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Why Norman Girvan matters

By Claude Robinson

The death of Prof Norman Girvan, one of the Caribbean’s most acclaimed public intellectuals, has left a huge void in the public square of debate and ideas about realising our human, social and economic potential at a time when the region is going through its worst development crisis in a long time.
It’s ironic that this quintessential Caribbean man from Jamaica and who was living in Trinidad died in a Havana hospital three months after he became paralysed following what I can only describe as a freakish fall while on a hiking holiday on Dominica’s famed walking tour. He died as he lived.
Having known Norman from our days at Calabar High School, through several decades as a colleague, I share a sense of loss with his legion of friends and professional colleagues across the Caribbean and much of the developing world. As we mourn his death we also extend our sympathies to his family.
Norman Girvan was many things: As an academic, he taught economics for several decades and held senior positions, including professor of development studies and director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, and, until recently, was professorial research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at The University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine campus in Trinidad and Tobago.
As a political economist, Prof Girvan was part of the New World Group at UWI in the 1960s and 70s questioning the limitations of the political independence that many former British colonies won in the 1960s.
Through works such as Foreign Capital and Economic Underdevelopment in Jamaica and Copper in Chile Prof Girvan gave policymakers a much clearer understanding of how transnational corporations functioned and manipulated extractive industries for their bottom line with scant regard for the peoples who inhabited the lands in which these minerals were located.
In Jamaica’s case, his public scholarship and private policy advice greatly influenced then prime minister Michael Manley’s development of the bauxite levy which greatly increased revenue from that sector.
He was also a public official serving in the 1970s as head of the National Planning Agency of Jamaica and later as secretary general of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS).
He has also been the UN Secretary General’s personal representative on the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy and a member of the UN Committee on development policy. He also served as a board member of South Centre, one of the foremost think-tanks on issues of concern to developing countries.
Girvan has published extensively on the political economy of development in the Caribbean and the global south and was the recipient of several honours and awards, including an honorary doctorate of economic sciences from the University of Havana, Cuba. Much of his scholarship is freely shared on his website www.normangirvan.info.
What really mattered about all these activities was that they were part of a passion that guided his work and professional interests, namely, the imperative of regional integration as the basis for the people of the region to realise the development and growth of the disparate states that comprise the Caribbean archipelago.
Being an advocate and participant in the various regional integration efforts after the collapse of the political federation in 1961, Girvan would have been disappointed by the minimal progress of mechanisms like Caricom and the CSME. But he never despaired.
In one of his more recent writings he said: “I firmly believe that true integration can never be purely, or even primarily, a matter of economics; one that is driven by the calculus of costs and benefits.
“Economics must play its part, of course. But the bedrock of integration must be a sense, not so much of common identity because we do not have identical identities, but what could be called a ‘community of identities’—identities fashioned in response to a very special historical experience; an experience that we all share in one way or another.”

That’s the vision of a wider community not linked by hyphens, such as English-Caribbean, Spanish-Caribbean, Dutch-Caribbean and so on.
It is as part of this wider Caribbean that Girvan had been concerned about issues such as race in Cuba; reparations from enslavement; denationalisation of more than 210,000 Dominican Republic citizens because of their Haitian ancestry; and the continuing anachronistic US embargo against Cuba.
Another irony of the timing of his death is that it occurred when the US Administration has forced PriceSmart in Jamaica to suspend the accounts of Cubans living in Jamaica. It’s about time that the US heed the wishes of most of the world and many of its own citizens and corporations and end an embargo that does nothing for US goodwill in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In a 2013 essay subtitled “Confessions of a wayward economist” Girvan began to muse on whether cultural production can succeed where politics and economics have failed to engage the regional integration project. Music, dance, spiritualism and folk rituals “are the common language of the Caribbean” and they can be used as a unifier in a region of many spoken languages.
The sense of the Caribbean as a “community of culture” that one experiences on these occasions stands in curious contrast with the difficulties that have been encountered in configuring the Caribbean as an economic and political community. Can we therefore not propose the establishment of a Caribbean cultural community?
It is a question that needs to be explored by the successors to the public intellectual baton that Girvan has passed on. The development of a sense of Caribbean self has been—and continues to be—a “constant struggle” between the legacy of our colonial inheritance and “the seductive distractions of so-called globalisation”.
At this time of challenge, when most Caribbean economies are under the gun, when violent crime and social dysfunction threaten to become the new norm, when policy options shrink in the context of the crisis in capitalism, we need a new generation of public intellectuals to help shape new directions for these times. We owe it to Norman Girvan’s legacy to continue his work.

• Courtesy Jamaica Observer
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