Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Real, Real VIPs

Sunity Maharaj42

Mark Fraser

 If, perchance, the Prime Minister’s trip were to achieve roaring success with China opening up its gargantuan market to T&T products with every conceivable concession, pray tell, what would we have to offer for sale that the world’s most coveted market might wish to buy?

Obvious contenders would be energy products and tourism. But after that?

Manufactured products in the import substitution category would hardly cut it.

Why would the Chinese want our knocked-down versions of other people’s originals, many of which are manufactured in China anyway.

If we removed the scales that blind us to seeing value in our own, a point so viscerally made in Heather McIntosh’s “Nutten Ain’t Good”, we might see that the best candidates for making the breakthrough are operating invisibly but right under noses outside the ambit of the formal economy. There they survive, stuck for centuries on a CEPEP theme of social welfare, offering just enough to ensure dependency when what is needed is investment for growth.

Among them we can count the bulk of the society: artists and entertainers, cooks and craftpersons, farmers and filmmakers and the range of self-employed doers and dreamers, meeting challenges, solving problems and creating artful solutions with whatever is at hand. 

Some are fisherfolk, competing without protection against pirate trawlers coming from oceans away. Others are like the Mayaro women whose smoked and salted fish hunt for supermarket shelf-space, battling against the historical might of the Canadian competition who long ago shaped our taste for imported saltfish and smoked herring. Count among them, too, the seamoss gatherers whose market is limited to the cottage industry of punch-makers promoting drinks of supposedly aphrodisiac power while across the ocean, their peers are year-round suppliers to large industries.

All remain trapped in a subsistence economy, what Lloyd Best calls the maroon economy, with little room to manoeuvre because of a system designed to keep them there. What change can we boast about when the Government could spend $8.2 million a year for NJ Nahous’ unoccupied building at One Alexandra while allocating $7 million to the entire operations of the T&T Film Company, of which less than $4 million must be divvied up among film producers?

And yet, in the face of such upside-down values, we talk about a film industry with a straight face!

While the Ministry of Labour’s Fairshare Programme should be applauded for trying to eke something out of the Government’s $60 billion budget for those on the economic margins, it is far, far short of the economic revolution that T&T needs to let loose its entrepreneurial potential. But that won’t happen without a re-ordering of the value system that starts with the self-confidence to break with our past of self-loathing and self-rejection, so firmly entrenched by governments and the moneyed elites going back to our very beginning. We need no further proof of their values than their expenditure profile with its passion for imports and rejection of domestic products. 

An important aspect of this socioeconomic dysfunction is the intense addiction to foreign exchange. Responding to demand pressure this past week, the Central Bank disclosed that it had put US$500 million into the system since November.  While the Bank’s statement offered no explanation, capital flight fuelled by political anxiety cannot be ruled out. Whatever the breakdown between legitimate purchases and capital flight, however, this is a high level of foreign exchange consumption for a country of 1.3 million people.

Ironically, the more we talk about economic restructuring and transformation, the deeper we seem to be digging ourselves into the hole with our other addiction to high-priced foreign expertise that must be paid for in US dollars and euros. If foreign expertise could solve our problems we would be a model nation today given the rate at which we buy it.

Indeed, it would be helpful to know what percentage of the demand for foreign exchange comes from the government and its many agencies, given their high consumption of imported goods and services for everything from water to wine. 

As we consider a world beyond oil and gas, it is becoming increasingly clear that the producers most critical to the future of this country, the real, real VIPs of our time, are nowhere in the economic equation. Where they exist, increasingly so since the 1970s, is in the political equation where the distribution of resources is designed to bring out the acquiescent vote, not to transform the economy or promote economic development on a sustainable basis.

It is hard to see how change will come without our real VIPs recognising their interest and finding their voice to join the national conversation in a clear, informed and articulate way. The responsibility to represent themselves well cannot be surrendered to anyone else, certainly not historically entrenched interests, no matter the pockets of empathy here and there. 

But first, they will have to find the self-confidence to let go of their long-held fear of stepping out of their crease to engage the system to risk exploitation, punishment or annihilation for all time. This is the reason so many labour in the shadows, far beyond the reach of the system, limiting their dreams to the walled world within their control.

Those who dare otherwise seek protection by connecting to the power network, playing Anansi to the Piper’s tune, often at great risk to themselves and their work. 

Our history of divide-and-rule did not equip us with the tools for inclusion. All we have known is conflict and exploitation. But we have survived and are still here because we created communities of support within and between our many groups.

Perhaps, inevitably, the maroon economy has created a maroon society of separate and self-sufficient individuals, good enough, but not good enough on which to build a nation.

For that, we will need a lot of trust to entice us into releasing our fear. Then we could begin the dialogue about a nation with a place for all of us.