the requirements of social peace, solidarity and cohesion. It is in this area that the post-colonial project has most failed and is most threatened.The memorable statement on post-emancipation Trinidad by noted historian Donald Wood that “a people has been freed but a society has not been formed”, applies perhaps less severely to the post-colonial Caribbean. Part of the problem is that we have bought into western ultra-liberal laissez-faire notions of social development. These notions have emphasised the primacy of individual rights over collective responsibilities and advocated a minimalist role of the state in constraining human conduct.They provide a very unsafe foundation for social order in any developing country which needs to marshal its collective human resource. The Caribbean now faces an array of socio-cultural problems that cannot be solved within the context and modalities of ultra-liberal thought, what an Economist magazine writer calls “sweet sounding simplifiers”. Social responsibilityOrganised crime, the drug trade, gun running, official corruption, kidnapping, willful pathological murder will not concede to a judicial system that does not fully comprehend the burden of its social responsibility. A lot will depend on the quality of our politics and the quality of our politicians. Perhaps understandably the people at large and the post-colonial leadership in the Caribbean eschewed the disciplined model followed in Singapore out of a genuine fear of entrenching a dangerous authoritarianism in the culture. At the same time, it is questionable whether the post-emancipation Caribbean society with strong fault-lines based on race and class could lend itself to a natural growth of ordered, disciplined development. The situation in Jamaica has exposed the depths to which regional politics can sink and the harm that can be done to society as a whole.Too many regional politicians are consumed not by a vision of what good they can do but by what they and their cohorts can become and by what David Cameron recently called a dangerous “short-termism.The goal of the Caribbean as they say “going forward” should be to build stronger and better societies, livable and civilised communities based on relatively stable economies eschewing silly notion of achieving First World status in a world where even the First World isn’t really that “first world”. I have forgotten an address give by Governor Mario Cuomo to a graduating class at Stanford University, He told the class “You can build a dump or create a shining city on a hill, the responsibility is yours”. West Indian leadership might first have to come to a knowledge and understanding of what “a shining city” is. 

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