Calling the achievers
Every citizen of natural resource-endowed Trinidad and Tobago is (on average) several times richer than a citizen of Brazil, Russia, India, China or South Africa, if we use per capita income as a guide. The fact is that the United Nations classifies this country as a developing country with high human development. T&T has even become somewhat of a sanctuary, albeit often an illicit one, for many a citizen of China, India, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Colombia etc., who come here seeking a better life. These are just some of the observations which indicate that Trinidad and Tobago has a better standard of living compared to many other countries including those mentioned above. Yet, Terrence Farrell in his The Underachieving Society — Development Strategy and Policy in Trinidad and Tobago 1958-2008, published by the University of the West Indies Press, considers us an underachieving nation. Is this a fair assessment, and if so, how might we address this situation?
This small, English-speaking, twin-island, Caribbean economy started its independence era in 1962 (though not its recorded history), with a development strategy of import-substituting industrialisation – the chosen model of most developing countries at that time, as they sought to distance themselves from their various colonial powers.
This was followed by a policy of so-called resource-based industrialisation (1974-1982) which, as the name implies, was largely fuelled and funded by the country’s crude oil windfall, following the success of the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. As night follows day, and as those who study most mineral-based economies will readily predict, that boom phase was followed by a 10-year period of “bust” (1983-1992) necessitating structural adjustment from the previous boom conditions.
Following the introduction of standard, but globally unpopular, fiscal and other reform measures, à la the International Monetary Fund (IMF), some 15 consecutive years of growth (1993-2008) ensued. This is characterised by Farrell as the “Golden Age” of Trinidad and Tobago.
Farrell painstakingly and brilliantly chronicles economic development strategy over this 50-year period, and for most economists there are no surprises here, except perhaps his curious, passing references to the Catholic Church, as identified by Kevin Baldeosingh. Readers however, have to wait until the final chapter before coming to what I consider the two most critical questions raised in the book.
The first is, why has this country underperformed? According to Farrell, it has underperformed because of mistakes in policy, poor implementation, and the challenges of size, ethnicity and the catch-all “culture” factor.
Barbados, Singapore and Norway, which he uses as comparator countries, have all done better than Trinidad and Tobago in these areas over the last 50 years. From this comparison one might surmise that the leaders of these three countries made better choices than did the leaders of Trinidad and Tobago.
A similar point is made by Peter Henry in his interesting book, Third World Lessons for First World Turnaround (New York: Basic Books, 2013) when, in comparing Barbados and Jamaica, he says “The lion’s share of the income gap between Barbados and Jamaica today stems not from destiny but from the choices their leaders made…” . It seems to me, then, that if we want leaders who can make better choices, we must be far more conscious and careful in choosing them than we have been in the past.
I admit though that there is much to be said about those who refuse to offer themselves to lead. This point is especially relevant to Trinidad and Tobago at this juncture, as it hurtles towards local and general elections.
The second critical question is what is to be done about this underperformance? For me, this is the key issue, though presumably not for Farrell, as this topic occupies just six pages of his 290-page book. Somewhat predictably, Farrell briefly opines that if Trinidad and Tobago wants to achieve more, it must exorcise race and ethnicity from the discourse on government and policy; tackle implementation; get serious about development; establish a permanent, professional development agency; and correctly lay down the theoretical foundation of development for the new millennium.
Curiously, he makes no recommendation about culture – one of the factors he identifies throughout the book as explaining poor performance.
So, is Trinidad and Tobago an underachieving society? I believe it is but the major question remains however; that is, how, in a uniquely challenging and democratic society, do we go about putting in place Farrell’s recommendations, if indeed they are the right ones?
Part of the response, I believe, has to do with how can our achievers, who in my view include persons like Farrell himself, be induced to help harness the country’s resources in order to make a significant difference. In other words, how do we goad the achievers to lift the underachievers from Beetham and elsewhere, so as to stem the unique debilitating socio-economic factors identified by Farrell, such as the reality of a petro-state or ethnicity? The ultimate goal must be to fashion and implement solutions that might discourage many of us from an underachieving path an onto a path of achievement. Who is to do this?
* Dr Ronald Ramkissoon
is Senior Economist at
returns next week.