The big news all over the Internet for the past few days has been that Trinidad and Tobago no longer appears in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) list of developing countries. Let's reflect on just where T&T is on the entire developed versus undeveloped debate.
Now, Trinidad and Tobago has not been declared a developed country per se, but this has not stopped some people from interpreting our non-appearance on the OECD list as a sign that we are developed. To add to the quandary, the latest UN Human Development Index (HDI) report, 2011, puts Trinidad and Tobago at 62 out of 187 nations in ranking, meaning we are part of the top third of countries in terms of HDI. The HDI, coupled with our macroeconomic statistics, seems to indicate that we are far from the poverty of sub-Saharan Africa but it also shows we are far from the peace and prosperity of Norway which ranks first in HDI. The big question then becomes: what do all of these statistics mean for our nation?
Firstly, it is necessary to congratulate our nation on these phenomenal statistics. As it stands, no one can argue that we have not made tremendous strides in improving health care, reducing infant mortality rates, increasing literacy rates, improving education and raising the average standard of living of the vast majority of the population.
Successive regimes, despite their penchant to lie, cheat and steal, have all held fast to the welfare State and the advancement of our people. Some may argue that certain sectors benefited more than others, and this is indeed true, but the general trend is that we have been on the up, with positive indicators. We, as a small nation, have been able to use our resources to achieve great things and we have produced great heroes, sons and daughters of the soil, who have made our nation proud in the arts, sciences and sports.
That being said, it is time to dissect these statistics and evaluate just what they mean for us. It is indeed a pleasure to say that we are no longer "third world". For most of us who have travelled, we have had to deal with the often innocently held stereotype that Trinidad and Tobago is a poor, backward country. The niceties aside though, we must take these statistics with a grain of salt. After all, they are just statistics; they do not speak to the reality on the ground and do not mitigate the fact that we still have much work to do to make our society equal and fair. The very notion of "developed" is questionable as it speaks to a Eurocentric idea of what it means to be advanced. The fact that a nation can be "undeveloped" one day and then a report makes it "developed" the next day should make even the most myopic question its validity. The generally-held norms of "developed" are highly problematic as they disguise many variables such as racism, homophobia, discrimination and sector poverty.
In T&T, we still have much to do. We still have much poverty and inequality in our country. Our GDP and GNP per capita may be high, but there is not a fair or even reasonable distribution of wealth. There are areas where people are still living in intense poverty, where children are going to bed hungry and where life seems hopeless.
There are women still being forced into prostitution, there are men who are being recruited into the drug trade and into crime. There are people who are struggling to make a living and acquire even the basic things for life.
There are also large communities in our country that have systematic discrimination perpetrated against them and, sadly, some of it is institutionalised by the State.
The gay community still has its very existence criminalised and has no rights to protection under the Equal Opportunity Act.
Disabled people are still thrown by the wayside and have little support. Religion is still permeating all of the facets of our State though we are supposed to be a secular republic. There is still widespread corruption in many of the crucial sectors; not to mention the fact that we have a crime situation that has spiralled out of control, to the point where we are living in a "State of Emergency".
It may seem that I am just being a cynic and refusing to accept that good things happen. On the contrary; I am quite proud and I recognise even the most developed countries in the world such at the UK and the US along with some ScanNordic nations have large areas of poverty. The southern US has mass poverty and unemployment and many people there live in dire circumstances; the same goes for some neighbourhoods in the UK. Many developed countries also have deeply ingrained racism and homophobia.
I accept these things but I do not see them as reasons for us to become complacent. I see them as reasons for us to become more vigilant and more proactive. By all means, celebrate our achievements but also remember to help improve them. These measures should be spurring us on to rise further and further up the HDI. Many simple pieces of legislation and slight changes in cultural attitudes will go a long way in pushing us towards becoming a fairer country.
I reject the notion of "developed" and rather I suggest that we seek to be a fair and just country, a free country, and hold steadfast to our good values and norms. It is not enough for us to have the good life for ourselves; we must seek the welfare of everyone. That way we can all benefit.
Rajiv Gopie won the President's Medal in 2006 for Business/Modern Studies. He is an MSc candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics.