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That vital integrity requirement

While the questionable credentials of a coup enquiry commissioner has highlighted the issue, the problem of unqualified persons getting appointments and jobs has long undermined our society.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the saying "Is not what you know, is who you know" has long been conventional wisdom. This anti-meritocratic approach has always been pernicious but, in a nation striving to attain developed standards in a 21st century world, it is completely unworkable. In all societies, networks often determine who rises to the top in any particular group or organisation. If a population is large enough, however, the people who get into influential posts, even if they aren't the most qualified, may still be competent enough to do their jobs well.

This is not the case in small nations like ours. Here, the pool of talent available for any particular post is always limited, which means that meritocracy is essential for progress. Too often, however, persons of mediocre ability are promoted simply because they are favoured over better-qualified people who may not have the right connections. This tendency is most marked in the public sector, where personal relationships to politicians in power is the best qualification for State jobs. But even in the private sector, complaints about favouritism are widespread.

The most pernicious effects of such practices are not always obvious. When who you know replaces what you know, then people are less motivated to get professional qualifications or, when they do, are less likely to strive for excellence within their fields. This is as true for PhDs as for road-pavers. In a world where literacy and numeracy are essential for even basic tasks, the devaluation of intellectual ability affects both high and low. Indeed, it is ironic that the individuals most likely to acquire unaccredited university degrees are persons whose livelihood depends on preaching about moral values.

Combating this trend requires politicians, in particular, to cease and desist from nepotism. But politicians are hardly likely to do this unless the practice loses them votes — and that won't happen as long as citizens object to nepotism only when their group isn't benefiting from it. Another strategy would be to create an education system which measures success by excellence, not just enrolment, and which values academic ability from all pupils, not just the lucky 0.5 per cent who score in the top hundred of the SEA examination or who win scholarships.

Above all, however, what is required is integrity — integrity in the acquisition of academic qualifications; and, in cases where conmen pass themselves off as qualified, integrity from persons in authority to reject them. Without this, the rot of incompetence can only spread from the head to all parts of the body politic.

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