Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Girvan’s gifts

 Caribbean economists and social scientists from all over the region, English and Spanish-speaking, as well as from outside the region have rightly praised the life and work of Norman Girvan. Many, myself included, have been prepared to accord him the label of “great” or “outstanding”. I, for one, do not give such accolades lightly. For the sheer volume of high quality work he produced, he deserves acclaim. His early work flowing from his PhD dissertation added to the burgeoning literature from a Caribbean standpoint which students of economics at The University of the West Indies (UWI) could access.

So many academics lay down their pens and virtually stop thinking and working once they have achieved tenure at the university. Girvan was tireless up to the end, continually probing and reflecting on issues relevant to the economic and political problems of the Caribbean he so loved. He was at home in Kingston as he was in Port of Spain or Georgetown.  On his website, he promoted the work of anyone who addressed issues relevant to Caribbean economic development and diplomacy. It became a rich source of reference material on contemporary issues such as the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union.

Girvan had an enormous breadth of understanding in the field of political economy and he articulated his point of view with clarity, whether writing or speaking. He was always lucid and was the consummate teacher, ranking with the likes of Lloyd Best and CY Thomas for the clarity and penetration of his expositions. Fluent in Spanish, he commanded the Latin American radical literature as well and his survey of dependency economics in the Caribbean and Latin America is comprehensive and erudite.

Ideologically, Girvan leaned to the left of centre, though as a believer in what Lloyd Best termed “independent thought”, he would have resisted conventional ideological labels. His enduring concern was the welfare and development of Caribbean peoples and that ideological position shaped his attitude toward the policy prescriptions advanced whether from inside or outside the region. He was no doubt more suspicious and cynical about the ideas and policies which emanated from the metropolitan countries, and rightly so.

For those of us, like myself, who do not regard socialist political economy to be helpful in formulating policy for the region or any region for that matter, the perspectives of thinkers like Norman Girvan helped us to clarify and justify our own thinking and policy positions, especially as these might impact the poor and dispossessed in our societies. Their perspective also helped tremendously to remove any scales from our eyes in treating and dealing with multinational corporations and institutions like the IMF, and from falling into the trap of thinking that the interests of these institutions are always aligned with ours.

Girvan was a formidable debater because he listened carefully to everyone’s point of view, sought to understand it and took it on board, not with arrogance or condescension, so typical of the ideologically rigid, but with a genuine attempt to understand the other’s viewpoint. That attitude is a great example of how academic debate ought to be conducted, progressing our understanding in Kuhnian fashion by challenging and debating alternative theories. Disagreement without being disagreeable. Which of us has a monopoly of truth?

I had asked Norman, as well as a few others, to critique the draft of my book, The Underachieving Society. He perused the manuscript and made detailed and incisive comments which vastly improved the final product. 

In the course of that edifying exchange, he sought to debunk my claim that the so-called “industrialisation by invitation” strategy actually followed was not that of Arthur Lewis, but was actually that of the local colonial administration. I was fortunate that, at Norman’s suggestion, we could have brought Mark Figueroa into the exchange and, as an expert on Lewis, Figueroa supported my contention, giving Norman, as he eventually admitted, a lot to think about.

His gifts extended into the field of diplomacy as secretary general of the ACS, and more recently in his efforts under the auspices of the UN to mediate the Guyana-Venezuela border dispute. At a recent event hosted by Sunity Maharaj and the Lloyd Best Institute to celebrate his life and contribution, several young academics attested to the openness, generosity and humility of Norman Girvan in his interaction with them.  

In the coming years, if there are any left, the historians of Caribbean economic thought will no doubt assess and debate his contributions to the development of Caribbean political economy, economic policymaking in Jamaica and elsewhere, and to Caribbean diplomacy. I have no doubt that, considered in the dialectic of the progress of thinking in the social sciences, Girvan’s contributions will be recognised and celebrated. We have lost a gifted intellectual who has left us a huge legacy. As we survey the academe today, we can only wonder: who will fill the shoes of Best, Beckford, Demas, and now, Norman Girvan?

  • Dr Terrence Farrell is a former deputy governor of the Central Bank and former chief executive of 

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