Monday, July 21, 2014

When Silence is not Golden

When I first started contributing to this space, I was aware of the fact that I was opening myself to public scrutiny. It wasn’t the first time I was sharing my personal thoughts in a public forum but it would be the first time doing so on a consistent basis. Given my background in youth work, I naturally gravitated towards commentary on societal issues particularly impacting young people. 

I was well aware that Barbadian society though considered democratic does not always encourage diversity of opinion especially when people feel they are the object of your concerns. For instance I have been accused of being an operative for the opposition party when raising awareness of youth unemployment and then labelled by opposition supporters as being partisan when endorsing government measures to address the same issue. 

The lesson I learnt was that it was impossible to please everyone but to always canvass the ideas of the young people who I represented and express their fears and concerns with as much conviction as they did to me.   

Being outspoken did not happen overnight. It came from taking small bold steps and through the advice and encouragement from other outspoken people. Even now I do not consider myself sufficiently outspoken much of it stems from the fear of victimisation which has been passed down from generation to generation in Barbadian society. 

Evidence of this was highlighted in another section of the media recently by way of an interview with a University of the West Indies Student. The interview took place after a planned protest against a range of tax measures and cuts taken by government. When asked why she was present when many of her peers were not, the student noted that her parents had always encouraged her to be outspoken. On the other hand several of her colleagues were warned by their parents of jeopardising their career prospects if they were associated with the march.

It reminded me of my UWI days when I was one of the very few Barbadian students protesting the planned hike in amenities fees among the scores of non-national students who helped to bring some sanity to the debate.

But it is not only in Barbados where being outspoken gets the disapproving eye. The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be invoking condemnation from countries all across the world. Improper actions have been committed on both sides but disproportionate use of force from Israeli raids resulting in the deaths of mainly civilian women and children ought to be condemned by the international community. The claim has been that militants have been using civilians as human shields but among these deaths included four children who were playing football on a beach.

In response to the ongoing tragedy NBA star Dwight Howard who has a following of 15 million on Twitter posted #FreePalestine. He was immediately blasted for ‘choosing sides’ in the conflict and deleted his tweet with an apology.  Barbadian Pop Sensation Rihanna did likewise but later deleted her tweet and offered a lengthy apology. The support from both of these international icons to the plight of thousands of women and children could have gone a long way in forcing people across the world to take note and place pressure on their respective governments to speak up about these atrocities. Sadly however commercial and political interests have won out over human rights issues.

The events in Palestine are but one of the many situations across the world which requires the voice of the international community. History is replete with tragic lessons of the evil that flourishes when we sit back and watch those with economic, political and military power muzzle our voices while promoting their agendas. It is always tempting to sit on the fence and allow other persons to do the speaking or to await the outcome of such situations, that is until we find ourselves in similar predicaments and then wish for others to rescue us as we struggle to find our voice.

Over the past two weeks I have been fortunate to engage three colleagues who have done humanitarian work in the Middle East and in Palestine. From the information they shared and from critically assessing the various media reports I have come to the conclusion that silence is not the best option from my end. I asked my colleagues what I could do to bring awareness about this issue to my small sphere of influence. Their simple message was that if each person raised their voice in unison in whatever way they could, it would force world leaders to stop turning a blind eye. It would also give hope to the children of Palestine that they have a future beyond fleeing bombs and being treated as less than humans. 

Whatever our ethnic, religious, national or political origins and persuasions we are all human beings and the unfair treatment of any one group of people will eventually cause great discomfort for several other groups. Our silence is not always golden.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Respect is due to our Caribbean People

We Caribbean people are known to be hospitable, warm and friendly. When we welcome guests into our homes we tend to roll out the red carpet ensuring they are served with the best food using the best cutlery and that we are on our best behaviour. Little do they know of the struggles and sacrifices we undergo to accommodate them and to make our house a home.

All that we ask in return is for our guests to appreciate our efforts and not to speak ill of our place of abode. If they do we become irritated by their behaviour and it is worse when such a person comes from a position of privilege.

It is the idea of the privileged, critical and unappreciative guest which comes to mind with the recent two day visit to Jamaica by Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde. Speaking at the invitation of the UWI, Mona Campus Ms. Lagarde delivered a speech entitled, ‘The Caribbean and the IMF—Building a Partnership for the Future.’ The speech centred on the notion of change for both the Caribbean and the change the IMF has made in its dealings with member countries. The speech also waxed poetic with quotes from outstanding Caribbean writers and musicians.

Between the flowery quotes and acknowledgement of the Caribbean’s vulnerabilities, Ms. Lagarde also made some unwelcomed remarks. She insisted that the Caribbean needed to rid itself of its lethargy and trade this for ‘lift off’. She also scolded the region for ‘having a tendency to get stuck in the doldrums of stagnation—low growth, high debt, low competitiveness and high unemployment’.

Ms Lagarde insists that the poor and vulnerable are the worst hit by economic crises, that youth unemployment has impacted a third of Jamaica’s youth population and that the poverty rate has doubled to 17.5 per cent. That stagnation, debt, economic inequality, disenchantment, crime, insecurity and a dwindling quality of life have all been features of Caribbean economies and societies.

Strangely enough Ms Lagarde’s description aptly fits several countries where IMF structural adjust programmes have been undertaken. Perhaps Ms. Lagarde would have been better off doing a comparative analysis of IMF structural adjustment programmes implemented twenty years ago and the state of third world economies now.

No thought seems to have been given to the special circumstances and historical forces of dependence and exploitation which impacted Caribbean countries. Surely as a French citizen Ms Lagarde must be aware of the sterling legacy of French colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean. The struggles of the formerly enslaved peoples of Haiti who fought against their French masters comes to mind. Even worse, they were forced to pay France reparations so as to be recognised in the international system of states. The millions of francs paid out crippled the Haitian economy and took away from significant investments in health, education and infrastructure leaving Haiti with a legacy of debt and impoverishment.

Such historical facts are of no concern for the IMF official who referred to the Caribbean as traditionally a lethargic place. Lethargy can be substituted for words such as lazy and inefficient.  A word which could also be attributed to the IMF’s handling of several financial crises including that of Greece which resulted in massive nationwide protest against the IMF.

Ms Largade suggested that it was time for the Caribbean to move from lethargy to lift off. Such sentiments are similar to liberal economist Walt Rostow’s theory of modernisation. Modernisation theory suggests that countries develop in five linear stages and that the lack of development in third world countries is due to internal issues such as poverty and backward values. Like Lagarde, Rostow ignores the special circumstances of countries like those in the Caribbean which were for centuries exploited for profit. These countries are now struggling with great debts because a significant portion of their earnings have had to be spent remedying social problems of unemployment, illiteracy, inadequate housing and health care.

Despite her claim of lethargy Ms Lagarde acknowledges that the Caribbean has shifted from an agricultural based economy to a tourism economy, a ‘leap that has eluded many others.’ Such a leap or skipping stages in Rostow’s modernisation model would not be possible by a lazy and lethargic people. Indeed it has taken many developed countries centuries to accomplish what several Caribbean countries have done in under fifty years of independence. 

Unfortunately Ms Lagarde does not recognise the contradictions in her own speech but at least she comes to the realisation that ‘the Fund has not exactly won many popularity contests in this region.’ She further states that ‘for too long, the IMF was viewed in harsh terms, hindering rather than helping, much of this criticism is, I believe unfair.’

Ms Lagarde would be better advised to ponder on her own words. I respectfully disagree with her and in fact  believe the criticism to be justified. However Caribbean governments would be better off solving their problems and seeking support from international institutions which understand their unique circumstances.

In the words of Frantz Fanon from A dying Colonialism ‘liberation (economic) does not come as a gift from anybody, it is seized by the masses with their own hands and by seizing it they are transformed; confidence in their own strength soars and they turn their energy and experience towards building, governing and deciding their own lives.’