Sunday, February 18, 2018

‘We Like it so’: The Culture factor


Dr Terrence Farrell addresses guests at the launch of his book at the National Library last Thursday. —Photos: Ayanna Kinsale

Mark Fraser

Former deputy governor of the Central Bank, Terrence Farrell, has classified Trinidad and Tobago’s economy as “underachieving.”

To support his theory, Farrell, a former CEO of One Caribbean Media Ltd (OCM), has authored a book “The Underachieving Society: Development Strategy and Policy in Trinidad and Tobago 1958-2008.”

It was formally launched last week at the National Library but was sold out on the same day.

In explaining the choice of title, Farrell observed that Trinidad and Tobago is operating “way below its potential”.

On the flipside, he reasoned, T&T can hardly be classified as an “overachieving” society hence his conclusion and diagnosis that the twin island republic was underachieving.

The following is an excerpt from the novel titled “We Like It So”: The Culture Factor.

An important argument that should not be discounted too easily is that the people of a country may actually not aspire to the standard of living of the richer and more developed countries. They may choose to work less hard, be less innovative and productive, and consume more because they value leisure, conviviality and pleasure more than they value work, and the income and wealth it produces. In other words some societies may display a combination of values, attitudes and behaviours that do not emphasise wealth accumulation and prosperity in purely economic or material terms. Alternatively, while they may well aspire to greater wealth and economic prosperity, the values, attitudes and behaviours they embrace may lead to their making choices of strategy and policy that ultimately do not conduce to growth and development.

The people of Trinidad and Tobago have been stereotyped as having a “carnival mentality” and enjoying parties and “liming”. Work is as much or more about socialising and sustaining relationships as it is about producing or contributing. In addition, Trinidad and Tobago has a large number of public holidays. There are fourteen official public holidays and the two Carnival days constitute de facto public holidays, making a total of sixteen public holidays. These attitudes towards work and productivity often mean that systems and processes do not work well. Since citizens do not expect or trust that systems will work well, resort is had early in any transaction to the identification of a contact within the system who can expedite accomplishment of the transaction. This further compromises the efficiency of the system and discriminates in favour of those persons who are well connected.

Another aspect of the culture of Trinidadians and Tobagonians is ambivalence towards things local and things foreign. V S Naipaul, Trinidad and Tobago born Nobel Laureate in Literature, has pejoratively described the country’s people as “mimic men”. Frantz Fanon wrote of the “black skins, white masks” of the post-colonial elite.

On the face, local cultural practices and products are celebrated, vaunted even. Trinidadians and Tobagonians are proud, and justifiably so, of the steel pan musical instrument that was invented here, of the Carnival celebrations that are always described as the “biggest in the world”, of the gift to the world of calypso and soca music, of the success of the country’s athletes at premier events such as the Olympics, the English Premier League, of the fact that this country is the smallest ever to qualify for the Soccer World Cup (2006), of the contribution to West Indies cricket, and of the phenomenal success of their women at international beauty pageants. For a country of only 1.3 million in an English-speaking Caribbean of only five million, we punch above our weight in the international arena. This is true not only in respect of sports, music and beauty contests. Trinidadians and West Indians more generally have indeed excelled on the international stage in politics, international relations and international law, playing critical roles in introducing the Law of the Sea and the exclusive economic zone, in the efforts at the United Nations and Commonwealth Secretariat to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa, and earlier through the efforts of Jamaican Marcus Garvey, Trinidadian Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and George Padmore to the pan-African movement, in the development of black consciousness and the success of the civil rights movement in the United States.

At the same time, the country’s elite hanker after metropolitan tastes and lifestyles, including foreign travel to metropolitan capitals, and measure their personal achievements against those of people living in those countries. Having grown up with British institutions and practices in law and jurisprudence, medicine, party politics and parliament, these institutions and practices have become the yardstick against which local institutions and practices are routinely measured. This is not to say that no institutional innovations have been made. Trinidad and Tobago moved to republicanism in 1976, while Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean territories have remained constitutional monarchies. Yet Trinidad and Tobago, despite being the seat of the Caribbean Court of Justice (to which Barbados and Guyana have acceded), retains the United Kingdom Privy Council as the final court of appeal. Not surprisingly, the intellectual fountains from which the country’s leaders and technocrats drink are located in the metropolitan schools, media and academies.

It was Lloyd Best who famously “called out” the intellectual elites of the region when he opined on the cultural anarchy created by an economy where men - among them the most capable - are forced, by the needs of living, to show excellence in purveying metropolitan propaganda , political and academic; where other men, standing always on the wings of power, have no choice but to preoccupy themselves with public relations; where the working people are confined to technological mimicry and the assembly of parts, where the population seeks dignity in a scramble for consumer durables; and where the political leadership survives by submissiveness to imperial power.

Best castigated the “plantation mind” of the region’s intellectual elite. For him, Arthur Lewis “was epistemologically an Englishman . . . brought up by Ricardian and Smithian theories . . . he had to be an Englishman”. Lewis’s model was not suitable for the Caribbean since the Caribbean is constituted from the outside by foreign investors, comprised of transplanted populations brought as slaves and indentured workers, with no households, no production for domestic consumption, and no families. With such a mentality, the political and technocratic elites, which sought to promote development, could hardly be expected to fully come to terms with the Caribbean reality and formulate and implement appropriate policies to foster growth and development.

The third cultural characteristic of Trinidad and Tobago, and perhaps Caribbean society as a whole, is the precedence of relationship over rules. The significance of personal relationships (which may have an ethnic dimension) was identified by the Uff Commission of Enquiry speaking on the apparent attempt to influence the placing of a contract in these terms: “[R]ather than indicating corruption, we think this is more a reflection on local culture in a society where no one is anonymous and business at any level is made more complicated by the undoubted existence on many levels of personal relationships involving predispositions to favour one person over another. Such a culture cannot be changed but the consequences in terms of potential corruption must be guarded against.”

Societies that aspire to and achieve development are disciplined in terms of both the setting of rules and in ensuring conformity and obedience to the rules. It is not that there are no rules governing all spheres of life in Trinidad and Tobago, but perhaps because of the size of the society where social networks are numerically small, it is the enforcement of the rules that suffers. The Uff Commission of Enquiry noted as follows: “We have observed in the context of contractual issues as well as regulatory matters that there exists a culture of non-enforcement which appears to operate on a mutual basis. Contractors seem reluctant to issue proceedings for payments overdue or to enforce claims and employers in turn refrain from enforcing time obligations which are routinely not complied with.”

It is not only construction contracts and regulations relating to building construction that are not properly enforced. Lack of enforcement of rules is pervasive. The use of the roadway by drivers in Trinidad and Tobago causes great alarm to visitors. Yet the routine flouting of the rules of the road, leading to a high accident rate, has brought only weak and sporadic enforcement of the traffic laws. Customs regulations are avoided, promoting corruption and reducing government revenues. Rules regarding the acquisition of permissions for land use from the Town and Country Planning Department or for environmental safeguards are often ignored, and the relevant government departments do not apply sanctions. The rules promulgated by the Integrity Commission relating to the compulsory submission of declarations of assets are flouted by “persons in public life” who are part of the country’s governing elite.

In a society where rule enforcement is observed more in the breach, whenever there is an attempt to actually enforce the rules, the sanction may then appear to be exemplary and inequitable. While part of mutual non-enforcement of rules may be attributed to the precedence of relationship over rules, another part may be attributed to the tendency to avoid confrontation since confrontation may escalate dramatically and turn quickly into conflict. One can therefore observe a tendency to threats, bluffing and blustering, with apparently open, vigorous challenge or opposition to some issue, but compromise and accommodation behind the scenes.