In surprisingly blunt words at the Cave Hill campus a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister of Barbados threw down the gauntlet to The University of the West Indies:
“the perception is that the society has stopped feeling the university and certainly is not hearing it often enough.”If the supposedly leading thinkers in our society are not doing this, I ask, who should???If Barbados and the Caribbean ever needed clarifying voices it is now. My sense is that these voices are either in too short supply at the university or are certainly too muted.”
As a leader besieged, Freundel Stuart is a man in desperate need of ideas and solutions. His destiny is to hold Barbados’ reins amid a perfect storm of coincident transitions—global, regional and domestic. Perhaps the thinkers at the Cave Hill campus or elsewhere in the UWI system have responded to his public challenge. Or perhaps not. But for what it’s worth, the experience of Trinidad and Tobago might have some ideas and lessons to offer him.
As a relative late-comer to the colonial experience, T&T has been shaped by a dynamic fluidity that has made it open to change, even if regularly confused with exchange. Restlessness, often extending to recklessness, is the norm here with chaos as the natural order. In contrast, the doubled-edged sword handed by history to Barbados is an ordered stability with a flipside of rigidity. Among these old colonies, transformational change might come hardest to Barbados and with greater risk to its social cohesion and economic viability. But if it does come, there’s a good chance it might be more real and enduring than most. But that’s if.
The challenge facing Barbados is not simply that of declining foreign exchange earnings; it is the fundamental challenge of Independence. Everywhere, the political, economic and social infrastructure laid down for the 17th century British colonial enterprise has run its course and is in collapse. For almost fifty years since 1966, Barbados’ challenge has been to transform its entire institutional apparatus from one designed for colonial control and containment, to one relevant to the needs of a sovereign and sustainable society.
For Barbados, as for T&T, the transformation agenda is all-encompassing: constitutional reform to hold power accountable and involve people in the political process from the ground up; educational transformation to build indigenous knowledge for mastering the challenges of life and land; economic transformation for building indigenous productive capacity, channelling the entrepreneurial instincts of the people and re-programming markets; cultural transformation for strengthening identity and building the psychic confidence needed for changing our relationship with ourselves and each other, altering consumption patterns that keep us addicted to foreign exchange-intensive imported goods, and ridding us of the self-contempt that make us brutalise each other and disrespect the land.
So successful was the British colonial experiment in Barbados that for a long time after Independence, right into the 21st century, it seemed to be working, providing little incentive for change. The great risk now, in embarking on any programme of change, is trauma.
This is where a country needs its academics, intellectuals, artists, professional groups, spiritual leaders and others. All have an important role in helping people to understand themselves and their situation and to evaluate the options before them, with sensitivity, clinical analysis and open dialogue.
As T&T learned the hard way during the petro-bust of the 1980s, change is not a job for governments alone; its best chances lie in negotiation, dialogue and consensus.
More than ever now, Barbados needs to protect and reinforce its social contract among government, business and labour while expanding it to include other tiers of interests. In managing change, the impulse towards blame and division must be tempered by wisdom and negotiation.
The confrontational, centralised politics promoted by the West Indian hybrid of the Westminster parliamentary system is hardly conducive to building national consensus for transformation. To build sustainability into governance, governments must find ways to bring the Opposition into the process, either through joint parliamentary committees or by open invitation to meaningful engagement.
Tough times create tensions that tear societies apart; the United States is a prominent case in point as was T&T in the late 1980s when social breakdown opened a space for an extra-parliamentary option in the form of the 1990 attempted coup.
In all of this, there is a powerful role for the media, too, in opening up channels for public dialogue, as well as for the university in creating fora for analysis and informed discussion at every level of the society. The Cave Hill campus will serve Barbados best by being jealous of its independence, fearless in its integrity and rigorous in its expertise.
At this time of challenge across the region, one of our greatest weaknesses is the increasing insularity of the UWI system. More than ever, we need the value of shared experiences, cross-regional research and an intellectual community that lives in the landscape of the Caribbean mind.
Notwithstanding the parochial noises popping up from one islander or the other, the tide of history is turning decidedly towards a new regionalism. Common disasters, regional security, changing markets, shared environmental challenges, movement of people and co-operational advantages are just some of the factors pushing us towards each other. For managing this new world of the 21st century, we need new regional infrastructure, including a truly regional university, conversant in all the Caribbean languages and equipped with unrivalled expertise and specialisation in the Caribbean condition.
We need this because, in the end, we are each other’s best hope.