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Rethinking development


On October 2, Dr. Michael Witter, Head of the Department of Economics at the Mona branch of the University of the West Indies will deliver a lecture at the Methodist Church hall on the topic ‘Rethinking Development’. His visit is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation under the University’s “Transcultural Interaction of the Caribbean: Scholars in Residence” project.

On two previous occasions under the Scholars in Residence prgramme we have had visits by Pen Cayetano, Belizean artist and Vincentian scholar/poet Phillip Nanton. The decision to invite Dr. Witter to speak on this topic grew out of what we consider a need to begin a serious debate on the issue of Vincentian and Caribbean development.{{more}} The topic was influenced by a paper written about 20 years ago by Professor Norman Girvan on ‘rethinking development’.

A lot of water has fallen under the bridge since then and many more serious challenges have arisen. Recently the matter of our path to development has again arisen with the publication of Kari Levitt’s Reclaiming Development – Independent Thought and Caribbean Community.

Kari Levitt is Emerita Professor of Economics at McGill University in Montreal. She was also the George Beckford Professor of Political Economy at UWI in Jamaica. She has had a long involvement with the Caribbean, having collaborated with Lloyd Best on plantation model economies. She has been actively involved, too, with the ‘New World Movement’ during the 1970s and has served as an Economic adviser to the government of Trinidad and Tobago. ‘Reclaiming Development is based on a series of papers written over a number of years and delivered at different workshops and seminars. Michael Witter as head of the department of Economics at Mona, Jamaica had been behind the official launching of Levitt’s book. Witter co-authored with George Beckford, the book “Small Garden, Bitter Weed” and served at one time as Special Adviser to the Chief Technical Director at the National Planning Agency of the Government of Jamaica from 1977- 1978, during the Michael Manley era.

A recent World Bank report has elicited some responses from the populace but as is customary in this country, much of it is couched in partisan political terms. But there are serious issues that the country needs to deal with and to come to grips with. One such issue has to do with the role of the state in this era of globalisation and trade liberalisation. Levitt raises a number of issues that can serve as a basis for this debate. Her premise is that development cannot be imposed from outside but must be rooted in time and place. She states further, that development “is a creative social process and its central nervous system, the matrix which nourishes it, is located in the cultural sphere. Development is ultimately not a matter of money or physical capital or foreign exchange, but of the capacity of a society to tap the root of popular creativity, to free up and empower people to exercise their intelligence and collective wisdom…” She speaks too about the need ‘to protect the cultural, social and political institutions of society from the disintegrating forces of ‘winner take all market criteria'”. She adds another dimension that should be of interest to us when she refers to the participation of civil society at the local, national and global level to ‘subordinate economics driven by the special interests of investors and creditors to a politics of democratic participation of people in decisions affecting their livelihoods and well-being”

We live in a society where many people equate development with mega projects. The participation of the private sector and civil society generally appear not to be given high priority. How we seek to respond to the dismantling of access to traditional market as a small developing state remains an unanswered question, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Vaughn Lewis in a presentation here recently, looked at the case of countries like Singapore and wondered what about the real obstacles to development. He appeared to be playing down the question of size. Levitt in reference to Barbados took note of its ability to have sustained economic growth with stability over 30 years and to be ranked 1st among developing countries in the UNDP Human Development Index. For her, the answer was in “the social compact and the explicit and implicit negotiation between government, labour and the ruling elites, which have defended the national interest from external destabilisation.”

As the IMF report indicates, this country has become a largely tourist based services sector. But I pointed out in my column last week that services in this country leave much to be desired. Levitt had put emphasis on the importance of the cultural sphere and the capacity of the society to tap the root of popular creativity and to empower people to exercise their intelligence and collective wisdom. If you begin to emphasize these areas as critical areas for development you are beginning to tap into a number of other things, such as human resources, governance and participatory democracy.

We tend mostly to see and limit development to economic development and forget that development is holistic. If we accept, too, that development cannot be imposed but must be rooted in time and place then we have to begin to send out different signals and to bring a number of other things on board. It is accepted that having a well developed human resource base is critical to our development. It would appear then that we are on a different path than what is required. Our human resources are not effectively used since their deployment depends on political patronage and political considerations generally. What is the point of trying to develop our human resource base if it is not going to be effectively used and our people not given the space to bring their creativity and collective wisdom on board?

The state has to play its role in conjunction with civil society and the private sector. We have to realise that we do not operate in a vacuum. We are part of a global economy that has its rules. Those rules, true enough, work against the best interest of small vulnerable economies like ours. We have in partnership with other developing countries to try and change the rules of the game but our problems go beyond this. Many are internal ones and have to do with the structure of our societies, with governance and with our mind set. So the battle has to be fought along different lines, but it cannot be fought alone.

A lot of what we do appear to be very ad hoc. We seem to be responding to different sounds without a coherent plan. If we are to respond to the different challenges we have to try to develop some kind of national consensus, if that is at all possible, and to create an approach that cuts across party lines. In any event the debate needs to seriously begin.