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The Engaged Academic

By Sunity Maharaj

 He was dancing, the last time I saw him. Surrounded by friends, with his beloved Jasmine at his side, Norman Girvan was smiling with fresh reason for hope.   

He hadn’t been so relaxed a few weeks before that night. 

For two months following the September 23 judgment of the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court which threw the status of thousands of DR nationals of Haitian descent into limbo, Girvan had been angst-ridden, close to depression over Caricom’s dragging feet.

For weeks, he seemed to live on gmail, operating as a one-man command centre as a Caribbean-wide civic lobby began to emerge in a push for action by Caricom.

On November 26, when Caricom chairperson Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar presided over a meeting of key players including Haiti’s President Michel Martelly, and PM Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Girvan made a cameo appearance to speak on behalf of the people of Caricom. 

Of the many, many assignments that he had undertaken over the course of a career as an academic and technocrat representing governments and agencies of every kind, this one was clearly special to him.

Motivated by nothing but personal conviction and commissioned by no authority higher than the region’s nameless, faceless multitude, Norman Girvan had breached the sanctum of Caricom power to let their voices in. 

It was a perfect alignment of all that he stood for, in mind, body and soul. In that moment of independent initiative the New World succession had seemed complete. In a region repeatedly torn by ideological certainty, Girvan, too, was now playing for change, trying to turn the tide of history with nothing more than the integrity of his position and the common sense logic of his argument.

Although he had spent much of his life working with, and sometimes for, politicians, Norman Girvan somehow managed to retain a certain political innocence. Not for him was the grey of life with its unspoken positions, oblique references and nuanced interplays. He was as straight as he stood and uninhibited in his emphatic declarations of moral certitude.

Like many young academics and intellectuals of the early 1960s, his heart had carried him to the New World Group where Lloyd Best, Alister McIntyre, Miles Fitzpatrick and others were grappling with the issues of independence in their search for a development paradigm of unique relevance to the Caribbean. Within a few dynamic years of intense fertility, however, the NWG came up against the rising force of socialism in the region, narrowing the choice for many, including Girvan, in a world reduced to two global power blocs.

At Mona, the young UWI lecturer’s research into the Jamaica’s bauxite industry had put him squarely into the public spotlight as an intellect to be reckoned with. As Michael Manley set Jamaica on a socialist course, he quickly identified Girvan as the right person for the office of chief technical director of the National Planning Agency. Later, with the Jamaican economy tumbling into turbulence, Manley tapped him for the role of economic adviser to the government, placing Girvan in the heated centre of the politics.

By the mid-eighties, with the socialist model on the retreat, it was clear that the Caribbean’s development agenda was work still very much waiting to be done. If anything, the disastrous outcomes of the experiments by Burnham, Manley and Bishop had emphasised the enormousness of the challenge of transformation given the peculiar historical environment of the Caribbean where culture and society so often trump economics and politics.

For the rest of his life, Girvan would serve the Caribbean as an engaged academic, tirelessly connecting the work of the university with society and policy. In the New World tradition, wherever he went he encouraged public discussion and dialogue as fundamental to buttressing the development process from the ground up.   

In 2000, Girvan found his way to Trinidad and Tobago as the first secretary general of the Port of Spain-based Association of Caribbean States, bringing with him his wife, the gifted artist Jasmine, and their two children Alexander and Alatashe. By the time his term ended in 2004, he had fallen in love with this country and its people. Everything about Trinis fascinated him. 

In between rounds of assignments for Caricom, the United Nations and sundry universities and organisations, he gave himself generously to community initiatives of every kind. No social or cultural project was ever too small to attract his support as he moved from town to village and back, encouraging people and connecting them to each other. Every expression of cultural sovereignty was worthy of his attention, respect and support.

 As the ranks of the New World generation dwindled, Girvan stepped to the fore as the face of committed regionalism, shouldering the responsibility for promoting conversation among Caribbean people, about the Caribbean, and throughout the Caribbean.

In an editorial last week, the Jamaica Gleaner described in broad outlines the scope of this Caribbean Man:

“It perhaps, says something of the outlook of Norman Girvan, and his eclectic interests, that, born in Jamaica and living in Trinidad and Tobago, he died while receiving medical treatment in Cuba—for injuries received while hiking in the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. Further, up to the time of his accident, Prof Girvan actively campaigned for the rights of Dominican Republic citizens of Haitian descent. At his death, too, Prof Girvan was the personal representative of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the Venezuela-Guyana border dispute. Until recently, he researched and taught at The University of the West Indies Graduate Institute of International Relations at St Augustine.”

For Norman Girvan, it probably didn’t much matter where in the Caribbean he lived, or died. It was simply one place, with one family, in which he was at home anywhere. Walk good, my friend.

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