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FIRING LINE: A dying breed

Shantal Munro-Knight

FIRING LINE: A dying breed

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Most Barbadians perhaps would not know Professor Norman Girvan. Professor Girvan was a regional intellectual luminary on issues of regional integration. If you have ever heard any one speak about Single Development Vision, this was authored by Girvan. He was also at one point the secretary general of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS).
He was more than an intellectual; in his 70s Norman had his own website, blog and had just two years ago started an initiative called 1804CaribVoices. Caribvoices was intended to provide a space for dialogue with Caribbean people on issues of regional integration. Norman recently passed and he has left an extensive legacy.
His passing made me reflect on the state of leadership in the Caribbean and the extent to which we are able to grow new leadership to replace the old. I reflected on the exceptional prime ministers and leaders that we have had in the Caribbean and in Barbados. I grew up reading and hearing about the feats of leaders like Errol Barrow, Grantley Adams, Michael Manley and the like. However, I realised that past this generation I could not think of any modern day Caribbean leader that has managed to capture the imagination of the region’s people.
Moreover, I could not think of any current leader or any in the recent past that has made such a significant impact on the political or social landscape of the region or their specific country, that they stand out as being exceptional. A bit of this legacy seemed to have been on the verge of emergence with former Prime Minister Bruce Golding. The Dudus Coke saga ended this and now he is but a distant memory.
It suggests to me that ten years from now our children will still be quoting the likes of Barrow and Manley without any modern day examples of exceptional leadership. It seems such leaders in the region are a dying breed. From my recollection of these men, their legacy was not so much about their politics. It was about their conviction, vision and passion for their countries and to some extent the region. They stood for something and you could identify rightly or wrongly the causes they chose to fight. 
Now the opposite pertains across the leadership of the Caribbean. We have become a region whose leadership lacks passion and conviction for anything but their own political survival. In fact, the emerging legacy of leadership across the region is quite embarrassing. In the recent past, we have had prime ministers accused of cavorting with drug lords, taking bribes, indicted by integrity commissions and accused of election fraud. The others fall into the realm of the mundane. I am sure that most of us if tested cannot recall the names of prime ministers of the Caribbean over the last five years.
Here in Barbados, even as I write this article I am recalling former Prime Minister Erskine Sandiford, of course perhaps for all the wrong reasons. He might disagree and suggest that in hindsight history might be much kinder to him. Somehow, I doubt that he will be one of the leaders my grandchildren will be reading about as making a particularly exceptional contribution.
Former Prime Minister Owen Arthur, perhaps, has a better chance but he sought to craft his legacy around the integration project, which no one else was truly interested in and therefore he was denied the opportunity to consolidate what could have been a definitive regional contribution. More importantly, his recent political shenanigans suggest that he might be in danger of erasing his national political legacy. 
The era of those famous former Prime Ministers was an era of crisis in some respects and an era of unchartered territory as they tried to forge Caribbean nations in a hostile social and economic international environment. They understood that survival was just as much about resources as it was about galvanising their peoples.
Even if they tried something and it failed, history rightly recorded their efforts. Today we have a bunch of overly nationalist political leaders whose only legacy will be their own personal political fame of being prime minister. A little harsh? Yes, but leadership is not the same as managing; it is not just about riding the tide and keeping everything in check. Exceptional leaders are driven not by the circumstances of the present but by the possibilities of the future. They are not afraid to stand up and be counted and they become exceptional not by their appointment but rather because society recognises the innate quality and anoints them such.
I, for one, am embarrassed and frustrated at the level of quality leadership that we have in the region and at home. Moreover asking for exceptional leadership is like spitting in the wind. 
Even within academia, which should be the birthplace of intellectual thought and leadership for the region, the pickings seem dismal. Across the region, our universities seem to all have fallen into the same trap – pushing out students instead of nurturing activist leaders, dampening fervour for questioning instead of stoking of fires of independent interrogation and orienting research to fit donor demands instead of propelling social change. (Norman Girvan was the last of his kind, I fear).    
I do not know where hope will come from. Do we just wait it out until the next cycle comes? Is there a crop of leaders hiding in waiting? If so, I beg please come out as Barbados needs you; the region needs you.     
• Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.

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