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Of Moscow, education and foreign policy

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by Dr Richard A. B. Cox

On a weather stricken Thursday morning one September two decades ago I with another zealot departed SVG for Moscow determined to get a university education. That grey beginning was prophetic for although not always perilous, my path to the rainbow of tertiary certification was “not an easy road”. It commenced with a serious cultural shock and progressed through a severe beating by racists and numerous pit stops of “wind pie,” “stop so” and “noten chops”. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I realised it was self-imposed exile, but for the poor and disenfranchised, life is an arduous road where redemption comes through struggle as “only them that share the sour, ah them ah go share the sweet.”{{more}}

No representation

I vividly recall my Russian language teacher’s wide-eyed disbelief that I had no official representation in the USSR. I soon understood her misgivings, as an abundance of need compounded by an ever-shadowing loneliness that threatened to embitter my soul and engender in my heart hatred for Russians, were my only constant companions on this, my Jerusalem to Jericho journey. Those who lived abroad in xenophobic environs know that I am not being maudlin. But conquering this Everest was necessarily a lone-ranger mission, the consequence of a personal choice, for I wasn’t sent to Russia by the SVG government.

The above though personal is instructive in the context of our government’s policy of opening new frontiers in pursuit of tertiary education opportunities. Gonsalves has unlocked university doors from Mexico to Malaysia hitherto closed to us, and for once there is a true semblance that foreign policy is an extension of and a tool for realising internal policy, generating investment in the development of our human capital, the foundation of future prosperity. But though a major step, it is only a beginning. Indeed one gets the impression that while conscious and deliberate, it is practised in a pro tempore and ex tempore manner lacking inter alia a holistic vision, a designed structure and a considered methodology. Old people would say it’s half-baked: brown on the outside, but raw on the inside.

Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs could only provide effective support to national education goals if guided by a pertinent policy exercised through an efficient mechanism following sensible procedures. Its objective in this case must be securing the foreign investment, necessary for this sector’s maximum academic and economic productivity. Yes, “investment”: our “friends” must be convinced that this is somehow beneficial to them for countries only have interests. Such a policy goes beyond securing university places. It inter alia facilitates the transfer of science and technology; augments financial and human resources, is a conduit for the exchange of experiences and must play a major role in effecting the education revolution, so fundamental to the economic transformation on which our very survival depends. Yes, SVG needs a Chile Chicago Boys experience, and foreign policy is central in its delivery.

Hung my head in shame

During my sojourn at the ministry, many were the occasions when I hung my head in shame for my country. One such was when David Levi, Israel’s ambassador to SVG who on ending a mission here revealed, “Dr. Cox, I was instructed by capital to offer your government quite a few things especially in education, but only if they ask. They were exceedingly nice, but they didn’t ask.” Even elementary things such as generating information on possible employment in organisations such as CARICOM, the UN and other international agencies for our citizens, which is standard practice in many countries, our ministry refused to do. Small wonder then that a frenetic obsession with protocol became the apotheosis of the ministry, for with no policy to exercise, it had to find some reasons de être. And continuing in French; c’est vraiment dommage; mais c’est vrai.

Students’ affairs office

The Moscow experience demonstrated to me firsthand what is studying in an unknown world and to have things go wrong with no one to call. And things do go wrong, sometimes very seriously. This is where having efficient mechanisms and sensible procedures become indispensable, for there must be fast, reliable and effective means for government to come to the aid of students, protecting and promoting their rights and interests. Where our embassies exist, there should be an office responsible for students’ affairs, where they don’t; we need to find other ways, being innovative if necessary. One route is establishing honorary counsels in the host countries with full competence to handle student affairs. Another is joint representation with sister Caribbean states or have Vincentian students’ interest sections placed in these missions. And still others can be found.

In terms of process and procedure; all foreign-based students (matters not if government sponsored) should be made to register with foreign affairs as well as at the embassy, mission or consulate in their host country or that closest to the same. They must be required to inform the mission or consulate of their wellbeing on a quarterly basis, which would then advise capital via the ministry. It must be an imperative that students in distress are dealt with promptly, and mandatory that the Minister on visits to host countries, meets with students at least once a year to listen to their concerns and ensure that the same are addressed expeditiously.

I am not naive to believe that the above is “Mendelevian” regarding the elements of this aspect of foreign policy; but it sure would take us beyond the froth of protocol, which floats to the surface precisely because it lacks substance. Likewise, I know that the chance of the PM or his mandarins lending an ear to anything herein is remote. But I am Panglossian by nature. After all, without a wellspring of eternal hope, Moscow would have been the conqueror.

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